Beginner’s Guide: How To Start Learning Music Theory As A Guitarist

There is a belief in the guitar community that learning music theory turns you into a robot. If you want my perspective on it, anything can turn you into a robot if you let it. At the risk of sounding ridiculous, music theory has the potential to turn you into more of a machine than a robot.

This statement brings us back to our question.

How should I start learning music theory as a guitar beginner? Start by determining your major scales and their root notes. It is where most people begin as they learn to play instruments, as it is the most straightforward section. It can lead you into learning a major chord or two, which will give you new perspectives on how to play the guitar. 

While it might seem a bit overwhelming now, we will get into the details below. We will also let you know how they can help you.

Why is it Important To Learn Major Scales?

Learning major scales gives you an understanding of music as a whole. Ranges don’t only apply to guitar, but they also apply to keyboards, bass guitars, and even vocalists. This understanding gives you an idea of what music theory is as a whole.

Also, learning your guitar scales gives you a natural method of practice. Scales are common patterns of beautiful notes. By playing up and down those notes, your fingers will get more used to playing these notes.

With baby steps, scales can be your foundation in learning sophisticated guitar methods. Your fingers may also naturally rest with a root note, which if the first note on any scale.

If you are reading this, chances are you have learned some guitar techniques through tabs. Tabs are great to give beginners a feel for playing the guitar. They are also pretty easy to learn, provided you are willing to deal with some significant drawbacks.

What are the Disadvantages of Guitar Tabs?

The most significant drawback is a lack of rhythm that can be displayed easier in sheet music. Not only does reading a sheet give you an idea of what major scale you are on, but it shows rhythm in a much more effective way.

Second, guitar tabs come from fans, not professional musicians. While this is an encouraging sign of dedication, copying something by ear isn’t always the best method. Everyone is prone to mistakes, especially if you are just copying them by listening.

How To Learn Your First Major Scale

Now that we know that tabs lead to some long-term bad habits, we can move onto learning on scales. It is going to be short. If you want a more detailed dive, we have a guide on how to practice scales efficiently.

Because memorizing half steps and whole steps can be complicated, Julian Bradley from The Musical Ear suggests splitting learning scales into halves. Starting from the root note, learn the first half of the scale and memorize it.

For example, if you were to learn the chromatic scale, you would memorize the first six notes starting with the root. You would then follow it up by learning the following six musical notes.

Our guide suggests that you should learn through musical keys on a keyboard. It gives you a good representation of what key is to what note. That knowledge and a musical ear to matching the noises give you an excellent advantage.

You can also use a tuner to identify the note. You can start by learning the C Major Scale. This scale is the most natural start, as it has no sharps or flats and is doable with one hand on a piano.

If you would like a visual representation of this, Andrew Huang has made an amazing YouTube video on the subject. Check it out below.

Here’s a guide we wrote awhile back with additional techniques to practice and improve your scales.

When Should I Learn Guitar Scales?

Music teachers I’ve talked to often require students to be at least 10 years old before learning guitar intricacies. This age allows children to:

  • gain a firm grasp of the material
  • Dedicate time to practice
  • Be accountable for their results

If you already have a couple of years under your belt, you may believe its too late for you. I’ve also had the “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” mentality. As someone who has been there, I would discourage you against that behavior.

If we take away our opportunity to learn new things, we stop improving as human beings. You can learn guitar scales at any level of expertise. Even if you are married to using guitar tabs, it is not impossible. There is no harm in trying.

How Do Scales Apply to Major Chords?

Once you learn a few scales, it might be time for you to move onto the next beast: chords. A major chord is made up of three notes and comprises the bulk of most songs you hear. If you know anything about pop songs, you may know that they use a pretty typical four-chord progression.

The simplest example of this comes from the C major chord. It is where you are going to press your fingers to notes C, E, and G. This is where our guide on learning about scale boxes comes in handy.

Scale boxes are sections that simplify the part of which note you want to play. Rather than try to memorize every note combination, focus on one, and modify your template over time. The more your practice, the better you get at it. Eventually, you will be able to expand beyond regular chords.

What are Minor Chords?

Minor chords are similar to major chords, the difference being a half-step down. If you are practicing using a piano, it means going to the next flat note available represented by black musical keys. Stick to major chords until you feel comfortable moving on.

What are Altered Chords?

Altered chords are limited to those who are more advanced. By dropping one of the notes you would typically play during a standard chord, you produce a different sound. This technique is pretty advanced, so you should limit this exposure until you get enough experience with major and minor chords.

How Do Learning Chords Make Me Into A Better Guitarist?

Learning chords will make you into a better musician. Chords are musical notes that previous musicians thought sounded good together. As a result, these are proven winners in the musical world.

Also, learning chords can evolve you into learning chord progressions. These are a series of chords that are playable one after another. Again, these exist because other musicians thought they sounded good together.

At this point, you may be asking why you want to be like everyone else? What happened to originality? The blunt way I can state this: newbies aren’t good enough to be original.

Every good musician has a foundation to fall back on. While each musician has different ways of doing it, many of our best musicians have classical training.

What is A Classically Trained Musician?

A classically trained musician is someone who learns using the old methods of teaching music. If you haven’t guessed it by now, that means learning music theory. Some of the best metal guitarists you know today learn music theory.

As a good example, let’s take a look at the work of Brendan Small. He is known to be the lead guitarist of Dethklok. If you don’t understand what Dethklok is, just know its a cartoon band from one of Adult Swim’s most ridiculous and entertaining shows that never finished. Check out his work from Metalocalypse below.

While being part of a goofy cartoon may not seem cool, one listen of their talented guitar work is enough to bring you over the edge. Where did Brendan Small get so good? He started by learning music theory at the Berklee College of Music.

While there is something to be said for people who start in their parent’s garage, that is no substitute for a good foundation of rock n’ roll. Many of us won’t be able to go to college for this, which means that our next best bet is learning from those that did.

What are the Basics of Music Theory?

We’ve mentioned the two big ones: scales and chords. But there are a couple of essential elements that we need to delve into on this topic. We will get into those details below.

What is Ear Training?

Ear training is when you teach your ear to pick up the natural tone of the music. It requires regular practice, but with enough exercise, you will be able to identify certain notes with relative ease.

Earlier in this article, we spoke briefly about devout fans who copied down music on tabs for other aspiring musicians. Surprisingly enough, that is one of the best methods of practicing this craft.

Take your favorite song, a tuner, and copy them down. Preferably, you will want to do this on sheet music, which is another aspect of music theory to learn. Copy them down, and try and replicate the sound as closely as possible. It is where calling over your musically gifted friends will help.

How Can I Learn How To Read and Write Sheet Music?

Whether you are playing in E Minor or a C Major Scale, learning how to identify this via sheet music is incredibly important. As stated earlier, sheet music is much easier to track when it comes to rhythm and speed. Guitar tabs are only useful for monitoring the pitch.

When learning how to use sheet music, it is best to try and find someone else who is skilled in this area. You can look online at places like Craigslist or sign up for an online tutoring course. You can even check out your local community college.

Other options include using services like Musescore. It is an excellent tool for taking down notes and sharing music with relative ease. However, doing so by hand is an experience by itself, and you should learn through multiple mediums.


While learning music theory may seem old, archaic, and tired, many excellent guitarists and famous musicians would disagree with you. Through awareness of scales and chords, you will have a firm understanding of learning theory across the board.

As a lead guitarist, it will give you better abilities to coordinate with vocalists and bassists on a combination of tones that will create beautiful music. With drummers, it will allow you to have a firm understanding of rhythm across multiple instruments. Whether you are ear training or writing sheet music, classically trained metal guitarists exist. Some of the best musicians are those who know music theory.

Eli Smith

I'm the managing editor for this website. I like being a dad, writing, and listening to angry music. Thanks for visiting.

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