Music Theory for Guitarists 


Gabriel Perry - Christmas 2014, Boulder, Colorado

You've just stumbled upon a little treasure chest of musical goodies - a pool of wealth which, if you exert some effort, can greatly increase your understanding of music theory, how this theory relates to improvisation and how it directly relates to playing the guitar.

But don't take my word for it, read what others have said about these lessons in years past.

I've tried to compile what I learned while attending the Berklee College of Music as well as ideas and "tricks" I've developed over the last 30+ years of playing the guitar.

I designed these lessons for guitar players who already know how to play, but never studied theory formally. Initially, I developed these lessons when I first started teaching guitar in the mid 90's while developing lesson plans for my students. Years later, I decided to put them online and just share them with the world.

If you're interested in studying with me privately, please feel free to reach out to me via email and we can discuss your needs. I enjoy teaching very much and working with a good teacher one-on-one is by far the best way to learn. I can probably help you.

We start at the beginning...

And then progress from there. I've gone to great length to ensure that no stone is left unturned and that stones are uncovered at the right time and in the right order. It's important to start at the beginning and master the basics before moving on to advanced topics prematurely.

We start with intervals, the basic building blocks of music, and then work our way to higher levels of thinking and organizing.

I've tried to synthesize all of the little details of music into a coherent big-picture framework for improvisation and for deepening your understanding of how the guitar works. Hopefully, my insights will inspire and liberate you, thus enabling you to unleash your creative potential and help you attain your musical goals.

Topics covered...

Read a high level summary of topics covered in this lesson series.

show Topics Covered...

A journey begins...

Listed below is the table of contents for 30 guitar lessons, a project I worked on in my spare time many years ago while I was studying computer science at CU. In keeping with the spirit of a free and open internet, I'm giving all of these lessons away for free.

Start at the beginning or just jump around to topics that seem interesting to you. However, going in order is best if you're new to music theory and just getting started. It's important to build a good foundation and then progress from there. So, take your time and have fun.

Hopefully, you'll find something worthwhile here. If you would like to express your gratitude, please consider making a small donation to to keep this site going. If not, that's cool too. No strings attached.

A half-step at a time...

Thank you...

Gabriel Perry - July 2017, Boulder, Colorado

It goes without saying... if you have any questions, would like to give me some feedback, find a mistake or whatever, or are interested in studying with me privately, please feel free to reach out and contact me. I would love to hear from you.

Again, thanks for stopping by. I hope you're able to learn something from this resource. It's been a labor of love and I'm happy to share it with you.

~Gabriel Perry
Boulder, Colorado

Number of Visitors
Since 25-Mar-2004:   Amazing Counters



Lesson 1

The 12 Notes of Music - The Chromatic Scale

Date Posted: 16-MAR-2002, (Revised: 7-JUN-2003)

Lesson Topics:

  • the 12 notes of music
    • the chromatic scale
  • the chromatic scale on the A string of the guitar
  • note names
  • accidentals:
    • sharps
    • flats
  • introducing intervals
  • enharmonic spellings for note names
    • notes that sound the same but are written differently

Lesson 2

The Major Scale - Part 1

Date Posted: 17-MAR-2002

Lesson Topics:

  • tableture diagrams
  • the open position
  • the C major scale
  • whole steps vs. half steps
  • position playing (playing vertically) vs. playing up and down on one string at a time (playing horizontally)
  • the major scale formula:
    • w, w, H, w, w, w, H

Lesson 3

The Major Scale - Part 2

Date Posted: 24-MAR-2002, (Revised: 9-AUG-2002)

Lesson Topics:

  • further discussions on playing vertically vs. playing horizontally
  • the major scale on one string
  • how to figure out notes on the guitar
  • the natural notes on the guitar
  • an Intro to the Major (Ionian) mode

Lesson 4

The Major Scale - Part 3

Date Posted: 25-MAR-2002

Lesson Topics:

  • 2 patterns for the major scale:
    • root starting on the 6th string
    • root starting on the 5th string
  • how to use these 2 patterns to play any major scale

Lesson 5

Intervals - Part 1

Date Posted: 12-AUG-2002, (Revised: 7-FEB-2003)

Lesson Topics:

  • definition of an interval
  • the staff
  • diatonic intervals
  • how to tune your guitar using unisons
    • harmonics
    • intonation
  • 2 components of an interval:
    • the name or quality part
    • the number or quantity part
  • the "rules" of intervals
  • how intervals relate to half steps
  • some exercises and examples to help put it all together
    • power chords

Lesson 6

The Major Scale - Part 4

Date Posted: 14-AUG-2002, (Revised: 2-DEC-2002)

Lesson Topics:

  • how to construct any major scale
  • key signatures
  • the circle of 5ths
  • the notes in the 15 major keys

Lesson 7

Intervals - Part 2

Date Posted: 15-AUG-2002

Lesson Topics:

  • how to play intervals on the guitar
  • 21 diagrams (100 fingerings) for intervals less than or equal to an octave

Lesson 8

Intervals - Part 3

Date Posted: 16-AUG-2002

Lesson Topics:

  • non-diatonic intervals
  • weird intervals and some tricks to help you memorize interval names
  • another way to express the major scale formula:
    • R, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, R
  • the major scale as a frame of reference
  • enharmonic spellings for intervals

Lesson 9

Pentatonic Scales - Part 1

Date Posted: 9-JUL-2002, (Revised: 20-AUG-2002)

Lesson Topics:

  • the chemical composition of the minor pentatonic scale:
    • R, b3, 4, 5, b7, R
  • the quintessential pattern for the minor pentatonic scale (root on the 6th string)

Lesson 10

Pentatonic Scales - Part 2

Date Posted: 14-AUG-2002

Lesson Topics:

  • all 5 patterns for the minor pentatonic scale
  • some interesting observations and things worth mentioning


 Intermediate Lessons 

Lesson 11

Diatonic Harmony - Part 1

Date Posted: 2-DEC-2002

Lesson Topics:

  • harmonizing a major scale
  • triads in A major
  • triadic formulas:
    • major (r, 3, 5)
    • minor (r, b3, 5)
    • augmented (r, 3, #5)
    • diminished (r, b3, b5)
  • essential guitar chord forms - part 1
  • there are only 4 augmented chords
  • putting it all together - triads in all major keys

Lesson 12

Triads - Part 1

Date Posted: 26-MAR-2003

Lesson Topics:

  • figured bass notation
    • chord forms: 5-3, 6-3, 6-4
  • inversions of triads:
    • root position (r, 3, 5)
    • 1st inversion (3, 5, r)
    • 2nd inversion (5, r, 3)
  • close voicings - "tightly packed" triads
  • all close triadic chord forms on the guitar

Lesson 13

Position Playing and the Major Scale Modes

Date Posted: 7-FEB-2003, (Revised: 27-MAR-2003, and then again on 5-JAN-2018)

Lesson Topics:

  • the rules of position playing
  • 7 patterns for a C major scale
    • 2 octave patterns
    • fingerings: 1s, 1, 2, 3, 4, 4s
  • an explanation of the major scale modes using the derivative approach:
    • ionian
    • dorian
    • phrygian
    • lydian
    • mixolydian
    • aeolian
    • locrian
  • the relativity of music
  • establishing a tonal center:
    • pedal tones
    • altering the tuning of the low strings on the guitar
  • essential playing exercises
  • putting it all together:
    • examples of how to think "derivatively"
    • a table of all the major scale modes

Lesson 14

Diatonic Harmony - Part 2

Date Posted: 6-APR-2003

Lesson Topics:

  • harmonizing a major scale again - further explorations of diatonic harmony
  • 7th chords in A major
  • 7th chord formulas:
    • maj. 7 (r, 3, 5, 7)
    • min. 7 (r, b3, 5, b7)
    • dom. 7 (r, 3, 5, b7)
    • min. 7 (b5) (r, b3, b5, b7)
  • essential chord forms - part 2
  • putting it all together - 7th chords in all major keys

Lesson 15

Minor Scales - Part 1

Date Posted: 24-MAY-2003, (Revised: 12-DEC-2003)

Lesson Topics:

  • the 3 standard minor scales:
    • natural minor (a detailed explanation)
    • harmonic minor
    • melodic minor
  • relative major/minor keys and scales
  • diatonic harmony for a natural minor key
  • harmonic analysis of pink floyd's comfortably numb
  • modal interchange - borrowing chords from a parallel key or mode
    • pivot chords
    • avoid notes
    • dominant 7 sus 4 chords (R, 4, 5, b7)
  • the "blue" note (flat 5)

Lesson 16

Pentatonic Scales - Part 3

Date Posted: 26-MAY-2003

Lesson Topics:

  • the major pentatonic scale
  • the major pent. scale formula: r, 2, 3, 5, 6, r
  • major/minor pent. patterns are the same, just use them differently

Lesson 17

Modes - The Parallel Approach

Date Posted: 7-JUN-2003, (Revised 6-JAN-2018)

Lesson Topics:

  • a quick review of the derivative approach
  • the 3 main parent scales:
    • the major scale
    • the melodic minor scale
    • the harmonic minor scale
  • the berklee method
  • two kinds of modes: major and minor sounding modes
  • the parallel approach to modes
  • mick goodrick's advancing guitarist
  • modal scale formulas
  • 12 pedal tones: a playing exercise

Lesson 18

Diatonic Reharmonization

Date Posted: 15-AUG-2002

Lesson Topics:

  • this lesson explains how to create 3 general sound classifications for diatonic chords for a major key:
    • tonic  (I, iii- vi-)
    • subdominant  (ii-, IV)
    • dominant  (V, vii°)
  • this concept provides you with a basis for chord substitution (or reharmonization).
  • this lesson is a must read for songwriters and those interested in arranging music as it is a very useful compositional technique which can help you to be more creative.

Lesson 19

Modal Harmony - Dorian Mode

Date Posted: 9-JUN-2003, (Revised: 30-Dec-2017)

Lesson Topics:

  • most people know how to play a modal scale, but most don't know how to write modal progressions. this lesson will teach you how and more.
  • everything you need to know about modal harmony is covered. topics include:
    • how to create modal vamps (chord progressions).
    • characteristic notes - what are they and what is the rationale behind them.
      • the characteristic note for dorian: the "raised sixth"
    • tonic chords vs. non-tonic chords
    • characteristic chords
    • modal cadences: characteristic chords resolving to tonic chords
    • triads and 7th chords diatonic to the key of dorian - yes, modes are keys too!
    • avoid chords and avoid chord progressions: what are they, where do they come from, how not to use them, etc.
  • also covered in this lesson: an overview of the "less familiar" modes viewed from a "traditional" perspective. this viewpoint provides the foundation for understanding each mode's characteristic note.
  • the "less familiar" modes:
    • dorian (covered in detail in this lesson)
    • phrygian
    • lydian
    • mixolydian
    the "more familiar" modes being:
    • ionian (the major scale)
    • aeolian (the natural minor scale)
  • after reading this lesson, you'll understand modal harmony, and dorian mode specifically, inside and out.

Lesson 20

Modal Harmony Concluded

Date Posted: 9-JUN-2003

Lesson Topics:

  • a continuation of the same approach presented in the previous lesson
  • the other 4 modes are presented in detail:
    • phrygian
    • lydian
    • mixolydian
    • aeolian
  • again, characteristic chords and chord progressions are discussed thoroughly.
  • as are modal recipes (vamps), avoid chords and the avoid chord progressions for each mode.
  • we then wrap things up with a nice little vamp in A aeolian which is analogous to the c major vamp which was presented in lesson 3.


 Advanced Lessons 

Lesson 21

Jon Damian's Palette - Three Note Motifs

Date Posted: 23-JUN-2003

Lesson Topics:

  • this lesson alone is worth the price of admission. the ideas come from jon damian, a virtuoso jazz guitarist who teaches at the berklee college of music in boston.
  • famous cat (guitarist) who studied with jon: bill frisell. this is most likely where bill learned how to develop his unique intervallic approach towards music.
  • non-famous cat (guitarist) who studied with jon: gabriel perry. i had the good fortune and pleasure of studying with jon for a semester while attending berklee in the early 90s. (later, after school, i studied with jon privately for a summer before moving to boulder.)
  • years later i'm still working on and learning from the concepts and materials jon presented to me in our lessons together - the sign of a truly inspired and gifted teacher. i believe, the palette, is his best lesson.
  • so what's the big deal? in short, the palette systematically categorizes the guitar's intervallic capabilities. one learns how to develop an intervallic vocabulary on the guitar.
  • where does the palette come from? jon damian's whacky imagination. oh yeah, and from... motifs
  • motifs? what the hell are they? why... little musical ideas or themes. in this lesson we explore:
    • motifs as musical building blocks
    • 3-note motifs: the palette's foundation and your key to unlocking the intervallic potential of the guitar.
    • inversions of motifs - motific cycles
    • 2 main motific categories:
      • tightly-packed (close) voicings
      • spread-out (open) voicings
  • the palette reveals 6 types of motific families:
    • clusters
    • triads
    • quartals (voicings in forths)
    • 7th chords with no 3rd
    • 7th chords with no 5th
    • structures an octave in height
  • in short... this lesson will keep you busy for the next 50 years.

Lesson 22

Drop-2 Chord Voicings

Date Posted: 17-NOV-2003

Lesson Topics:

  • learn how to play any jazz chord you could ever want.
  • drop-2 theory is explained in detail.
  • drop-2 voicings are presented and a method is shown how to create these voicings.
  • drop-2's yield 12 patterns on 3 sets of 4 adjacent strings:
    • (6, 5, 4, 3) - the bottom 4 strings
    • (5, 4, 3, 2) - the 4 middle strings
    • (4, 3, 2, 1) - the top 4 strings
  • this lesson also covers the 15 types of chords found in music:
    • maj.7
    • min.7
    • dom.7
    • min.7 (b5)
    • min. maj.7
    • min.7 (#5)
    • maj.7 (b5)
    • maj.7 (#5)
    • dom.7 (b5)
    • dom.7 (#5)
    • dom.7 (sus 4)
    • maj.6
    • min.6
    • dim.7
    • tonic dim.
  • 12 drop-2 patterns for each chord type above gives us a total of 180 patterns.

Lesson 23

Drop-3 Chord Voicings

Date Posted: 26-NOV-2003

Lesson Topics:

  • and just when you thought you were finished with chords... we do the whole thing again but with drop-3 voicings.
  • drop-3's yeild 8 patterns on 2 sets of strings:
    • (6, 4, 3, 2) - bass notes on the 6th string
    • (5, 3, 2, 1) - bass notes on the 5th string
  • 8 drop-3 patterns for each chord type in the previous lesson yields 120 patterns.

Lesson 24

Tensions - Color Tones

Date Posted: 16-AUG-2004

Lesson Topics:

  • ever wonder how to "color" or embellish your chords? well, this is the lesson for you. i cover everything you need to know about these color-tones which are also called tensions.
  • first, we start with a brief review of triads and 7th chords, then we get into tensions. topics include:
    • compound intervals - intervals beyond an octave
    • 9ths above chord tones
    • major 9ths vs. minor 9ths
    • avoid notes
    • available vs. non-available tensions
    • a simple method for cool voicings with 6 examples
    • some of my favorite chords with 16 examples
    • drop-2 and drop-3 tension substitution rules
      • learn how to embellish all those chords you learned in lessons 22 and 23.
  • then we explore charlie parker's blues for alice. this is a great vehicle to explore even more topics:
    • tension substitution examples for drop-2's
    • tritone substitutions
    • guide-tones
    • another cool voicing for an E7 alt chord, you can never have enough
    • berklee college of music - chord lab 3 examples (more than you could ever want)
    • berklee chord lab 3 midterm exam, oh my!
  • again, another lesson which will keep you busy for the next century.

Lesson 25

Secondary Dominants

Date Posted: 16-DEC-2003

Lesson Topics:

  • the lesson for songwriters
  • the definition of a secondary dominant chord
    • cadences
  • the 6 secondary dominant chords in the key of C major
  • the 4 common characteristics of all secondary dominants
  • secondary dominants as a way to spice up your tunes
  • harmonic analysis of the beatles' hey jude

Lesson 26

Minor Scales (Part 2) - Melodic Minor

Date Posted: 26-SEP-2004

Lesson Topics:

  • this lesson opens pandora's box... you really start down the dark side of the force with these ideas and concepts. warning: this lesson is not for the weak-minded masses.
  • the lesson extensively explores the use of the melodic minor scale, topics include:
    • diatonic harmony for a melodic minor scale
    • the melodic minor scale formula
    • triads and 7th chords
    • altered dominant harmonies
    • line clichés - minor and major
    • the "james bond" chord
    • drop-3 examples
    • "thumbed" voicings - voicings using your thumb to grab a bass note
  • the melodic minor modes:
    • melodic minor (jazz minor)
    • dorian b2 (phrygian w/a raised 6th)
    • lydian augmented
    • lydian b7 (overtone scale)
    • aeolian major (mixolydian b6)
    • locrian w/a raised 2nd
    • altered dominant (super locrian)
  • 7 scale patterns, 7 recordings
  • practical applications:
    • cool altered dominant 7th voicings in E
    • putting it all together - jam over E7
    • a minor pentatonic scale in place of super locrian? too cool.

Lesson 27

Pentatonic Tricks - Tying It All Together

Date Posted: 24-DEC-2004

Lesson Topics:

  • a pivotal lesson which really puts things into perspective and ties almost all previous concepts together enabling one to truly develop a philosophy and approach towards improvisation.
  • this lesson thoroughly re-examines diatonic harmony uniting it with pentatonic theory in an insightful and inspiring way.
  • also, some fun with 7th chords and triads which create a new approach towards playing chords, working with harmony, and of course, soloing.
  • more work with tensions and avoid tones, as well as more sound advice on soloing and striving to think in terms of a "bigger picture".
  • and finally, a "12-tone" approach is presented which basically blows the doors off all of the rules and really opens one up to new ways to approach and synthesize music. these concepts will guide you on the rest of your musical journey for years to come.
  • my holy grail of lessons has finally been actualized!

Lesson 28

Extended Pentatonic Structures - A Handful of Blues

Date Posted: 25-MAY-2005

Lesson Topics:

  • this lesson explores how to move horizonally between the 5 basic pentatonic patterns presented in lesson 10.
  • along the way we discover the magic of the pentatonic "boxes" - little power-packed note bundles.
  • these "boxes" are powerful because they're simple structures (easy to play) yet they contain a ton of guitar licks. more poetically speaking, each box contains "a handful of blues."
  • connecting the "boxes" to the larger pentatonic shapes yields extended pentatonic structures. this simple technique unlocks a whole "fretboard of blues."
  • then we explore how to switch between parallel major and minor pentatonic scales using the root as a pivot - a simple yet powerful idea indeed.
  • and finally, i provide a brief introduction into the "12-bar blues". (i would be remiss if i did not.)

Lesson 29

Triads - Part 2 - The CAGED Method

Date Posted: 6-AUG-2005

Lesson Topics:

  • in this lesson we explore the CAGED method - a simple way to play major and minor chords using only 5 voicings (more or less).
  • not really an advanced lesson, but something i want to present as it's a nice way to get around the neck when playing major and/or minor chords.
  • some of the voicings can be a little awkward, so i show you some ways to transform these trickier voicings into more practical ones.

Lesson 30

The Dustpan - Everything Else I Wanted To Say

Date Posted: 21-MAY-2006

Lesson Topics:

  • everything else i wanted to say, but never got around to until now
  • tendency tones
  • guide tones in a "traditional standard cadence"
  • major scale patterns: 3-notes per string
  • harmonic minor scales:
    • diatonic harmony
    • motivation for the "raised" 7th
    • position playing - 7 patterns for c harmonic minor
    • the picardy third - how to get reborn
    • practical modal applications
    • minor two-fives
  • melodic minor scale review
  • diatonic arpeggios: 15 patterns

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NOTE: All lesson material © and ® by Gabriel Perry 2002-. All rights reserved.

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