I have been quite busy lately, studying for this, my latest article. Busy mainly brushing up on my music theory and researching this article. I’ve been posting posts and videos for a few months now, in a series I call “How to Play a Three-Chord Song, If You’ve Never Played Guitar Before.” This article dives into the theory behind the whole reason I put the series together. It may be a bit dry in spots but the whole reason we as musicians learn this stuff is ultimately, to play music and have fun. Just like learning to drive, you need to know the rules before you just head out on the road for the first time. This is what I’m attempting to do here.
A couple of weeks ago, I bought another Hal Leonard published book, this one is all about Travis Picking, authored by Andrew Dubrock. The book’s title is “Travis Picking, A Guitarist’s Guide to Finger-picking Techniques, Patterns, and Styles,” Hal Leonard Corporation, 2011, ISBN 978-1-4234-9435-5. It’s a great book and I’m learning a lot from reading it but it is challenging, even for a more advanced guitarists. If you are just starting out, this is something to aspire to a few years down your guitar learning road.
I have also been reviewing Mel Bay’s Modern Guitar Method, Grade 1, first published by Mel Bay Publications in 1948. According to the book’s cover, over 10 Million copies of this book have been printed. After reviewing it, I see why. It is excellent for both beginner guitarists and intermediate to advanced players who missed out on learning to read music early on. One of my greatest regrets as a guitar player and musician is not having learned to read music at a much earlier age and not learning more about music theory. This book does an excellent job at introducing both concepts, in a practical, interesting, and (to me anyways) fun way.
Learning to read music and understanding music notation is one of the best ways to truly understand timing, which, as I have mentioned before, is a critical component of musicianship. Even if you’re an advanced player, forcing yourself to learn and play along to the songs that are printed in the book will really improve your playing. And at the same time, greatly improve your sight reading abilities (the ability to read music notation and play an instrument at the same time).There is a free audio download that comes with the book so you can play along and make sure you play the songs right. Great for self-teaching.
I have also been re-reading one of my favourite books on music theory, “Music Theory for Dummies” by Michael Pilhofer and Holly Day, Wiley Publishing Inc, 2007 ISBN 978-0-7645-7838-0. There may be newer editions in print but that’s the version I have. I am a big fan of the Dummies books. (I even read “Blogging for Dummies” by Amy Lupld Bair, John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 2019, before I started seriously writing for the In-Tune Guitar Academy.)
Chapter 10 of Music Theory for Dummies is a great chapter all about Intervals. This is probably a foreign concept to you if you’re new to playing music and to learning about music but I think it’s a great place to start the teaching part of this article. Re-reading this chapter has reminded me of some very important concepts that I would like to share with you here.
First, a little background. On the guitar, we concern ourselves with music written with a treble clef, so music to the right of the middle C of a piano or music in higher registers. If you’re familiar with playing piano, that would be music you play with your right hand. I also play bass and sheet music for bass would be written with a bass clef, which is music played with the left hand on a piano. For this lesson, we will only concern ourselves with the treble clef. 𝄞
Notes that fall on the lines are E-G-B-D-F (Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge). And notes that fall in between the lines are F-A-C-E (spells the word FACE). Starting from the bottom line, we go E then space F, line G, space A, line B, space C, line D, space E, line F.
The above example shows a music staff in the key of C major. We know this because there are no sharps or flats on the left side of the staff, which are symbols to denote the key that the piece of music is written in . In my last video lesson, I introduced to you the key of G major. The key of G would show a sharp on the left side of the staff; the F is sharp in the key of G so we would see a sharp (similar to a number sign, pound or hashtag) on the top line, the F note. The sharp or flat symbol on the left of the staff, to the right of the treble clef is what’s known as a key signature.
Sorry for my crappy hand drawings but that’s the best way I can show you the concepts I’m trying to get across.
In Lesson 10, we started looking at the G major scale in the second position. I showed that we start on the third fret, sixth string and pressing down with our number 2 finger (or middle finger) to form a G note. That is our root note. The next fret to the right forms a G sharp. The next fret over is the A note, which is two frets to the right from our root note. This is what is known as going up a whole step. Going up a half step is moving only one fret (in this case, going from G to G sharp). Two frets is a whole step. Our A is the second position in the G major scale. We then move down to the third position, which is on the 5th string, second fret and pushing down with our number one finger to form the B note.
Now the funny thing about music theory is that distance between B and C is only a half step. This means that we have to go just one fret over from the B to form our C note, fifth string, third fret, using our number 2 finger. The C is our fourth position in the G major scale. If you go up (move to the right) one fret from the C note we’ve just formed, you will form a C# (C sharp). Move one half step higher to form the D note, fifth string, fifth fret. This is our fifth position in the G major scale.
Sorry for more crappy hand-drawn diagrams (low budget operation here).
Thank you for staying with me this far…I know this stuff is pretty dry but there is a point to all of this. I wanted to show you what the first, fourth and fifth position are in the G major scale (G – C – D). If you look a chord chart that shows which chords belong to which keys, such as the one found in the Incredible Scale Finder by Hal Leonard, you would see that in the G major scale, the G major chord is in position I; the C major chord is in position IV; and the D major chord is in position V. If you’ve ever heard of the term I-IV-V (1-4-5) song, this is what they are talking about. And G, C, and D is about as common a combination for a 1-4-5 song as you can find.
All this can get very confusing to the beginning guitar player so I will leave it at that.
There are bewildering number of very famous songs that are written in this pattern. One of the most famous is Brown Eyed Girl by Van Morrison. This song was released in the late sixties and I would venture to guess that it’s more popular now than when it was first released. You will hear this song in bars, restaurants, cruise ships, and vacation resorts, to name a few, performed by thousands of different musicians. Now there are are a couple more chords in this song than just G, C, and D but the verses are definitely written in that pattern.
Another famous example is Sweet Home Alabama, by Lynard Skynard, which is pretty much D , C and G the whole way through the song. Even though it starts on the D chord, the song is in the key of G major. This too is quite an old song, dating back to the very early seventies and can be heard very frequently to this day. Kid Rock even did a cover of sorts of that song with his hit “All Summer Long” from 2008. It’s a great song – I love it – but he did borrow heavily from Sweet Home Alabama, and another famous three-chord hit from the seventies, Werewolves of London by Warren Zevon. Same with Werewolves, it starts on the D chord but the song is written in the key of G.
These are just a few examples of the hundreds of songs you will be able to play by learning the G, C, and D chord. In my next lesson, we will learn to transition from C to G, and D to G, and vice versa.
Then later on, we will take a crack at learning Sweet Home Alabama. Following lessons will feature a few more chords so that you can learn another series of three chord sets.
Music Theory for Dummies by Michael Pilhofer and Holly Day, Wiley Publishing Inc, 2007 ISBN 978-0-7645-7838-0
Mel Bay’s Modern Guitar Method, Grade 1, Mel Bay Publications Inc, 1990 (latest revision) ISBN 978-087-166-354-2
Incredible Scale Finder, by Adam St. James, Hal Leonard Corporation, 2001, ISBN 0-634-01-490-0
Wikipedia, to verify certain facts about Kid Rock’s song, All Summer Long