Posted by: worshipguitarguy | September 26, 2006

Music Theory Part 1: Don’t Worry, We’ll Keep it Simple

Whoa, hang on for a second.  I know your eyes glazed over when you read the title of this post, but stick with me.  If it makes you feel better, I’ll let you in on something.  I’m not a music major, in fact, my only formal training was a music appreciation class I took in college, (and I don’t remember much of it except we listened to Bach, Beethoven, and some really smart guy who played a killer pipe organ.)  So think of the next few articles as being Music Theory for people who hate music theory.  We’re not going to get into any of that diminished augmented inverted sevenths here.  What I want to do is give you the tools you need to play in many worship situations… and the key to that means we have to learn some basic stuff along the way. 

So if you’re ready, let’s do this. 

To start, we’re going to introduce the idea of a scale.  Now I’m not talking about something you weigh fruits on… nope, we’re looking at musical scales.  The simplest way to explain a scale is that it’s a set of musical notes you use while playing.  If you have your guitar nearby, grab it now, because it’ll make this easier.  We’re going to start with something called the chromatic scale, which contains all the named notes used in Western music.  To show you better, I’ve included my handy 12 sided chromatic scale polygon with the name of each note around it.   

Note: What about flat notes???  If you look at the chart, you’ll see stuff like C, C#, D, D#… but being the observant musician you are, you’ll know there are notes called flat notes, like E flat, or G flat.  Where are they?  Well, they’re there, but I just didn’t label them.  You see if you start with G and go clockwise, you’ll find G#.  But to get a flat, all you have to do is start at G and go counter-clockwise, and you’ll discover that F# also has another name, G flat.  So C# is also called D flat, and A# is also called B flat.   

Now that the flats are straight, let’s go through this on a guitar.  If you’ve studied a guitar neck, you know that there’s a C on the second string (the A string) at the third fret.  So find C at the top of the chromatic scale chart.  Now, move up to the fourth fret on the same string.  To find the name of that note, go around clockwise to the next note on the chart.  Of course it’s a C# (or D flat).  Next go to the fifth fret.  By following the same pattern, you’ll know you’re on a D now.  You can keep going around the chart like this until you reach the 14th fret, the B. 

So what happens now?  Ahh, you ask tough questions, don’t you?  Well, notice how the chart is a circle?. (It’s technically a dodecagon, but who’s keeping track?)  What that means is we just keep moving clockwise (and start over).  So fret 15 is a C again.

You can do the same thing on the next string down.  Since it’s a D string, playing an open note on it gives you a D, the first fret would be a D#, and the second would be an E… etc.  So the lesson from this is that moving up a fret on a guitar moves us clockwise one note on the chart.  (And conversely, moving down one fret moves us counter-clockwise).  That’s the chromatic scale.


The chromatic scale is all fine and dandy, but you’ve probably never heard a guitarist say “Dude, I played a killer solo on the chromatic scale last night!”  That’s because the chromatic scale or the scale of all 12 notes isn’t particularly useful to us if we’re playing a song.  In fact, most music you listen to uses less than the 12 notes we’ve shown above.  Right now we’re going to look at one of the most popular scales in Western (and worship) music, the major scale.  

The major scale is made up of only seven notes in the chromatic scale.  And if you’re talking about the key of C, it’s real easy to remember which seven… It’s the seven normal letters, (without flats or sharps.) So…

The key thing to look at here isn’t so much the notes themselves, rather it’s the spaces between each note in the scale.  So going around the scale, (or moving up the fretboard), our spaces would look like this

2 – 2 – 1 – 2 – 2 – 2 – 1    (where one means we just move one note clockwise, and two means we skip a note.)

In music terms, we call these spaces “intervals”, 1 space is referred to as a half step, and two spaces are referred to as a whole step.  And in the major scale, these spaces always remain the same.  So say we want to find the notes in the G major scale.  Well all we do is start simply with G, and follow those spaces or intervals around the diagram.  By doing this, we learn the notes of the G major scale are:

G – A – B – C – D – E – F#


Ok, I know I said this would be simple, but I see your not so sure.  Trust me though, read through this stuff a few times and do your best to understand it.  In Part 2 we’ll practically apply this to your guitar so you can play a song in just about any key. 

It’ll all be worth it, I promise!        



  1. Music theory…drool…I love it!

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