Guitar Theory

Guitar Theory

According to, music theory is the name for a branch of study that includes many different methods for analyzing, classifying, and composing music and the elements of music. Narrowly it may be defined as the description in words of elements of music, and the interrelationship between the notation of music and performance practice. Basically, theory is the study of music, how it’s played and how everything fits together.


Theory is Necessary

Have you ever learned something new on the guitar but had no idea what to do with it? Many guitarists suffer from this ailment and most instructional materials do little to remedy the problem. You can buy a chord or scale book at your local music store and learn some new shapes and patterns, but rarely do these books explain what these components actually do or how they ought to be applied. Without knowledge of how something functions it’s pretty much useless. This is why theory is necessary.


Theory Offers Explanations

Theory will explain what something is and does. For example, a new chord shape might be seen as an extension of a common barre chord. Wherever you may play the barre chord the new shape can be substituted for a new sound. A scale pattern might fit together with a specific chord progression. Each time you play this progression the scale tones can be used to add melody and harmony. Certain combinations of chords will effect a songs overall emotional feel. Choose the right combination in order to successfully convey your song’s meaning.


Scales, Chords, Progressions and More

Music can be approached and studied from many different angles. You can study notation, technique, rhythms, scales, chord construction and so on. While all musical topics are interesting and have their benefits, scales, chords and progressions top the list of must-knows. All guitarists, beginner through advanced, strum chords, follow progressions, and play melodies, riffs, solos and bass lines with scales.

Chord Theory

Chord theory consists of how chords are built. Chords are built from scales. Scale degrees, or intervals, are combined to make major and minor chords (see Fretboard Theory Chapter 6 Building Chords). The notes of these chords are scattered throughout a pattern that covers the whole fretboard. Break this pattern up into five pieces and something familiar emerges. One position resembles an open C chord shape, the next an open A chord shape, followed by G, E and D. This is the so-called “CAGED” system which teaches you how to play different shapes and voicings on the guitar (see Fretboard Theory Chapter 3 CAGED Template Chord System and CAGED Template Chord System DVD). Additional theory will teach you how chords become more complex and interesting sounding when more scale tones are added like fourths, sixths, sevens and ninths (see Fretboard Theory Chapter 10 Chord Extensions).

Scale Theory

Scale theory consists of how scales are played and how they’re applied to chords and progressions. The major scale is used to play melodies, riffs, leads, and bass lines (see Fretboard Theory Chapter 5 Major Scale). When applying this scale, it’s critical to combine it with chords and progressions that are derived from the same scale. Otherwise you’ll sound out of key (see Fretboard Theory Chapter 7 Applying Scales). Depending on the progression, the major scale can sound happy, sad, jazzy, exotic or strange (see Fretboard Theory Chapter 8 Modes). The pentatonic scale, which is really just a simplified major scale, is easier to use and apply. Rather than take the whole progression into consideration, as is necessary when applying the complete major scale, the pentatonic needs only correspond to the root chord (see Fretboard Theory Chapter 2 Pentatonic Scale and Getting Started with the Pentatonic Scale DVD).

Chord Progressions

Chord progressions are based on the major scale. Scale degrees, or intervals, are combined to make major and minor chords. When chords are built for each scale degree the following sequence emerges:

1. major
2. minor
3. minor
4. major
5. major
6. minor
7. minor flat five (a.k.a. half diminished chord)

Sometimes referred to as the “Nashville Number System,” this sequence remains the same regardless of key. Guitarists translate it into movable patterns on the fretboard. This allows guitar players to visualize keys as easily as they view barre chords or scale patterns. The ability to identify keys helps to chart progressions, apply scales, play by ear, compose and more (see Fretboard Theory Chapter 6 Building Chords and Progressions).

Fretboard Theory

So you can see how studying music theory will uncover the mysteries of playing guitar. When you understand how the blocks fit together, you’re free to build on your own. Also, knowing what’s important will prevent you from wasting time on useless things. For more information about theory specific to guitar, see Fretboard Theory. Subscribe to the free 25 page preview and also receive bonus details and free tab!

Comments (53)

Is there a bass guitar method out like this?

Its all the same for a bass theory is universal , is all the same!

The Fretboard Theory book can be used for bass too. The DVDs focus strictly on guitar.

I own the whole enchilada! I have learned sooo much with the tools Desi is offering. He is right about one thing, his material DOES make you fall in love with playing again!

I used to have such a mental block on learning the actual theory (when I was in school) I just could not do it. This however, has been a blessing and has improved my playing.

rock on!

I have purchased your DVD’s and Book. In short, your teaching is excellent. I have gained more understanding from your material than from any other source.
I thank you for your committment to teaching and helping others.

Totally agree, I have been playing for almost 20 years and am currently training to be a secondary school music teacher and of all the guitar theory training stuff I’ve ever seen, yours is defo the clearest, easiest and most logical to understand and follow! Great work :) ps.. Tab the solo you did for ‘All along the Watchtower’ you posted on FB the other day.. You know you wanna!!! Good man *_(“,)/

Sorry, don’t have tab for my version of Watchtower. But you can download the Jimi Hendrix version at the link below. I took a lot from it.

First of all, thank you for your method Desi, I’ve re-started to learn guitar after 15 years mainly because of your method, with great pleasure.
My question is the following, do you plan to write another theory book for more advanced players?


Yes, Arnaud. Level 2 is in the works! I’d love to have it done this year. We’ll see…

Hi Desi, we are now in 2012, some news from your new book?

Thanks for your interest in Fretboard Theory Volume 2, Arnaud. It’s still in the works. I wish I could give you a release date, but as of now (February 2012) it’s still several months away.

Hey Desi,

I’m right there along with the other folks who bought the book and all the DVD’s & love what you put together for us. I know this is quite an old question and it’s been over a year since you replied last, but are you still in the works on the 2nd theory course?


Loved your podcasts & have just purchased DVDs set and book.

Is it compatible for “all regions”?

Thanks & regards


There are no region codes on the DVDs. You can play them anywhere.

i want to be able to play the melody of songs so people will recognize what i’m playing. one string at a time wont do it. i’ve listened on youtube of people playing songs that i know what song they are playing and there not singing the words. i would like to be able to do that but i’m aftaid it may be too hard. do you have info and tips on this type of playing?

Playing the chords and melody at the same time is called “fingerstyle” or “chord melody” guitar. You can find some songbooks for this at: Google the terms to find even more.

This style can be tricky and takes a lot of work, but it can also be a lot of fun if you have the skill and patience for it. My suggestion would be to learn how to play ordinary guitar parts well first. You may also want to study some finger picking guitar basics.

My earliest gigs were at coffee shops. I didn’t have a band and I didn’t sing then. So I just played chord-melody/finger style guitar arrangements of popular tunes. I was a big Chet Atkins fan. I applied his style to more contemporary pop/rock songs. I started to get pretty good at it, but then I got a band, learned how to sing, started gigging more, making more money… and the rest is history.

Hi Desi, just want to let you know how helpful your material has been. I went on a 4 month world trip with my family, and I took “Fretboard Theory” but on the Kindle with me, as well as a little Washburn Rover travel guitar. Reading the diagrams on the Kindle was not easy, but you helped me keep learning even though I had extremely little time to practice. Now that I am home, I bought your complete set, and last night I was going through the pentatonic scales with your video. Also, your explanation of modes is the best!

I am sorry to say I started playing almost 40 years ago, and let my guitar playing fall by the wayside. Never learned any theory, or even any scales! So I have a lot of catching up to… if only I had learned pentatonic scale back around 1975 :-) probably before you were born!

Thanks and all the best.

PS I notice you seemed to be a fan of Line6 guitars in your videos?

Pat(rick) Gifford

Thanks for the email. I really appreciate the feedback. Yes, I used a Line 6 Variax acoustic guitar and a Pod Pro in my guitar theory videos.

I have spent a lot of money on various instructional books (I’m a little addicted). I usually just read them and, maybe pick-up some little trick or two, but Fretboard Theory is a book i go back to over and over and over again. Worth every penny you spend on it.

I’ve been playing classical guitar for over 40 years and recently received the Fretboard Theory set as a gift. I’m really enjoying going through the book and DVDs and learning from a different perspective. Thanks so much for all the information in the pod casts, youtube videos, the book and DVDs. You are a great teacher!

Thanks. I really appreciate the feedback. You can gain access to a bonus online video for posting this comment. Pick one out here (email me directly and let me know which one you want):

Great podcasts. Thanks, I’m learning a lot. I’ve played guitar for about 10 years it’s nice to finally find out what I’m doing!

Hi Mr Desi,

Can I have one of your bonus online DVD on the title ‘Pentatonic Scales – 48 minutes ?. I bought the DVD on ‘Getting Started With The Pentatonic Scales’ of yours but still really can’t figure out how to apply the 5 minor pentatonic scales. The lessons are fun though.
Thank you so much.

Yes, just follow the directions on my link page.

Hi Mr Desi,

Thank you so much. You are absolutely the most wonderful teacher I have ever ever met. To tell you the truth, I have sent countless of emails for advice to a number of guitar instructors before this, but none of them ever replied. Some more worse, my emails get bounced back and rejected. But it doesn’t happen to you. You’re a great teacher. I wish you and your family all the best and great health. May God BLESS YOU ALL. Amin.

Hi Desi,

Thank for this bible of guitar playing. It allows me to make links between everything I learned for 10 yeard of guitar practice.

Really thank a lot !!!



After playing guitar for years and getting progressively more frustrated with trying to learn theory and lead, I stumbled upon your website. In hopes of finally finding something that could tie everything together and clear up the confusion so often associated with guitar music theory, I began to preview your free material. Based on what I saw and read, I decided to order the complete package in the electronic format. I began by reading through the book and going through the Pentatonic DVD. I have been through the DVD several times and each time I pick up a little extra tidbit. For once, it all makes sense. You have a great gift for teaching and your format really works for me. I will be moving on to the CAGED system DVD next and studying how it ties in with the pentatonic scale. Thanks Desi for rekindling my deisre to play.



Here’s the story. I’ve picked up the guitar about two years ago, bought books, online courses, and one on one lessons. The books seem to leave a lot out and all guitar teachers seem to want to do it teach me a song. The problem is it all becomes so mechanical, I may learn notes and chords, but don’t really understand what a song is trying to do, or why, or where to move next. I want to learn why I am doing something. Will your Theory course get me there?


Learning songs is, in my opinion, the best way to start learning how to play guitar. Once you get the basics down, then you can start learning more about the technical details. If you’re able to use open chords, power chords, and barre chords to play simple songs, and can also play a few melodies and riffs, then you’re ready for my guitar theory course. And yes, it’ll explain what you’re playing and why things go together.

Click this link for my beginner guitar instruction. Be sure to see the additional materials I recommend down toward the bottom of the page.

Click this link to sign up for a free preview of my guitar theory book and DVDs.

Hi Desi

I’m interested in buying the whole suite and I noticed there is an option for a coupon code in the checkout. How do I find out coupon codes?


That’s just a default feature of my shopping cart system. You don’t need a coupon code. I already have packages discounted at 25% off. Please visit my order page for more details.

are you able to learn all the guitar notes in 10 years?

I’m sorry but your question doesn’t make sense. Please be more specific.

Is your question: “Is one able to learn all the notes on the guitar fretboard in 10 years?” The answer is that it depends on one’s practice and study habits.

Thanks !! you have opened a lot of doors for me with just your simple pod cast.I believe I got it from I-Tunes U. I will soon order the complete package.. I am retired and attend college again to study Computer Science. As for guitar, I love playing. I intend to play an hour or so to different shut in folks. Nursing homes and the like. Free … just to bring an hour of something different to those who can’t get out to shows. Thanks again for the great package. I will order this month.


I am working through the Fretboard Theory book and DVDs. At the end of the section it gives an e-mail address to sign up for updates, etc..
Unfortunately I keep getting a message that the e-mail address is undeliverable.
Can you help me out?

The correct email for Fretboard Theory owners to subscribe to the customer list is But most people type in with an “R” (contRactor). Perhaps you made this mistake. You can always send a direct email to and request to be added to the list.

Is music theory is basic for players to learn??
cuz others learn directy to the tab music sheet..

I don’t recommend that beginners study guitar theory. You can see how I teach newcomers at my free beginner guitar lessons page.

While studying music theory, I came across the Circle of Fifths and thought to myself, what is this? A circle? What does a circle have to do with music? I guess that it’s a handy reference that doesn’t really say much. Whoops! Did I step on someone’s toes? Why is it a Circle of Fifths and not a Circle of Fourths and Fifths or maybe just a Circle of Fourths? Is the Circle of Fifths just a rote memory thing? The Circle illustrates a relationship between keys but it doesn’t in and of itself explain the reasoning or logic. I’m relatively new to music theory but, I just don’t get the real importance of the Circle format when the same info is readily available on a list of key signatures. Maybe someone can enlighten me (remember I am a beginner so, go easy).

Please read my blog post on the circle of fifths.

dear desi,
what book should i purchase.i have practiced all scales but cannot compose impressive riffs and licks on my own.i dont have tecnic of creating some thrilling music.i lack musical imagination.
how do you send dvd content to india(can i download it from ur website

It sounds like you already have the technical information, but you’re missing how to apply it. I would recommend that you learn songs. Please watch my guitar song videos on Youtube and download the free guitar tab that goes with them. Also, read my previous blog post How to Guitar Solo and Play Lead Guitar and Learn How to Improvise, Play Guitar Solos & Create Your Own Style.

Great site; very good approach to learning, I am considering buying the set. However, what I have not found online as yet is that no one explains about the importance of music theory in the field of physics – such as physics of vibrations. If one wishes to be competent at playing naturally (or ‘instinctively’), one needs to have an understanding of the sensitivity of the human ear and its capacity to be receptive to sound waves in the approximate range of 80 Hz to 1100 Hz; and given that the instrument is set at 440 Hz and we have a chromatic palette to locate any note (within human pitch range) with relative pitch (perfect pitch?). Only then one begins to understand the major scale – scale in the literal sense, balancing between the 4th and 5th degrees. Only when one is equipped with such knowledge can one proceeds with a gradual step on the scale and play along and in the end resolving in tonal equilibrium. Only then will one understand the modal approach, i.e. the main basic set of colours in the (major scale) palette, which one can make use of to convey moods. An understanding of sound vibration, of relative pitch and the modal moods should prepare anyone to master almost any instrument. Incidentally this is only theory, the work is like you mentioned, one needs to use the tools. Such as basic chord construction, caged system, pentatonic scales, arpeggios, and strumming with good rhythm, not forgetting modes. And as you mentioned, an understanding of music theory is important. And as one’s knowledge is increasing, I believe all the mystifying elements clouding the scale will gradually dissipate and it will all reveal itself and fit together.

Hi Desi,

Can you tell what that song is that you play at the beginning of your second podcast.

I has kept popping up through the series and can’t what it is but I love it.


Hi, the musical introduction at the beginning of episode number two of my guitar theory podcast is played in the style of “Third Stone From the Sun” by Jimi Hendrix. It’s actually just the E Mixolydian scale played in octaves.

Hi, Desi Serna

Ok I’ve read all about your guitar course set, I know it is very important to learn how to play, but I have a question for you, is this for the classical guitar as well? I play nylon strings.

My guitar theory method focuses mainly on popular steel string and electric guitar styles. For example, Top 40 and classic rock. You certainly can play much of this on a nylon string guitar, but I don’t teach classical music.

Hi Desi
This is by far the best material to learn Guitar Theory. My playing has greatly improved within a short period of time. I would recommend your DVDs and books to Guitar students of any level.


Hey Desi,

I just ordered your book ‘guitar theory for dummies’. I now read however that it is for intermediate players.

I have been playing guitar for 8+ years but I only learn songs from youtube ( monkey see monkey do ) so I know close to nothing about theory. I wouldn’t even know what a C chord is or how to read a note.

What other book do you suggest prior to reading dummies? I really want to develop an understanding that will help in getting better.

Thank you very much,
I like your you tube videos a lot :)

Kind regards,


As long as you meet the requirements outlined in the book’s intro, which include knowing open position chords, barre chords, simple songs, some melodies and riffs, then you’re ready to start with it.

Fretboard Theory Volume II will be available very soon. Stay tuned!

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