Basic Guitar Harmony: Scale Primer and Intervals – Part 1

It’s time to dig into the nuts and bolts of music. This series helps the aspiring musician get the first concepts in basic guitar harmony by starting with an understanding of  scales and Intervals. Most schools of thought divide music theory (outside of technique specific to the instrument) into three main areas of study: harmony, melody, and rhythm. Out of the three, harmony requires the most amount of time and effort to understand. In my opinion, harmony is the most important area of study. Harmony, for the purposes of these lessons, means the science of combining notes or tones. 

Basic Guitar Harmony. Nah, Just Give Me A Song

Why study harmony anyway? It is the foundation of almost every style of music. But in case any objection to learning harmony comes to the surface, the following list will help persuade otherwise.

  1. Knowledge of sounds available for any use or purpose
  2. Understand the intent of the composer
  3. Make educated choices on the phrasing of musical lines
  4. The ability to expand almost any idea whether it be to make variations on any chord progression, song, riff, etc.)
  5. An accurate understanding of what makes music work this will speed up the learning process greatly
  6. The knowledge to analyze what other musicians are doing on recordings, jams, etc. 
  7. The ability to enrich musical ideas through:
    • Chord extension and embellishment (adding 9ths, 11ths, etc., to given chords). 
    • Chord substitution and reharmonization (replacing the chords in a given progression with interesting substitutes)
    • The addition of moving voices
    • Melodic (think the vocal line) embellishment, decoration and variation 
    • Change keys 
    • The understanding to create and compose different moods, feelings, and colors

The above list only begins to scratch the surface of how the understanding of harmony will aid those who study it. If any of the terms and ideas are unfamiliar, then this is definitely the place to begin the journey of musical understanding. 

The Chromatic Scale

The western musical system gives every tone a name. These names create the musical alphabet and consist of only twelve names. After the final name has been used, the series begins again from the beginning when ascending (going higher). When descending, the reverse order repeats as necessary. Playing each of the tones in order, ascending or descending, a chromatic scale is created.

On the guitar, each fret creates a new tone and thus a new name. The distance covered by one tone to the next in a chromatic scale is a half step (this will be further covered later). The below example (Example 1) shows a chromatic scale beginning on the tone A. It continues one octave (starting and ending on the same tone) until the next A is reached. Practice playing this scale in order to begin the process of recognizing its characteristics.

Example 1

basic guitar harmony chromatic scale

A few observations need to be made about Example 1. Notice the difference between the top scale using all sharps(♯) and the lower scale using all flats(♭). A sharp raises a tone by one half step (one fret on the guitar) and a flat lowers the tone by one half step). Between the two scales arrows connect two enharmonic notes (same notes that have different names). The observation that the same fret on the same string is played below the note indicates that the same note is indeed played.

This introduction in basic guitar harmony lays the groundwork for understanding the major scale. This and key signatures make up the bulk of Basic Guitar Harmony: Scale Primer and Intervals – Part 2.

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