Guitar Harmony 1: Introduction

What are Chords? What are Scales? Chord Substitutions? Voicing? Inversions? Ahhhh!!!

Harmony is VERY EASY! You just have to understand and memorize a few simple rules and content and you'll get it in no time. Here's a brief introduction to get you started:

The first 4 things you need to memorize to begin understanding harmony on the guitar are these:

1) The Definition of a Scale.

2) Key Signatures

3) Chord Formulas

4) Notes on the fretboard


A scale is simply a predetermined number of notes in succession with a predetermined number of half-steps or whole-steps (i.e., 2 half-steps) between each note. (On a guitar the frets are a half-step apart.)

The Chromatic Scale

The "Parent" of all scales is called the Chromatic Scale and it is comprised of all half steps. On a piano that would be all the keys (black and white) played left to right or right to left in order. On the guitar it would be every note played left to right or right to left on any string.

Here's an example of a 1-octave Chromatic scale starting on "A":

A - A#/Bb - B - C - C#/Db - D - D#/Eb - E - F - F#/Gb - G - G#/Ab - A

(An octave is the distance from one note name to the same note name at the next highest pitch. In the example above, the first "A" to the next "A" is an octave. )

(What a minute...what's up with A#/Bb, C#/Db, etc.?)

Those are called "Enharmonic Equivalents" which is just a fancy way of saying that those are actually the same notes with two different names. (Yes, music is funny that way). So, A# = Bb, C# = Db, etc. I'll get into why this happens in another blog post, but for now just know that it happens and that those notes have 2 names. You'll need to memorize the enharmonic equivalents.

So...without the repeated octave note (or beyond) we only need to memorize 17 notes!! That's much easier to remember that the 26 letters we had to memorize for our own alphabet!

The Major Scale

Now that we have our Chromatic Scale memorized, we're ready to create our Major Scale by understanding 2 rules:

Rule #1: The major scale has 7 notes

Rule #2: The major scale has the following spacing (steps) between each note:

1st note - (whole step) - 2nd note - (whole steps) - 3rd note (half-step) - 4th note (whole step) - 5th note (whole step) - 6th note (whole step) - 7th note (half step) - back to the top.

In other words....

Whole - Whole - Half - Whole - Whole - Whole - Half

(or... "W - W - H - W - W - W - H")

Major Scale Example:

Let's say we want to create a major scale starting on A. First, we're going to need 7 notes starting on "A. Next we'll need to look at our chromatic scale above and apply the Major scale spacing rules to it (i.e., W-W-H-W-W-W-H). Here's how it works:

- Start with "A" and add a whole step (i.e., 2 half-steps) to get B

- Add another whole step to get C#

- Add a half-step to get D

- Add a whole step to get E

- Add a whole-step to get F#

- Add a whole step to get G#

- Add a half-step to go back to A for the octave.

- RESULT: A - B - C# - D - E - F# - G# - (A to continue to the octave)

** For the A Major scale, we use sharps, not flats **

We now know that the A Major scale has 3 sharps which are C#, F#, and G#!

You can start with any note and apply the same rules to end up with all of your Major scales. There are, of course, 17 of them if you count the enharmonic notes.

I'll write more about scales in a future blog.


Key Signatures are simple ways of telling you how many "accidentals" (i.e., sharps or flats) are in any given scale. In the example above the A Major Scale has 3 sharps (i.e., C#, F#, G#) so the key signature for A major is C#, F#, and G# (written in this order: F#, C#, G#)

When we memorize Key Signatures all we're doing is memorizing which notes have sharps or flats in a given scale. To understand harmony, we need to have this information quickly accessible (i.e., memorized).

Another important thing to note is that when you see key signatures written down on the staff (i.e., at the beginning of a line of sheet music), they are written in 5ths (i.e.,For A Major it would be F#, C#, G#). In effect, there are 5 notes between each note in the key signature. I'll write more about Key Signatures and Intervals in future blogs.


Once you know your rules for building a major scale and, as a result, you learn your key signature for that major scale, you're ready to memorize your Chord Formulas and build chords within the Key you just memorized.

Chord Formulas are simply the rules for creating chords using your major scale as a foundation. They tell you which notes to use to build your chord and tell you which notes you need to keep the same, move up a half step, or move down a half step. There are quite a few formulas but only a handful of key concepts that will help you figure out any chord without having to memorize a ton of formulas.

Traditional Chord Formulas use Tertian Chords (chords built on intervals of 3rds). That means you use every 3rd note in a scale to build your chord. Here are some examples of Chord Formulas using 3rds to building chords. In these examples we are using Triads which are 3-note Tertian Chords:

Chord Type: Major Chord

Formula: 1-3-5 (the 1st, 3rd, and 5th note of the major scale)

Example: A-C#-E

Chord: A Major

Chord Type: Minor CHord

Formula: 1-b3-5 (1st, FLAT 3rd (i.e., a half-step lower than the 3rd from the major scale), and 5th note of the major scale)

Example: A-C-E

Chord: A Minor

There are PLENTY more (e.g., Augmented, Diminished major 7ths, Dominant 7ths, minor 7ths, 9ths, 13s, 11s, m7b5s, Sus chords, and more.). There are even chords built on 4ths (instead of 3rds)!

I'll write more about chords in a future blog post


I know it sucks to hear this but you are going to have to memorize the notes on the fret board. Don't worry; not all of them. (Just kidding, YES, ALL OF THEM!) And I guarantee it's super easy to do.

Limit your memorizing to one Chord/week and find that chord's notes all over the fret board every day. For example, what notes are in a C Major chord? Find those notes on the fret board and memorize their locations. Do this daily. Then try a 2nd chord the next week. Eventually you'll get really good at this and you'll try 2 chords/week or 3.

Once you know these rules, you can begin building really beautiful chords.


Once you understand chord building, you'll be ready to move on to understanding chord inversions, chord substitutions, voice leading, and extensions. These will enrich the sound and usefulness of your chords. I'll cover each of these in future Blog Posts.


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