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Guitar Theory or Music?

"As to ( guitar ) methods,
there may be a million and then some, but ( guitar theory ) principles are few.
The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods.
The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble."

—R.W. Emerson

"In the long run, any words about music are less important than the music."
—Dmitri Shostakovich

What's all this guitar theory guff?
 You just want to play music!

I care about music. A lot. In fact, I love it passionately. I believe in freedom to create. I believe that less is more. Ever since I started playing guitar, my mantra has been less fingering patterns, more music.

Still, the fretboard is an obstacle whenever you have to think about it. It stands right in the way, between you and your music. Freedom from the fretboard, freedom from having to even think about it, means more music.

So I've spent years looking for —and finding— ways to bridge the gap between musical ideas and the guitar fretboard. Years taking notes, making diagrams, connecting the dots. I've created guitar-theory-in-depth.com to share it all with you.

I'm confident that these guitar theory materials will help you bridge the gap between your ideas and the fretboard. I know that it has already, for thousands of readers...


 Countless times I've composed something in my head only to lose it trying to figure it out on the guitar.

I fully identified with Alex's description of the problem when he said people sometimes are able to "think" exactly what to play, for example in a solo, but are unable to translate the music from their head to the guitar...

This is exactly what I've been searching for with regard to guitar theory and playing.


Halsey Vandenberg,
New York

I welcome you to Guitar Theory in Depth: all these materials are here for you to explore a fresh approach to thinking and playing music on the guitar fretboard.

If you can bridge guitar theory and practice you will be one of the few who know what they're actually doing, on the fretboard. You'd be surprised at how few do!

Alex Cortés

Alex Cortés, founder

Fact or theory?

The New Oxford American Dictionary gives the following definition for the word 'theory':

theory |ˈTHēərē, ˈTHi(ə)rē|
noun ( pl. theories )
a supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something, esp. one based on general principles independent of the thing to be explained: Darwin's theory of evolution.

• a set of principles on which the practice of an activity is based: a theory of education | music theory.

What you will find in GTiD has nothing to do with the first definition: there is absolutely no supposition here, nor are there any explanations independent of the fretboard, much less independent of music. Quite the opposite.

Everything you find here has to do with the second definition, as it applies to the guitar fretboard: GTiD is all about facts. Hard facts. Facts about the fretboard, the notes on it, and the correlations between them.

From the raw facts and correlations —especially the correlations— come to light a set of principles on which the practice of playing guitar are based.

Again, this is not theory as opposed to fact —nor independent from it— but theory as a platform; the basis on which to devise a smarter, more effective guitar practice.

Under this definition, guitar theory is practical!

Don't fool yourself: you'll still need plenty of practice. But the fretboard will make real sense —at last— and you will become very effective at finding the exact sounds in your head, on the fretboard: the whole process will be both quicker and more enjoyable.

The only word from the first definition that has anything to do with GTiD is evolution…

fret•board   |ˈfretˌbôrd|
that thing you've always had a damn good excuse for not learning.

until now.


 I thought that it would be too difficult to understand —I had no music background prior to buying Fretboard Essentials...

I now understand where the scales come from which helps me learn them: this is better than just learning tab —tab is like "paint by number" vs really learning to paint. I wish that I'd started earlier!

Matt Evans,

Is Guitar Theory in Depth for me?

Since you play guitar, then chances are the answer is a resounding YES...

No excuses: be a pro!

Has the fretboard ever been an obstacle to you? Have you ever caught yourself saying something like:

"The fretboard is too hard!"

"That's the only fretboard pattern I know, so I can't play it..."

"I don't understand the fretboard, so I can't play the music in my head!"

These are all great excuses. Except that for a pro, no excuse, no matter how good, cuts it. Ever.

All the guitar theory materials I've created for you —GTiD and Fretboard Essentials— are designed to do one thing: help you understand the fretboard so you can cross 'the fretboard excuse' from your list.

Even if you're 'only' a serious hobbyist, I want you to go about your hobby like a pro: with no excuses.

Whether you're a professional musician —with great technique, but limited by 'how complex the fretboard is' and want to patch gaps in your understanding of the fretboard—, a would-be pro or a serious hobbyist, if you consider your knowledge

of the fretboard to be anything other than perfect, this is the place for you.

If, on the other hand, you're happy to play from tab and learn from chord bibles, without ever thinking about what it is you're playing, then this is probably not the place for you.

But if you want to understand —so you can have more choices available, so you can create— then this definitely is the place for you.

If you're the kind of person who likes to know what they're doing, who likes to have all the options available, who likes to be free and in control, boy, is this for you! This is all about style and freedom.


  I know almost nothing about the guitar and the structural components of music...

Or rather, I did not know a thing until I found your incredible materials.

I cannot thank you enough for your amazingly clear, articulate, thorough and accessible approach to learning the "structural" architecture and fundamental elements of musical theory... your description of scales on the guitar fretboard has been a revelation!!!

Richard Waxberg,
Director, Krishnamurti Study-Intensive & Retreat Programs
Ojai, California

I play XYZ... is this for me?

The short answer is yes: GTiD and Fretboard Essentials are style-agnostic. I show you the facts and correlations, which you are then free to use in any way you like, in whatever genre you want to.

Specifically, this means exploring all the relationships of the diatonic and chromatic systems, and their expression on the fretboard. To understand the diatonic and chromatic systems in and out is really empowering; this means to connect all the dots, on the fretboard. If, once you've done this, you opt out of using certain elements, because of the genre you're interested in, that's fine. But having the whole map is the best starting point for you to develop your own unique style.

Once you really understand the fretboard, soaking up and applying any of the genre-specific guitar methods out there will be a breeze. And, more importantly, all the details will make sense: you'll be able to cherry-pick and combine ideas to design your personal style as a musician and guitarist.

Guitar theory —and music theory in general— play an important role in this process; they are the underpinning, the 'operating system' on which, through genre-specific technique, music is built. What 'software' you choose to run on the OS is completely up to you.

Do I have to pay for this?

Yes and no... all the guitar theory materials on GTiD are free to use. My newsletter is free: go subscribe already!

But I do sell some products; here are some examples of what my students have been saying about them:


 Initially I thought "everybody does the same kind of advertisement, there will be nothing much inside this book."

But after reading through Fretboard Essentials, it's worth the time and money; I'm just loving it.

The most important part is there is like a software engineer mind behind it. I mean, every point is covered in this book: I am very glad to have it with me. It's a really good book for beginners who want to learn guitar, but also for the advanced guitarist.

Mangesh Ramesh Joshi,
Software Engineer,
Manhattan, New York

How is Guitar Theory in Depth different from all those other websites?

(Fretboard first or music first?)

Unlike the vast majority of books and websites, which focus first on the fretboard, then on music, all my guitar theory materials focus on music first. Always. More music, less fingering patterns.

This is powerful.

The pervasive fretboard-first approach, while instantly practical —even for the lazy— has serious limitations. To begin with, you came here for the music. You never said "I want to play fretboard." Unless you're a total weirdo.

The fretboard —guitar theory— is merely a means to an end: to focus first on the fretboard, then on music is to set the whole thing on its head. Still, there are reasons for the fretboard-first approach: the guitar's fretboard is a strange beast.

To begin with, the guitar is a two-axis instrument: there are two pitch axes, one along and one across the fretboard.

the fretborad's horizontal and vertical pitch axes

This means, for example, that you have five different options for playing middle C. If you're reading sheet music and see the symbol for middle C, you'll have to decide between five different locations on the fretboard. If you're reading tablature, on the other hand, fret 10 of string four is always fret 10 of string four. Again, instantly practical.

The piano's keyboard, by contrast, has a single pitch axis:

the piano's pitch axis

The keyboard's visual and tactile elements make it easy to understand the structure of music in a very intuitive way.

While the two-axis problem is common to most stringed instruments —such as bass guitar, the violin family, mandolins, etc.— the situation is worsened by the peculiarities of the guitar's tuning system.

The second, and most important, factor is the lack of symmetry caused by the guitar's unique tuning

system. The tuning system of most stringed instruments follows a very simple rule: tune every pair of abutting strings at the interval of a perfect fourth —or perfect fifth, depending on instrument.

The guitar almost follows this rule (which is to say, it doesn't):

the guitar's tuning system

The guitar is tuned in perfect fourths between each pair of adjoining strings, except for strings two and three, tuned a major third apart...

This simple fact means that every single fingering pattern that uses two or more strings has a number of variants and permutations. Hence chord bibles and other such atrocities.

On other, more sensible instruments —piano, violin, bass—, learn a fingering pattern once and you can use it all over the keyboard or fingerboard... which means you can focus on the music, instead of the instrument's quirks.

The third factor is simply historical: it wasn't until the second half of the XXth Century that the guitar was adopted at conservatoires as a 'serious instrument' —one deserving serious study. This means that not nearly enough has been done to bring guitar teaching, or guitar theory, up to the level of other instruments.

Put together, these three factors lead to a huge lack of musicianship: guitarists, of all genres, tend to be the musicians most lacking in basic musicianship. Take away musicianship, and what's left of a musician?

So the million dollar question is: how to play guitar, focusing on the music instead of the myriad fingering patterns and all their permutations?

That is what GTiD and Fretboard Essentials are all about: the premise is that not only is it possible to master the fretboard while focusing on music instead of fingering patterns, but that this is the most effective way. This leads to guitar players with real musicianship.

I invite you to read on... this is all for you!

And feel free to contact me at any time!

There are guitar methods aplenty out there...

...jazz, classical guitar, blues guitar, flamenco guitar, funk, heavy metal, you name it. But there is a real dearth of logical information —actual information— as opposed to mere theory (1st definition) on the fretboard and guitar theory.

And I'm not even the one saying this... this is an actual quote from the preface to a book on the CAGED chord system, one of the most popular guitar theory methods out there:

"(the author) became aware that there was a guitar-specific pattern organization that was completely separate from the various musical considerations such as theory, technique and style. He eventually came to the conclusion that the issues of this pattern organization should take first priority over the issues of music or style..."

CAGED and other methods are based on supposition, on principles independent of the thing to be explained!

Since you're probably using, or have used tablature, CAGED, chord bibles, and so on, I'll say this outright: there is nothing wrong with them. These are very practical tools. I've used them too. But they have serious limitations. Especially if you want to understand... and create something new!

If you take a deeper look at guitar theory, at how the fretboard works, you will have a much more powerful toolset. And you will be able to set any other tools you choose in their proper context. It's not a matter of choosing one or the other: you can use any other tools that suit your personal approach in addition to this music-first guitar theory approach.

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