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Rock Guitar Primer with Page Hamilton

You're gonna need your helmet for this ...


by Chris Loeffler


Many Rock players are afraid of theory, but theory doesn’t need to be a dirty word; it’s the key to learning songs. Without a solid foundation of basic theory, learning songs is nothing more than rote memorization that adds a song to your repertoire but does nothing to expand your personal musical knowledge.


That said, many players don’t know where to start, so when talking with Page Hamilton at a recent guitar workshop for rock guitar, he suggested going to the basics and really understanding scales and chords. Other articles specifically address scales, so we will focus on the most common chord types in this brief overview.


The majority of rock music is built on the foundation of basic major, minor and seventh chords in guitar voicings. Understanding the basics of how these chords are put together is a great first step to understanding the theory behind why they work on a listening level.


Major Chords


Major chords do the majority of the heavy lifting in rock music. Major chords are simply built from different notes taken from the major scale, such as taking the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes from the scale to make the chord. For instance, the C major scale (C, D, E, F, G, A and B) forms a major chord from C, E and G. The same logic applies to major chords in any scale.




Minor chords can produce a dramatically darker sound than major chords by altering a single note. Flattening the 3rd creates a more melancholy tone that creates interesting counter-points to major chords. Using the C major scale again (C, D, E, F, G, A and B), you can see that while the 1st (C), 4th (F), and 5th (G) notes can be played as major chords the 2nd (D), 3rd (E), and 6th (A) can be played to express a minor chord. Again, this applies to all keys.




Introducing 7th chords, which flatten the 7th note in the scale, adds unease to a progression and can create interesting transitions between chords. In the example of C, a C7 chord will replaces the B in the scale with a B flat. You can essentially replace ordinary chords for sevenths whenever you’re looking to heighten tension to a progression.


With these three basic chord types you can play, or at least fake your way through, any rock song. By understanding what notes are changing in the scale that compose these chord types makes both chord voicing and melodic notes much more obvious than just trying to “hear” the difference.


Building Chord Progressions


Scales don’t just form chords; entire progressions can be built from scales! Using the C major scale, where C is I, D is II, E is III, F is IV, G is V, A is VI and B is VII, you can quickly identify one of the most abundant chord progressions in rock guitar, I-IV-V. Knowing that the II, III and VI notes in the scale are minor, you can build on the I-IV-V progression with minors like I-VI-IV-V to build in a minor chord. In C, this would be C major, A minor, F major and G major. Now experimenting with the duration of individual chords within the progression it’s easy to start creating a “new” song from old parts.


Putting It All Together


This is a very simple overview of what could be a very deep topic, but it’s meant to show how obvious and easy learning theory is and how built music theory is into the fabric of guitar playing. Simple patterns suddenly open entirely new doors, and eventually you’ll have enough knowledge to pick the perfect notes and chords the first time, every time! -HC-





Chris Loeffler is a multi-instrumentalist and the Content Strategist of Harmony Central. In addition to his ten years experience as an online guitar merchandiser, marketing strategist, and community director he has worked as an international exporter, website consultant and brand manager. When he’s not working he can be found playing music, geeking out on guitar pedals and amps, and brewing tasty beer. 



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