Chords, Scales & Arpeggios

One theory question that often seems to come up around this point is what the difference is between chords, scales and arpeggios, so I figured that we should nip this in the bud now.

I’m hoping that while you are studying your guitar theory that you are actually playing a guitar as well and that most of you are using my free Beginner Guitar Course, where we start off by learning chords. In fact, most modern guitar courses will start you off by playing chords, but what exactly are they?

Chords are simply groups of two or more notes played together. You’ll be finding out soon that chords usually have a specific structure - i.e., they’re not just random collections of notes - but in theory, any combination of notes played together makes some sort of chord. Chords can be played in many different ways; for example, they can be strummed or fingerpicked.

There’s something about the word ‘scales’ that sends a shiver down many students’ spines, but when learned in the right way and for the right reasons, scales are actually LOADS of fun. They enable you to start improvising (making up your own melodies and solos) and also help you understand the music that you like.

I remember my teacher trying to convince me to learn scales for years and I always put it off because nobody explained to me why I should learn them. It was only by accident that I understood why. My teacher happened to give me a scale in a lesson one day; that evening, I was transcribing (working out by ear) the first solo in the song ‘Fade To Black’ by Metallica, and I noticed that the scale shape he had given me and the solo I just learned used exactly the same notes. That one serendipitous moment started my journey into music theory which has since become one of my life passions.

So what are they, then? Simply put, scales are groups of notes drawn from the 12 available notes in an octave which work well together.

The most common scale is the Major Scale, upon which all western music harmony is based. It is the first scale that you will encounter in this course. It has seven notes; you are sure to have heard it before as Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, Do (Scales always repeat in the same pattern in the next octave up or down).

Some of you may have already encountered the Minor Pentatonic scale, which is easy to play and a fun scale to jam the blues. It is often the first scale people learn, but we’ll be looking at that later on, as understanding the theory of blues requires a few stages of traditional theory to have been covered first.

When you analyse the notes that make up a chord there is (usually) a very specific formula behind the choice and order of notes being used, which we will learn about later in this course. When we play these notes at the same time it is called a chord; when we play the notes one at a time it is called an arpeggio.

An analogy I quite like is to think of a chord as a frozen arpeggio or an arpeggio as a liquid chord.

However, we won’t be looking at arpeggios until after the Intermediate level of my courses. They are typically used in jazz and modern blues forms and are not something most beginner (or even most intermediate) guitarists will find useful unless they are particularly interested in and dedicated to those styles.

Music Theory 2