No matter what your vocation, hobby, or job happens to be, a person passionate about their interests will always want to improve their skills. Of course, musicians are no different.
The music world is divided into many areas of interest, from live performance and songwriting to music production and sound design. No matter your interest, some skills are beneficial across them all. A practical knowledge of music theory happens to be one of them.
Top 3 - Guitar Theory Books
Table of Contents
- Why Should I Learn Music Theory?
- Top 7 Books on Guitar Music Theory for All Levels
- 1. The Guitarist's Music Theory Book (Peter Vogl)
- 2. Guitar Theory: Straight Talking Music Theory for Guitarists (Lee Nichols)
- 3. No Bull Music Theory for Guitarists (James Shipway)
- 4. Master Music Theory for Guitar in 14 Days (Troy Nelson)
- 5. Music Theory for Guitarists (Tom Kolb)
- 6. The Practical Guide to Modern Music Theory for Guitarists (Mr. Joseph Alexander)
- 7. Guitar Fretboard: Memorize The Fretboard In Less Than 24 Hours (from Guitar Head)
Why Should I Learn Music Theory?
Being a guitarist requires you to wear multiple hats. At one moment you’re a dexterous fretboard wizard, and another you’re a composer improvising a solo. And if you’re setting up a pedalboard, guess what, you’re a sound designer too!
Music theory is helpful in all these areas. For example, improvisers use it to flavor their solos, composers use it to flesh out harmonies, and even sound designers use it to mix audio.
My point? Music theory is practical to guitarists of every level, and if you’re serious about bringing your music to life you should consider studying it. Unfortunately, it often seems intimidating.
While I can't promise you'll automatically understand everything right away, there is a positive side of things: with the right resources and talented teachers, you can learn quickly and even have fun while you do it! More often than not, you’ll learn new information and apply it to your playing in no time.
I review seven books on guitar theory below, written specifically by guitarists. I have found them to be great resources for players of all levels, whether you’re learning new things for the first time or simply reviewing.
Let’s get started!
Top 7 Books on Guitar Music Theory for All Levels
1. The Guitarist's Music Theory Book (Peter Vogl)
BOTTOM LINE: Buy for a basic understanding of music theory from the perspective of a guitarist
Peter Vogl began playing guitar in second grade and has performed on stage with Michael Bolton, Cee-Lo, and Steve Vai. During graduate school he taught large guitar classes at James Madison University and Mary Baldwin College. Point being, he knows what he’s doing.
Vogl’s theory book focuses more on theory than playing, but is unique because it explains things from a guitarist’s perspective. Almost every theory textbook (including mine from undergrad) explains intervals and chords using diagrams of a piano.
While a piano keyboard is a fantastic tool for theory, if a guitarist doesn’t play piano it won’t be very helpful. They can still learn from it, but it just creates an extra step in the learning process.
Vogl chooses to save your time so you can start playing sooner. He understands you speak “fretboard” and not “keyboard,” and therefore starts from page one from a uniquely guitar-centered perspective.
Lessons are laid out in a logical way too. He begins with intervals, which naturally segues into scales. Once those crucial building blocks are understood, he dives into chords and chord progressions. He not only gives you the facts, but explains how they are useful when actually playing.
While The Guitarist's Music Theory Book may not integrate his theory with playing like other music theory books for guitar, it does include two unique features they don’t have.
First, he includes a section for ear training. Learning to recognize chord movements and notes by ear is extremely important in popular music. Legends like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton were revered largely for their fantastic listening skills.
Second, Vogl teaches the Nashville Numbering System. Simply put, this system is a shorthand system for writing outlines for entire songs, and it can be used for any key.
2. Guitar Theory: Straight Talking Music Theory for Guitarists (Lee Nichols)
BOTTOM LINE: Buy if you’re an absolute beginner and want a simple introduction to theory
Learning to play music is a lot like learning a language. Notes are like letters, melodies are like sentences, and theory is like the grammar that glues everything together.
I like to call Straight Talking the Fluent in 3 Months of guitar theory books. Allow me to explain. Fluent is written by Benny Lewis, an average guy who speaks nine languages.
He taught himself those languages too, using a strategy he outlines in his book. It still requires hard work, but it provides a crucial shortcut: rather than focusing on every rule and word in a textbook, just learn what you’re actually going to use.
For example, just because your textbook teaches you the word for “alligator” on the fifth page doesn’t mean you need it. I speak two languages besides English, and I know I’ve never used it!
Nichols assesses all the theory out there and picks the absolute basics you will need. This way he doesn’t overwhelm you with concepts you may never use. Sure, Wes Montgomery might have played crazy jazz solos with tritone substitutes . . . but Eddie Van Halen stuck to the basics, and they both sounded great!
When Nichols explains basic theory concepts, he explains them concisely and while relating them to actual playing. In addition to the theory Vogl addresses, he includes Roman numeral notation, modes, and the Circle of Fifths.
With every concept he answers the question, “Why on earth should I care?” He takes special care to explain how various concepts mix together to create an original solo. Nichol’s solid foundation makes it a great choice among guitar theory books for beginners.
If you are someone who’s easily overwhelmed when things get too complicated too fast, you should consider Nichol’s book. He teaches what you will definitely use, leaving the exploration of harder concepts for you to explore yourself with his solid foundation.
3. No Bull Music Theory for Guitarists (James Shipway)
LEVEL: Beginner to intermediate
BOTTOM LINE: Buy if you want a thorough knowledge of music theory but don’t know where to start
People say that if you want to learn something new, stop asking questions and just start doing something. It doesn’t matter what happens as long as you start. But even then, sometimes the information on a subject can be so vast you don’t even know where to begin.
Shipway understands this frustration because he’s been there. He started playing guitar when he was sixteen without lessons or previous music experience. He is a fantastic player now, but had to decipher tons of unorganized information to get to that point.
Shipway wrote No Bull Music Theory to save your time. Like Vogl’s fretboard approach to theory, he only teaches what you need to get started playing right away. Not only that, but he applies it to playing.
Shipway writes his books for those who “[are] unsure of where to start” and don’t understand technical “jargon.” He doesn’t even require you to read music! His lessons are well thought-out and paced so they don’t feel too fast or slow.
If those statements appeal to you, then you should check No Bull Music Theory out! And while you’re at it, here’s more great news: he has an entire “No Bull” series, covering everything from blues solos to chord shapes on the fretboard (using the CAGED system).
4. Master Music Theory for Guitar in 14 Days (Troy Nelson)
LEVEL: Beginner to intermediate
BOTTOM LINE: Buy for a resource that teaches information and gives practical exercises that build on each other
Troy Nelson firmly believes that for effective learning, teachers must present information in a student-centered way fostering fun and enjoyment. His “14 Days” series focuses on various guitar skills and develops them in a pedagogically sound way.
So… what does this mean? After all, almost everything he covers is in other books.
“Pedagogy” is the discipline of creating effective learning strategies and lessons. Nelson doesn’t just give you information. He gives you a small, digestible dose on one day and gives you several exercises to internalize it.
The next day he teaches a brand-new concept, but still gives you several exercises to develop the previous skill – only this time they’re slightly harder. By the end you’ve not only learned new “head” knowledge, you’ve also translated that knowledge into workable playing skills.
Additionally, the “fourteen days” title forces a perspective and time goal on you. While you may not master every skill in two weeks, you will have a concrete time-goal to work with. Good learners know you are less likely to accomplish things without established goals.
Nelson’s solid approach helps rank it among the best intermediate guitar books out there. Here’s a sneak-peek at what Nelson’s daily exercises cover:
- Scale patterns (builds muscle memory)
- Chord building and progressions (frameworks for songs)
- Transposition (playing songs in different keys)
- Arpeggios (for killer solos!)
- Intervals (useful for ear training)
- Lead licks (for more killer solos!)
He also covers diminished scales, which are not as prominent in other books.
As implied earlier, you will not become an expert on every concept in fourteen days. That is not a critique of Nelson, since his primary goal is to provide you with the knowledge needed to improve your playing.
Because of this, I suggest going through it at least twice. The first time, take exactly fourteen days to learn the concepts. After that, go through it as many times as you want, focusing on specific skills each time with goals of your own.
5. Music Theory for Guitarists (Tom Kolb)
LEVEL: Intermediate to advanced
BOTTOM LINE: Buy for a robust reference to review with
Some players already have a working knowledge of guitar theory, but are rusty on the details. If this describes you, Kolb’s book is a good reference to consider.
At 104 pages, Music Theory is short, but that’s only because it’s so dense with information it doesn’t need to be longer. Each section covers key theory concepts, ending with quizzes and accompanied with tracks you can access online.
Kolb approaches each concept as if you already play guitar. This is intentional: rather than showing you ideas and skills from the ground up, he “fills in the gaps” for intermediate players by explaining why they play how they do.
If you are a visual learner, or just want a way to reference things quickly, Kolb’s book with help. He includes both music and TABs as well as neck diagrams. He includes full-page diagrams for all scales and chord types, and other pages outlining the 12 chords in every major and minor key.
“How deep does he get into music theory,” you might ask. In addition to basic theory, he covers harmonizing major and minor scales, blues and pentatonic scales, modes, chord substitutions, and reharmonization (last two are useful for jazz).
As you can see, Kolb’s book won’t be ideal for beginners. However, if you’re seeking to review skills or improve them, Music Theory is an excellent choice.
6. The Practical Guide to Modern Music Theory for Guitarists (Mr. Joseph Alexander)
LEVEL: Intermediate to advanced
BOTTOM LINE: Buy if you already know music theory and want to apply it to your playing
I grew up in an area without jazz musicians to teach or jam with. I was classically trained, but was fascinated by jazz improvisation. As a self-proclaimed “research junkie,” I naturally went to Google for advice.
There are lots of great resources out there for jazz, and I’m pretty sure I found most of them. But I soon realized that many gave me theoretical ideas but left me scratching my head and saying, “Now what?”
I knew I had practice for hours, but scales just led to more scales and chords to boring root-positions. Nothing told me how to make music out of theory.
Enter Mr. Alexander. He understands good music requires good theory. But he also realizes musicians need to know how to translate that theory into enticing musical expression.
Mr. Alexander covers everything basic theory covers, but he excels at applying it to real playing. He gives multiple examples of how concepts are used in real music by providing jam tracks and hundreds of guitar licks.
He also explains things “backwards” by giving context for why theory concepts were created in the first place. After all, what’s the use of a hundred examples if you don’t know why you need them?
Here are several features unique to The Practical Guide:
Explanations for chord labels (like, what’s the difference between C9 and Cadd9 chords?)
Strategies for blending triads, arpeggios, and pentatonic scales into solos
3, 4, and 5-note approaches to phrasing
A general cheat sheet for common approaches to soloing
I don’t recommend Practical Theory for people just starting with theory, as it doesn’t always explain concepts thoroughly. However, if you already know the basics and want strategies for creating real music, it is a great resource! For this reason, it deserves a spot on any list of advanced guitar theory books.
7. Guitar Fretboard: Memorize The Fretboard In Less Than 24 Hours (from Guitar Head)
LEVEL: All levels
BOTTOM LINE: Buy if you want to understand the fretboard easier
Guitar Fretboard is an outlier in this list, but I don’t mean that as a bad thing. It’s more like a “bonus” on this list. Instead of focusing on theory, it focuses on learning the ins and outs of the fretboard.
For the beginning guitarist, open chord shapes are enough to get you started as a “fireside guitarist.” Eventually you learn a few barre chords like F, B, and Bb. If you want to get farther with chords though, you find yourself starting to count up and down the frets.
All. The. Time.
Then there’s soloing. You can learn a solo from TABs or videos, but you’re pretty limited after that if you want to learn by ear.
All these obstacles can be avoided by learning how the fretboard is arranged. You could get by without learning the whole fretboard, but it’s very cumbersome. Plus, if you do learn the fretboard everything ELSE about guitar playing makes more sense.
Long story short? Knowing the fretboard is way underrated. Guitar Fretboard breaks down everything you need to know into bite-sized lessons that build on each other at a manageable pace.
In addition to the fantastic information, Fretboard also takes advantage of memory-building devices like mnemonics and silly phrases. Also used in language learning, these effective strategies make memorizing easier, faster, and much more interesting.
I hope this article has explained why music theory is beneficial to guitarists, and that my advice has been helpful in choosing resources that fit your needs. I’ll end with the following thoughts.
Different musicians and different learners improve their skills in ways that work best for them. Because of this, there is not a single catch-all book that will reach everyone’s learning needs equally.
Take your time to think about what you want to learn and how you want to learn. As you read my list, I’m sure you will find a good match for your goals and learning style.
Ultimately, of course, a book can’t teach you how to play quality music. Only you and your own creativity can. However, you will be seriously limited without the tools theory provides you.
Have fun exploring, and maybe someday you can be using modes like Steve Vai, blues licks like B.B. King, or chord extensions like Johnny Marr!