The 7 Best Guitar Music Theory Books in 2021

Preview
Beginners
Music Theory, 3E (Idiot's Guides)
Intermediate
Understanding How to Build Guitar Chords & Arpeggios
Advanced
Guitar Chords in Context: The Practical Guide to Chord Theory and Application
Kindle/Ebook Available
Pages
368
224
111
Price
$21.48
$29.36
$19.99
Prime
Beginners
Preview
Music Theory, 3E (Idiot's Guides)
Kindle/Ebook Available
Pages
368
Price
$21.48
Prime
Availability
Intermediate
Preview
Understanding How to Build Guitar Chords & Arpeggios
Kindle/Ebook Available
Pages
224
Price
$29.36
Prime
Availability
Advanced
Preview
Guitar Chords in Context: The Practical Guide to Chord Theory and Application
Kindle/Ebook Available
Pages
111
Price
$19.99
Prime
Availability

It’s 2021. Every imaginable lesson is stashed somewhere online. Unfortunately, so is every possible distraction waiting to ensnare you. You can start out trying to learn quartal notes and – four hours later – wonder how you ended up watching Giorgio Tsoukalos talk about aliens.

For this roundup, I’ve selected some excellent guitar theory books that do exactly as advertised. They skip over the guitar basics of more general guitar books, and explain the subject, how it is relevant to the guitar, and use charts and/or diagrams to tie it to the fretboard. As ever, your skill and expertise will determine what book appeals to you.

By the way, if guitar tab is new to you, we have a great guide on how to read guitar tab.

I’ve tried to span a broad range without venturing into more complex texts that cover erudite stuff like twelve-tone or post-tonal theory. So, let’s proceed to the top picks and individual reviews.


Best Guitar Theory Books – Our Top Three Picks

Idiot’s Guide to Music Theory is my top pick for beginners, hobbyists, and young students. While the name may seem haughty, the book itself doesn’t talk down to the reader – nor does it handle you with kid gloves. It’s simple yet comprehensive, informational yet to the point. Young students will see rapid and effective improvements as they progress through it.

Understanding How to Build Guitar Chords and Arpeggios is an excellent resource for an intermediate guitarist. It features accessible instructions on how to navigate the fretboard using arpeggios and patterns. It acquaints you with the essentials and gives you solid exercises to apply them practically. When you are done studying it, it will improve your solos and color your vocabulary

Guitar Chords in Context is one of the best trilogies for intermediate or advanced guitar students. Each book is an unraveling of chords and harmony, culminating in the art of voice leading using chords. It’s succinct, but it packs heaps of information that can take weeks, if not months, to assimilate. Use it bit-by-bit, and you’ll be well on your way to admirable skill.


No Bull Music Theory for Guitarists

No Bull Music Theory for Guitarists: Master the Essential Knowledge all Guitarists Need to Know (No Bull' Guitar)

Available in Paperback and Kindle format

  • Author:                      James Shipway
  • Publisher:                 Independently Published
  • Pages:                       107
  • Level:                         Beginner
  • Sight Reading:         Not Required

We’ll start our roundup with a forthright book that covers the basic concepts of music theory without the terminology that can put off beginners. No Bull Music Theory is for those who enjoy informal and conversational instruction.

It can help you make sense of triads, scales, intervals, and other rudimentary concepts of music theory. The book covers major and minor keeps but doesn’t venture into modes. For that reason, it’s recommended for novices and may not have adequate content for intermediate guitarists.

All 12 chapters include an introduction and explanation of the topic at hand and a quiz with an answer sheet. Each chapter concludes with a bunch of exercises to soak up the concepts before you move on. The author also provides free audio files to supplement this book on his website.

The early chapters are rudimentary, but they compound in complexity as you approach the latter half. Despite that, the book continues to reconcile theory with practical ways to use it. The use of chord diagrams and modern tabs makes it an excellent resource for those who can’t sight-read.

Verdict: Whether you are starting late or are a casual hobbyist, this book will walk you through all the fundamental concepts of music theory. Plus, it will appeal to passionate guitarists who don’t want to learn how to read/write music. Overall, No Bull Music Theory for Guitarists is a straight shooter. If that’s your style, it’s already one of the bestselling books in the segment.


The Idiot’s Guide to Music Theory

Music Theory, 3E (Idiot's Guides)

Available in Paperback and eTextbook format.

  • Author:                      Michael Miller
  • Publisher:                 Alpha
  • Pages:                        386
  • Level:                         Beginner
  • Sight Reading:          Not Required

The Idiot’s Guide is a meat and potatoes version for beginner-to-intermediate guitarists and musicians. It presents the basic concepts such as tones, intervals, scales, rhythm, and composing/arranging. Each topic is broken down into bite-sized chunks through six sections that are further divided into twenty chapters.

It’s aimed at budding musicians with little-to-no experience with sight reading and music theory. The publishers have been creating such guides for nearly three decades, you can see that in the clear-cut structure and easy-to-navigate sub-sections.

More importantly, the book makes music theory palatable to the novice. Most beginners can get overwhelmed by theory and sight reading. The Idiot’s Guide to Music Theory will have none of that. It lays out the concepts gradually with chapter summaries and exercises.

As you progress, you’ll encounter ear training, writing sheet music, and tips and tricks to develop interesting harmonies and counterpoints. The book concludes with a chapter on how to use chord substitutions and turnarounds.

The easy-to-follow format and reference appendix will ensure that you never get lost or bored. Each chapter also includes a list of dos and don’ts before it encourages you to put your stamp on the theory you’ve absorbed. 

Verdict: The Idiot’s Guide to Music theory is a welcoming book for new students. It’s a great non-academic resource for anyone who wants to start from scratch. It will walk you through the fundamentals and teach you how to read and write music. As evident, it won’t appease anyone who already possesses those skills.


Understanding How to Build Guitar Chords and Arpeggios

Understanding How to Build Guitar Chords & Arpeggios

Available in Paperback and Kindle format

  • Author:                      Michael Policastro
  • Publisher:                  Mel Bay
  • Pages:                         232
  • Level:                         Beginner-to-intermediate
  • Sight Reading:          Not Required

Understanding How to Build Chords & Arpeggios is a 230+ page resource to acquire a solid foundation of chords, chord tones, and arpeggios. It is a thorough undertaking by Michael Policastro, that explains theory with illustrations, examples, and a wealth of well-written text.

The first half of the book addresses chord and arpeggio construction focusing on major/minor chords with chord inversions. It moves on to the 7th, 9th, 11th, and 13th chords. Subsequent sections cover sus chords, altered chords, and added tones.

The fourth chapter covers essential fingerboard patterns. It includes unison, intervallic, and octave patterns with horizontal and vertical transposition. The last two chapters venture into more advanced concepts like quartal, compound, and poly-chords. Michael also touches upon strings groupings, chord families, and triton chord relationships.

Each section has a set of ‘test yourself’ questions with an answer sheet afterward. The exercises help build key skills to start using arpeggios as accompaniment and solos. The guitar also features add-ons like chord diagrams, arpeggio patterns, scale patterns, and chord maps.

Verdict: Overall, Understanding How To Build Chords & Arpeggios is a comprehensive book on the subject with clearly presented ideas that are easy to learn and apply. It will benefit beginner and intermediate-level guitar players. It will acquaint you with all shapes and stretchy fingerings with a clear layout of the fretboard. Either way, you’ll be playing arpeggios all over the fretboard by the end of this one.


Guitar Chords in Context – Book One of the Series

Guitar Chords in Context: The Practical Guide to Chord Theory and Application

Available in Paperback and Kindle format

  • Author:                      Joseph Alexander
  • Publisher:                 Fundamental Changes, 2nd Edition
  • Pages:                       111
  • Level:                         Intermediate-to-advanced
  • Sight Reading:         Required

Everyone starts with open chords and power chords. Some make it to barre chords, and only a handful go beyond it. Our reliance on 5th and 6th string roots is a handicap, depriving us of the flexibility to navigate a chord progression in interesting ways.

The Guitar Chords in Context Series is an answer to that. It achieves that through three books, each focusing on a gradual ascent to chord mastery. The first book – Guitar chords in Context – deals with chord construction, the theory behind it, and practical applications.

Building on that foundation, the second book – Jazz Guitar Chord Mastery – adds another layer of chords, shifting your focus on drop 2 and drop 4 voicing with inversions. It finally concludes with Voice Leading Jazz Guitar, the last installment in the series that deals with voice leading. 

Several books approach these topics with incessant and mind-numbing chord charts. However, Joseph Alexander takes a practical approach. He outlines the theory of each chord type. That, in turn, helps you understand chord families with roots on different strings.

All the books contain diagrams, standard notation, and guitar tabs. The book includes 100+ notated audio examples to demonstrate the correct way to play the exercises and backing tracks to jam over while you learn to apply the newly learned concepts.

For better or worse, the series is aimed at intermediate guitarists with a reasonable level of formal instruction. Otherwise, you won’t be able to truly appreciate the book. It relies heavily on theory, so I’d recommend that casual students and rock guitar players should steer clear of it.

Verdict: Guitar Chords in Context is a rich resource to learn the whole gamut of guitar chord applications.  It focuses on chord construction, substitutions, extensions, and chromatic alterations. It gradually moves to drop voicing and inversions and concludes with voice-leading essentials. In the right hands, it will revolutionize your approach to rhythm and comping.


Advanced Jazz Guitar Concepts

Advanced Jazz Guitar Concepts: Modern Jazz Guitar Soloing with Triad Pairs, Quartal Arpeggios, Exotic Scales and More

Available in Paperback and Kindle format.

  • Author:                      Jens Larsen and Joseph Alexander
  • Publisher:                 Fundamental Changes, 2nd Edition
  • Pages:                        76
  • Level:                         Intermediate-to-advanced
  • Sight Reading:         Required

Advanced Jazz Guitar Concepts is co-authored by Jens Larsen and Joseph Alexander – two formidable jazz musicians and instructors. It’s a part of the larger Play Jazz Guitar Series, which consists of 9 creditable titles on the subject. I’ve picked this particular book because it focuses on key elements such as triad-based soloing, tritone substitutions, and ii-V-I passing.

The book is cut from the same cloth as The Jazz Theory Book and 20th Century Harmony, but it has a practical approach in a brief format. The authors provide 87 audio examples and reference jazz maestros (Wes Montgomery, Charlies Parker) to elucidate melodic concepts.

Some of you may know Jens Larsen from YouTube, he is one of the best-known instructors in the jazz theory segment. In terms of content, the book’s got it in spades. I’m talking quartal arpeggios, leaping intervals to create interesting solos, triads/arpeggios to ginger up your phrasing, and much more. I particularly enjoyed the material on tritone substitution, and how to use altered and augmented scales.

The explanation goes into the requisite depth without getting the reader entangled. Usually, jazz-related instruction uses staff notation, but this book is considerate enough to include guitar tabs for people who cannot read sheet music. This makes it one of the few available resources for self-taught musicians or students who don’t have any sight reading skills.

Verdict: Regardless of your predilection to jazz, Advanced Jazz Guitar Concepts is a worthy addition to any bookshelf. The size isn’t daunting. The language is unpretentious. The content is easy to digest, and you’ll start noticing instantaneous improvements in your playing as you get through the chapters. If you enjoy it, there are eight more books in the series to master.


Connecting Pentatonic Patterns

Connecting Pentatonic Patterns - The Essential Guide For All Guitarists (Book/Audio)

Available in Paperback and Kindle format.

  • Author:                      Tom Kolb
  • Publisher:                  Hal Leonard
  • Pages:                        250
  • Level:                         Beginner-to-intemediate
  • Sight Reading:         Not Required

The pentatonic scale is inescapable, regardless of the genre. Every rock and blues musician has paid their dues and there are dozens of guitar legends that solely rely on them. Tom Kolb takes the ground-up approach to teach you how to use the five patterns to create memorable solos.

He only asks that you learn the five pentatonic patterns before you pick up the book. Once you’ve got that down, the book starts with basic applications and advances to different ways to combine two or more patterns.

The chapters are interspersed with improvisational concepts, soloing techniques, and bags of licks and exercises. Kolb has also added a brief recap of theory in each chapter and tone tips – amp settings, effects – for the solo sections.

Ultimately, the book addresses major and minor pentatonic scales and also throws light on how to mix or combine them – a common trope in blues and rock music. The book concludes with some jam tracks, scale recommendations, and ideas to improvise with your newfound fretboard freedom.

Verdict: Connecting Pentatonic Patterns is a practical resource that will keep you busy for weeks. The credit for it goes to Kolb, a gifted instructor who can break down musical ideas to the benefit of his readers. Unless you’ve got B. B. King’s mojo, you’ll have to figure out how to traverse the neck and back using major/minor shapes and patterns. That’s exactly what this hands-on book is for.


Picture Chord Encyclopedia

Picture Chord Encyclopedia: Photos & Diagrams for Over 2,600 Guitar Chords

Available in Paperback and Kindle format.

  • Author:                      Hal Leonard Corp.
  • Publisher:                  Hal Leonard
  • Pages:                         274
  • Level:                         Everyone
  • Sight Reading:          Not Required

Hal Leonard’s chord encyclopedia features 44 chords with five voicings – five different locations on the neck –  in all the twelve keys, that’s a whopping 2600+ chords in one illustrated book. It can be a valuable resource when you want to explore new chord shapes or find unique voicings for your chord progressions.

This book isn’t a theory or instructional book. The first section has a basic explanation of music theory and how it relates to the guitar fretboard. However, the chief purpose of this book is to serve as a reference.

The chords are arranged alphabetically and include power chords, barre chords, broken-set chords, and partial chords. Each chord is accompanied by a clear photograph of the fretting hand playing the chord on a guitar.

The book also provides staff notes for the chord and a guitar tab/chord diagram with numbered fingerings. The book is available in two sizes. I recommend the bigger size paperback –  9” x 12” – because it’s more lucid.

Verdict: The Picture Chord Encyclopedia is a highly recommended addition to the learning toolkit of any serious or curious guitar student. There are several ‘chord dictionaries’ or encyclopedia-styled books out there. However, this one goes way beyond most. While you probably won’t use a majority of these chords, it’s still an exhaustive resource par excellence.


Final Thoughts

I stumbled on my first book, The Guitar Handbook by Ralph Denyer, in a pawn shop. This was back when internet resources were not as omnipresent. Despite the gazillion instructional videos that I’ve used to develop my skills, books remain a steady companion in my musical journey.

They’ve helped me stay focused on my learning and have been a crucial part of my progress. I hope this roundup has introduced you to a book that’s already in the mail and more that will go straight to your wish list.

Andrew Bell

I don't think I'll ever stick to one instrument - but the great thing about life is you don't have to.

Andrew Bell has 61 posts and counting. See all posts by Andrew Bell