The 5 Best Music Theory Books For Playing Guitar

The internet is a wonderful and magical place that is filled with everything you could ever want to know. That’s both it’s selling point and its downfall.

You sit down in front of a music theory video, determined to learn all there is to know about the guitar. Flash forward an hour or two, the guitar lays abandoned, and you’re watching someone microwave aluminum foil.

This is where the music theory book comes in. These dedicated, interesting, and extensive books cover everything you need to know about guitar theory, without the distractions.

A theory book guides you through the basics, and packages information in an easy-to-read manner.

But if there’s one thing that’s true for people who play guitars, it’s that they love to talk about their guitar. So, there’s more than a few theory books to choose from.

In this guide, we give you the lowdown on all the best music theory books for playing guitar available. 


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Hal Leonard is a publisher known for creating some of the best books on music theory around, and their guitar theory guide is at the top of the class.

Written by Tom Kolb, the author makes this book special by using clear and concise language that anyone can understand.

Theory books can seem unbelievably convoluted when you first pick them up, but this guide keeps it simple, while still covering all you need to know.

If you’ve been put off music theory books by bad experiences, the simple guidelines and astute examples found here are sure to change your mind.

And expand your knowledge — Tom Kolb’s book really does cover an impressive amount of theory.

Music Theory for Guitarists is based on years of experience teaching, and that really comes through in the writing.

Aimed at everyone, but best for intermediate musicians, this is a theory book that helps you really understand music.


  • Access to audio library - This book doesn’t come with a CD, but it does provide you with access to the extensive Hal Leonard audio library.
  • Diagrams - The well explained theories are accompanied by easy-to-read diagrams, for a rounded learning process.
  • Impressive musical knowledge - A theory book that teaches guitar, but also expands your knowledge of music in general.


  • Intense learning - Although technically aimed at all learners, Hal Leonard’s guide is best for those with some prior experience.


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Reading theory is no substitute for actually playing the guitar, but the Practical Guide to Modern Music Theory teaches you to do both.

This immersive theory experience helps you to internalize theory as you go, apply it to your playing, and improve your skill level. All while using simple and clear language that anyone can understand.

The Practical Guide to Modern Music is filled with examples, so you can easily apply the theory to real music.

This makes the more complex theories immediately more accessible, and it’s supported by Joseph Alexander’s friendly communication style.

By the time you’ve finished reading Alexander’s guide, you should understand the theory, and know how to apply it to your own playing. You should also have internalized the theory, so it can support your playing moving forward.

Understanding theory isn’t always easy, but The Practical Guide supports the hands-on learning that many musicians need. A clear writing style, and active examples, can help intermediate players improve immensely.


  • Examples - Everything in this guide is explained, and then demonstrated. 
  • Cheat sheet - A simple cheat sheet helps you to quickly grasp the basics of theory.
  • Access to audio library - There are 200 audio tracks to download, to show you theory in action.


  • Performance focused - Joseph Alexander encourages directly applying theory to your playing, which doesn’t work for everyone’s learning style.


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Guitarist Desi Serna has been described as a “music-theory expert” by Rolling Stone magazine, so you know you’re in good hands with Fretboard Theory.

This guide to theory is one of the best books for intermediate players looking to take their skills to the next level.

Sometimes players might understand the guitar on a basic level, but they can’t advance their skills because they lack the knowledge of what makes music work.

Serna’s theory book is aimed at everyone who wants to kick their playing up a notch, to really know their guitar, how it works, and what makes great players great.

Serna has a fantastic way of explaining the complex in a way that makes it relatable and understandable.

This book focuses on the fretboard, as you might expect from the name, explaining all the tips and tricks that make legendary songs noteworthy.

But Fretboard Theory doesn’t just tell you what makes other songs good — it helps you apply those same methods to your own playing.

For anyone who’s found themselves stuck in a playing rut, this book can shake up your style, improve your ear, and turn your guitar playing from mediocre to magnificent.


  • Leads by example - Fretboard Theory uses popular examples to demonstrate every concept.
  • Online support - Audio, backing tracks, song lessons, and tabs are all available online to supplement the book.
  • Practical application - Theories are explained in a way that easily translates to your playing.


  • Focuses on rock - Theory is explained via popular songs, often of a similar genre. If you’re interested in other types of music, the examples may not appeal.


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For beginners and newcomers to guitar, The Guitar Handbook is one of the best resources available.

This is a theory book aimed at teaching the basics, building your knowledge, and giving you all the advice you need to improve as a guitarist.

With clear illustrations, simple guidelines, and an easy-to-understand writing style, The Guitar Handbook is a fantastic starting point as you learn everything about the guitar.

It doesn’t patronize or talk down to you. Instead, Ralph Denyer’s writing is encouraging and motivating. It draws you in, and you want to learn more, and apply the theory to your own playing.

But The Guitar Handbook isn’t just for beginners. There’s such a wide range of techniques covered that even intermediate and advanced players will find their playing can benefit from the theories that are explained.

There are plenty of guitarists out there who got their start with The Guitar Handbook. This impressive and complete guide is not only a wonderful starting place, but a book that will help you progress for years.


  • Illustrations - The simple illustrations help explain the theories in an easily digestible way.
  • Electric and acoustic - Both electronic and acoustic playing, as well as different genres and styles, are included in the handbook.
  • Covers the basics -Tuning, technique, and scales are all covered.


  • Simplistic - The Guitar Handbook is a book for rounded learning.


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A combination of basic theory and hands-on explanation is what makes the Guitar Fretboard Workbook by Barrett Tagliarino such an exemplary theory book.

Using recognized instruction built from years of experience, and covering all the basics of the fretboard, this theory book provides a solid foundation to support you throughout your future playing.

As you might guess from the name, the focus is on the fretboard. Tagliarino explains the notes in a way that encourages playing, and helps you to understand how the sounds relate to each other.

It teaches you to play across the neck, building scales and chords in a way that becomes intuitive. Short lessons and easy explanations makes this a great book for anyone who has struggled with theory in the past.

Tagliarino has a wealth of experience as a guitar teacher, and that’s clear in the handbook. Learning feels natural, and you’ll be able to guide your own lessons.

Although the Guitar Fretboard Workbook may be aimed at beginners’ it’s the sort of book you’ll want to keep on hand.


  • Short lessons - Guide your own learning experience, with a handbook that never feels overwhelming.
  • Natural progression - The difficulty increases as you work through the handbook, but with steady teaching that means you improve without noticing.
  • Practical encouragement - Learn the theories, and immediately apply them to your own playing. The handbook inspires you to be hands-on.


  • Simplistic - The fretboard-focused workbook is designed for beginners.

Buyer’s Guide

There are so many guitar theory books, and books about music theory in general, available that it’s far too easy to build a massive collection of handbooks you never even look at.

The trick is not to buy loads, but to buy the books that are right for you. Even the very best music theory books won’t work for everyone’s skill level, and style of learning.

Read this buyer’s guide to find what you need to look for when buying a music theory book.

The 5 Best Music Theory Books For Playing Guitar

Skill Level

The first factor you need to consider when choosing a guitar theory book is what skill level it’s aimed at.

For absolute beginners, this is particularly important. Books that are aimed at intermediate or advanced guitar players might end up sitting on the shelf, gathering dust.

If you are picking up a guitar for the very first time, be aware of books that are aimed at everyone. These are useful, but you might find they assume a base level of knowledge that you just don’t have.

It’s true that even the greatest guitar players can always learn something new about theory, so there are books available for advanced and expert guitarists. If you buy one of these hoping it will teach you basic fretwork, prepare for a lot of confusion.

Practical Application

There’s very little point buying a theory book that doesn’t cover practical application. Otherwise, you aren’t learning how to play and improve on the guitar, you’re just reading about guitars.

While most books do provide examples and direct theory towards your own playing, some are so dense and opaque that they just become lectures.

Any book that doesn’t teach theory as a practical application might be interesting, but will rarely advance your guitar playing.

Good theory books discuss musical theory, and provide plenty of information about how to apply it to real life. Beginner’s will need a theory book that focuses primarily on practical application.

What’s Covered

Some theory books manage to cover everything from the first guitar ever made, to the sound differences of electric guitars, and every note ever strummed in between.

Other theory books will take a more focused approach, and will teach one specific area in depth.

Before purchasing, consider exactly what you want to use the book for. It might be that you want a general guide to music, or you might want detail on one specific area.

The books are generally forthcoming about what’s inside, so make sure to read the cover and the blurb closely.

When purchasing a guitar theory book, here are some topics to be aware of: how to read music, identifying notes, scales, chord progression, strumming patterns, tuning, and the actual theory of music itself.

How It’s Written

Music theory can be complicated, so always look for books that are written in a clear and concise way that appeals to you. Admittedly, this can be difficult to know before you start.

But if you’ve found a tone of voice you like, then keep an eye out for other books by the author or publishing house.

Additional Materials

Reading about music can teach you a lot, but sometimes you just have to hear it. Theory that seems dry and uninteresting on the page can burst into life when you hear it applied to real music.

That’s why so many theory books are supplemented with audio recordings, or videos. Back in the olden days, these would generally come as CDs included with the book. Nowadays, many of these recordings are available online.

Illustrations and diagrams are also pretty essential. A picture really is worth a thousand words when you’re trying to figure out your fingering.

The Book Itself

It’s easy to overlook this one, but when your heavy hardback has fallen off the stand again, you’ll understand why the book itself matters. Ring bindings are fantastic, as they allow you to keep the page open.

Digital downloads help if you plan on traveling, and print size matters if you want to play as you read.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is A Music Theory Book For Guitar?

A music theory book for guitar will cover the basics of music theory, a guide to the guitar, and how to combine the two when you play.

Some guitar theory books are simple, and cover the basics to help you learn. Others can be incredibly complex, and help advanced guitarists to keep on improving.

There are plenty of books about music theory, and they range from the frighteningly academic to the unbearably philosophical.

There are also thousands of books all about the guitar. A music theory book for guitar takes the best bits from both of these, and combines them into one package.

How Does A Music Theory Book Help With Learning To Play Guitar?

Music theory helps when learning the guitar because it provides a reason for what you do as you learn. Knowing more about scales and chords, strumming rhythm and tuning, can help a learner to better understand the guitar.

Many music theory books for guitar also contain practical help, rather than just straight theory. When you hear the theory come to life with practical application, you can find a deeper understanding of the instrument.

The strong foundation of knowledge that theory provides will continue to support you as your playing progresses.

Theory also teaches you to approach music differently, and to think about playing in a new way. When you want to really define yourself as a musician, understanding theory is a massive help.

Do You Need To Learn Music Theory To Play Guitar?

No, you don’t need to learn music theory to play the guitar — but it helps! Music theory provides a stable foundation, room to grow and improve, and an opportunity to discover more about music.

Music theory isn’t necessary, but you might find you reach a point when your playing hits a wall, and you can’t improve.

A book such as Fretboard Theory by Desi Serna can expand your knowledge, improve your playing, and break through what’s holding you back.

What’s The Best Way To Use A Music Theory Book?

A music theory book is a supplement to your learning, and rarely the only thing you need. Instead, theory needs to be used alongside practical application, consistent playing, and enjoying the music of others.

Once you’ve grasped the basics of music theory, you can use that knowledge as you advance. Music theory should be applied to your playing, and you can return to theory when you’re struggling with your music.

Another advantage of music theory is it can help you move between instruments. The books listed here are all focused on guitars, but many of the basic principles are true for all types of instruments.

Theory can often translate across genres as well. Knowing theory makes you a rounded musician.

Are Books The Only Way To Learn Music Theory?

It’s useful to learn music theory for guitar from a book because you can take things at your own pace. However, there are videos and online courses to guide you through music theory.

Use these in conjunction with your theory books, and you can really adapt the learning experience to suit your needs.

Andrew Patterson
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