Jargon Buster

You may not understand some words or terms in guitar jargon. On this page we collected definitions of guitar terms and words, they should help you get a basic idea of the meaning of most guitar and music theory related concepts. Many of them can be found in our articles and lessons on TabsClub, so you can use it as guitar dictionary. This guitar terms glossary has short explanations but it should be enough to understand basic idea.

Power Chord
Mute
Fantasy, fantasia or fancy
Glissando
Drop D tuning
Triad
Cell idea
Whammy Bar
Pinched Harmonic
Loop
Major and Minor thirds
Staccato
Refrain
Vocal Quality
Chromatic passing note
Modes
Double-stop
Syncopated
Coda
Pedal Tone
Counterpoint
Inverted intervals or inversions
Bottleneck
Improvised
Half diminished
sus2 chord
Chromaticism
Chromatic Scale
Riff
Altered Tuning
Arpeggio
Non-diatonic
Mazurka
Static
Double Stopped
Triplets
Unison bends
Muted
Sweep Picking
Intonation
Question and Answer
Tablature
Comping
eq
I IV V (one, four, five)
Flatpicking
Dominant
Tempo
Neo-classical
Secondary Dominants
Fuzz
Triplets
Cante Hondo
Chord Melody
Action
Modes
Syncopation
IV chord
Harsh dissonance of minor second
Offbeat
Contrary Motion
Dominant Blues
Toques
1st inversion
Minor third
Tonal centre
CAGED system
12 Bar
Coral Sitar

Power Chord

A power chord is constructed using a root note and a note a 5th interval (ie 7 frets) higher. Thus, a power chord in the key of A would contain the notes A and E, and might be notated as A5. Pedantic music theorists are often keen to point out that this is technically a diad rather than a chord – the latter requiring a minimum of three different notes.

Mute

Letting the flesh on the side of the picking hand rest gently on the strings to dampen or cut short notes or chords.

Fantasy, fantasia or fancy

An instrumental piece in free form. In pieces such as this, conventional styles and forms were not adhered to, these were left to the imagination of the composer. In the Renaissance period fantasies were often fugues or canons.

Glissando

You’ll see this term a lot in transcriptions and it denotes the sound heard when you slide your left hand fingertip along the length of a string. This can be used to lead into a note (creating a “grace note” effect) or to connect two notes on the same string (approximating the “portamento” effect found on many synthesisers). Logically enough, the word glissando is Italian for “sliding”.

Drop D tuning

This is the name commonly used when you detune your low E string by one tone to D – as in “Unchained” by Van Halen, “Mutha Don’t Wanna Go To School Today” by Extreme, ‘Walk’ by Pantera and more Grunge tunes than you can shake a stick at.

Triad

To establish the main triad (which comprises three notes) of any seven-note scale, take the first, third and fifth notes. For the arpeggio (comprising four notes), play the first, third, fifth and seventh notes of the scale.

Cell idea

This is where you find or create a simple musical line, phrase or rhythm, or a basic combination thereof, then somehow (re)introduce a variation or permulation of that – likeness. Think small…

Whammy Bar

Also known as the vibrato bar and the tremolo arm. Interestingly, the latter phrase is misleading as, in the strict classical sense of the word, tremolo implies the repetition of the same note (as in ‘tremolo picking’) and, as we all know, the real duty of that metal bar attached to the bridge of a Strat is to add subtle variations in pitch – ie, vibrato.

Pinched Harmonic

A technique whereby a note is made to ‘squeal’ by stopping it immediately after picking with the right hand thumb, producing a harmonic. ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons is a master of the art.

Loop

A term more commonly associated with music-sequencing software and samplers. Take a phrase and play it from start to finish. Then repeat it without dropping a beat. It’s a good technique for practising phrasing.

Major and Minor thirds

– A major third is an interval that contains a note three major scale steps higher than the root. This could also be seen as a distance of two whole tones. The minor third is an interval where the major third has been lowered by a semitone. It could also be seen as being a tone-and-a-half away from the root note.

Staccato

This literally means ‘detached’. The opposite of legato, a staccato note is separated from its neighbours by a distinct silence. Staccato notes are generally indicated by a dot above or beneath the note, although not always: it may be indicated by a dash, a wedge or a written indication in the score.

Refrain

Literally, the chorus. In jazz-standard parlance, however, this often refers to the main verse and chorus structure of the tune, once the original intro has been stripped away.

Vocal Quality

Predictably enough, this means an instrument (or tool) has that something which many musicians yearn for: characteristically human traits like ‘ooh-ness’ or ‘aah-ness’ that are associated with [sung] vowels.

Chromatic passing note

A note which doesn’t belong to the scale you’re using, but which can be used as an ‘inbetween’ note to join up two adjacent scale tones. For instance, playing an F# over a G minor blues generally sounds pretty unpleasant, but using it in passing between F and G makes musical sense because the tension created by F# is nicely resolved when you land on the more technically correct note of G. To check out many, many examples of chromatic passing notes in a rock context, listen to anything by Steve Morse.

Modes

Modes enable us to view the same body of notes from different perspectives, thus influencing the way we interpret the notes. For example, when the notes C, D, E, F, G, A and B are seen as a C scale (C Ionian mode), the notes of a C major triad are acknowledged as being the strongest notes, whereas, when we view the same notes as a D scale (D Dorian – which is a mode of C Ionian) the notes of a D min triad are the strongest.

Double-stop

This is rather bizarre name given to diads or two notes played at the same time.

Syncopated

Offset against the main beat of the song – accenting the weaker beats of the bar.

Coda

Coda is an Italian musical term that literally means ‘tail’. The coda is, then, the end section of a piece of music.

Pedal Tone

A pedal tone is a note that is repeated between changing notes in a melody, with the other notes ‘pedalling’ off the static note. A note (or pair of pitches) that reoccurs among other notes or stays constant, in harmony, above or below them.

Counterpoint

An arrangement which is made up from separate melodic lines which combine to form the basis of a tune’s harmony.

Inverted intervals or inversions

If you transpose the lower note of an interval up an octave, or the upper note down an octave, the interval is inverted. Major intervals become minor and vice versa. Augmented intervals become diminished and vice versa. Perfect intervals remain perfect. An interval plus its inversion equals an octave.

Bottleneck

Another term for the tube worn by slide players on a left-hand finger. The name derives from the fact that early slides were often fashioned from wine bottles, and to this day players like Bob Brozman will express a preference for the tone and feel of a specific brand.

Improvised

Improvised means ‘composed on the spot’. Implying a knowledge of compositional techniques (plus vocabulary and technique). It’s not just rambling – discuss…

Half diminished

This is another name for a m7b5 chord (1, b3, b5, and b7). It comes halfway between a min7 chord (1, b3, 5 and b7) and a dimished 7 (1, b3, b5 and bb7).

sus2 chord

The sus2 chord doesn’t have a major or a minor third in it so it can be used in either situation. Ideal when you’re busking and aren’t quite sure of the tonality of that ‘B’ thing.

Chromaticism

Pertaining to the chromatic scale.

Chromatic Scale

In simple terms, this is an “equal opportunities” scale, where every note is welcome. If a pentatonic scale uses five notes per octave and a diatonic scale uses seven, then the chromatic scale features all 12. The word “chromatic” is of Greek origin and it originally implied that the scale contains every musical “colour”.

Riff

A repetetive phrase which forms the basic rhythmic and harmonic content of a song

Altered Tuning

By tuning the open strings to notes other than the standard E A D G B E, the guitarist can reorganise where the notes on the guitar lie and so use alternative fingerings and voicings for chords and scales.

Arpeggio

Literally speaking, an arpeggio is the notes within a chord being played one at a time. Its true meaning is ‘harp-like’.

Non-diatonic

Diatonic harmony means that all the notes, chords, arpeggios and so on in a tune can be found in one “Parent” major scale (hence the “key” signature). Non-diatonic harmony basically means that the tune contains chords, notes and so on from more than one major scale.

Mazurka

A mazurka is a dance from the region of Mazovia in Poland. A lively piece in triple time with strong accents on the 2nd or 3rd beat. It was elevated to an art form by the great pianist Frederic Chopin in the 19th century. I don’t know why Tarrega called “Adelita” a mazurka, it seems to me far closer to a waltz in style – with the accent on the first beat.

Static

Every chord in music can be loosely grouped into two main categories – those that sound as though they are at rest (static) or those that sound restless (known as “functional” or “passing” chords). One note that really dictates whether a dominant chord is static or not is the 9th. Try playing a G9 chord and then G7b9 chord. You could hang around quite happily on the first chord, but as soon as the 9th gets flattened, it’s time to move to another chord.

Double Stopped

Playing on two strings simultaneously to produce a harmony effect.

Triplets

Three evenly spaced events per main beat

Unison bends

A technique whereby one of a pair of strings is bent to the same pitch as the other.

Muted

Relax the pressure in your fretting hand to prevent strings from sounding.

Sweep Picking

Playing a succession of notes (usually one per string) using one continuous pick stroke as if you were strumming a chord in slow motion.

Intonation

Literally speaking, how “in tune” you are in general terms. Fretless bass players have to wrestle with their intonation, although I’m told that viola players have long since given up the struggle.

Question and Answer

This is a term given to a musical idea that is broken into two halves that literally ask a question and then answer it. This technique is a good way of making your riffs and licks more interesting and memorable. Classic Q/A riffs can be heard from Jimi Hendrix (Purple Haze) and Black Sabbath (Paranoid).

Tablature

Music for lute was generally notated using a form of tablature. This is similar to simple tab but with a couple of distinct differences. Frets were indicated with the letters of the alphabet rather than numbers: ‘a’ indicated an open string, ‘b’ the first fret, ‘c’ the second fret, and so on. Note durations were included in the tablature, not on a separate stave as in normal (simple) tab.

Comping

A term used by many among the jazz and blues fraternity in reference to the rhythm guitar.

eq

eq is short for equalisation (concerning audio frequencies). Aside from all performance values, the sound of the instrument must be just right. Flat is not always best, though, and what works one time may not be right the next time.

I IV V (one, four, five)

Music jargonese which refers to chord positions within a scale. A I IV V (pronounced ‘one, four, five’) sequence would involve chords based on the first, fourth and fifth notes of the scale. In C major, this would be C, F and G.

Flatpicking

The art of articulating lines or arpeggiating chords with a single plectrum as opposed to using fingerpicks, hybrid picking (pick and fingers) or by simply ditching the pick altogether such as on classical guitar.

Dominant

A scale or chord is said to be “dominant” if it has both a major 3rd and a flattened 7th

Tempo

The speed of a piece of music measured in beats per minute (BPM)

Neo-classical

Neo-classical is a term given to rock/metal that borrows ideas such as structure and harmony from classical music. Guitarists such as Yngwie Malmsteen, Jason Becker, Vinnie Moore and Tony McAlpine are all renowned for their neo-classical style.

Secondary Dominants

These are 7th chords which resolve (or move) to chords in the key. The secondary dominants themselves don’t belong to the key, but resolve to chords in the key. They are therefore chromatic, but they do have a special relationship with the chords of that key. Listen to the difference between these two chord progressions: C Em Am, and C E7 Am. The E7 is a secondary dominant, with it’s G# being the chromatic note.

Fuzz

A fuzz pedal is the name given to a old-style distortion pedal. A Fuzz has a much harsher tone than an overdrive or distortion pedal and is often favoured by alternative bands for its abrasive sound. Classic fuzz pedals include the Electro harmonic Big Muff and the Arbiter Fuzz Face.

Triplets

In the singular it’s a group of three evenly spaced beats; in the plural it’s multiple groups thereof. Although the value of each subbeat may be anything ranging from a minim (2 beats’ worth) to demisemiquavers (1/32nds). It’s most common to witness triplet eighths and sixteenths.

Cante Hondo

This is a general term for the oldest songs of the flamenco tradition. ‘cante’ is Spanish for song. ‘hondo’ means deep, profound or tragic.

Chord Melody

A style of playing where both melody and accompaniment are played simultaneously on the guitar.

Action

In this context, ‘action’ refers to the distance between the strings and fretboard. A high action (which is what you need for playing slide guitar) is one where the strings are raised quite a long way from the fingerboard.

Modes

Any note of a scale can be considered to be acting as the root, depending on which note of the scale sounds like ‘home’ over a particular progression or chord (to your ear). With, say, a seven-note scale, you have seven different potential perspectives or scales – these are reffered to as modes.

Syncopation

The art of accenting beats that are not normally accented. When alternate picking, these beats usually fall on the upstroke.

IV chord

Known as the “four chord”. This is conventionally the second chord in blues arrangement – in a blues in A, it would be the D7 chord, for instance. The ‘four’ comes from the chords in the scale – once again, in A: A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G#, A. You can see that the D chord would be based on the fourth note of the parent scale, hence “IV chord”.

Harsh dissonance of minor second

The smallest interval in western music, the semitone, is also commonly known as a minor second. It is equivalent to the sound of two notes that are one fret apart on the same string. Obviously, in order to play these notes at once one needs to move one of the notes to another string. The two most dissonant intervals in music are (by popular opinion) the minor second and the major seventh. The intervals are one semitone bigger and smaller (respectively) than the two most consonant intervals in music (by popular opinion), unison and the octave. This relationship is the basis of their dissonance. Well that’s what we think in Country Kerry at least.

Offbeat

An unaccented beat in the bar

Contrary Motion

Contrary motion is where two musical lines move in opposite directions but remain harmonically and melodically correct.

Dominant Blues

If someone at a jam session informs you that you’re about to play over a dominant blues, they’re normally referring to a standard 12-bar where each of the 3 main chords is treated as a dominant 7th. In other words, it’s time to get those arpeggio shapes out.

Toques

These are the different flamenco forms. Soleares, Alegrias, Seguiriyas, Bulerias and so on are different toques. Each toque has itAs own distinct rhythm and pattern of accents – its compas – as well as using specific keys and employing individual harmonic structures.

1st inversion

A major triad is made up of the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of the major scale. When played, if the root is the lowest note (for example, in the key of F major F, A and C) then it’s simply an F major triad. If the 3rd (the A) is the lowest note (A, C and F) the it’s known as the 1st inversion: and if the 5th (the C) is the lowest note (C, F and A) then it’s known as the 2nd inversion.

Minor third

If you see the words ‘minor’, ‘diminished’, ‘lowered’ or ‘flat’ in front of any interval it basically means lower by a semi-tone. Conversely, if you see ‘major’, ‘augmented’, ‘raised’ or ‘sharp’ in front of an interval, raise it by a semi-tone.

Tonal centre

The tonal centre of any progression is the note that you, as a listener, consider to be acting as the overall ‘root’ or point of rest.

CAGED system

The CAGED system is a five-shape system of learning chords and scales with reference to moveable versions of the standard open chord shapes of C, A, G, E and D. Most, if not all of you, will know a moveable barre version of an open E chord. However, how many of you have established a moveable version of the other four chords?

12 Bar

The name given to a particular sequence of chords (I, IV and V) which lasts for (you’ll never guess) 12 bars! This form is very common in blues, rock and roll, country and (with a few extensions and alternations) Jazz. There are loads of variations, but probably the most common version (for example in A) would be four bars of A, two bars of D, two bars of A, one bar of E, one of D, one of A and one of E.

Coral Sitar

Yep, they really did make an electric sitar back in the 60s – essential for all those Traffic and Rolling Stones moments

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