"Guitar Thinking" and "Genre Thinking" among an Online Community of Guitarists





music theory, guitar performance, affordances, corpus studies


Researchers and performers have long intuited that popular music’s organizational features are linked to the physical-tonal properties of the electric guitar. Yet current evidence is either too broad or too specific to support reliable generalizations. Ongoing corpus studies offer remarkable explanatory power in clarifying stylistic trends from a listener’s perspective but are not currently equipped to address the kinesthetic aspects of instrument performance.

In this study I employ statistical methods of corpus analysis to explore how popular-music guitarists navigate the fretboard. I do so via a digital collection of guitar tablature: 257 rhythm-guitar parts sampled from seven decades of songs (1954–2019). An analysis of fretboard transitions reveals a highly idiomatic fretboard profile that aligns best with the minor pentatonic scale. This empirically supports standing intuitions about the relationship between pentatonicism and guitar performance, while underscoring the methodological and potential ethical shortcomings of a strictly harmonic perspective on popular music’s organization.

Author Biography

Nicholas Jordan Shea, Arizona State University

Assistant Professor of Music Theory School of Music, Dance, and Theatre Arizona State University