A lot of guitarists avoid music theory thinking that it will stifle their creativity. The straight skinny is that you are either being creative or you are not. Theory is neither going to stifle your creativity nor spark it. However, it can be a fuel for creativity. Avoiding music theory simply demonstrates a fear on the part of most guitarists that somehow they will become formulaic. Theory is not about formulas per se. It is about describing what already is within the format of twelve tones, how they are combined, and placed in the context of time. In other words, theory is simply a means of describing rather than restricting melody, harmony, and rhythm respectively.
As artists we should be looking for every possible fuel for creativity. Music theory is one particular fuel. Whether we use it creatively or not is up to us. By simply taking one of the aforementioned ingredients and exploring its possibilities we can come up with something unique. In this article we will specifically look at rhythm.
Jimi Hendrix has long been lauded as a highly creative and gifted guitarist. Hendrix even acknowledged that he never practiced because he was more interested in creating something new. One of the ways to be creative yourself is to take a way in which someone else was creative and expand on it. So let's give it a shot with Hendrix.
The way we group the beats of music creates what is called time signature in music. For example, blues music is somewhat structured rhythmically. It goes without saying that blues is almost universally in what is called 4/4 time. If you don't know what that is because you do not have a clue about music theory, relax. I'm going to explain it to you.
For now all we care about is the first number in that fraction looking thing. That first number 4 indicates that we are going to group our beats together in groups of four. So naturally we are going to count to four and then start over again. One, two, three, four, one, two, three four, etc. Pull up any song on You Tube and you have a 99% chance of that song being structured this way with an occasional rare exception.
So now we have a rhythmic formula (4/4 time) to describe what is. But that doesn't mean it is what has to be. Remember we want to be creative right? So what if we look for examples of that being different. Hendrix wrote a song called Manic Depression. If you Google it you can check out a ton of people covering this song as well as the original. I especially like Seal and Jeff Beck's cover on the Hendrix tribute album. It should pop up as a choice in your search, so check it out.
While you are listening to the song notice how the beats are grouped in threes. We would call this 3/4 time. We count the music one, two, three, one, two, three, etc. Okay so already Hendrix has created something a little different. A blues progression and song structure in 3/4 time. Pretty cool eh? Contrary to popular opinion Hendrix did not write the first blues in time. Check out Robert Johnson's All My Love in Vain. But how can you use this for as a fuel for creativity? Take a look at a portion of the opening riff:
Notice how I've placed some numbers all along above the musical staff to help you count through this little riff. Every time we count to three we have finished what is called a measure. This is marked in the music above by a vertical line. In this particular piece it is just after the E of the first measure, the B of the second measure, and the E of the third measure. On the fourth measure you see some thick double vertical bars with dots to the side. Those are repeat symbols. The 4x that you can probably barely read at the very top right is how many times you repeat that section.
The second number in the 3/4 time signature indicates what kind of note gets a beat. In our example a quarter note gets one beat. Notice how there are two different note shapes within the music (yes I want you to look at something other than just the tablature). One has a bar connecting two notes and one has no bar. The one without the bar is a quarter note. So measure three has three quarter notes that get one beat each. Pretty simple huh?
Look above those numbers in measure 1. The quarter note with the equal sign and the number 152 indicates how fast the tempo of the music is played. The notes next to 152 in the parentheses indicate the overall rhythmic feel of the piece. Whenever we see notes with a bar across the top, like in measure two and four (called 8th notes) we need to play them with what is called a shuffle or swing feel.
A shuffle or swing feel is hard to describe. To get a better idea of what its all about check out this article on Wikipedia. Since 3/4 time is extremely rare in blues music, one thing you could try to come up with is another riff and song altogether in the same time signature. One way to do this is to look at what is called the rhythmic motif for inspiration. Again we look at what is and then look for what could be. Listen to the song again and notice how the riff plays a little heavier on beat one. Notice how underneath the musical notes of beat one there is a little carrot pointing to the right. This symbol indicates that this note should be played a little louder. You see it again under all the notes in measure three.
So the rhythmic motif is counted ONE, two, three, ONE, two, three, etc (measure three is an exception). So before we even change the notes (otherwise we would be guilty of Vanilla Ice type thievery) we can change the note that we emphasize. It could be beat two. So we could count it one, TWO, three, one, TWO, three, etc. Or we could emphasize beat three like so. One, two, THREE, one, two, THREE. Try playing the riff above and accented beat two or three.
As a side note, we could also change the tempo. Notice how most of the covers tend to play this song faster than it was originally recorded. We can go the other direction and play it slower say at 100 beats per minute as opposed to 152. Again the options are out there for you to explore.
Once we have a rhythmic motif we could begin to look at note selection. The song is written in the A Blues scale (A, C, D, Eb, E, G, A). We could start by changing keys completely or we could change the scale or both. Some options might be the A major pentatonic, The E blues scale, or even something a little more crazy like a mode or a completely different sounding scale. The choice is yours if you have the theory to understand what you are changing.
Another option is to look at the harmonic structure. This tune has virtually no chords in it. So we could keep the blues like progression Hendrix borrowed from and add some chords to within the progression to give the tune our own stamp. We could shoe horn this thing into a traditional twelve bar blues progression. We could add one additional chord to the existing structure to change the whole progression to something else that sounds more rockabilly. Or we could change the chord progression completely from a blues structure to something entirely different. Again the choice is yours if you understand the theory behind these things.
My point is that if you understand theory you can look at what is and use it as a jumping off point for discovering what can be. You may stumble upon some of these things without theory if you are exceptionally talented and creative like Hendrix. However, you probably won't recognize what you have created or be able to describe it very well to anyone else. Why take the chance? Clearly learning theory can be fuel for creativity.