Music Theory Too Difficult? Try This...

Why is music theory such a pain for so many guitarists? It comes down to this same root problem time and again. Unfortunately, most will continue to learn this way and struggle. But here's why this approach is overwhelmingly ineffective and the much easier way I've discovered instead for guitarists to learn music theory.

Ultimate Guitar

Interviewer: "When you sit down with Paul to write a song, how do you do it?" John Lennon: "We do two things one after the other. First we sit down, then we write a song." Why is music theory such a pain for so many guitarists? Maybe you've experienced this. You're excited about learning the guitar. You feel like you'll finally be able to express the musical ideas that have been floating around in your head. And you've been told music theory is the key. It's what's most important. Only... Every time you do pick up that book on theory... You almost immediately put it down again. It's too complex, too boring, and too abstract to actually be useful for anything. And so your understanding of theory suffers. You never really grasp all the deeper inner workings of the guitar, like you know you should. And it holds back your creativity in many ways: figuring out songs, composing songs, creating riffs, writing licks and solos, improvising, and so on. Am I way off base or has this been your experience with learning theory? And you know what? That's mostly how it was for me as well. It wasn't easy. But I did eventually get a better grasp of it than most people manage to. And what I in fact discovered was... The reason it's so difficult comes down to the same root problem time and again... ineffective methods. The way most guitarists learn theory is in bits and pieces. Gluing together ideas they learn from books, videos, and other players... all in their own unique way. But the problem arises when these guitarists then try to TEACH what they've learned (mostly intuitively) to other players. Most guitar players are NOT teachers. They assume knowing how to learn a difficult subject means the reverse is true. Nothing could be further from the truth. They may understand guitar, but they are far from knowing how to teach it. The 80% failure rate speaks volumes. (source: John Sizemore, founder of GuitarZonline and 20 year veteran player) So what's the solution? It turns out, there's actually a much more effective approach to learning music theory than we've been led to believe by the books and DVDs out there. Let me explain... Picture this for a second: Imagine you are at a social event, like a party or a house gathering of some sort. You know only one person, the host. Her name is Sally. Everyone else is a complete stranger. What would you do if you get bored and want to make new friends? Well, the easiest thing would be to start with the people you know: The host. So you spot Sally talking to some friends, and you walk up and pat her on the shoulder. "Hey gorgeous," you smile, "Great party. When's Tom heading over?" "I'm so glad you made it! The big guy is running late, but says he's driving over this afternoon. Are you having fun?," she says. "Oh don't worry about me, I'm enjoying the food," you reassure her. "Don't be silly. I'll introduce you to Joanne." She then introduces you warmly to the friend she's been talking to. The two of you immediately hit it off and talk for the next hour. When Tom arrives, you grab some beers and invite them both over to the backyard where its more quiet. And continue getting to know each other better. At the end of the gathering, you exchange numbers with Joanne, and discuss a possible restaurant you'd love to take her to next week. It's the beginning of a wonderful new relationship. QUESTION: Would you stop there?

  • Would you never call her up to say hello?
  • Would you never make the restaurant date happen?
  • Would you go out and meet 100 new people the next day? Ridiculous as that sounds... That's actually how most people approach music theory. They don't develop a deep "relationship" with each piece of theory they study. They think that just being "introduced" to the idea in a book means they know it. That intellectual understanding is what counts. They don't bother to "call them up" and even "take them out on dates." And by not pursuing an ONGOING relationship with each piece of theory they learn, they never truly learn anything. It's stays theory. And never becomes a useful part of their guitar playing arsenal. The fact is, music theory is not something you need to understand intellectually. It's more of something you need to INTUITIVELY grasp. Just like language, studying the rules isn't enough. You need a deeper understanding that reaches into your very subconscious. At that level, you OWN it and can use it as you please. To write hit songs, create killer riffs, or even "speak" with your guitar by improvising. You can be damn sure Jimi Hendrix was not figuring out theory in his head every time he got on stage. It was automatic and intuitive. Do you think you can really achieve that just by reading something a few times? By understanding something intellectually? Or by running up and down a scale all day till your ears hurt? This is why I recommend you take a different approach. One where you first develop the intuitive, practical understanding of music theory. And start with "the host," the knowledge you already know. THEN and only then, do you branch out and gain the intellectual understanding of it slowly over time. Using books, videos, or whatever means you prefer. The result? Any theory you learn actually STICKS. And becomes useful. So you can enjoy the benefits of that "relationship" for life, for improvising, writing songs, crafting licks, or anything else you wish to do with the guitar. Most people do this back-asswards (intellectual understanding first), or give up before ever understanding theory at all. But it doesn't have to be that way. Anything related to guitar can be learned much more effectively if the correct approach is used from the beginning. Theory is just another case of this. I hope this will help you begin moving in the right direction. About the Author: For more online mentoring and other must-have lessons on learning the guitar, visit, the best-kept secret of self-taught guitarists from over 117 different countries. Today, it has become one of the premier sources of accurate information, useful knowledge, and uplifting inspiration for scores of self-taught guitarists. Johnny's lessons have appeared on top guitar websites such as Ultimate-Guitar, GuitarNoise, and many others. He has just released a new book titled: "The No B.S. Guitar Advantage: Secret Strategies Most Guitarists Will Never Tell You About to Go From Beginner to Head-turning Guitar Player Faster Than You Ever Thought Possible."

  • 18 comments sorted by best / new / date

      Lol, I hate how right this column is.. It makes me realize how lazy I am...
      Ryan Withers
      i completely agree. Modes come to mind when i read this. i want to learn them and i have a basic understanding but i need to pursue it and Fully learn it. i feel like i just got the kick in the pants i needed.
      That Old Geezer
      Good analogy with the party and the relationship. The same idea can also apply to learning songs. So many people just learn parts of songs or only the main riff, and that's cool for you but if I'm paying to listen I want the whole song Anyway good article.
      Although this will be widely unpopular.. This doesn't work for me. Neither do I feel it's needed. Now don't get me wrong, I know my theory having studied it not only in A-Levels whilst studying such composers as Bach, Vivaldi, Wagner, etc and having to take exams in which we compose with the same stylistic approaches, but also through an intense guitar course (the theory side I blitz'd thanks to the Music A-Level). At no point will I even think of theory, of why things work, or creating licks/ aiding my improvisation etc. I just don't connect it with my playing or my own composition work whatsoever. Instead I just use my ears and that's all I need. If I wanted to, I could work out what I'm doing, or what is being done, but I wont because I don't need to.
      Knowing what in the hell you're doing will never hurt you. I labored under the same mindset for 10 or so years until I started studying jazz in college. My professor forced me to understand what I was playing and how it all works, and I can say that without that, I would still have been fishing for notes here and there. Of course you still use your ear a hefty amount, but being able to see things differently on the guitar is such a big help. What did it for me was going through the triad inversions on all string groups in all 12 keys all across the neck, saying the note names and scale degrees out loud. A semester of doing that, and I had no more problems.
      I think the best way is to learn the theory behind the things most relevant to what you like. If you play rock guitar, you'd want to learn the theory behind power chords and pentatonic scales first and work from there. Most books/classes will have you starting from Mary Had A Little Lamb or Old McDonald Had A Farm, no one gives a shit about Mary, or McD's farm and you're not going to get anywhere like that.
      It boggles my mind that someone wouldn't be interested in learning everything they possibly could about something they're truly passionate about.
      a fret so
      Excellent article!! My analogy of theory is a bit similar, If you spend enough time at the family reunion you'll figure out how you're all related. Though I like a little beer if I'm going to do either, it's more fun that way.
      Grey Dread
      Well, hell. What if I would've hit it and quit it with ol' Joanne after the party? Where's that leave me, theory-wise?
      I started playing on my own, even figured out how to tune the guitar on my own (first couple sets of strings didn't enjoy that) and I never wanted to "sit down and study music". Whatever I learned came to me when I got interested in some aspect of the theory. I just categorically decline any attempt to make music theory a crucial thing to learn. I don't plan on giving instructions and anything that catches my attention or if I find it interesting I will learn when ready. Until then... No.