Ear Training and Learning Theory

Listening is key because otherwise you're just masturbating all over your guitar while everyone else is trying to play music and nobody wants to see/hear that.

Ultimate Guitar
Growing up playing guitar I didn't have the patience to sit down and learn theory. It took years before I actually understood how music works on a technical basis and surprisingly enough it didn't take long at all when I actually took the time to understand it. Nevertheless I still played to the best of my ability up until that point and since I didn't know technically what I was doing I had to rely on my "ears" alone.

I put "ears" in snarky quotations because it's really a combination of listening to the music while your own "inner voice" speaks out along with what’s being played. Groovy sh-t. Listening is key because otherwise you're just masturbating all over your guitar while everyone else is trying to play music and nobody wants to see/hear that. People who masturbate in public typically don't last long in bands. I don't know if that’s statistically true but I would imagine it is, so for the good of learning we'll assume that I'm telling you the truth.

Anyone can listen to a melody that's being played over a different piece of music and tell if it "fits" or not. You can tell if a note sounds strong, or fair, or weak, or absolutely terrible over a specific chord even if you don't know a thing about music. That's basically how I taught myself to play guitar when I was younger. I knew one shape of the minor pentatonic scale along with one shape of the natural/harmonic minor scale and that was it as far as any "knowledge" of theory went. I'm sure this sounds familiar to most of you. I'd sit down in my room covered in posters and I'd noodle on my guitar playing along with bands like Blue Oyster Cult and Black Sabbath. I'd find the root note and bullsh-t on a combination of the few scale shapes I knew as well as random licks I'd learned from magazines or other people's solos.

Eventually I noticed that some, or more often than not, all of the notes I was playing sounded horrendous and I would then have to use my ears to quickly bend the note in tune or find my way there in some sort of chromatic fashion before anyone noticed it sounded like shit. The longer I played the better I got at this and it got to the point where I could play fairly well to most music and have it sound more or less like I knew what I was doing. Whether I did or didn't is irrelevant to the point. Obviously I had NO IDEA what I was playing; I just knew what sounded good and had been playing/training my ears long enough to get by without making anyone cringe. Apparently some very good musicians get by their whole careers with this approach and although I feel having a good "ear" is crucial to being a musician, knowing the technical aspect of music is just as important.

As soon as I learned theory everything changed. Because I'd been playing on my own for so long I recognized the sound and feeling of scales/modes almost immediately and it pieced everything together for me and gave everything a name. I finally knew what I was doing and once that happened I could combine my already trained ears with my newfound knowledge of theory. The difference in my playing was night and day. I still use my "ears" to play but now I have a stronger foundation to work with as well as unlimited options to approach musically over chord progressions.

My point to all of this is that in order to be a good player, no matter what skill level you're at, no matter what you play, if you don't know theory you should start learning it today. There are online lessons everywhere as well as books (don't forget those) that will teach you everything you need to know. Also you should be training your ears in any way possible. Even listening to music, in general, is a form of ear training. Playing along to my favorite bands helps me immensely because it keeps me out of the horrible box of doing finger exercises to a metronome which eventually taps a hole into your brain. It's fun and it keeps me on my toes because there’s a different key/time signature/tempo for me to work with in each song.

I'm not saying this is the only or best way to do it. I'm just telling you how I did it, and I hope it works for you or gives you some idea of how to make this fun for you, because at the heart of it that's what's most important!

10 comments sorted by best / new / date

    I guess my main problem is, where do I start if I want to learn theory? What books and what online lessons are more effective?
    I bought "Guitar Theory for for Dummies" book, I just started reading it so I can't form an educated opinion about it yet, so far it is a good read, and has some good exercises.
    There's lots of different ways to learn, but learning the notes on the fretboard is a good place to start. I've actually heard that the Music Theory for Dummies is a good book for learning. If you want a free option, Josh Urban's "The Crusade" articles on UG are excellent. Also if you see any article aimed at beginners that use the word "modes" please look away. For any speciific questions feel free to pop by the Musicians Talk forum sometime.
    I've been playing guitar for about 8 months now. I am already going to learn theory but I don't know when I think I should start learning it. Should I start learning theory now or should I keep practicing guitar and just continue to get the hang of playing it and learning techniques? Then later on learning theory?
    You should start learning theory already. The earlier, the better. Learn all the notes in the fretboard and then start studying chords and scales so you could play them regardless of techniques and forms.
    Agree with this entirely! I've worked with far too many people who shy away from learning even the basics of what note is where on the fretboard, and eventually, it becomes tiresome - you can't even communicate simple ideas to these people without pointing and grunting, and all of the guitar solos sound IDENTICAL (see Green Day's first album). I'd highly recommend everyone learns as much as they can - there's nothing worse than wilful ignorance.
    An in depth study of theory is awesome for developing a musicians ear. Something like Dick Grove's See It Hear It Hear It Play It course or David Lucas Burge relative pitch course (not to be confused with the perfect pitch course) can expose you to so many musical concepts you might never come across without some formal education in music. Of course, if you listen and try to reproduce as many types of music as you can you can speed up the process some. But theory in and of itself is merely a language to talk about what is going on in a piece of music.