6 Things Most Guitar Players Don't Understand About Music Theory

Here are some of the major roadblocks that can delay or completely stop your understanding of music theory, together with some suggestion on how to get rid of them.

6 Things Most Guitar Players Don't Understand About Music Theory
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"You should not study too much theory or you will destroy your creativity." Do you agree with that? If you do, you are probably better off not reading the rest of this article as I am going to show that this and other commonly held beliefs about music theory are completely false and harmful to you.

When I started playing guitar I was a strong believer in the "learn-by-yourself" method i.e. collecting all the information I could from Internet, journals, book, and friends. After all, the more information the better, no? What I did not realize at the time is that there is a lot of bad information handed down as if it is the absolute truth, and I was completely incapable of discriminating between the useful stuff and the damaging stuff. In short: I needed some help from somebody who actually knew things.

Of course eventually I found help, and now I am here to offer some.

The first thing to know is that music theory is not "hard": everybody can understand it. On the other hand, music theory is "complex": is made by many little things that all work together, each one of them being simple.

Of course, it would be a daunting task to learn all of them at the same time. This means that there IS a simple way to go through music theory (more than one in fact), but it also means that if you encounter these thins in the wrong order, then you are going to be completely confused. In fact, as we are going to see in a minute, there are many approaches to music theory that are common on the net that are simply damaging to your progress if you try to follow them.

So, let's have a look at some of the major roadblocks that can delay or completely stop your understanding of music theory, together with some suggestion on how to get rid of them. This list is not exhaustive, but it covers at least some of the major problems:

I Don't Need Theory: I Can Play by Ear

I wish I had a dollar for every person I heard saying that so I could retire on a private island and not work for the rest of my life. And while sipping my Mohito, I would reflect on the fact that this "play by ear" excuse is just that: an excuse. In fact most of the people that use it have never done any ear training worth mentioning: they can't transcribe the songs they like, they can't play the musical ideas that pop in their minds. Ultimately for them "playing by ear" means adopting the "Hail Mary" strategy: playing something random while hoping that something good will come out of it. Most of the time, it doesn't.

We musicians need to know theory as writers need to know grammar. It is not the ONLY thing we need to know (far from it), but it is absolutely necessary. While it is a common occurrence for many famous musicians (or their fans) to boast that they do not know any theory, once you go and actually check the facts you will find that this is never the truth (the first one to post in the comments that "Hendrix never studied theory" will get a pat on their head and a lollipop before being sent back to music pre-school).

So, now that we have established that there ain't such a thing as a free lunch and we need to actually put some effort in if we want to be great or at least good, let's see what not to do.

I Need No Ear Training

It goes without saying that the previous point should not be construed to mean that you do not need to train your ear. Duh.

Learning music theory and training you ear go hand in hand. Trying to do only one is like trying to ride a bicycle without one wheel: useless, overly difficult, and a guarantee that you will hurt yourself. In fact I do take the radical position that ear training and music theory are in fact the same thing. If you think about it, all music theory concepts can be explained as "If you do X, that's how it sounds": "If you play a cadence, it sounds this way," "if you play the notes of the chord while improvising it sounds this way," etc.

As you can see though, if you don't know what "this way" is for every single concept you learn, then you are not really learning much! This is why there are a lot of people who say that music theory is useless: they didn't connect the "formal" aspects of music theory with the actual reality of music. After all, a map of your city is useful only if you know the relationship between the funny lines on the paper and the actual streets.

Luckily, there is a very simple solution for that: every time you learn something new in theory, play it. Make sure you have at least 3-4 examples for each concept you learn (you can compose them yourself in case).

Theory Will Harm My Creativity

If music theory destroys creativity, as many claim, then it follows that never in the history of music there was a musician who knew music theory and was creative at the same time. In other words, all the following musicians composed uncreative music: Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Tchaikovskij, Coltrane, Parker, Django Reinhardt, Hendrix, Satriani, Vai, Jason Becker (Yes, Hendrix knew theory. Get over it!) I don't think this is a tenable position, in fact I find it plain ridiculous.

The truth is that if you study theory the right way, then it helps and support your creativity.

The wrong way to learn it is to think of theory as a set of "rules" to follow otherwise the "music theory police" will put you in jail. But this is not what music theory is: rather you should think of it as the collective experience of all past composers, a set of procedures and "tricks" that you can use when appropriate to move from a musical idea to a complete piece. Of course, even if you do not know anything about music theory you might have an occasional spark of musical genius, but you won't know what to do with it.

I Can Teach Myself

Would you consider teaching yourself how to drive a car? What could go wrong after all? :-) Learning to drive by trial and error does not seem the best idea, right?

By the same token, you should not consider teaching yourself music theory by trial and error. You may thing that while trying to drive a car you can hurt people, there is no harm done in trying to learn theory without help. Or is there? Sure, there are musicians out there who are able to compose even if they did not study music theory. But I can't help to think that all these guys had to rediscover the wheel by themselves, that it would have been so much easier for them if they knew more theory, and in fact what songs we are never going to listen because these guys didn't realize their full potential? What could they have done if they knew more?

The composer with the greatest amount of raw talent ever was probably Mozart. And even with his incredible natural gifts he had to study composition for more than ten years. Unless you think you are more talented than Mozart, then don't try to learn alone.

The Information Is All Available on the Net

The net is a great resource, and there is definitely a lot available just one click away. And yet all this information can work against you rather than helping you. How? Well, in order to be useful to you, the information you come across needs to be relevant to what you want to do. You see, you will need to study different things if you want to compose music for film than what you should study if you want to improvise on a blues. It's not that one is "better" or "more difficult": they are just different and require a different skillset.

For this reason - and I realize I'm not the first to say that - you need to know what your goals are and have a plan in place in order to reach them. Without a plan you are simply going to end wherever chance will take you, and in most cases this is not what you wanted at all!

In order to help you find what your goals are and how to arrive there, I have written for you a "map" of music theory that you can download and will show you where you are and what you need to study next. You can find a link to it at the end of this article.

I Can Ask My Friend Joe

Everybody has a "friend Joe" that is supposed to be more knowledgeable. But are you really sure that he actually knows what he's doing? Where did he learn what he knows? In fact, this is a good question to ask regardless if you apply it to your friend Joe or to your teacher or to the author of the article/book you are reading.

I am probably stating the obvious, but many self-styled "teachers," both online and offline, are simply coping each other without really understanding all the concepts they copy. And when you read a copy of a copy of a copy of the original concept, then it is no wonder you are getting confused! You would be surprised how many WRONG things I found in books an DVDs that are sold all over the net.

My point here is: trust only people who are actually doing what you want to do! Do not buy books from people who say "I am a teacher but not a performer/composer/writer." These people do not have a first-hand knowledge of what they teach, and most likely there are errors in what they teach. Of course with this I do not mean that all teachers are failed musicians - this is simply not true. But make sure to check the quality of your information source.

As a side note: when I say you have to check your teacher, I do not mean to ask him if he has a music degree. There are many musicians out there who do not have any "official" degree but are still very competent in what they do and teach. The only relevant question is: is this person able to do what you want to do? It's not the piece of paper, it's the actual skill that counts.

What Should I Do Now?

Three things:
  1. Forget about learn-by-yourself books for the time being.
  2. Decide what you want to be able to play and write down a plan on how to arrive there. If you need help in this respect, download this map of music theory that I wrote for you and will tell you where you are and what is your next step.
  3. Either follow your plan, or take it to a competent teacher that will help you implement it in the fastest way. Don't waste your time by running in circles.

About The Author:
Tommaso Zillio is a prog rock guitarist and teacher with a passion for Music Theory applied to Guitar.

235 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    TheFlake
    I used to think like that but than I realised that I was wrong so I begun studying theory and I can say that it's the way to progress. Absolutely awesome tips!
    lee.deane.528
    Maybe it's just me, but for me. "All great guitarists KNOW theory, that doesn't mean that they have studied it" to quote another thread. Not all great guitar players know the names of every scale. And some people train their ears just by listening to something and replicating, over and over again. I know someone that has more than 50 hours of tabbed instrumentation that knows not a single scale name. And lastly, you dont need ear training to know that some frets dont sound appealing when you press them down. But maybe that's just me.
    wlewis248
    If you want to break down what you actually said you just defended a giant time-waster. The guy effectively spent time learning all about an instrument without the ability to communicate it with other musicians.
    i7862362
    I am sure theory does help a musician progress in his musical abilities. but wlewis248, your statement is quite ridiculous. unless he's planning to be a teacher, who gives a damn if he communicates verbally about how great his theoretical knowledge is. if he's able to communicate via sound, thats all that matters.
    GangsterLi
    Definitely! I used to think theory was stupid because of famous guitarists that didn't know it but after learning theory, I have progressed so much as a musician and a guitarist.
    chris0186
    I'm a bassist and playing with guitarists who know nothing about music theory is the most frustrating thing I've had to deal with. I just won't deal with people who won't make an effort to understand theory. Once you get a grasp of some of the more basic parts of it, it really opens up your playing and what you're able to write.
    Arby911
    Nice troll post... Bassist....Theory.....Pffft.. j/k!!
    tommaso.zillio
    "Bassist....Theory.....Pffft.." Chris: I do agree. Nothing more frustrating than having to explain what scale to use on a secondary dominant, and then having to settle for another chord progression in Aeolian or another 12 bar Blues because that's the only thin they can play over.
    travislausch
    I agree with a lot of this, but I think the idea that you can't teach yourself is kind of BS. I managed to do a damn fine job of it on my own. Not to claim I'm a genius like Mozart or anything, but I could hold my own against a lot of rock musicians out there as far as theory goes.
    Arby911
    While I've been critical of some of your offerings in the past I have to say that this one is excellent! I'm still not supportive of your name/email requirement for the offered 'map' but the information presented here was spot on.
    tommaso.zillio
    Arby911: since you like this article, why don't you give me the benefit of the doubt? Get the map, and if you don't like it or don't like my newsletter I will PERSONALLY remove your email from all my archives (just pm me on UG). I hate spam with a passion, and I would never spam you.
    tallica89
    "this form could not be submitted" when i try to fill out my email for the music theory map
    darionapoli74
    Awesome article T! Fear is the only obstacle in my experience and sometimes it takes time to overcome that...
    FoxAndTheHound
    I minored in music in college and took several courses in both classical and jazz theory. I feel every musician should have a background in theory, whether or not they use it is up to them. It just helps you to view things in different ways, and it certainly helped me progress my playing
    blssdful1
    Dude thank you for posting this. Im a bass player and a guitarist who never got serious about the music. Now with this i know i can learn music theory to get better riffs and better Basslines. THANKS.
    BlueJayWater
    I think it just comes down to people being afraid of what they don't understand. I use to be like that 100%. After a lot of trial and error, I'm on my way with Theory. The thing I still question, is when to learn it. That's why people have trouble with it. It's always forced on them when they are simply not ready. I was offered numerous times to be educated with it, but I felt I could barely play F right, how the hell could I figure out Consonance? The idea should always be floating around, but it has to strike at the right time for people to learn it, otherwise they build the ideas they do now, and it just becomes a circle.
    kcmoon5150
    Hendrix never studied theory
    tommaso.zillio
    Write your address here, and I'll send you a lollipop as promised.
    USCENDONE BENE
    Your views are insightful but you can't get people to learn things by being a prick. Your attitude in the whole article is preachy and you sound like an ass.
    tommaso.zillio
    I think the attitude is in the eye of the beholder here. The lollipop thing was a joke, and my comment to kcmoon is tongue-in-cheek (as I assume is his comment)
    USCENDONE BENE
    "Do you agree with that? If you do, you are probably better off not reading the rest of this article" I'm glad no teacher or professor i've ever met has had that attitude.
    crazysam23_Atax
    Why would he bother to invite you to read the rest of the article, if you're not interested in the points of the article or reasons to learn music theory in general?
    USCENDONE BENE
    Because people should be encouraged to learn this stuff. A push in the right direction, not a 'oh you won't like this, don't bother'
    crazysam23_Atax
    And, if they're already opposed to learning it, you'll NEVER convince them. Until someone is ready to learn, you can't force them to learn.
    lightdark
    Actually, You can convince people to learn theory, even if they don't want to. At first I didn't want to learn it, but I wanted to learn how to make my own songs, and I knew that learning music theory would help that. Now I've made several of my own songs and have a intermediate to advanced grip on theory. I've learned theory by myself. I have several books, a dvd, and several favorite articles on theory. The best articles I find, are free, and found on ultimate guitar under the columns heading. That and the lessons section on here.
    Vicious_Turtle
    neither did hetfield, but they arnt creative cause they don't know much theory right? (SCOFFFFF!!!!!)
    cmvideo
    It's really funny how threatened people feel when you call them out on how they learn and tell them there's a better way. This comment section is hysterical. I took lessons for years when I was a teenager. My guitar teacher was in a metal band but also was a classically trained guitarist. He started to teach me theory in a certain progression and it made sense. But it does get complex and you do have to THINK and study and be able to understand mathematical concepts. At that point at 17 years old, I checked out. F that... I know enough 'basics' and can come up with enough cool stuff by jamming and noodling on my own, and maybe reading some books. Well, if your goal as a musician is to be in Nirvana, I guess that is acceptable. But what happens is your playing doesn't progress at all and you compound bad habits by not learning proper theory and technique. I was a terrible player in my 20's because I didn't learn anything. Now in my 30's I've revisited some of that theory that I should have learned 20 years ago and my playing is NOTICIBLY improving by leaps and bounds. Things that I hear in my mind, I can now put into sound. I think a lot of people are put off because you do have to use your brain and comprehend some concepts that may not initially make a lot of sense. So they shut it out, reject it as stupid or useless, and say they'll be fine on their own. That's cool if you will accept certain limits a a guitar player. But if you really want to take you playing to an advanced level, you can't do it without properly understanding music theory. Basically what this article is saying is it's all building blocks... you have understand one concept before moving onto the next. It's common sense. All this author is saying is that not getting the concepts in the proper order will confuse people, teach you the wrong things (or get you to the right things much slower) and turn you off to theory. That's when theory seems stupid and pointless.
    NewModelNos15
    I have found theory incredibly useful myself, but I know people who arrived at a similar level of understanding without ever conceptualizing it. I know one guy who never even learned tabs, could shred like a mutherf**#3r. Of course this was based on an understanding of music theory, but an instinctual rather than conceptual one. It happens. Every one is different. I'm very happy studying worked for all of you but you have to admit it comes easier to some than others. This coming from someone in the latter group. C03x1st ya'11
    crazysam23_Atax
    Could the guy who could shred like that communicate his musical ideas in a concise and understandable fashion though?
    NewModelNos15
    He was coherent, if that's what you mean. Uneducated does not mean stupid, you know. Talking to him is a lot easier than you guys, that's for sure.
    Linkerman
    "Would you consider teaching yourself how to drive a car? What could go wrong after all? : Learning to drive by trial and error does not seem the best idea, right?" Bad, really bad example. I'm an amateur race driver (rally, karting, track day racing, etc.), and studying theory in physics and mechanical automotive engineering will only get you so far. The same can be said about lessons by professional pilots; they'll only give you a little bit more of theoretical knowledge to add to all the stuff you already studied. How do you learn, then? By getting on the seat and actually driving . A lot of it is trial and error, too -- getting to know how the car reacts on cornering, or under braking, or at higher speeds... For example, only after spinning around a few times you'll start to be able to counter a snap-oversteer. Hell, when i first learned how to drive, i was told how everything works, and then i started driving around in an empty parking lot, so i could fix any errors without crashing into something/someone. Granted, i already knew how to ride motorbikes, so i already knew the mechanics of clutch shifting, but many people learn to drive by trial and error anyway, without a single problem. Basically, learning to play guitar and learning how to drive have pretty much nothing in common. It was a bad comparison.
    tommaso.zillio
    I was thinking more about learning to drive a car on a public road. Would you take a 16 year old who never drove before, put him behind the wheel, and tell him "that's the highway, go there and learn how to drive"? Is he even going to be able to start the car if you don't explain him how? You have already a lot of knowledge about how to drive. You are like someone who has mastered the basics of music theory and is able to start figuring how to combine them by himself. I never said you don't need practical experience - you do. AFTER you got the basics down (like clutch shifting, steering, braking, etc...).
    Linkerman
    No, but throwing an inexperienced driver into a public road is like throwing an inexperienced guitar player on stage. Your comparison, once again, is really poor -- driving and playing guitar are two different worlds, too different to make analogies between them IMHO (even if they're a little better phrased like the one i just posted).
    tommaso.zillio
    Well, if you don't like the analogy, you don't like the analogy On the other hand, I think you agree on the message behind it, right? That's the really important thing, and I think it's coming across even if the analogy is imperfect.
    Linkerman
    Actually no, i don't agree with the message behind it. I know quite a few guitar players who learned by themselves, "by trial and error", and they're insanely talented. Their writing and composition skills are far beyond most guitar players', and i honestly don't see how their self-taught learning process hindered them, at all.
    tommaso.zillio
    I agree that you don't see how they are hindered. That they are actually hindered or not is another thing though Once you really know your theory, you will wonder how could you do it before. Sure, if you are willing to throw in LOTS of time, effort, frustration, trial and error, then sure, you can compose great songs. Or you can study your theory seriously, and then with the same amount of effort and time compose a whole album that is 10 times better. Anyway, I argued this already in the article. You can believe me or not, it's YOUR musical life
    Linkerman
    No, i don't believe you simple because i've witnessed proof that you're wrong first hand. Now you simply sound like a snake oil seller.
    xtrife
    My god, dude, really? It doesnt take a genius to get what he said and see why the analogy was not wrong or bad. You're also disagreeing with him for the wrong reason. He doesnt say people wont learn by themselves or by trial and error at all, he says it will be a lot better / faster to do it the music theory / teacher way. I must say this reviewer DOES have a lot of patience to put up with these comments and replying to them.
    Linkerman
    He's not a reviewer, this is not a review. This is a veiled self-promoting ad. He's replying to the comments because he has to save face in order to sell his product. Even though he's completely wrong in a lot of fronts.
    tommaso.zillio
    Free to have your own opinion, I guess. At least I DO write articles and put them on UG. Where are your articles?
    tommaso.zillio
    As your comment are written right now, it seems like you are just searching for an excuse for not sitting down, opening a book and start learning. Fair enough, then I'll take this excuse way. Don't learn theory from me. Learn it from somebody else who is competent. Don't give me a penny. Now that I'm not getting ANYTHING from you, I can't be a snake oil salesman, can I?... and I STILL recommend you learn theory. Happy?
    Linkerman
    I know theory, and i've paid an excellent teacher at a music school for lessons for a few years when i first started. So you're completely wrong, once again. "Now that I'm not getting ANYTHING from you, I can't be a snake oil salesman, can I?" That's just plain ridiculous. Even if one doesn't buy your snake oil, you're still a snake oil salesman.
    tommaso.zillio
    Ooooh, so you DIDN'T learn theory by yourself. Kinda makes my point
    Linkerman
    I didn't, but as i said twice before, i know quite a few guitar players who never learned any theory and taught themselves what they know. And they still play extremely well and write excellent music, even better than many guitar players that studied theory and took lessons from professional teachers. There are a couple of ways to learn how to play guitar and write music, and self-teaching is a way as valid as the others IMHO. And to be clear, i also don't agree that learning theory speeds up that process. Every person is a different case, i've seen self-taught musicians progress faster and achieve better results (even in the long run ) than people who took lessons. So no, it doesn't make your point. You're still trying to maintain an argument you lost a while ago.
    tommaso.zillio
    So you have more than one "friend Joe", as I describe in the article. That's grand, it makes your argument more solid I suppose
    Linkerman
    Wrong again. Don't you get tired of failing so much? They're not what you describe as "friend Joe " in you ad (not article), quite the opposite. When anyone asks them something, they're the first ones to tell'em to resort to someone else with their theory-related questions. Actually, more than once they referred me to people who needed help, precisely because they realize their lack of knowledge in that field and know that i have a solid background, having learned from one of the highest regarded guitar teachers in the area. But that doesn't take away the fact that they're extremely good at guitar playing and musical composition -- even better than many people with solid theory backgrounds, like myself -- and that they got to that level by themselves pretty quickly -- again, even faster than many people with solid theory backgrounds, like myself . It shouldn't be needed, but i'm going to repeat myself since you're clearly not very bright: Each person is a different case. Some people need and will benefit greatly from studying theory and having planned lessons, others can do perfectly fine by themselves. In your ad (not article) you try to make people believe that it's absolutely necessary to learn theory if they want to be any good. It isn't. You're wrong, get over it. Also, after noticing some of your replies to other dissonant voices that came up, it's extremely obvious that you may have a lot of music theory knowledge, but you're not very knowledgeable in other areas...
    Calymos
    Thank you for being a sane person in an insane collection of people.
    crazysam23_Atax
    Here's the problem, Linkerman, you're sitting here going, "I know guys who didn't learn theory, and it worked for them! Hmmmph!" You seem to think, because a feel talented people muddled through learning the basics of theory, that means people shouldn't study or don't need theory in general. But the problem with that line of thinking is that most of us don't have the talent to just muddle through it. "But that doesn't take away the fact that they're extremely good at guitar playing and musical composition -- even better than many people with solid theory backgrounds, like myself -- and that they got to that level by themselves pretty quickly -- again, even faster than many people with solid theory backgrounds, like myself ." This is great. It doesn't mean a thing though. Just imagine how much faster they would have reached that place of being excellent composers if they had sat down and learned theory.
    lightdark
    I do think that Linkerman said that he knows theory. I really wish people would read all of something before they argue with it. I do agree with varying points of both sides of this argument. Let me try to clear some things up between you both. Linkerman's correct where he said the whole thing about needing to actually do something instead of sit there and study it. I could study theory all of my life, but if I never actually play anything, how will I know what to do if I all of a sudden have to play in an orchestra. I'd freeze up. Now, I'm not saying that I study theory all of the time, or that I play in a symphony. I don't do either. I do however have a good understanding of intermediate to advanced theory, and I have the technical abilities to play some intermediate to advanced things on the guitar. There are some people who can play by ear, and are great at it. My Grandfather could play the organ and piano by ear. He couldn't read music, and he didn't know theory. If he heard a song he could pretty much play it. That doesn't have anything to do with composing, but it's further proof of one side of the argument. I know people who know scale shapes. Not the theory that goes into making those patterns. They are pretty decent at soloing and improvising on the spot. Theory is a good tool, and opens up a whole bunch of possibilities, but if someone just wants to learn a few songs and maybe make one for someone, they don't really need theory to do that. after all, if it sounds good, and it's musical, then it's music right. I do know theory, I can play the guitar. I am mainly self taught. I have had a few people to guide me, but I learned all of my theory almost entirely by myself.
    crazysam23_Atax
    "Linkerman's correct where he said the whole thing about needing to actually do something instead of sit there and study it. I could study theory all of my life, but if I never actually play anything, how will I know what to do if I all of a sudden have to play in an orchestra." Tom covered this already in the article. I would argue, by the way, that if someone doesn't study music theory and the technical aspects of their instrument, that they're not a musician. They might still be a composer or guitar/bass/piano player. However, if they don't study music (read: theory) actively or haven't done a lot of that in the past, then they're not a musician. They're simply a player of their respective instrument.
    lightdark
    So you're saying that my Grandfather, and all musicians that don't know theory, aren't musicians. That doesn't make any sense. You don't have to be a composer to be a musician. Plus, you completely ignored my point. And just so you know, Tom didn't cover that in the article. I re-read it to make sure.
    NewModelNos15
    crazysam do you work for this guy or are you really that gullible? He NEVER said people shouldn't study. I'm beginning to think your entire existence here is part of this guys' ad campaign, or some larger, more nefarious force.
    crazysam23_Atax
    Hahahaha! Because I agree with him, I must be in league with him? Oh, that logic...hahaha!
    tommaso.zillio
    "your entire existence here is part of this guys' ad campaign, or some larger, more nefarious force." Crazysam... resistance is futile... you will be assimilated... by the "Hess-clan" or whatever hahahaha. NewModel: that's hilarious. You made my day
    lightdark
    Well, Micheal Angelo Batio says that he developed his double guitar playing completely on stage. That blows the analogy into pieces.