Play Now Theory Later

The point of this article is to contest the viewpoint that a musician who wants to learn how to rock before they learn how Canon was composed in D Major will be somewhat limited in their ability to play and compose music.

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First, let's get one thing straight: I am NOT writing this article to downplay the importance of learning music theory. The point of this article is to contest the viewpoint that a musician who wants to learn how to rock before they learn how Canon was composed in D Major will be somewhat limited in their ability to play and compose music. The key argument I will be making is that you can learn theory after learning how to rock, without even trying to learn it. I will give you a bit of background about me. Not because I want to feel like a celebrity or because I have an ego (and I do), but because this article relates to guitarists like me and therefore my own experience can serve as foundation for my argument. I love many genres of music. I believe that learning an instrument can give you a greater appreciation/understanding of music and can open your mind to other genres because of your love for the sound of your instrument. I was never into Guns 'n' Roses until I started playing guitar and heard Slash make his guitar sing. When I was very young I enjoyed listening to classical music. I never delved into the composure of it, I had no need to. I wasn't going to play the violin or the piano, I just loved the melodious sounds. I had a basic understanding of sheet music because I learnt the recorder in grade two (didn't we all). I didn't take in any of the theory taught in high school music class, I felt more enjoyment could be had from watching grass grow. I just played with the percussion effects on the keyboards. The first thing I learnt on guitar was the Peter Gunn theme. It was unintentional, someone taught me to play it. I had no motivation to learn guitar, although I did envy those who could. Then I saw a band at my high school cover Blink 182's Dammit. I was hooked on that riff and all I wanted to do was play it. I wanted to pick up a guitar and rock, like so many of you when you first got that urge to learn. I bought a Strat copy at age thirteen and began lessons with a teacher. I received three lessons before my teacher told me he was accepting an offer to teach music overseas (was I that bad?). In those lessons I learnt five major things: 01. A proper picking/strumming action and how to hold a plectrum. 02. I had tightened my strings so much my guitar neck had bent. 03. The 12 Bar Blues, Joy To The World, Amazing Grace. 04. How to play sheet music using the first 3 frets. 05. Playing guitar starts to feel like work if someone tells you to do it and what to do. Learning sheet music was boring. I wanted to play Dammit, dammit! Scarred from the lessons, I did not seek out another guitar teacher. A friend introduced me to the concept of guitar tablature and I got hooked on that. Many months went by, I got better and better at playing and slowly started learning more complex songs. The day I learnt Dammit was perhaps the happiest day in my guitar playing life. But I didn't stop there, and neither did you people with the songs that made you want to learn. I moved onto other music that made more complex use of guitars e.g. Guns 'n' Roses, Eagles, Bon Jovi, Avenged Sevenfold etc. Theory gives music a universal language. A language that we can speak using any instrument we learn how to play. When two instruments speak the same language they produce a harmonious sound. Without this language we would be unable to form bands/orchestras/quartets/quintets/sextets/whatever. I believe that you do not need to want to learn theory to be able to learn it. You will, however, need to want to compose your own music. With this desire you will explore and discover it all for yourself. After years of playing guitar without ever having touched a musical theory book, I can tell you that most (if not all) of it will come naturally with time and practice. Whether our names for items of theory are consistent or not is irrelevant, I've still learnt them and attached my own labels to them. Down the track I will pick up the names you use for items of theory from talking to you, e.g. melody, pitch, harmony, octave, scale, modal etc. The transition will be easy because I already know the content of these, all I am missing are your labels. When I learn these we can make our instruments speak the same language. If you disagree with me at this point, then I ask you, how did musicians compose songs and play in harmony before any concept of universal theory was developed? Up until a couple of weeks ago I didn't even know what music theory was. I looked up a few definitions and some lessons and realised it was all that I had discovered over my years of playing guitar. I learnt my own theory through mimicking those I idolise musically. Every guitar technique I learnt came from tablature. I learnt scales from solos in songs like All Torn Down (The Living End). I learnt that the most efficient way to play these scales was to use all four fingers. I learnt the names of scales through tuning my guitar with an electronic tuner and saying right, that's a C#. I learnt an order of notes through moving the scale up a fret at a time and saying that one's a D. I know that the B string is tuned 4 steps higher than the G string as opposed to the rest of the strings which have 5 steps difference between each other. From this I concluded that scales must move up or down a fret when you shift to the B string. I learnt that melody isn't fret 12, 13, 14, it's 12, 13, 15. Skip a fret here, add one there. Patterns such as these form melodious combinations fit for solos. I can now improvise solos in a specific key. Because I made these discoveries for myself, I did not stop at learning what was written in the book like some (but not all!) of the theory-first guitarists I know did. I started exploring my own techniques for creating effects and attached mathematics and semantics to my guitar playing. Does that sound like limited ability to play and compose music? If it sounds like I am boasting, then good. I am proud of what I have achieved by myself, and I'm sure there are many on this site who have a similar story or can atleast relate. Yes, many successful self-taught guitarists eventually turned to theory books to further their composition skills, but many did just what I did. Having never learnt theory formally, I cannot accurately compare this method of learning to my own. I can, however, offer you my opinion based on seeing other people learning formally. Learning theory my way was a lot of fun. It was a great personal discovery every time I noticed something like a pattern. I didn't sit there rote learning it from a book, or trying to transfer what I'm reading onto the strings. Apart from my few lessons, I never learnt something on guitar that I didn't want to learn. I do not think there is anything wrong with learning theory-first or simultaneously with learning to play guitar. If you believe that is the best way to learn, or you had a keen enough interest in theory to want to learn it, more power to you. Contrary to the impression this article may give you, I actually believe this to be the most efficient way to learn guitar for the purposes of composing music. My method took longer, though I felt it was far more enjoyable. And I do not feel limited in my ability to compose music. I am fed up with the criticism about those who are eager to get playing before they even hear the word scale. If like me, these musicians want to learn how to compose later on, they will. As I said earlier, as long as you want to learn how to compose music then theory will come to you naturally through self discovery. Thank you for reading my lengthy viewpoint, even if you disagree with it. I respect alternative opinion and welcome any comments you may have. Peace.

127 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    sloppyjaloppy86
    Great article. Good to see someone who can present their own ideas and also accept those of others.
    sionsion
    Great article. Sounds almost exactly like me, I have been teaching myself from tabs for over a year now, and never learned any formal theory. I used to play piano/keyboard, and the lessons turned into a chore. Rock on
    Birds
    battleguard wrote: And so what happens when you play with a band and you are told that you will be playing in Abm and under the progression yknow.. w/e.. FmMaj7 to Ebadd11.. how dyou propose to play with the changes w/o theory? Theory also teaches what notes sound good with what.. and im sure you can find that out by playing as well.. very very difficult tho, because some tones that sound good arent instantaneously apparent, and then an experimenter might wave the notes over the progression as bad sounding.. if u see what i mean.. Also.. w/o theory.. dyou KNOW what a FmMaj7 is?
    What happens? I attach your labels to my knowledge. If you told me to play in a particular key and I didn't know it, it would take you 5 seconds to explain to me what you were on about. That said, through my experiences playing I already know many of your labels and I could play in FmMaj7 if you asked me to. I know it is F with a minor triad and a major seventh chord, something you'll find for commonly in the genre of jazz, but did I need to know that? Or did I just need to know how to play it and keep it sounding good? And yes, it is difficult to learn what sounds good just by playing. It took many songs and many hours of experimentation. I said in the article that learning theory formally is more efficient. Nonetheless, I still learnt what sounds good and enjoyed every minute of it.
    Birds
    randyrhoads#1 wrote: not that everyone wnats to, but simply put shred=theory. Ask satriani, vai, petrucci, gilbert, malmsteen and even down to slash, wylde, dime etc. they all know what key, what scale and usually what mode they are playing in. you will not naturally pick up on any of those three things. You might use them mistakenly but not on purpose. Sure you develop some theory just playing but knowing what you are doing and where you can go from there opens up a whole new and wonderful way to play guitar
    I use them on purpose all the time. You think scales, keys and modes aren't named in some tabs? Or that I don't know what I'm playing when I improvise and compose? Not that it should matter, because names are irrelevant as long as you can produce something that sounds good, but I do. And I have played songs all over the fretboard, so I knew what worked and what didn't before I knew the names of scales.
    David Fyfield
    Thanks for the article, This is excellent because it opens debate and then people with different points of veiw can express themselves. Variety is the spice of life. Its good to ask the question why? when you discover sounds that work together, and why not when they don't. Often when a song writer goes outside a key and returns or finds something works that is not perfectly harmonic it exites the listeners ears and by presenting a musical suprise, can give great pleasure to the listener. A simple example of this is "Dock of the bay" chords. I think most people would agree that combining music theory with an open mind to accept anthing is a good approach. I do not know of any guitar players I have met and talked to who do not whish they know more and most regret not being able to sight read music This does not mean you have to play what others have played. I do not think anyone would whish to "Paint by numbers" or play exactly something that was recorded and set in time, although I do appreciate the sence of achievement when, say, you play "Blackbird" exacly how Paul Macartney plays it Live. You move on as a player, feel confident that you can, and then use it as a party peice rather than performing it. Isn't it wonderful that everything is OK. There is no right or wrong way and every individual is free to choose their own path.
    ZootCst
    Thanks for contributing to the stereotype other musicians have that guitar players don't know what the hell they're doing. How do you get a guitar player to play quitely? Give him sheet music.
    justin_fraser
    Jeez, Im kind of scared by the response in here. I am with all the guys who disagree here. About everything battleguard said I agree with. You need to have theory if you want to solo. Sure you can figure notes out that sound good, but all you are doing is playing notes that would be in a scale that you couldve just learned in 5 minutes rather than a half hour of doodling. It makes so much more sense to just learn theory, not be lazy, and explore. Dont make it a chore of course, have fun with it, but with theory, you can express yourself so much more. Now I will agree that if you are a beginner you should have tons of fun while playing. Dont worry about theory just yet if you are just starting, but have fun. There does reach a point where tabs dont help your playing anymore (and Ive hit that point last year) and you need to move on to bigger and better things.
    battleguard
    Birds wrote: I disagree with that. The self taught are accustomed to experimentation and self discovery out of necessity. We never stop looking for innovation because our education did not come from a theory text book, it came from our own exploration. You can expand on current musical theory all you like no doubt it will help music as a whole - but when it comes to guitar playing, we are the ones who produce the original sound. I have my own style that is characterised by no teacher or extent of learning theory, only my own exploration. That is why song structure differs so widely from culture to culture. That is why we have a hundred different genres. There wasnt a universal line of knowledge passed down from generation to generation and expanded upon. There were many lines, starting from many people. It is hard to play outside of the rules you have been given hence western songs, for example, follow a similar structure. But if you havent been given these rules, you produce your own and therefore an original sound. Comparing music to a spoken language is apples to oranges. You cant invent spoken language and expect people to understand it. You can invent music and people can enjoy the sound of it. I agree that you cannot improvise without theory. But who said we havent learnt theory? We just learnt it for ourselves. How can you say our method fails if we know it succeeds? If you believe you cannot pick up on theory by playing a hundred different tabs and analysing them for similarities and contrasts - then fine - stick with rote learning your theory. But Ill have to cry ignorance on that one. Lastly, I have taken styles and techniques from a hundred different artists, combining and modifying them. So who is expanding on others knowledge? My improvisation would leave you guessing for hours where all the influences came from. Who says my improvisation is based solely on practicing what Slash and Tom DeLonge play? Learning your theory formally wont make you any more susceptible to innovation than I. In fact, I believe it to be quite the opposite.
    And so what happens when you play with a band and you are told that you will be playing in Abm and under the progression yknow.. w/e.. FmMaj7 to Ebadd11.. how dyou propose to play with the changes w/o theory? Theory also teaches what notes sound good with what.. and im sure you can find that out by playing as well.. very very difficult tho, because some tones that sound good arent instantaneously apparent, and then an experimenter might wave the notes over the progression as bad sounding.. if u see what i mean.. Also.. w/o theory.. dyou KNOW what a FmMaj7 is?
    goods2006
    I've always found that as I learn new things on guitar (theory type things) I pick up the theory with it. If I want to play blues for example, and I learn a couple of blues progressions and scales I learn how and why they are formed at the same time. It's the drive to learn something, and not just a little about the something but everything there is to know about it including the theory. I hope that made sense.
    randyrhoads#1
    not that everyone wnats to, but simply put shred=theory. Ask satriani, vai, petrucci, gilbert, malmsteen and even down to slash, wylde, dime etc. they all know what key, what scale and usually what mode they are playing in. you will not naturally pick up on any of those three things. You might use them mistakenly but not on purpose. Sure you develop some theory just playing but knowing what you are doing and where you can go from there opens up a whole new and wonderful way to play guitar
    Trutru_iknow
    I completely agree with you. I also taught my self six years ago on death metal. I don't think i could have picked a better genre for me. All the scales and theory came with the genre. I am now 17, and at the beginning of the school year decided to take guitar to better my skills, but found that I can play better than the teacher, and he didn't know anything but the basics, so I dropped the class. Anyway, it is awesome to be able to teach your self and go "God damn" when you learn something new. Excellent article.
    Birds
    dgme92 wrote: i have never touched a theory book, but i completely agree with the idea that you CAN learn things, like theory, without knowing WHAT they are. at least that's what i could decipher from the article. to the author: excellent work. keep writing articles
    You deciphered correctly! I wish I had written the article so it didn't need deciphering Unfortunately, it is a difficult topic to write on without making mistakes or invoking confusion. But I think 90% of people understood what I was saying. Thank you! I will be writing more articles shortly.
    Birds
    battleguard wrote: I disagree completely.. no one will get any farther if each new person has to learn and relearn by doing and finding out by themselves.. no one learned their prime language by just messing around and seeing what sounded good.. To get better.. you have to build on others' knowledge.. What they have found out.. then take it farther.. otherwise.. you get to a certain level.. and you stop growing.. Thats what theory is.. others' knowledge put down on paper.. What they find works.. not only audibly but also technical.. and music, while a creative art, is just as much a technical subject.. If you put A C and E together.. they WILL sound good.. or good to most people.. thats technically known.. a deaf person could do that.. If you play songs without knowing what youre playing.. then FIRST OF ALL.. YOU CANNOT IMPROVISE W/O THEORY at all.. If you practice what Slash and Blink 182 play and improvise using that.. lol where do you end up?! You'll play an Am and play it over and over again.. maybe get a note or two farther because it locally sounds good.. but not far at all..
    I disagree with that. The self taught are accustomed to experimentation and self discovery out of necessity. We never stop looking for innovation because our education did not come from a theory text book, it came from our own exploration. You can expand on current musical theory all you like no doubt it will help music as a whole - but when it comes to guitar playing, we are the ones who produce the original sound. I have my own style that is characterised by no teacher or extent of learning theory, only my own exploration. That is why song structure differs so widely from culture to culture. That is why we have a hundred different genres. There wasnt a universal line of knowledge passed down from generation to generation and expanded upon. There were many lines, starting from many people. It is hard to play outside of the rules you have been given hence western songs, for example, follow a similar structure. But if you havent been given these rules, you produce your own and therefore an original sound. Comparing music to a spoken language is apples to oranges. You cant invent spoken language and expect people to understand it. You can invent music and people can enjoy the sound of it. I agree that you cannot improvise without theory. But who said we havent learnt theory? We just learnt it for ourselves. How can you say our method fails if we know it succeeds? If you believe you cannot pick up on theory by playing a hundred different tabs and analysing them for similarities and contrasts - then fine - stick with rote learning your theory. But Ill have to cry ignorance on that one. Lastly, I have taken styles and techniques from a hundred different artists, combining and modifying them. So who is expanding on others knowledge? My improvisation would leave you guessing for hours where all the influences came from. Who says my improvisation is based solely on practicing what Slash and Tom DeLonge play? Learning your theory formally wont make you any more susceptible to innovation than I. In fact, I believe it to be quite the opposite.
    koh132001
    Amen dude, it also sounds exactly same as me. Couz I never learn formally and not even bother to buy a theory books or music sheets. I been trying to build up my skills with the cover songs and figure out my own tunes and technique for past 5 years and now I look back my guitar history, is like BAMm how come I learned all those weird notes and complex solo back there without an instructor or a guide. It is quite true, dude.
    dgme92
    i have never touched a theory book, but i completely agree with the idea that you CAN learn things, like theory, without knowing WHAT they are. at least that's what i could decipher from the article. to the author: excellent work. keep writing articles
    MoreDread
    My two cents: I was classically trained from 9-15. However, I was not taught theory, just how to read the notes put in front of me (like most kids are taught in band, etc...). At 15 I got an electric guitar and my instructor was not pleased. He did start working with me on it, but I eventually stopped taking lessons. One of the last things he taught me was the minor pentatonic scales. I vaguely remember forming the basics of what would become my soloing style for the next...20-something years. I learned to play by ear - even teaching myself to play Van Halen, Tony Macalpine, Satriani note for note. However, when I went to solo, I was a one-trick pony, pulling out the only flexible tool I knew to use. I had learned how the five pentatonic patterns interlock on the neck, and that's where I lived when I solo'd. I heard the key the song was in, and away I went. But I was a pattern player, meaning if I could not figure out where I should be, of if the song did not fit those pentatonic patterns, I was left to noodle around until I found my way, but I did it very well. Now, I say all that because I can see both sides of this coin. A musician can look at a chord chart, see the progression, the key it's in, and play an entire song without needing any other information. Not knowing theory will severely limit your ability to WORK as a musician (not play in a band, but actually get paying work as a fill-in player). You cannot do anything like that if you can't sight read AND if you don't know what the IV chord is if the song is in G without having to think about it. However, I can play with any band, and it's not beacuse I know my theory well... I HEAR it all and I feel it..and that's more important to me. I'm very flexible, and I don't play the chord shapes many were taught to play - I play chord fragments that I hear and that I think fit the song and where I need to be to setup to solo. When I play, trust me, no one in the audience cares if I know the theory behind what I'm doing. It only matters when I'm communicating with musicians, and it DOES matter from time to time. If I had learned how to play with chord changes earlier in my life, my playing would have been more melodic, but...would I be a better player? I don't think so - my ability to play well by ear is more important to me than what I know about music theory - I have been on stage with pro musicians who had zero "feel" in their playing, and who needed a chord chart just to see how the song went. I'm so used to doing the "I hear it...here's how you play it" dance, that I can do it in seconds. Key changes on the fly, etc...are no problem. AND I've forced myself to expand beyond patterns when I solo by landing on "bad" notes on purpose and finding my way out...LOL. I'm biased because of how I learned, but to me, it's much more important to be able to communicate how YOU feel than it is to bury yourself in theory. BUT I never set out to be a pro musician. If that's what you want, then you have no choice - you MUST know theory inside and out. To me that's the thing - if you want to make music, make music. If you want to WORK in music, learn theory. Robert Johnson and a host of other legendary players didn't learn theory before they played, and you don't need to either...UNLESS you want to make a living at it.
    DTheater
    I agree that you do need to build on other's knowledge, but music is more personal if you figure some things on your own.
    battleguard
    I disagree completely.. no one will get any farther if each new person has to learn and relearn by doing and finding out by themselves.. no one learned their prime language by just messing around and seeing what sounded good.. To get better.. you have to build on others' knowledge.. What they have found out.. then take it farther.. otherwise.. you get to a certain level.. and you stop growing.. Thats what theory is.. others' knowledge put down on paper.. What they find works.. not only audibly but also technical.. and music, while a creative art, is just as much a technical subject.. If you put A C and E together.. they WILL sound good.. or good to most people.. thats technically known.. a deaf person could do that.. If you play songs without knowing what youre playing.. then FIRST OF ALL.. YOU CANNOT IMPROVISE W/O THEORY at all.. If you practice what Slash and Blink 182 play and improvise using that.. lol where do you end up?! You'll play an Am and play it over and over again.. maybe get a note or two farther because it locally sounds good.. but not far at all..
    cosbo3
    i self-taught myself when i got a crappy guitar as a prize at an amusement park, ever since then which has been less than a year i have tried hard to teach myself and have taught myself okay, though still need practice to speed up te process of trying to play solos for songs
    i bleed metal
    great article, ive been teaching myself guitar for about 2 years, and its been great. i figured id take lessons to speed up the process by learning some music theory, i figured it was about that time. all ive learned is that i ****ing hate music teachers and im sticking to teaching myself. took me about a month of lessons to realize that.
    KurtSlashJimi
    if u wanna quit guitar after playin for a week then learn theory first if you want to fall in love with guitar and sit in your room for hours playing it then lear all your favorite songs first (like me)
    KurtSlashJimi
    hell i can rock but i dont no shit about theory (well accually i know a little but it doesnt help me rok) good article i suport ur ideas fully
    birdmilk13
    Here is my deal...I'm actually still in high school and am lucky enough to have a music program that is thriving(as opposed to being cut like many other school's music programs). I have been playing guitar for 3 or 4 years now and I thought I understood a lot about theory. I took the the music theory class as well as the guitar class and realized that what I thought was theory was just the basics. I now am so much better at guitar than before and it is because of music theory. So what i am saying is that you shouldn't just stop and think that theory will come naturally as you play: it doesn't. You should become good at your instrument first(I do agree with that) and then theory. Use guitar to help you understand theory and theory to help you understand guitar. Although a few things you said were slightly ignorant, it was a good article.
    br4vw
    Good article - people need to realise there is no one universal way to learning an instrument - elitist guitarists are often quick to criticise and equally as quick to forget their humble roots.
    Habit Zero
    Great article, I feel much the same way, and in fact I am going to be asking my guitar teacher to step away from scales and start teaching me techniques, so that I can finish up taking lessons, and progress on my own (and so I have the cash for a couple piano lessons).
    perky_123
    wahay i wroked out taht thing with the b-string aswell by ear that u have to move up or down a fret, maybe someday i will be a guitar god like you then
    Birds
    justin_fraser wrote: Jeez, Im kind of scared by the response in here. I am with all the guys who disagree here. About everything battleguard said I agree with. You need to have theory if you want to solo. Sure you can figure notes out that sound good, but all you are doing is playing notes that would be in a scale that you couldve just learned in 5 minutes rather than a half hour of doodling. It makes so much more sense to just learn theory, not be lazy, and explore. Dont make it a chore of course, have fun with it, but with theory, you can express yourself so much more. Now I will agree that if you are a beginner you should have tons of fun while playing. Dont worry about theory just yet if you are just starting, but have fun. There does reach a point where tabs dont help your playing anymore (and Ive hit that point last year) and you need to move on to bigger and better things.
    You do need theory if you want to solo. We have theory, we just learnt it differently to you. If you have the patience to learn theory formally, by all means do it. In the short term you will be able to express yourself better than guitarists who do not learn it formally. However, down the track we pick up what you have learnt and are in no way limited in our ability to express ourselves.
    Birds
    I agree with you MoreDread. That is a very good view to take on it. I also think it is fantastic that so many people continued with guitar despite dropping lessons or theory.
    Birds
    troyponce wrote: I disagree with the premise of the article. Learning names of scales and intervals makes everything so much easier. Is it boring as hell? Yeah, it is, but when I'm trying to teach other people in a band a song I wrote, I want to be able to just say the interval and have them know what I'm talking about. If you guys just want to play Blink 182, then stick with what you are doing. If you want to become better musicians then you are going to have to study a whole lot more. Tabs won't help you improvise over Funnels or Countdown.
    I have clearly stated in the article that it is more efficient to learn theory formally as opposed to naturally. For the record, I have learnt the names of scales from tablature and if you were to ask me for a particular key or scale I would be able to play it. IF I didn't know these labels, well, I could sit down for a day and just attach them. Because I already know how to play them. I think you misinterpreted the playing of Blink 182 songs. They were simply the songs that made some of us want to learn guitar. I have long surpassed them and like I said, moved onto songs that make more complex use of guitars. I am also quite confident with my improvisation skills. You really cannot judge our method of learning until you have tried it for yourself. Unfortunately, if you have already learnt theory formally, it is a little too late! People, if you have criticism please read the entire article before posting it - you might find I have already answered your comments.
    ___MUSICA___
    Then I've reach a mechanical level that is able to copy exactly what was written in the tab, but it doesn't satisfy me. Being able to play exactly what was recorded doesn't make a person a good musician. He's like a dummy with no soul. Music is an art, and artistry is alwalys associated with creation. Whenever you study a song try to absorb as much ideas as you can which you can use on youw own improvisation. You will not be able to understand why does Malmsteen do that, or figure out what would Satriani do if you doesn't have a good theoretical foundation.
    mdv
    Damn good man, it's like if you just said it for me, that's what we call talent, are we agreed in these?, we're not typical guitarist, or musicians, we just like music stuff, 5 stars article men
    aintlikeyou
    Absolutely every guitar player knows music theory. It's just that a part of them don't know the names of the things they play. I was a "**** theory I don't want to put boundaries on my playing" kind of guy. And one day I realised that i was playing natural minor, harmonic minor, major scale mostly. The fact that I didn't knew their names didn't mean I wasn't playing in them. And that was the moment I realised this truth - "YOU NEED TO KNOW THE RULES TO BREAK THEM" If you don't know them, you'll just play along them without even knowing it. So everybody who thinks he is serious about his playing should consider knowing music theory as a must.
    me504
    that was hopefully a rhetorical question for any whom it wasnt, i dub the music nazi
    me504
    i started playing almost two years ago; from my orchestra class in high school i had learned that if someone was telling me what to do it wasn't near as much fun. so i picked up the guitar and started learning songs that i thought sounded cool. i enjoyed this much more, and within seven months could play all the way through bark at the moon and one along with sections of other songs. from these songs, and messing around, i had learned that some notes sounded better together than others. after my eighth or ninth month i was able improv solos by accident, i had just started playing random notes along with my cd's, and found what sounded good. there are some differences between me and the average guitarist, first i play anywhere from 3 to 7 hours a day, second my parents dont mind me playing loud. i have several friends who went the theory first route, and then quit. the few that remained openly admit that while i may not have had a name for what i was doing other than that cool little pattern, it sounded good. now i have started learning a little theory and found that all it is is giving a name to what i do anyway. does this make me a bad player?
    Birds
    Imago Dei wrote: Great Article. I agree with you that much of music is intuitive. The fundamental theory rule of "if it sounds good it is" is so subject it can hardly be called a rule. I would like to point out that there is a difference between theory and application. I'm not so sure that knowing the notes on the fretboard is theory. I would consider it the application of theory to guitar. What is true of theory for the guitar is true of theory for the piano. Of course, we can discover theory through learning the fretboard and kill two birds with one stone. Also, I would like to point out that learning theory through songs limits your knowledge of theory to only those songs you have learned. For nearly every theory there is a musical example. Some of them are more common than others though. For example, (Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay has a chord progression of I, III maj, IV, II maj. I know of no other song that has that progression. Could I "discover" that on my own? Yes. But what is the likelihood? I appreciate that you point out that learning theory as you learn guitar is a more "efficient" method. I wish your guitar teacher had the confidence in his own ability to inspire you to learn more by tearing apart "dammit" and learning why that song works for you. Learning how a piece of music speaks to you is the absolute best way to learn to speak to others through music.
    Thank you. That is a very good point - there is indeed a difference between theory and application, as learning application on a fretboard will make it difficult for you to carry this to another instrument. It can be done, however, if you translate it from the fretboard into theory and then apply it to the other instrument. I picked up Imagine by John Lennon on the piano the other day - not the most difficult of songs, but I doubt I could have done it so easily had I not been a guitarist. As for learning theory through songs - this will limit you if all you do is learn the songs. If, however, you have a will to compose songs or explore like I emphasised in the article...well, you will eventually come across every chord progression possible. Particularly as I had no formal theory to guide me, early on my playing developed some interesting progressions and structures that I haven't found in any songs I know. Kudos to Otis Redding for stepping outside the square On a side note, I think regardless of how we learn to play our instrument or the type of music we play, we are all incredibly lucky to have the passion for music that we do. There really is nothing like it.
    Imago Dei
    Great Article. I agree with you that much of music is intuitive. The fundamental theory rule of "if it sounds good it is" is so subject it can hardly be called a rule. I would like to point out that there is a difference between theory and application. I'm not so sure that knowing the notes on the fretboard is theory. I would consider it the application of theory to guitar. What is true of theory for the guitar is true of theory for the piano. Of course, we can discover theory through learning the fretboard and kill two birds with one stone. Also, I would like to point out that learning theory through songs limits your knowledge of theory to only those songs you have learned. For nearly every theory there is a musical example. Some of them are more common than others though. For example, (Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay has a chord progression of I, III maj, IV, II maj. I know of no other song that has that progression. Could I "discover" that on my own? Yes. But what is the likelihood? I appreciate that you point out that learning theory as you learn guitar is a more "efficient" method. I wish your guitar teacher had the confidence in his own ability to inspire you to learn more by tearing apart "dammit" and learning why that song works for you. Learning how a piece of music speaks to you is the absolute best way to learn to speak to others through music.
    purpletext
    Zar Mulix wrote: I agree with the article as well. I've seen alot of people criticize many for not knowing what key they're in or what scale they are using and so on. I feel that a true musician uses theory as a tool, but never as a way to write a song (if that makes any sense) Creativity comes from the musician's mind, and therefore theory should be used as a guide, not as rules. On that note, I know nothing about scales or keys and modes. I just play what I feel like playing, and that is what I feel helps people keep playing. I'll eventually learn it, once I have the skill and creativity to write my own songs. But for now Racer X songs remind me of alot of scales I've seen, so I try playing them.
    The greatest composers studied theory religiously and slaved over every harmony and chord in the song. I agree with you that if you spend enough time with music you intuitively start to learn theory. however; you never really learn how or why that "one" note works so perfectly where it is. Theory is not the devil. Theory is a means to control what you're doing musically so you can get the sound you want where you want it every time. On another note if you ever feel like playing guitar is chore why are you playing? I play because I love it.
    SleepyHollow
    This is so true. I'm glad I'm not alone out there in terms of dudes who learn how to play guitar, but unconsciously pick up theory along the way. My only wish is that I knew how to sight read fluently >.< Slash consciously knew how to play scales/modes. but they aren't that important... Good article =]
    thrasherboy
    It is boring because you have to learn how to remember all the note names and how to find the notes
    thrasherboy
    I am in the middle of learning the guitar theory and I though it was fun at first but now i think it is starting to get old. you just learn a bunch of blues scales. Though it does help you in the long run it is boring!!!! So basicly if you want to be a great guitar player learn the theory Thrasherboy
    InstrumentBlend
    Lol, so many comments. But yeah, good article. You stated both sides of the argument in a good and constructive way.
    Birds
    I think many of you are missing the point of my article. I did NOT downplay the importance of learning theory in the composition of music. I stated this in the very first paragraph! All I ever claimed is that you can pick up theory naturally in an informal manner, and that formal learning (i.e. through lessons) isn't the only way to learn theory. That said, __MUSICA__ I think you contradict yourself when you talk about music being a "creative" art. How can you claim it so, yet at the same time instigate a rule about an artist having to know the convention? I DO understand why Malmsteen did this or Satriani did that, but do I HAVE to? If I can produce music that sounds good to me and others, then what does it matter what I know? The ends justifies the means... Here is a great article that you should have a read of: http://www.ultimate-guitar.com/columns/g... musical_snobbery.html 4-string-4-eva, I did learn why and I can put it in my own context. People, please read the whole article before commenting!
    4-string-4-eva
    no, no, no, no, no. sorry but i disagree completely. i used to think the same...'i know which notes go where' but you know what your idols did but you dont understand why and this means that you wont be able to put it in your own context.
    ___MUSICA___
    I learned to play Carlos Santana's riff in the song Smooth at the time that I was not oriented with other scales rather than major scale. And the intervals he used creates a lot of confusion to me. Why would he use the notes G A and G# in a single riff? Isn't that illegal? I also want to play the solo part but my mechanical ability at that time wouldn't allow me. As with other technically demanding solos, I decide to improvice a solo. But why does my do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do formula wouldn't fit in the chord progression? The progression was Am-F-E. At that time all I know is that Am is relative to C major so I should use the C major scale. But why is that the chord used is E not Em?
    Scaii
    actually what the author is trying to say is that you can "rock" or play music even without proper education on music theory, but as time passes and you progress on your playing there may come a time that you develop your own musical sense. What the author is trying to say is that the theory may be developed later on in your music carrer.
    ___MUSICA___
    I personally encourage learning theories. Learning Musical Theory offers a very usefull tool in your musical progress. Some who commented here said that they aren't armed with much theory but claimes that they can rock and play solos in different bands. Yes, musically talented persons can do that. But ever heard of a musical-theory-ignorant person who can play improvised solo on a standard jazz progression? Most rock styles use pentatonic scales which is based on major scale which is the most natural scale. Even a 5 yr old can feel the naturalness of major scale interval when he hears the do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do played on a piano. So it's not that hard to improvise solos in rock music.