Teach Yourself Guitar. Part Five - Balancing Practical And Theoretical

Last time we looked at learning songs, this time we're looking at learning theory. Why you should do it, and why you shouldn't go too far ahead of yourself.

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Welcome to the fifth installment of the Teach Yourself Guitar series. This time, it's on to theory with us. Strap yourselves in; this will be the beginning of one hell of a journey. You will never master music theory, nor will anybody else for that matter. Learning theory is a constant pursuit, with some chasing the knowledge for most of their lives. How deep you go into theory depends entirely on what you want out of it. Music theory is a tool for your use. If all you want to play is the major scale then all you will need to learn is the major scale. However, theory is not particularly step-by-step. There's a lot to it and it can be learned fairly randomly at times. Nevertheless, it is dreadfully important that the practical side is not neglected. Learning about music is important, but seeing it in action will help you dramatically. Some sections of music theory can be ridiculously complex, especially if you haven't learned necessary information that could help things along. Putting it into context, by working with it and playing your instrument, can help in overcoming this. This is why it is important to have learned some music first. Not only can you use these songs to examine theory, you can also use them to practise it. This head start will become very beneficial indeed. So here we go again. Shall we begin?

Teach Yourself Guitar by Tom colohue

Part Five: Balancing Practical And Theoretical What Is Music Theory? Music theory is a collection of conventions that are used in the analysis and composition of music. This means that theory is not a group of rules. Instead, it is the knowledge of popular opinion concerning what works and what does not when it comes to music. It is the work of generations of playing and performance. For years, bands and artists have been playing, working out what works well together, then using it. Learning your theory replaces the first two steps. Instead, we can lean on their knowledge of theory to advance our own playing much faster. You learn the conventions that other musicians established years ago, then you use them in your own playing. Now, there are some musicians that are famed for not knowing theory. A lot of people, especially beginner musicians looking for ways to improve as quickly as possible without doing too much work, consider this a valid and logical argument for not knowing theory themselves. However, this argument is neither valid nor logical. The fact is that these musicians did learn music theory, they just weren't taught it. Instead, they learned the long way, by working it out for themselves. Looking at tabs of their music, musicians can easily work out the theory behind their playing. So, this gives you the option. Either you can learn some music theory, or spend a much longer time trying to work it all out for yourself. Both methods will take you to exactly the same point. One's just much quicker. It's up to you. The Importance Of Learning Theory As you've likely garnered already, theory is one of the fastest ways to advance as a musician. Note that I didn't say guitarist, but musician. You see, music theory is all about the relationship between notes, so it's not just for the guitar. In fact, it applies to every musical instrument ever conceived. Learning theory does, because of this, make it considerably easier to learn to use other instruments as well. The piano, for example, is a popular instrument to play alongside the guitar. With time spent learning music theory, you will learn how notes work in relation to each other to create truly unique sounds, moods and progressions. Let's look at a bare basic example then shall we?
e|-0---3--|  
B|-1---3--|  
G|-0---0--|  
D|-2---0--|  
A|-3---2--|  
E|-0---3--|
These two chords are C major and G major. Go ahead and try it. When played, these chords work well together to create a particular sound and feel. They are both major chords, they are both in key and their relation to each other is a very strong one. Now, let's try something different.
e|-0---0--|
B|-1---0--|
G|-0---0--|
D|-2---2--|
A|-3---2--|
E|-0---0--|
These two chords are another C major and an E minor. These two are also in key, however, the E minor chord has replaced the G major. When playing these two chords you'll notice that the second chord not only changes the sound but also the mood. By learning theory, you will learn to both predict this and to use it to your advantage. If you wish to have a song with a particular mood, you can work out chords that go together well to create that mood. The most basic example of this is that major chords tend to create a more optimistic mood, while minor chords seem to come out more pessimistic. Moreover, it will greatly improve your ability to translate what's in your mind on to your guitar. Even having just started, I'm sure you've experienced a piece of music, original or otherwise, playing in your head. At this point, without looking up a tab, you can't get it out of your guitar. Theory aids in creating that ability, as does experience. It also gives you the ability to recognise these changes in other people's work as well. This helps if you ever wish to make tabs yourself. It's not only for chords either - music theory quite literally applies to all music, past, present or future. For composing and understanding music, theory will help you find exactly what you're looking for. It's a shortcut with absolutely no drawbacks, so you might as well learn it. The Importance Of Practical Play Ultimately, if you've come to read this article, it's because you're looking to teach yourself guitar using this website, or at least to give yourself a boost in the right direction. While theory will aid in choosing your notes and chords, it will not help at all with using your fingers to reach those notes and chords. Theory makes you a better musician yes, but not a more capable guitarist. The practical element of play covers your ability to play rather than your ability to write and improvise. Improvement as a guitarist is very different to improvement as a musician. While the latter requires work mostly from your mind, the former requires most of the work from your fingers and hands. Increasing your technical ability requires practise - there are no shortcuts in that. The only way to become faster and more capable as a guitarist, is to push yourself using your instrument. If you've come this far and chosen to continue, then you know that, from here on in, we'll be focusing mainly on theory. Regardless of this, it is essential that you do not forget your practical work. Your knowledge of theory is a very useful weapon, likely to set you apart from other guitarists you know, but it counts for nothing if you can't play well enough to achieve what you're looking for. It is an easy trap to fall into to focus your attention too much on either the practical or the theoretical sides. You have to try and take both at an even pace. They are both going to be extremely worthwhile, so you'll advance fastest and, more importantly, with less holes in your ability, with a balance of both. Technical Theory Technical theory is very different to music theory. Technical theory is the theory behind your technical play, meaning it is the explanation of how your techniques work and why they work. Examples of technical play would be techniques such as palm muting, alternate picking and bends. This, unfortunately, is another thing that you have to balance, but technique is an easier thing to keep track on. It comes down to recognising your own weaknesses. This can be a problem for a lot of people, so you need to be honest with yourself, otherwise you're not going to improve. If you have good hammer-ons but poor pull-offs, you can tell, quite easily, that you need to work on your pull-offs. There are many things that you can learn that fit the description of technical play. As such, there are plenty of new things to try, develop and use in your playing. Quite a few have already been used in this series, but plenty have not. If you feel confident about your current level of technical play, you can search for articles that will teach you more right here. It's important to know your weaknesses as a guitarist. In order to improve, you need to know what you need improvement in, then you need to dedicate practice to it. This means that you need to make sure you don't overload yourself with information. The best way to learn is slowly. You need to take things one step at a time. Since you're teaching yourself, you get to choose your next step. Learn something new, practise it, then use it. If you continue in the pursuit of perfect technique, by the time you've mastered it, you'll suddenly realise that you're fast, efficient, and a marvellous guitarist. Where To Begin Generally, without a teacher, you'll be learning theory from books and articles. I can't provide books, but I can point you in the right direction for articles. Here at Ultimate Guitar, we have a huge collection of articles. Concerning music theory, general opinion places Josh Urban's Crusade articles at the top. Personally, I couldn't agree more. You can find the first article in that series right here. However, theory is an incredibly wide subject, leading this website to embrace that by putting a few areas in dedicated to the subject. The column section for music theory, which is available to be searched through, can be found at this location. Also, there is a forum for theory discussions, named Musician Talk. Learning Your Fretboard Knowing where each note is on your fretboard is another often undervalued skill. It is a useful skill however. The reason you want to know where each and every note is on the fretboard, and what it sounds like, is so that each and every note is made available to you. When playing using positions, theory will teach you shapes, or boxes. Nevertheless, limiting yourself to four frets, or one particular pattern, is not a good habit to get in to. Learn the shapes by all means, but learn all of them and link them all together. Being versatile sets you apart from other guitarists. Unfortunately, a guitar can only play a certain amount of notes, so you want to be able to move anywhere on the fretboard in order to create unique sounds and styles. A lot of notes can be found in multiple places, which isn't true of many other instruments, so you can take advantage of that. Moving to a different position also makes different notes available to you. Also, playing in different places provides practise working with different sized frets. As you go deeper into chord construction, knowing where your notes are will help greatly in finding new and different chord voicings and inversions. The fact that many notes are repeated will also assist you for the same reason. Theoretical Improvisation Theoretical improvisation is improvisation within theoretical boundaries. This acts as the perfect method of practicing both the theoretical and the practical elements at the same time. It will help you greatly when it comes to understanding and applying your theory. The more you learn, the more you will have both to practise and then to use. Generally, improvisation goes back to the beginnings of music, and thus the beginnings of theory. Over time, the purpose has not changed. The purpose of improvisation is trial and error. You play around with your instrument until you find something that works. This is how theory began, as well as all the conventions within. People simply kept trying different things and made use of what worked enough that it become popular fashion, and thus convention. The beauty of learning theory first is how much time it saves you. It also pertains to technical theory. Improvisation allows you to consolidate everything you've learned so far, and practise different ways to use them. It also serves as a chance to work on any weaknesses in your technique and bring new technique into your play, without having to search for a tab that incorporates it. Try it, but take your time. You can't fit everything you know into everything you play. That's it for another installment of Teach Yourself Guitar. I know it's mostly focused on the theoretical side and not so much on the practical, but there's a reason for it. I trust that the last two pieces, both concerning practical play, will make up for it. Good luck learning theory. Part six will be looking at the application of all you've looked at so far. This will include both the practical and theoretical elements. See you then. Tom Colohue Ultimate-Guitar.com 2009

16 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    Phe4rTheGod
    Urban's columns were awesome, that's where I started learning my theory more in depth...
    MrToucan
    Awesome! I love music theory, it's the one edge I have over all my self taught mates
    gtmom
    I found this article to be the best of the bunch so far. I think it clears up a few questions beginner and intermediate players may have regarding the whole picture and offers good practical opinion that will get people on the right track to actually enjoying theory. Thanks for portraying what some see as pedantic and boring as an essential tool that one can learn easily.
    gtmom
    Let me restate that last last sentence. Thanks for portraying theory as something one can easily incorporate into everyday practice to enhance their technical learning. BALANCE! I like that.
    Petey603
    AWSOME! this is great for me cause im a beginner guitar player and i didn't know any of that! thanks guys peace.
    madcowman19
    At first I wasn't sure what the aim of this article was, but it's not too bad for what it is. You included some helpful links to getting around UG, and I'm pretty excited to read "The Crusade"
    decayingdave
    Thank you - A very informative and un-biast article that will help me and countless others who are not briefed on theory.
    Izzy_Bryce
    see, this is stuff beginners need to know. otherwise ull end up like an old friend of mine who wich every time he tunes differently, he follows the SOUND, not the chord or note. so like a song is played standard, but for our vocalist its changed to flat, he goes and moves his entire song he learned, up half a fret. he doesnt understand the purpose of it all. he should read this -_-
    FFFDFEFRFKFFF
    I really wish this had been written about five years ago that I could have read it and been a lot further along by now. I really find explaining the importance of theory to people hard since the "(insert big name player) doesn't know theory," argument is everywhere but I like the way you put it, it is just faster.
    kineas
    Bascially, if you want to just play other peoples songs, and not really get anywhere, don't bother with theory. But you need theory if you want to write your own songs.
    Colohue
    You don't need it, you're just going to spend several years learning it the long way if you don't. You have the jist though.
    xophrax
    kineas wrote: Bascially, if you want to just play other peoples songs, and not really get anywhere, don't bother with theory. But you need theory if you want to write your own songs.
    You dont need to learn it to write your own songs, you just need a good ear, i write songs all the time... here are some of them myspace.com/adversitywanted its my solo myspace project
    Marshu
    Why do you add the bass E as the root note of C major, it surely would be better to use C itself, though it's a valid inversion the root usually should be the root of the chord.
    MopMaster
    Marshu wrote: Why do you add the bass E as the root note of C major, it surely would be better to use C itself, though it's a valid inversion the root usually should be the root of the chord.
    Agreed, what's written in the article is C/E.