Six Things Guitar Players Don`t Understand About Music Theory

"Don't learn too much theory, or you will lose creativity". Did I see you nodding in agreement? Then I can't do anything for you. You are already lost and it's better if you don't read the rest of this article. Seriously.

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.

Creativity And Theory Do Not Go Well Together

This is another harmful notion that you can find repeated everywhere. Following the proponents of the "theory harms creativity" camp, one is led to believe that no good music has ever came from musicians who know any theory. You know, people like Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Tchaikovskij, Coltrane, Parker, Django Reinhardt, Hendrix, Satriani, Vai, Jason Becker — all musicians with a very solid background in music theory (again, despite what you may have been told about Hendrix).

It is a fact that if you study music theory in the correct way, then your creativity is not harmed but enhanced. What is the wrong way to learn? The wrong way is to think of theory as a fixed set of "rules" that you have to follow. The correct way is to think of music theory as the sum of the experiences of other composers that have handed down to us a set of procedures that worked for them to go from a raw musical idea to a complete piece. These procedures will help you, not limit you, and you can always decide to not follow them if they don't apply to what you are writing at the moment.

Clearly even if you do not know any music theory you may still have some original musical ideas. But it's going to be tough for you to actually compose a complete song based on 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.

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

I've heard a million people say that, I wish I had a dollar for each one of them. Without exception they invent the most fantastical excuses to justify this bizarre belief. And yet, all of them have little to none musical ear: they can't transcribe songs, they can't improvise effectively, and whenever they need to play they just try random licks hoping that something good will come out of it. It rarely does.

It is quite a platitude that you need to know your grammar in order to be a good writer: nothing strange about that. And yet we are ready to believe any musicians claiming they don't know any music theory. Except that every time you go and actually check the facts, this is never true: they have years of studies behind them. And if in this moment you are thinking "but Hendrix didn't know no music theory", then you are a perfect example of what I'm pointing at. Don't trust the hype.

At the end of the day, the story is really simple: if you want to be good, you ned to put some effort in it and actually study your music theory. Simple as that.

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).

All The Information Is Available Online

True, but also a lot of false information is available online. And even the correct information is going to come at you in a random order, with no clear plan or direction. More importantly, to be useful to you all this information has to be relevant in order to do what you want to do. As with everything, you should learn different things if you want to compose like Van Halen than what you should lear if you want to write like Bach. It's not that one is "better" than the other, they are just different goals and require different tools.

I'm not the first one saying that, I know. But you really need to have a clear plan if you want to go somewhere at all with your learning. Without definite goals and a strategic plan to reach them you are simply leaving too much to chance. The net is a great resource, but without a solid basis in music theory all the information you can find may work against you.

To give you some help to write your plan and know what you need to learn (and what not) I have created for you a "map" of music theory that will show you where you are and what is the next step to take. You will find a link to it at the end of this article.

I Can Get Help From My Friend Joe

OK, but who was helping your friend Joe? His friend Moe. And who was helping Moe? It was Jack. And who… you got the idea. After that many passages, it is very likely that the information that your friend Joe is giving you is not the original info anymore. There is a good chance it is in fact wrong. Now, if this happened only to your friends this would not be a great problem. What makes it more …problematic is that many authors of articles, or instructional books, or DVDs, both online and offline are doing the same: copying each other and propagating information they only half understand.

You would be surprised at how many factual errors I found in instructional products I paid to have. And don't get me started to the free stuff available out there — that is even worse. How can you protect yourself from being sold the wrong information? Simple. Ask yourself this question: "the author of this article/book/DVD is able to do the things I want to do?" If the answer is "no", then don't buy/read it!

In particular, watch out to people who say that they are "teachers but not performers/composers/writers". If they are not practicing musicians, then they have no first-hand knowledge of the matter. They are just repeating what they have heard.

Note: the wrong way to decide if someone is competent is to ask him if he has a music degree. While nice to have, there are also a lot of great teachers out there who have no "official" degree but are really competent in what they do. Again, check what they do, not what pieces of paper they have on the wall.

What Is My Next Step?

There I three things I'd like you do at this point: 1) do not read other articles online until you have done the next two points here. 2) Think about what kind of guitar player you want to be, and what skills you need to learn in order to get there. If you have no idea where to start, I have prepared for you a map of music theory that you can download and print and will tell you where you are and what is the next step you need to take. 3) Either follow your plan and use it to guide you in the choice of the books/DVDs you need to read/watch, or (better) hire a competent teacher to help you.

Tommaso Zillio is a professional prog rock/metal guitarist and composer based in Edmonton, AB, Canada.

Tommaso is currently working on an instrumental CD, and an instructional series on fretboard visualization and exotic scales. He is your go-to guy for any and all music theory-related questions.

Tommaso Zillio