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I don’t understand music theory at all, can I still play the guitar?

When I first started playing guitar I was, aside from tips from friends or basic online material, self taught; in the first five or six years of my journey, I didn’t really have any knowledge of music theory. My college course was very broad, and it was only after I attended university specifically relating to the guitar that I was made aware of the applications music theory can have on playing, songwriting and everything in between.

After starting further education, I found myself surrounded by extremely talented peers, and world class instructors. I learned a lot in a short space of time, and in retrospect it was too much, and my playing actually got worse. I would question every aspect of my playing. Does this scale work here? What arpeggio would superimpose this sound here? How would this lick sound in this context? By the time I had answered whatever question I had in my head, the moment had passed and I had simply reverted to playing something bland, basic and below what was expected of me.

This left me with a conundrum - should I continue learning this stuff, or should I throw the towel in and just play whatever I feel like. After many years of trial and error, I discovered that, for me at least, the answer is both. Your own personal experience may differ, and you should not let whatever the result be dissuade you from playing. Enjoying the experience is the main goal, however you manage to achieve that.

“Any amount of theory just enhances what you already know - you still have to hear what you’re doing, you still have to enjoy the music - but there’s no excuse for not having a go” - Alex Hutchings

The quote above is from guitar extraordinaire Alex Hutchings, and he is one of my personal favorite guitar players. There is an obvious truth to what he is saying, and my understanding of this is that you would benefit from having a greater knowledge of what you are playing and why it works, but it should never get in the way - this is a point I have already made and will continue to make.

Even during your first ever guitar lesson, you should have learned something that could be considered music theory. Did you learn the names of the strings? Those names are musical notes. What about chords? A chord is the harmony between groups of notes, typically three or more together - that’s yet more theory.

Before we dive into the pros and cons to each side of this argument, let’s establish some basic facts from a professional standpoint. A common phrase is “everything but the playing” which means, as a professional guitarist or a hired gun (someone who is not necessarily an artist), you are bound by certain expectations - naturally, this will not apply to those of you who are playing as a hobby, but it makes for interesting reading nonetheless. 

My dissertation at university was focused on the expectations of a modern guitarist, and how those expectations have changed since the birth of rock music. I learned many interesting facts regarding equipment, timekeeping etc, but as we are talking about theory we will focus on that. My findings were that, as the role of guitarist is so different, we would be required to be versatile and apply ourselves in as many different scenarios as possible. You may be required to perform a multitude of styles (not just the ones you like!), read music in a theater pit or produce and arrange music for various purposes. Many of these things require a high standard and working knowledge of music theory. For example:

Versatility -

You may be naturally accustomed to playing rock guitar. However, if you had a gig with a reggae band you should know how to play in a way that would be considered stylistically appropriate. The chord voicings would be different, common chord progressions do not necessarily apply and your tone would have to change also.

Theater -

Most theater work requires some element of reading music - some more complicated than others. There is an element of reading of course, but also maybe some chord extensions you are not familiar with - both of which require some theoretical knowledge. You would also need to watch a musical director which is a challenge in itself.

Producing/arranging - 

Simply playing a rock song on acoustic guitar does not really constitute an acoustic version of a song. In my opinion, you should change sections, speed things up or slow them down - chop and change until the song is still recognisable but is also something new. Good luck creating a jazz version of the Pokémon Theme Song without the necessary theoretical knowledge, or at least a version that doesn’t sound like it was performed at random (for the record, this is how accomplished jazz guitarists can instantly hear if someone is just pretending!).

There is one great example of when music theory was helpful, and is something that happened to me personally, many years ago. I was in attendance at an event that had a local band onstage playing cover songs. They knew I played guitar and asked if I wanted to play a song with them, to which I gratefully accepted. I didn’t know the song they were going to play so I asked them what the chord progression was - I thought maybe they would say something along the lines of “it’s a I vi ii V progression in F”, or at the very least just naming the chords. Instead, the answer I received was “we don’t know chords, we know shapes” - this essentially left me with nowhere to go, and no time to look at what shapes they were playing as there was a crowd ready and waiting. Luckily, I had heard the song before and roughly knew the progression - I relied on my working knowledge of theory to perform to a passable standard given the situation. 

Pros of Learning Music Theory

You could assign any number of arbitrary levels to music theory. You wouldn’t need to have a perfect working knowledge of counterpoint and quartal harmony to write simple folk songs. The key is to try and identify what areas you are actually going to need. 

As a modern guitar player, you can take some of the points from above and you would be more desirable as a bandmate or potential session musician. This could be in any number of scenarios, too! As a songwriter, you would open yourself up to some more options harmonically, melodically and rhythmically. Even as a listener, you might hear something in a piece of music and appreciate it more, given the understanding that would be required to create something like that. 

Sardinian born and residing in the UK, Giorgio Serci is one of the best musicians I have ever met, and I was lucky enough to study under him for many years. His theoretical knowledge is seemingly boundless. However, some of his original tunes are not specifically written with complex ideas in mind - they are just simple, beautiful melodies that are perfect for the song in question. 

To quote Alex Hutchings again, it enhances what you already know. It doesn’t necessarily make it better!

Cons of Learning Music Theory

As I mentioned at the start of this blog post, learning too much theory in a short space of time made me regress as a guitarist. Being bound by the rules of theory can be very hard to break free from, and is it really worth the expense of your musical freedom?

Allan Holdsworth was an incredible player (perhaps one of the very best), and extremely intelligent as a musician. However, he had a very unique approach to music theory and often created some of his own explanations and pathways for use in his original music. His music is very unique and sounds distinctly ‘Holdsworth-y’ because it is not conventional by your typical standards. I think it would be easier to create something truly unique, if you go into the situation blind.

Eric Clapton is well known for not having a particularly strong knowledge of the ins and outs of theory, but he still remains as one of the most famous guitar players of the modern age. His approach to playing a solo, as discussed in this video, is that of a singer and relying on experience - mostly likely gained through trial and error. He is also famous, as are a lot of blues guitar players, for seamlessly joining major and minor pentatonic scales together. Theoretically speaking, this should not work yet it does and it sounds great. 

Should I Learn Theory?

The short answer is yes - everyone should make an attempt at learning theory. However, for the sake of compromise, it should be something based on necessity. If you are interested in jazz, it would help to learn some chord variations and when/where to use them as well as arpeggios and some less common scales. You might stifle yourself by learning this stuff if your interests lie in only playing Nirvana covers at home after a long day of work or school.

Set yourself some targets - it could be a better understanding of chords or how to make solos sound better. Many problems people face can also be caused by people not really exploring what they already know. For example, the major scale is very common to learn and easy to play, but how many different ways can you play it? Try it on one or two strings horizontally, in groups of four notes or using various intervallic jumps. 

I would suggest perhaps learning some chords and then how they go together, then apply it by learning a new song. To test your skills, change the key or tonality and try to perform it again.

Immersing oneself in music is a wondrous thing, and I feel for those who cannot share in the experience. If you are happy where you are, fantastic - keep going as you are! Just be aware that as you progress, theory will continue to rear its head and one day you will have to respond.



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