Guitarists are notorious for shying away from learning about the inner workings of music theory, and who can blame us? There are just too many distractions in the world of guitar for us to spare some time to learn about the mechanics of music. I believe the main problem lies in the application of music theory on guitar. There’s a missing link between the theory and the practice where confusion and frustration enter. Methods such as the CAGED System, while theory-based, are exclusive to the guitar and don't really give us the bigger picture of the universal language of music, and allow us guitarists to get away with learning a few shapes and patterns instead of the inner workings of music herself.
What is music theory?
Music theory is the language of music. It’s a lot like studying the grammar of your mother tongue - you’re putting names to sounds you already know and have been playing for years. It’s also a way to analyze what your favorite players are doing, or how any piece of music works for that matter.
Reasons to learn theory
If you’re at all interested how things work then music theory is for you. For example, this would be the difference between learning something from a tab (akin to painting by numbers) and analyzing the chart for a tune, looking at the chord sequence, key signature, scales etc. to gain more insight into what the possibilities are and how the tune works.
If you need to communicate with other musicians then music theory is for you. If you plan to work as a musician, try out at auditions or are serious about collaborating with other musicians then knowing the lingo is essential to being able to communicate your ideas, and moreover, understanding other’s ideas and instructions. This ties in with sight-reading but don’t worry if you’re not a great reader (yet), as more often than not you’ll be working with charts, so that would be the skill to get down first.
If you want to know what the options are when writing music then music theory is for you. Unless you have a very good ear and can easily translate what you hear in your head onto the guitar, music theory can provide you with plenty of compositional options. Say you’ve got a great riff in G minor and you want to expand on it; music theory will tell you what chords or scales work well with G minor. A bandmate comes up with a great chord progression and you want to add a bridge part, modulation or solo over it; music theory will give you the options.
Music theory and guitarists
In short, boxes, patterns, shapes and tablature probably have a great deal to do with guitarists not learning music theory precisely because it can be avoided. It is also one of the few instruments you can get away with playing well without knowing too much about what you’re playing, especially if you have a good ear.
A lot of guitarists come late to theory but if you’re looking for a good place to start or a way to pull together the theory knowledge you already have and make it useful, check out our free pdf lessons eBook which includes the lesson: A Little Theory Goes a Long Way.
Hearing it first
If you study a lot of the great players (Clapton, Mike Stern, Page etc.) you’ll find that nearly all of them first learned by ear then came to theory later. They spent years, decades even, honing their musical ear because in those days all you had was the LP and your ears. Nowadays you can find the sheet music, chart or tablature for virtually every piece of music there is; that necessity of working things out by ear is unfortunately on the decline. I would highly recommend incorporating this exercise into your practice session, although frustrating at first it’ll do wonders for your ears and you’ll notice the difference after only a couple of weeks.
If we go back to the language analogy, you learn your mother tongue by listening; it’s only later when you study grammar that you learn what a verb, adjective or adverb is. The same happens with music, you’ve been playing a chord or scale for years then through studying music theory you have a name for it, and more importantly, a deeper understanding.
No matter how good your ears are, there’s no doubt about it, knowing music theory will give you an edge in all aspects of your playing.
So do guitarists need to learn music theory? I would say a resounding yes (I'm afraid so) if you’re at all serious about the instrument.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this issue - let me know in the comments section.