Do Guitarists Need Music Theory?

This argument has raged since the invention of popular music and has reached fever pitch in the rock era.  Do guitarists need to know music theory?  One side says that theory interferes with feel and emotion.  The other side says that you need to understand what’s going on before you can really be creative.  I don’t know how the percentages on each side shake out.  I do know, though, that the best predictor of a person’s position on this question is whether or not they admit to knowing any theory.

While there are arguments to be made for and against knowing more music theory, the person who truly knows none is not a musician.  At least they are not one who gets any gigs.  Let me explain.  Even a relatively new guitar player knows that if he strums a C chord, he can strum a G chord next and it will sound alright, if fairly common.  He may not know the terms ‘Tonic’ and ‘Dominant’ (at least not in a musical context) but he knows that if he starts a song with C he can use G and F and maybe A minor.  He knows that after he plays those other chords for a while he should come back to C at the end.  He knows this because he’s heard other people play it, he’s played it himself…a lot.  After awhile he thinks of it as a rule or, at least, a convention.  Then he plays or hears someone play C, D minor and G7 and he says, ‘hey, that sounds okay, too,’ and he adds another convention to his vocabulary.  One day, he gets really adventurous and plays C and G# and  F#.  He’s not sure what he thinks about how that sounds, but he suspects that it’s ‘jazz.’

My point is that music theory is really a set of terms for rules and conventions in music.  The terms allow people to communicate their musical ideas quickly.  Just because you don’t know the terms doesn’t mean you don’t know the rules, and how to break them.  If a person truly knew no theory, every time they stepped up to play a twelve bar blues that would have to ask what the chords are and when do they change.

Just because a musician doesn’t know the terms doesn’t mean that they don’t know the rules and conventions.  Just because someone does know the terms doesn’t mean they can’t play with feel and emotion.  Call it what you want, we all operate on the same set of rules, using or breaking them as our creative impulse dictates.

Author: Ron

I started playing guitar in high school bands playing songs by the Ventures, early Beatles and other British Invasion bands. With excursions into many types of musical styles and genres in the intervening years I have developed an appreciation for the unique skills of the guitar accompanist. The accompanist serves the song and serves the singer, enhancing rather than competing with the song and the performance. This blog highlights those skills and the practitioners who exemplify this important bit of artistry.

4 Replies to “Do Guitarists Need Music Theory?”

  1. Phil says:

    I guess it depends on whether a person can play by ear or needs sheet music or tabs.
    Playing in bands in the 60’s I found that most players didn’t have music theory. I was one of those because I played by ear. We knew a whole lot of chords and could use them all up the fretboard, and could transpose a song into another key when required. I also played some bass that was built on chord knowledge. This was enough to both play and to communicate with other band members.

    Music is just as much a language with its theory and rules as spoken language is with its structure and grammar. A child learns to speak and communicate with other people before they go to school and learn the rules about what they are doing. Even when we learned English grammar, it seemed like a non-essential, because all it did was ratify what we already had done with speech for a number of years. It was only in high school when I learned a foreign language, that I understood English grammar properly.

    I have attempted to learn some music theory over the past year, and a little bit has sunk in, but not a lot. Another chap that I play with urges me to stop thinking about it and just play. So I tend to do that. When we are improvising together, he might be playing a melody line where I’m using an F chord and he descends to Bb in his melody, and I go the other way and raise the chord to Gm7. He just smiles and asks why I did that, and I can’t tell him, I just know that the Gm7 will sound more interesting in the context whereas a Bb chord would be the more obvious choice. And that’s when he says, ‘So why do you want to learn the rules?’

    1. Ron says:

      I think we are saying the same thing here. In your example in the last paragraph, you played the Gm7 because you ‘knew’ it would work and provide an interesting harmony, probably because someone had shown you that before or you found it by trial and error. You didn’t just randomly choose that. Now, even though you may not have thought, ‘I’ll play the relative minor of Bb” or “I’ll play the ii chord in F rather than the IV” that is what you did. It’s not a matter of ‘wanting to learn the rules’, you have already learned the one that says Gm7 can be substituted for Bb major. And, undoubtedly, you have learned many, many other rules that are now just an intuitive part of your playing. But they weren’t always. Would you have made a similar choice if you were playing a C chord over the melody when he went to F? Would you have played a Dm7?

      I think that players who know the terminology or explanations of music theory don’t think in those terms when they are playing. They do when they practice or when they compose, but when they’re playing it is the same intuitive, ear and sound driven process based on and growing from all the sounds they have practiced and played that all players work from. Now if you stop them and ask what they did they can answer what and why, but the thought process while it’s actually being played is usually musical rather than theoretical. It’s like the first time you came across a E7#9 chord – the Jimi Hendrix chord. The first 5, 10, 20 times you played it you had to think about where all your fingers went. After awhile it became as natural as an open G chord and you just know how to play it.

    2. Erald says:

      There’s a lot of synthesizer stuff out these days, a lot of autonuted voices, and it always kind of bugged me. It’s fun to listen to, but I can’t play this stuff on my guitar really! And it would be refreshing to find some more singers with voices they don’t change up. Like, natural talent. Remember why The Beatles were so awesome? Yeah. Anyway, I’m not cutting down today’s music, just, am I the only one who wishes there was some kind of 100% natural music with actual guitars, drums (that aren’t synthesized rock beats), real pianos, good voices that are actually the true voice of the singer? I actually have a theory that one day there will be like like a musical revolution I guess. Because there isn’t really one thing that sticks out and is the thing of 2011 these days. Like, there was the age of Elvis, and I know Nirvana, Black Sabath, The Who all and don’t forget The Beatles were all the standing out stuff at one point or another. There’s not really a top band or singer for this age. I think Pink, Avril Lavigne, Paramore, Bruno Mars all are pretty natural. But I kind of think there’s got to be some musical group coming that will be natural and be the thing of 2011 s musical world’ and set a new trend or something. Sounds stupid, but think about it. Whatdo you think about today’s music? I know my guitar teacher gets really mad about synths!

  2. Phil says:

    We are saying some things similar and some things differently.

    If I have ‘learned’ some things things without theory, then it has been through being shown, observation or trial and error.
    But there is another aspect – the ear and brain that knows what sounds different chords produce on different parts of the fretboard. And the brain doesn’t tell the hands to move to a position because it has ‘learned’ it – it goes there because that’s the sound it wants to follow through with after the previous sequence of sounds, in combination with the melody it is instantaneously hearing. It is instinctive, not ‘learned’. And in answer to your other question, it wouldn’t have mattered which key anything was being played in, because the chord sound desired would be relative to the key.

    It may again be the musical equivalent of language. We don’t properly understand how a child imbibes all the spoken words around it, and assembles language structure without being taught any rules. But there’s obviously some part of the brain that decodes what it hears and makes sense of it for re-use.

    It’s all pretty interesting stuff, and I don’t know for sure, but I think there might be different ways of acquiring skills in all fields.

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