Do Guitarists Need Music Theory?

music-theory-starMany aspiring (and some experienced) guitarists ask, “Do guitarists need music theory?”

Some of you may have heard that music theory is unnecessary, or that learning it will inhibit your musical creativity. You may have also been told that some of your favorite musicians didn’t study it. If they didn’t need it, why would you?

What is Music Theory, Anyway?

Music theory is simply a means of understanding and communicating musical ideas. It’s not some strict set of regulations that must be followed. You’re free to break the “rules” whenever you want. Anyone who tells you that learning music theory will somehow make you less creative probably doesn’t truly understand what music theory is, or how it works.

When you learn music theory, you’re basically learning to truly understand the universal language: music.

Putting Theory Into Practice

Here’s an example: let’s say you’ve just started playing guitar for a band, and that they want you to write a guitar part for a new song they’ve been working on.

So far, they have one riff, which goes like this: Am, C, G D.

Most guitarists know these chords, so it would be pretty easy to strum along. But what if your new band-mates want you to write a melody, or play the chords in different voicings, or help them write a chord progression for the chorus?

Behold! The Power of Music Theory…

It’s situations like these that reveal the true power of music theory. If you know your theory and how to apply it, you’ll have no problem coming up with ideas. For the melody, you might try an A minor pentatonic scale, or if you’re looking for something with a bit more flavor, you could try Dorian mode in A, A blues scale, or a number of others.

Playing the chords in different voicings would be simple, too. You’d simply use your knowledge of chord theory to come up with different ways of playing those same chords. Alternate voicings can sound a lot more exciting than simply strumming “cowboy” chords, especially if the band’s other guitarist is already doing that.

For the chorus, you know that you can use Am, C, G, and D, since those chords are already part of the song. But if you know theory, you’ll know that you can also use Bm, Em, and F# diminished, not to mention a slew of other options like Dsus4, C6, Em9… the list goes on and on. Or, you could change the key entirely.

If all this sounds like gibberish to you, don’t worry: it’s not as complex as it seems. Seriously.

If it Sounds Good, it Is Good

Theory is a powerful musical tool, but there’s no substitute for trusting your own ears. You don’t always have to play the “right” notes. Sometimes the “wrong” notes are the right ones. If you follow one simple rule, music theory can’t possibly handcuff your muse. That rule is: “If it Sounds Good, it Is Good.”

The Bottom Line:

Yes, you can become a very good musician without studying theory, but you’ll spend an awful lot of time coming up with your own understanding of the very same concepts that theory addresses.

You’ll basically be inventing your own version of music theory, but it will be one that only you understand, which will make communicating your musical ideas with other musicians quite difficult.
Why reinvent the wheel?

If you make music theory a part of your guitar lessons, you’ll be amazed at how much it deepens your understanding of music. I know I was.

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