There are two sides to learning guitar. The practical and the
The practical side involves the physical application of your fingers on
the strings - the movement from one note/chord to the next (fret hand
technique) and the action of plucking the strings (pick hand technique).
It covers the physical ability to bend strings, tap, hammer-on,
pull-off, vibrato and slide.
Without the ability to manipulate the vibration of the string in such
nuanced ways, you're lacking what all the great guitarists had and have
Feeling the music
Feel may seem a rather ambiguous term when used in the context of
music, but both its emotional and physical context apply. You physically feel the
music you're playing by knowing how to make the instrument you're
holding in your hands speak and sing. You convey emotional feelings
through the way you play your guitar.
A five minute listen to B.B. King and you'll
understand what feel is all about, and what can be accomplished by very
subtle physical embellishments with relatively little theoretical
knowledge (to which King has humbly admitted). He often
notes, but the fluidity of his
bends, gentle legato and shimmering vibrato makes those few "words" say
Of course, there are many great guitarists who have their own way of
saying amazing things, but what they all have in common is a deep
mastery of feeling what they play, in their fingers, through every
bodily fibre, in the moment. Of course, a great ear and great
timing helps keep
things on track, but these are different innate skills we're talking
The ear is a judge whereas feel is pure intuition.
The act or faculty of knowing or
sensing without the use of rational processes; immediate cognition.
This attainment of conveying feeling through your music is, in my
the absolute pinnacle of physical ability when it comes to guitar. I
honestly don't care how many notes-per-second you can shred. Playing
fast is just one form of expression on guitar, and it conveys something
very specific, but it's such a small part of the overall syntax a
guitarist can use.
So that's the physical side. From the sound of things, you can be a
pretty awesome guitarist by just mastering this element, and it's true
you can be. You
don't need to know theory. There, I said it (you don't
realise how difficult it was for this theory nut to write that!).
But I want to emphasise the word need here.
Just because you don't need
something, doesn't mean it can't help you
tremendously (you don't need
a food processor to blend food, but it certainly helps!).
how a solid grounding in theory, often called the mechanics of music,
can actually help us attain the
aforementioned skills of feeling and intution.
1. Theory gives you a road map across the fretboard
It's one thing knowing how
to get from one note to the next, but first you need to know where to go.
Wandering aimlessly, moving randomnly between frets and strings is
unlikely to produce anything musical or meaningful (unless, of course,
confused wandering is the emotion you're trying to convey!).
It's true that some guitarists learn, through years of trial and error,
which notes sound good over a particular chord or chord progression.
Many great blues guitarists, for example, have limited knowledge of
scales, but as they're playing over standards (set keys and chord
progressions, such as 1 4 5), they gradually learn which are the avoid
notes and passing tones and which harmonise and sound good when drawn
This is fine for blues (and I don't mean to undermine blues at all - it
has produced some truly legendary musicians), but what about more
complex progressions that don't conform to a set form?
The only way you're going to be able to navigate the fretboard with any
fluidity and sense of purpose is to know
it well. That involves knowing
relative intervals lie through visual
means (that's where charts and diagrams help). Only then will you be
able to anticipate what moving from note A to B will sound like. Only
then will you have the harmonic and melodic marker points to connect
It's theory that tells you where note A lies in relation to note
all strings, from any position on the neck. Essential knowledge if you
want to be able to improvise confidently and freely, outside of a
small, boxed area of the fretboard.
2. Theory provides a short cut for learning harmony
Again, given enough trial and error time, you'll work out, with the aid
of your ears, which notes naturally harmonise with each other. Training
your ear to hear these harmonies is important, but why not cut the time
learning this in half?
chords are constructed, for example, will help you connect
play in your solo with any chords being played in the background (or
vice versa). If the backing chord is Cmaj7, for example, you'll know
as a scale is not
an option, or more specifically that the ♭7 is an avoid note
It might sound dogmatic and constraining to say "this scale/note is not
an option!" but sometimes the dissonance is so great, and universally
agreed to be so, that it's safe to assume that using that combination
of notes will sound dissonant or unpleasant (dare I say...
wrong) to most ears.
Remember that certain dissonances are less jarring and challenging to
the senses than others. Again, theory helps you narrow down these
The inverse is that theory tells you which "color tones"
naturally complement a chord. The major 6th over a minor chord, for
example, has an
irresistably haunting quality. By being exposed to this
through theory, you'll then be able to explore it with real purpose,
visualising it on the fretboard in different positions and in the
context of different scales, chord progressions and color tones.
The process of meaningful musical investigation is often sparked by a
3. Theory helps you focus your creative options
I've always advised my students to break rules/conventions and
experiment freely, although the only rule you should never break is "if
it sounds good, play it". A certain amount of trial and error and
"noodling" (randomness, messing around) is important in that respect.
However, a solid grounding in theory can actually help you see more
musically creative and productive options from a given
starting point and help you eliminate the options that sound quite
ordinary, clichéd or would perhaps work better in a different context.
Rather than feeling overwhelmed with every possible direction you could
go, likely resulting in aimless and uncreative
wandering, theory helps to put that wandering into the context of
several possible destinations (e.g. target notes).
You can then focus on truly creating something musical and expressive,
rather than spending your time constantly trying to get "back on track"
or "back in key".
4. Theory helps you process complex musical information
Music can get very complex. A study of jazz will confirm this. Theory
can help you conceptualise, break down and understand what
would otherwise be heard as an overwhelming onslaught of notes.
The other way of breaking things down is to find a tab of the song and
copy it note for note. But that only tells you how to play that
specific piece. It doesn't show you how you could apply it
in your own
music, without copying it outright. This is about the difference
between parrot fashion learning and intuitive learning.
What may at first sound
complex, could simply be part of a musical system or formula that you
can learn. One example of this is modes. By first breaking down where
modes come from, you'll eventually be able to identify when music is
modal (i.e. it has the "Lydian sound") and accompany it confidently. To
someone who hasn't learned the theory, they would be left second
guessing, again resorting to a long winded process of trial and error.
5. Theory helps you see the bigger picture
Before studying theory, analytically, music might seem nothing more
than a loose connection of disparate ideas and expressions. As time
goes on, by devoting time to investigating what you're playing
(theory), you start to see more of an intrinsic connection between
these ideas, bound by a system of related intervals.
It's from this connection that you get certain "eureka" moments, such
as seeing scale patterns merely as a convenient grouping of intervals,
the scaffolding if you like, for building chord shapes. Take this a
step further, and the lines between typical scale and chord function
blur and your focus is less on "scales = lead" and "chords = rhythm"
more on note selection, harmony, voice leading etc.
Ironically, this final stripping away of the rules and systems you
naturally put in place when learning theory leads you back to a purer
view of music, but now you won't get lost in your exploration of the
fretboard. The safety net of scales, familiar chord shapes and note
relationships is there for when you tread a bit too boldly off the
beaten path. That alone makes learning theory so invaluable, especially
if you're caught off guard on stage.
That is the paradoxical beauty of learning theory - you make rules so
you can break them! Yet doing it that way ensures you break them with
intelligence, grace and a deeper respect for the intricacies of music.
With a solid understanding of theory underpinning a solid physical
technique, you'll have the vocabulary to say precicely what you want on
guitar, articulately and sincerely.