There are many guitar players who try to learn independently (without guitar lessons or a teacher) and for some reason take pride in it. Some of these people believe that doing so will create a unique sound for themselves, something that nobody can teach. While this could possibly happen by accident, almost always gaps are left in the web of knowledge as they try to progress to more advanced levels of guitar playing. Unfortunately the biggest gap I have found in these guitarist players is their knowledge of music theory. Here are three areas of playing guitar that benefit greatly from fluency in music theory.
1) Playing with other musicians:
Playing with other musicians or “being in a band” is a common goal to most guitar students, but it can be tedious at times for a few reasons. One huge reason is when thereis a lack of mutual understanding of music theory. A guitarist with no teacher, who has no background in music theory, may not understand what someone is asking them to do, which can lead to practice times taking longer, and frustration for other musicians. Theory for a situation like this is not always about something extraordinarily complicated, but in fact, it usually refers to very simple things that most guitarists above 100 hours of playing can do. For example, a musician could ask another to play E for four beats, then A for another four beats, then D for another four beats, or they could simply tell someone they were playing a 4/4 I, IV, V in E. For those who aren’t musically literate both of those sentences say the same thing, but saying the latter is more concise, and lends to the average guitarist who knows the relationships between chord shapes regardless of the key allowing them to immediately jump into a progression, expediting practice sessions and keeping all musicians happy.
2) Song writing:
Many people claim that song writing is something that always comes from the heart and soul. There’s many stories of people waking up in the middle of the night to write down something that they imagined in their dreams. More often than not these song writers are incredibly well versed in music theory, and their stylistic choices that create catchy melodies and cool chord progressions are well thought out. Paul McCartney (who claims he can’t read sheet music) didn’t accidentally write all his songs! Reading music and knowing basic theory are not the same thing. While there is a lot of creativity in song writing, understanding the basis of music theory is a very strong tool and catalyst for an aspiring song writer to achieve the sounds that they hear in their heads.
3) Understanding other instruments:
In a band setting, it is ideal to have musicians playing instruments other than guitars. Be it piano, bass, drums, or any other instrument, one thing remains constant. You guessed it – music theory. Understanding other instruments does not necessarily mean learning how to play them. Being fluent in theory is a major component of that understanding. For example, a guitarist who can not play drums to be able to explain the theory side of what sound he wants is easier and faster than any other method (i.e. attempting to beat box the beat you want them to play). Being able to articulate the complexities of rhythms, keys, and notes can get a bass player, a piano player and a guitar player on the same page significantly faster, without any of the players having to decode the ramblings of someone who didn’t have a guitar teacher who taught them theory.
In the end, the musicians who understand theory can communicate better, learn faster, and make faster progress than those who don’t.