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The Importance of Music Theory as a Guitarist

In today’s music lesson, guitar and bass instructor Walt will explain the importance of music theory as a guitarist.

Guitar Lessons with Walt Palmer, The Lesson Studio, Boulder CO


Why Do Guitarists Tend to Not Know Theory?

Anyone who has had some experience playing the guitar or bass has been tempted to bypass the study of music theory.  This is most likely because the guitar (and all musical instruments with strings, a neck, and frets) have a feature that most other instruments don’t have. On guitar, all of the scale, chord, and arpeggio shapes are the same.  This means that the only difference between playing a C major scale and a D major scale is the fret in which you start. The finger pattern would be the same.  This idea extends to barre chords and arpeggios too.  

Musicians who play instruments like the piano or saxophone, for example, don’t have this luxury.  They need to know exactly what notes make up each scale or arpeggio because the shapes are not universal.  Another difference between the fretted instruments and all others are tabs. Tabs or “Tablature” are a way of reading music that can only be done with a fretted instrument.  It provides the fret number and the string that gets plucked. For other instruments, it is necessary to learn how to read notated music from the beginning in order to start playing at all.  This really sets up a strong foundation in music theory that, unfortunately, isn’t there for many guitarists.


Without Music Theory: You’ll Sound Repetitive

The shape-oriented nature of the guitar is a very helpful thing when learning. Once a guitarist becomes proficient at this, they can open up the entire neck to be played on. In fact, someone can go pretty far playing guitar with a very minimal understanding of the actual theory behind the music. Inevitably, however, your playing will plateau or hit a wall, and you will get stuck in a rut with no way of getting out.  

There is a specific sound that comes from someone who is playing the guitar with only their “shape-oriented” way of thinking. That sound tends to get pretty old after a while. The same pentatonic/blues scales over the same predictable chord progressions are bound to get boring for anybody.  Without a functional understanding of the key, the scale/chord options, active or passive notes, and how those notes relate to the harmonic structure, the musician is left guessing.  Sometimes they might guess well and make beautiful music, but they wouldn’t be able to recreate it in a different key. More often than not, the guess leads to some very offensive sounding dissonance.


Without Music Theory: You’ll Have Weak Rhythms

Another downside that comes out of the ignorance of music theory is a lack of rhythmic fluency.  Guitarists are kind of notorious for being a little weak on the rhythm side of things. When they are only relying on their ear to hear and repeat sounds, they cheat themselves out of more interesting and unique rhythms.  It is very important to be introduced to new ideas as a growing musician. Understanding music theory and studying different approaches to rhythm is no exception. Remember that there are only twelve chromatic notes to work with but an infinite number of rhythms to play them in.

It’s not a very far out notion that understanding music theory will make you a better guitar or bass player. Not just in learning songs and improvising, but in composition as well.  There are so many ways to vary and embellish even the most simple of musical ideas using music theory. It helps make your music more interesting and a better expression of the message you are trying to get across.  It’s definitely worth the effort!

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