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What Music Theory Should a Guitarist Know?

Is music theory your worst enemy? Have you ever thought to yourself: how little knowledge of music theory can I get away with to play guitar?

Well I’m happy to share with you that you don’t need to know everything, not even everything that your music theory textbook tells you that you should know.

Why? It’s simply this - you only need the theory that you will put into practice. Of course, this is if your goal is to be a practising musician, and not a music theorist. At the end of the day, knowing that ‘the interval of a perfect 5th is a frequency ratio of 3:2’ is far less practical when playing guitar than knowing that ‘the interval of a perfect 5th is 7 frets apart’.

But then the question arises, how do we know what theory we can put into practice?

Of course, having a good guitar teacher to guide you along and provide you with just the theory you need each step of the way is the best. But sometimes we don’t have the luxury of such a teacher, and even if we do have a teacher, the main responsibility in learning guitar lies on you, the learner. You have limited time with your teacher, and you are also compromising your potential growth by just waiting for someone to spoon feed you information. You also need to seek out knowledge and filter it by yourself.

Analyse Musicians

My recommendation to know what theory to feed into your limited brain space is to analyse the music of established and respectable musicians. Look at what they play, how they play it, and even ask yourself why they play it.

Why practising musicians? Because ultimately it is the knowledge inside a practising musician’s mind that we want to absorb, not that of a theoretician. Sure, all theory is nice to know, but not all theory is necessary.

If you see Tommy Emmanuel playing this driving alternating bass rhythm and want to know what is going on, find out the theory behind it! If you see Joe Pass’ fingers flying across the fretboard decorating melody lines with unbelievably complex harmonies… well you’ve got lots and lots of work to do but we all start somewhere. Find out the theory behind it!

The key is to let your curiosity guide you. As you listen and explore artists you admire and respect, you’ll want to learn and dissect the stuff they do - and you’re creating a system to slowly craft your personal sound based on your musical influences.

Finding the Theory

But where do we find the theory? You’ve got countless options, but not every option is good. A google search will provide you with a good starting point, but make sure to survey multiple views such that you are aware of different interpretations.

It’s also great to get your hands on a few good and reliable books covering the genre and style of music you play, be it jazz, classical, pop, flamenco, you name it. Some books are incredibly content packed, so with those you should treat it buffet style - skip to the topic you need and read it.

The next thing you should do is to ask other musicians. Ask your musician friends, ask your teachers, ask me by leaving a comment below! I will respond to it and that way everyone else can learn together.

The last tip or advice I want to leave with you is to learn first what you can immediately put into practice. It’s not much help to you if you are still struggling to form bar chords, and you look at what Joe Pass or Hendrix are doing and go: ‘I’m going to learn how to do that now!’

Find musical techniques that are within your grasp, if not you might end up discouraging yourself. It’s good to aspire to do advanced techniques, but take it step-by-step. After all, there really are no shortcuts that’ll allow you to learn guitar overnight.

I hope that’s taken a load off you in realising that you don’t need to digest that entire music theory textbook before you can call yourself a musician. Being a musician is a process, and we’re all still growing, no matter how seasoned we may think we are.

By Neil Chan


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