Will music theory actually make you a better guitar player?
Well maybe, maybe not though.
Before we dive deeper into that prickly little question, I have to admit. When I began my guitar journey, I did not learn music theory at all.
I was kind of allergic to it.
I wanted to play loud, I wanted to play fast, and for some reason, I thought that if I studied all that nerdy music theory stuff, that would somehow take the edge off of my music. Looking back, I feel like I missed out…big time.
Music theory makes music make sense.
At least it does to me because of my personal goals.
Will Learning Theory Make You Better?
I think that depends greatly on your goals. If all you want to do is learn a few songs by strict memorization, then no, you don’t need theory to do that. With practice and repetition, you can absolutely memorize where to go on the fretboard and learn to replicate those sounds without learning any music theory. At all.
But if you want to go deeper, then there are definitely some really good reasons that you might want to study theory. In this video, we’re going to talk about three really practical reasons that having at least a basic understanding of music theory will really help you round out your guitar playing.
Let’s get into it.
Speak the Language
Music theory can help you speak the language of music.
Here’s a real-world scenario of when that might come in handy:
Say you’re hanging out with a bassist for a jam. You could probably follow along with the chord changes just by watching the bassist’s fingers on the fretboard, but maybe not.
What if the bass player hits the groove and starts walking the bass line? You could get lost pretty quickly.
What if instead of a bass player, hanging out with a harmonica player or a piano player?
The fact is other musicians aren’t going to tell you where to put your finger on the fretboard. They’re going to talk in musical terms about chords, progressions, etc. You’ll sit right in if you’ve got a solid foundation in music theory.
Let’s take this as an example:
Say you’re hanging out and somebody says, “Let’s play a 12 bar blues key of A, I-IV-V progression.”
The Key is given, but we’ve got to know the other chords and where to plug them into these 12 bars.
We won’t dive too deeply into Roman Numeral Analysis here, so here’s the skinny:
assign a chord to each of these Roman Numerals I, IV, and V.
Our I chord is the chord of the Key, in our case, A.
Then count up four chords from A to find your IV chord, D. Following that same process, you’ll find that E is your V chord.
Now that you know the chords we need to play, plug them into a 12 bar blues progression.
We can make this sound nice and bluesy by playing dominant seventh chords for each of these. Here’s an example:
Knowing the basics of music theory, and in this case, diatonic chord theory will help you know what to do in situations like this without even thinking.
Compose with Confidence
Even a basic grasp of music theory can help you when you’re composing your own material.
For example, you have three chords that sound great together, (G, C, and D). But, what if you want to take the tune somewhere else?
You could stumble around the fretboard trying to find chords that work. You’ll probably get there eventually.
But if you know a little bit about basic chord theory, you can narrow down your next chord choices to just three chords.
Now, there are definitely ways that we could complicate this, but let’s keep it basic.
The other three common chords that we can choose from are: Amin, Bmin and Emin. These three chords work great with a G, C and D progression, because they all belong to the Key of G.
Step outside the framework creatively, but having this bit of music theory in your back pocket can really help you find the perfect chord when your writing your own tunes.
Learn New Material Faster
While there are many ways that learning a bit of theory can help you improve your guitar playing, the final reason in this lesson is that it will help you learn new material faster.
Let’s continue with the example of knowing the chords in a key. If you know this cold for each and every key it will be easy to categorize new material based on something you already know which leads to faster, more efficient learning.
Once I recognized the framework (in this case, chords in a key) everything fell into place. It seemed as if no one was pulling any punches in their songwriting. Learning my favorite Tom Petty songs became a cakewalk and 12 bar blues became second nature.
Of course, songwriters are artists and tend to step outside of expectations. But I found that if a song creatively stepped outside of the framework, it really stuck out and that’s where I focused my practice. Efficiency for the win!
BONUS EXAMPLE: Key Finding Hack
Here’s a fun little hack based on the same bit of music theory: chords in a key.
When you’re learning a song by ear one of the first things you should do is identify the key. As we’ve discussed, that can really cut down on the options for chords and give you a framework to work within. One way is to listen for two major chords that are next to each other, musically. Take a listen to this example:
Alright, what key was that in?
I played three chords and really there’s enough information right there to figure out what our key, our home base is.
Whenever you hear two major chords next to each other, a step away from each other, those two chords are very likely going to be your IV chord and your V chord. In a major key, the IV and V chord are the only two major chords next to each other and if you find them, you can reverse engineer the progression to find the I chord and therefore the key.
In the example above did you hear two chords that are close to each other musically? This takes practice, but what if I gave you the three chords: D, A, E.
Is D next to A?
Is E next to D?
So now we’ve identified D and E as our IV and V chord. Nice!
The lower chord name alphabetically is going to be IV (D) and the higher chord name is going to be V (E).
Now all you have to do is count backward to figure out what the I chord is and therefore the Key.
This example is in the Key of A.
This is a very useful hack. Knowing the key will inform just about everything you do musically, choose scales for licks, move to different chords that work, etc.
So Is Theory Necessary?
I want to say it again. If you’re happy memorizing your favorite songs and you’re accomplishing your guitar goals, you do not need theory. It may or may not enhance your experience on the guitar.
If you want to sit in with others, compose or learn new material quickly, it may help. It depends heavily on you and your goals. And perhaps not least importantly whether you enjoy learning it.
I didn’t get my theory knowledge in the early days of my guitar journey but I’ve spent years diving into many different aspects of music theory and though your mileage may vary, for me:
Theory has made me a better player.
Where Should You Start?
I believe the best place for a guitarist to start learning music theory is to learn the note names on the fretboard.
It’s a handy skill that will help inform almost anything else you do on the guitar.
I’ve put together a guide that you can download with a straightforward, 5 Step Plan to Master the Note Names.