Will Learning Music Theory Make You a Better Guitarist?

By Janus Buch

In my profession as a full time guitar teacher, people often ask the age old question of whether or not they need music theory to become good guitarists. The students who do not like the idea of learning guitar theory usually refer to guitarists like Hendrix and claim no music theory is needed. While it is true that he did play phenomenally without knowing any music theory, this is not a great argument for you, not to know your theory. For every one guitarist, that plays phenomenally without knowing any music theory you could easily find a hundred who sucks mainly because they don’t know any music theory. On the other hand though, I also meet a lot of students who tried to learn music theory, but ended up becoming more confused and frustrated as guitar players in the process. So the short answer to the question above is; yes, learning music theory can make you a better guitarist, but only if you learn it in the correct way.

How Music Theory for Guitar Differs From Music Theory on Other Instruments.

Historically, music has been written on piano (or organ and pianette before the piano) for the piano. There is a very close correlation between the design of the piano and the modern system of music notation. That is one of the reasons why pianists are rarely lacking in their musical theory knowledge. Add to this the fact that the notes on the piano are a lot easier to find, than on a guitar because of it’s visual layout containing different sized and coloured keys. Furthermore, the action of playing a note on a piano is always the same: you have to press down a key. This is not always the case on the guitar. Let’s consider the example of playing a E and E7 chord on guitar. From a theoretical standpoint we are actually playing 4 different notes in the E7 chord, but only 3 different notes in the E chord, but we do it by lifting a finger away from the guitar, which is counter intuitive. On a piano however we would have to press down 4 keys instead of three to play an E7 chord instead of just an E chord. The extended chord makes a lot more sense when you actually have to do something more when playing it compared to a regular chord. I could go on and on about what the differences of the instruments are and why we need to approach learning theory for each instrument in different ways, but I think you get the idea.

How to Approach Learning Theory on Guitar. 

Learning theory on guitar is actually more about a specific mindset and approach than everything else. The main key to it is this: find the shortest way possible from your mind to the guitar. The shortest way that I’ve found is to think  in terms of note functions and not notes themselves. So the third of the scale will always sound the same and it is always located in the same spot compared to the root of the key. Thinking in this way will give you a practical tool that you can use in your playing and stop you from learning a lot of useless theory for the sake of learning music theory.

About the author: Janus Buch is the founder, owner and head guitar trainer at Bredballe Guitarskole located near Hedensted. So if you are a struggling guitarist that wants to get rid of your guitar playing frustrations Bredballe Guitarskole is definitely the place you need to seek out. Here Janus offers Guitar undervisning voksne Hedensted to everybody who has the interest and the desire to take their guitar playing to the next level.


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