Guitar Music Theory: What Do I Need To Learn?
Have you ever felt you are stuck in a rut because you do not know what you need to learn about music theory in order to improve? Does your music feel stale and old? Do you feel you are moving toward becoming a better musician, or everything feels complicated and you don’t know what you need to learn next?
If you answered “yes” to any of the questions above, feel reassured: I felt this same way too for a long time, until I realized a series of things that helped me get out of my rut and that I am going to share with you in this music theory article. Incidentally, many of my students felt the same way before meeting me.
Here are the things you need to realize to start making sense of music theory:
- The reason I did not know what to study next is because there is NOT such a thing as a “master road” that everybody has to follow to learn music theory — despite what many people may have told you. If you think about it, there are many excellent songwriters out there who can compose songs over songs while knowing very little “academic” music theory. How is that possible? It i because they (sometimes unknowingly) focused on the music theory that they needed in order to be able to write songs.
- Music theory is a set of tools, and depending on your goals you will find some more useful than others. While some of these tools are learned easier after some other tools, there is more than one possible order in which you can go through them.
- “Traditional” ways of learning music theory (such as: learning to sight read first, learn the rest later), as explained in most books or taught in many schools may not be the best or more appropriate for everybody’s goals.
Not having a “plan of attack” to study music theory — or worse, having a plan that is NOT conducive to your goals — will just cause you to lose time and energy in the pursuit of mindless information that’s not really useful, and ultimately will prevent you to ever really realize your goals and musical potential. So, unless you want to become one of the countless “I just play by ear” musicians out there, you better have a detailed roadmap that takes you from where you are now to where you want to be.
The first step is to be really clear on what are your musical goals. Your goals may change in time, but as long as you have clear your point of arrival as you envision it now, there will be no problem. The second step is to look at what you know now.
The third (and most complicated) step is to draw a path between where you are and where you want to be — but of course you can not do this by yourself because, if you knew all the steps, you would be already arrived! This means that you need the help of someone more advanced than you to identify what you need to arrive where you want to be. Specifically, you will need to know what are the most important musical skills that will make you the kind of musicians you want to be — and also what musical skills may be desirable but not really necessary to your goal. We can all agree that the more you know, the better it is in general, but given the finite amount of resources and time we all have, you will be better off concentrating on the musical skills that you will actually need and use.
In this spirit, let me give you some example for a few very common musical goals among guitar players. As you will see, while many music theory topics are in common, the learning priority may be different for each type of musician. Note: here we are interested in listing only music theory-related skills: it goes without saying that all types of musicians described below will also need a discrete technical and playing ability.
The two most important skills for an improviser are fretboard knowledge, and how chords and scale relate to each other. Fretboard knowledge can be broken down into:
- Knowing ALL the notes over ALL the fretboard
- Knowing pentatonic and diatonic scales and modes on the fretboard
- Knowing where to find arpeggios, starting with triads, then seventh arpeggios, then extended arpeggios.
- Knowing all other scales on the fretboard (harmonic minor, melodic minor, diminished, augmented, exotic scales)
Of course, you will need to know what all these scales are in theory before you can learn them on the fretboard.
As for the chords/scales relationship, we can list the following skills to be developed:
- Spelling of all chords and scales (i.e. being able to tell what notes are in every chord or scale)
- Harmonization of all scales (i.e. what chords are in any scale)
- “Inverse Harmonization” i.e. what scales can fit any given chord
- Chord substitutions concepts
As you can see, there is a lot of memorization involved to become a good improviser. It may seem a daunting task, but if you take it step by step and give you some time, you will see that it is not as difficult as it seems.
The Studio Musician/Sessionman
The number one most important skill for a studio musician is to be able to sight read fluently. Being able to read different ways to communicate music on paper is your ticket to be able to play with the large possible variety of musicians. Specifically, you must be able to:
- Read from a chord chart
- Read rhythmic notation
- Read tablature
- Read a music score
The standard for studio musician is to be able to go through a score correctly at the second read-through — there is no time to lose in a recording studio! Once you are able to do that, you can start working on your fretboard knowledge, like the Improviser above.
The needs of a songwriter are completely different than the ones of an Improviser or Studio Musician. Most songwriting revolves around chord progressions, and this needs to be the focus of a songwriter: learn how chord progressions work. If we break this down in details, a songwriter needs to know:
- What chords are in every key, and what is their function.
- What out-of-key chords can be used in any give key, and their function. These are chords such as secondary dominants, borrowed chords, and chromatic chords.
- A set of useful chord progressions (starting from Cadences)
Also, an often-neglected area of study for the songwriter is the study of musical forms, that is to say how to put together a set of musical idea so that the song is organized. And example of that is the usual form Verse + Chorus that we are are all familiar with, but there are many others.
The Performer/Cover Musician
The musicians who mainly performs on stage (be it with his own songs or cover songs) has once again completely different needs than the ones we have seen above. This is because the Performer will memorize the songs before going on stage (thus, there is less pressure on sight reading than a Studio Musician). All the solos, if there are some, will be memorized too (there is less demand to be able to improvise). The two main skills needed by a performer are:
- Being able to memorize the whole setlist.
- Being able to transpose any chord progression on the spot. This is because the singer of the band may need the song to be lowered if he/she is having a bad day. You need to be able, for example, to memorize a chord progression in E and being able to play it in D without writing it out.
To obtain these two skills, it may be of help to know the spelling and harmonization of all keys.
Of course, if the Performer is playing his own songs, he will need to have all the skills listed under the Songwriter too in order to compose his own music.
Finally, all musicians need to work on their aural skills. No matter what specific kind of musician you are, you need to do your ear training until it becomes second nature. “Having a good ear” is one of the most important skills to have as a musicians, and everybody can train to acquire it. In fact, everything you learn in music theory needs to be learned in ear training too! For instance, an Improviser needs to know what scales he can use on a specific chord, AND the sound of all these scales. A Songwriter needs to learn what chords are in a key, AND the sound of all these chords. While this sounds very difficult on paper, it is actually a quite natural thing to do in practice, provided you work on it.
As you can see, these examples are useful, but due to length constraints, they lack a certain amount of details. I created for you a detailed “map of music theory” (shown on the right) that shows a step-by-step path for all the cases I explained above and the order in which to learn all music theory topics. You can get it by clicking on the button below: