Music Theory and Composition Interview with Christian Muenzner

by Tommaso Zillio

Tommaso Zillio: Okay, here is musictheoryforguitar.com. Today we are bringing you another music theory interview. Today we have with us Christian Muenzner, famous for playing with bands such as Obscura, Necrophagist, Spawn of Possession - all great bands. Christian, how is it going today?

Christian Muenzner: It's going very good. It's going very good. I'm glad to be featured on the website. I think it's a very good idea to make a site like this. It's my pleasure, thank you.

TZ: You just said you just finished your second solo record.

CM: Exactly.

TZ: That's great. I can't wait to hear it! I have a few questions for you that our readers have written. The first thing I want to know is if there is any advice you might give to our readers who are just starting discovering music theory and they want to be able to play as people like you, essentially.

CM: I would say it's very important that you start simple and you do not try to get the whole picture at once and that you are patient, because that's something I see often in my lessons. I see people who don't know the names of the notes on the guitar yet but they already want to learn how to improvise over complex key changes and things like that. Of course, that's not possible when the basics are missing. Which is why I think it's very important to start very simple and go step by step and not try to understand everything at the same time.

Then, it's important that you remember when you can learn 26 letters of the alphabet and complex grammar that you can also learn 12 notes and some logic concepts that exist in music. I would also say, because I often see that especially guitar players, especially in metal, are a little bit afraid of theory because they think that more knowledge, basically, will be harmful to their creativity. I think it's very important to get rid of that thought. Because that's definitely not going to happen. If you work with a teacher, I would say to listen to what your teacher says. Don't get bored immediately when you have to learn open chords, or how a C major scale works, because these are just the first steps someone has to take in order to understand more complex theory later on.

TZ: That's great. Do you think that beginner guitar students are underestimating the importance of music theory, and what learning theory can do for them?

CM: Yes, I totally think so. I'm a guitar teacher so I see it very often. From my experience, this is almost always the case. I think that comes from the fact that one can get faster success in the beginning, when reading and memorizing numbers with tablature, which is an easy system that everyone can work with and which is simple to understand. Of course, in the beginning you want fast success.

Usually when starting to learn an instrument, people just want to jam along to their favorite songs. On guitar, you do not need theory in order to do that which is probably, I think, one of the only melodic instruments where that is the case. If you play piano or saxophone or anything you have to learn the notes first, before you can play any tune, before you can understand how to play any actual music. On the guitar, that's different.

That's why I think guitar players in general underestimate that. Then later on, when the time comes to write their own music or to expand their improvisational ability beyond simple minor, pentatonic box shapes, for example, then they figure it's getting very difficult to understand when all the basics are missing.

TZ: I guess it's pretty important for you to know all your fret-board, like all the notes of the scales, arpeggios. How would you suggest a beginner to start learning how to orient themselves on the fret-board?

CM: I would say really, the good old fashioned way, as us guitar players learned in the 60s, 70s, or even the 80s. Start with learning the open position chords on the guitar as an acoustic player would first. Learn C major, G major, and D major chords so you know the open chord shapes. Many guitarists skip that very first step nowadays. I would say to learn how a C major scale works and where the half steps are.

It might be good also to be able to see it on a piano or a keyboard, to learn how a C major scale looks on the keyboard, that you know where the note C is and you can see the white keys in your head so you can understand logically where the half steps and where the whole steps would be. Then transfer it to the guitar by learning the notes on the two lower strings first so you are able to name your power chords, for example, if you are a rock or metal player. Then learn how major and minor triads are constructed from a scale and try to see those notes in the open chord shapes that you just learned. Then I would say to just learn chord progressions and learn transposing them in different keys and so on.

Then you can move on to more complex theory. Make sure you get your basics covered before you move on to advanced concepts. I think there is no point in trying to understand modes or improvisation concepts when you don't know the basic major and minor keys and chords.

TZ: Definitely. When you compose, do you compose on the guitar, or do you use other instruments, or do you compose in your mind away from any instruments?

CM: Sometimes I compose in my mind, but that's more like a structure of something, like if I already have a couple of ideas and I'm somewhere else, like on vacation and I don't have a guitar with me. I start to think about how I could structure some of the ideas that I already have. Basically when it's really about creating new ideas, I almost exclusively start on the guitar and I either record those first ideas and then record maybe the harmonies or a second guitar part to it.

Sometimes I move on to straight to Guitar Pro, which I use a lot nowadays to write and arrange the other instruments. It's easier because then I can write drum patterns and then write a bass line for it maybe, or a keyboard layer so I can hear what the whole thing would sound like.

There are also a couple of occasions where I wrote complete parts or progressions on a piano or a keyboard. I'm not a great player on the keys by any means, but I know how it works. Sometimes it's easier for me to see or hear chords or melodies or to try more complex harmonic concepts on a keyboard, where I can basically have layers and play a melody and the chord at the same time. There are a couple of parts on my first solo record which I actually wrote on a keyboard first, but I would say 90% of the time I start on the guitar.

TZ: How do you use your knowledge of music theory in your composition, in a way that liberates your creativity as opposed to restricting it?

CM: Usually I want to set a goal to where an idea is headed. As a musician you want to express emotions or create pictures. Basically, my knowledge of tonality is like my vocabulary to create sentences and chapters, which I would say are the riffs, if you compare language and music to tell a story, just a complete song.

To express it very simply, if I want to create something that sounds very haunting and dark, for example, I know that I won't get there with writing a diatonic C major progression, for example. In that case, I would probably use my knowledge of more symmetrical scales or exotic scales that are not so common to create darker sounding riffs or chord progressions.

Or, I could even abandon all of that and just use my knowledge of intervals and say, "Okay, don't write with any harmonic concept in mind, but I want it to sound dark." I know that certain intervals sound darker than others, for example. I would say even though what's very important that when you know a lot of theory, you can apply it for writing, but in order not to let it restrict you it's important. Sometimes I would even use a riff with a couple of notes that do not fit into any harmonic system or scale that I know because I think it sounds good. Then I would also use it.

I always say to people, the theory and the harmonic knowledge are tools to create music. It's not rules that should be restricting. For example, if one knows the modes and knows which mode has which sound color and which characteristic, and you want to express a certain color and emotion, you know you can do that with that interval structure. Then you have easier access to things that you would otherwise have to search for a long time, and then probably not even discover the way they are.

Basically, when I write something I basically know what kind of emotion or picture I want to express, and then I know how to get there. For example, if I know I want it to sound very Baroque or Neo-classical, I know how to create chord progressions which have that sound. I could use, for example, secondary dominants, or I could modulate keys in order to get progressions which have that kind of sound.

So, basically, I would say for me, I use theory as tools to liberate my ideas, but not as rules that would restrict me from using ideas that do not fit into any existing concept or pattern.

TZ: Many of our readers look up to you as a guitar hero, essentially. I also have a few students myself, who mentioned you when they were starting taking lessons with me. What would you say to someone who aspires to play like you but is intimidated by the level of theory he has to master?

CM: I would say that there's no reason to be intimidated. Because, basically, it's not a complex as many other tasks in real life. It's definitely not more complicated than, let's say, to learn a different language. Or also, it's not more complex than learning advanced techniques on the guitar. This is something you see a lot of players do when they play the craziest, most difficult stuff, like seven-string sweeps, eight finger tapping, fast alternating picking licks. I think if you can do that stuff, there's no reason to be intimidated by certain concepts, which may seem a little bit complex at first

That's why I would say it's very important, if someone has a practice schedule, to make also room for also theoretical aspects. That it's definitely possible to learn it in the same way that is possible to learn and master guitar technique. I don't think it's something that only a few people can learn. I think it's something that everyone has the ability to learn, if you focus on it hard enough.

TZ: Good. Now, how has music theory helped you learn other aspects of guitar playing faster or better?

CM: Basically, I learned theory right from the beginning, as I learned to play guitar. Right from the beginning I learned the chords and the notes. Very early on I learned to see the notes on the fret-board. Then when I learned to understand keys, for example, how certain keys work. In the beginning, for example, when I was playing in a cover band and I had to figure out songs by ear for the set list. As soon as I know about the keys, I knew that it couldn't be any other notes. I would know, "Okay, the song is in that key", so it was easier for me to know instantly which chords would appear in a progression, which notes would be in there and which would not. Obviously, you can learn simple rock songs or pop songs or simple heavy metal songs, a lot of diatonic stuff.

In the beginning, if you know your keys and your ear has not developed that well. Yet, it's still quite easy to figure out how some of those songs work. You know your three major and your three minor chords in a certain key, for example. That was in the very early days. It already helped me figure songs out on my own. Later on, it helped me a lot, also,when I learned other songs to understand the compositions better of other people, of course. Also, when I'm soloing, when I'm writing solos or improvising solos. It helps me a lot to see and navigate through the fret-board a lot faster, for example.

I do a lot of tapping, for example, for my faster playing, for arpeggios and things like that. I always see the chord shapes on the guitar when I play. So instead of thinking too much about fret-board shapes or box patterns. I really see all the chords and the inversions on the fret-board and that helps me a lot to know instantly where certain notes of certain arpeggios will be.

It also helped me a lot to come up with ideas that I wouldn't have come up with otherwise. For example, I would study classical pieces like Bach, like some preludes or something. I would try to understand the chord progressions behind it and why they sound good. Basically, I think it really helped me in every aspect of guitar playing. Even in the beginning when I learned technique and I learned my legato or sweeping patterns, as soon as I knew what key it was in or what arpeggio it should be. It was very easy to see all the possible inversions on the guitar, for example. I think knowing all the theory also made me learn every other aspect of guitar a lot faster.

TZ: Speaking of composition, can you give us some practical tips on your composition or some writing process?

CM: Sure. It definitely depends on what I'm writing for, like what situation I'm writing for. If I'm writing a death metal song for Obscura, for example, if I write something for my own instrumental music. First of course I have to know what kind of song I want to write, what I want it to sound like. There is definitely difference if I want to write an A sounding, heavy metal, shred guitar song, a very dark sounding death metal song.

When I know where it's headed. For example, let's say I want to write something for Obscura, most of the time it's all about finding interesting chord progressions first, for me. Even, way before I start to create a riff or something, I mostly mess around with the acoustic guitar. It could be even while watching TV or in between guitar lessons. I try to find good, little bit more unconventional chord progressions, for example, which I later on try in the riffs. Even though in Obscura, no one really plays bigger chords, or something, most of the time. Most of our riffs still outline a chord progression but in single notes, many notes which are included in the chords, maybe some transition notes.

But very often, many songs that I write start with a chord progression first. Let's say, for example, I would pick two diatonic chords, like if I'm in the key of E minor for example, I would pick E minor and a B minor chord. Then I would maybe connect them with secondary dominants. I would go E minor, F-sharp 7, B minor, B7 for example. Then I might replace the F-sharp 7 with a G diminished until I get a nice sounding progression which makes sense for the ear but which is not too conventional or diatonic. Like something which is real unique.

Then from there I try to use those notes to create a certain single note riff maybe, from it. Once I have a really good riff, a really good idea that I like and I figure out the tempo of that, the BPM, I put on a metronome.

At first, I do as I do like in a business meeting, for example. I just do brainstorming. That means, just what comes to mind. Later on, I see, okay, which fits and which does not fit. Very often I use very theoretical approaches.

Most of my songs always have a certain idea that's maybe unique in that song that I do not use in any other song, for example. What's very important of course, is for us to to know what kind of song you want to write and what the ingredients are for that. What melodies you need to use for which kinds of songs. If you want to create a song that sounds like an '80s heavy metal guitar song, use a lot of us diatonic minor key stuff. If you want to create something that sounds more rock, you know that you have to create certain chord progressions with certain key changes, or things like that, to get that kind of sound.

So basically I know the ingredients for what I want to create, and then I basically go from there, often by setting a tempo. Also, very often I think, in order to write something that sounds good, it's also good to limit yourself. Sometimes, for example, if I run out of ideas and everything starts to sound the same, then I take a completely different approach from what I normally do

For example, when I was working with Ron Jarzombek, we did that one song together, and we used his twelve tones concept. There was note cluster, only two notes, so he said, "Take the note G and C sharp and make a riff out of that." Two notes. You can't use any of the other notes. Then you start to think differently. Because then I started to think, "Okay, I only have those two notes. The only thing I can do to make something interesting is use more advanced or complex rhythmic concepts that I wouldn't use otherwise." It forces you to think differently and to come up with things you wouldn't come up with otherwise.

Basically, writing with chord progressions is the same because you just have a progression of chords and this kind of limits the possibilities of what you can use. Then you have to create something within those limitations, which I think leads to something very often more original than when you can just use everything you have and everything is just trying out randomly. Because then, very often then everything will end up sounding very similar.

TZ: That's a great idea. In your songs, when you compose your songs, how do you structure the guitar parts in relation to other instruments? For instance, how do you make the guitar interact with the drums and the bass?

CM: Since I'm a guitar player and the music I write is very guitar dominated, it's mainly that the guitar carries the idea. Then the drums and the bass accompany that idea. Very often, I know what kind of drum beat I want to have for a certain idea. Does it have to be a blast beat or a slayer beat or mid-tempo, power metal kind of beat, or is it rhythmically more complex riff where the drums really accent or where the drums really double the accents of the guitar, for example? It's either a very common drum rhythm that is seen in other riffs and songs, or it's something that's very specific for that kind of rhythm. It's a very different drum groove from anything else. In that case, I would then, after I have the riff, I would compose the drums mostly in Guitar Pro to get an idea. Later on, the drummer might change it a little bit of course, but just to get the general idea of that riff across.

Then I use the bass mostly to connect that empty space between the guitar and the drums, for example. It could be that the bass just doubles the guitar riffs, but it could also be that it's a more simplified version. Or it could be that I just have a chord progression and a nice drum groove and the guitar might just be holding the chords and then I would write an eight note bass line, for example, to outline the progression a little bit more with its own character. Usually when I write something, I at least have only the drum line in mind, at least, approximately.

Of course, I don't write fills or things like that which are very individual for a drummer, but I have a general idea what kind of drum pattern I want to have under the riff. I mostly instantly hear it in my head when I write a riff. I instantly hear what it would sound like with the drums. I then write the drums and then, as I said, use the bass to connect the empty space. There, I still leave a lot of freedom for the bass player and the drummer for later on.

I mean, I think a drummer or a real bass player, they have better ideas usually for that kind of stuff than a guitar player has. My ideas for the drums and the bass then they are just very general. I say, okay, this has to be a fast beat or a slayer beat or a double bass power metal beat or something, but all the details I leave up to the drummer and the bass player mostly.

TZ: I see. I see. I have one last question for you. Are you skills, your knowledge, your experience of today in perfect alignment with the vision you created for yourself when you started out and if you are doing exactly what you imagined? Or in a sense, life as a musician is different than what you were thinking of?

CM: It's definitely a little bit different in the sense that when I started out in the beginning, the music I listened to was a lot more simple than what I'm doing now. I started with old bands like AC/DC and Iron Maiden and I was like, "Hey, if I ever manage to play something like that, then I will be happy." Of course, the more you learn and the more you grow as a musician, the more you start to seek out more advanced and complex music. Of course, this does not stop. To this day, this keeps going on.

I think the more you learn as a player, the more you know and see what you can't do yet. So, even though I think I can do a lot more now than I ever thought was possible when I started out to play, I see a lot more things that I can't do, than I was aware of when I was younger. But still, I think in terms of composition and knowledge, I think I'm very happy with where I am. I think, in that sense I'm able to express myself freely.

Technically, not so much, because I have a disorder on my left hand which is called focal dystonia which is like a lack of independence between my index and my middle finger. Basically, my technical abilities are a little bit limited by that and are not probably what they could be if I did not have that. So, I would say in terms of my motor skills, because of this disorder, I'm not exactly where I would like to be because I often have to find different ways to play things, that people which four functioning fingers could play more easily.

So, this is basically the thing, but in terms of composition and theory and all that, I think I'm very happy with where I am because I either have the tools to express what I want to express. Or if not, I have enough knowledge to be able to learn and understand something that's out of my comprehension for now. I think in that sense, I'm very happy with where things are now. That does not mean that it's going to stop. It does not mean that I stop learning from here. For the things I want to do now, except for the motor problem I mentioned, I'm very happy with where I am. It's pretty close to the goal that I set when I discovered more advanced music and playing, in my teens.

TZ: That's great. Thank you, Christian, for sharing all of your knowledge with us. I'm sure that all our readers will be really happy reading your answers which are actually really helpful.

CM: Okay. Thank you very much for the opportunity. I enjoyed it a lot.

TZ: Thank you, Christian.

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