Guitar and Music Theory

richardsguitarstudio on August 11, 2009

Joe Satriani, John Petrucci, Steve Vai, Randy Rhoads, Yngwie Malmsteen – these names come to mind when I think of guitarists who have not only mastered the guitar, but guitarists who are great musicians.  Many amateur guitarists can speak guitar-lingo, but are unable to carry a conversation with a pianist, violinist, or other musician.  This lack of general musical understanding is the primary reason many guitarists stay in the “amateur” category.  Before showing you the thought processes of a musician-guitarists such as Satriani or Vai, let’s look at the two major groups many guitarists find themselves in.

Guitarists usually fall into two groups regarding music theory.  The first group is not interested in the topic at all.  They are “trial and error” players and will spend hours blindly experimenting on the guitar, not making much coherent music, and sometimes never ending up with any useful musical ideas at all.  Mostly, I find that these guitarists try to learn on their own and on the Internet, are content with learning a song “pretty much” or “sounds like it,”  and generally have problematic technique or timing issues that perpetually plague their playing.  They do not seek advice from a teacher.  In my opinion, this is the ultimate amateur group and they will never improve and most likely get worse over time.

The second group contains the “analyzers.”  They spend a lot of time thinking about theoretical connections, mapping out ideas on the fretboard, and researching.  The endless quest for knowledge also results in minimal music creation due to the fact that they are hesitant to compose things that aren’t “correct” or incorporate ideas they don’t fully understand theoretically.  This group is in a slightly better situation than the first group; however, they need to take a page out of the first group’s “just play” book.  They tend to have good technique, but play very hesitantly and nervously.  Also, they will rarely play a song until it is exactly the way it is on the recording, which substantially limits the amount of time they actally play music.

So what is the balance?  How does a guitarist rise above amateur status and play like a pro?  The answer is to synthesize the two groups into a balanced thought process I call the “right-brain/left-brain battle.”  See the next blog post.

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