In Theory

Guest Post by Max Pheiffer

Utter the words “music theory” in that big “guitar mega-mart” and about half of the people in there will mock you. There is a reason for their verbal beatings: many people ignore this aspect of musicianship. Starting guitar players usually jump head-first into tabs (which, contrary to popular belief, is not the same thing as reading music) and never look back. But where do scales and keys and time signatures and dynamics and modes and notes and harmonies and melodies fall? To the wayside, my friends. Let’s find them again.


Photo by 2liltros

Ok, I’ll be the first to admit it, no, I am not some sort of music theory genius. I know a little (a very little, so don’t quiz me) and I am still a competent guitar player (sort of). But I do realize the benefits of learning this stuff. So should you. Painstaking hours of studying and reading pay off. This is something you’re just going to have to trust me on.

Why, you are probably asking, would anyone be better off knowing music theory? You may be able to fly around the fret board like lightning, solo for hours, hold strong rhythms, and even write some cool riffs. Let Bach keep his precious music theory, right?! Well I can honestly say it works magic. And the way it does so is by keeping you out of cliché territory. Everyone can solo for an hour with some choice licks and generic sound that all their solos sound like anyway, but knowing about all the fun theoretical aspects can help you make people weep. And most importantly… impress the girls up front.

The most powerful aspect, in my opinion, is that a lead guitar player can learn is the art of subtlety. Yes, many songs need a face-melting guitar solo, but many do not. If you don’t exactly consider yourself a minimalist, that’s fine, but learn when it is just as powerful to keep the audience tense. After showing off your skills, they are going to want to hear more, much more. Keep them waiting. Or, even better, mess with the volume and speed: use dynamics. Nothing is better than a riff that comes on slowly, building and growing, eventually emerging from the rhythm like fire. Make people desire that.

That’s not the only good technique though. Improvised harmonies can add depth and excitement to music. When people hear you playing loud and proud, they like it. But when they hear you harmonize with the other guitar player, or keyboardist, or even vocalist, it does something exciting and new. Harmony drives music; take advantage of it.

One final thought, don’t jump into your comfortable, favorite position for every lead. Yes, the A-minor pentatonic scale is like home, but it gets old quick. Try hopping between major and minor scales with the chord changes. Maybe do a little jazz thing and change with the backup. Climb up the neck with your modes, shifting between fast and slow, loud and soft. Keep the audience guessing, because then you will have them in your hand. When you can keep people wanting to hear the next new thing your going to play, you have then become a great player.

Theory helps this knowledge, because knowing the relationship of all aspects of music allows you to use different techniques freely and effectively. Jump into theory, it’s not what you think, its what you know.

  • Kent

    Well thoughtout article. Most of us play and try and emulate our heroes without understanding why.

  • natalie

    you said it! As an advid guitarist I love to read what max has to say, he is both thought provoking and dead on in his theory. Love the website

  • Max

    Hey, thanks for the comments guys, I’m glad the article resonated with you. Keep on improvising new ways to play and interesting ways to write, that’s how you can really push the boundaries of the instrument. Keep on writing, I want to hear what everyone has to say. Peace.

    • Mickey

      I agree, Max is young but wise beyond his years!

  • mykele

    Spoken like a true musician!

  • chantal

    This article is bomb! As a guitar player myself, I think that people need to know this stuff. You cant just be a guitar player over-night because you learned how to copy an ACDC song. Good thing we have as strong a writer as you to tell people whats up. Thanks! You Rock!

  • nate

    such a great point! this is something too many of us have neglected and need to improve upon. EXTREMELY well written Max! keep it up!

  • mykele

    Spoken like a true musician!

  • CK

    My $0.02 (maybe $0.03) why understanding basic theory is useful:
    1) Learning – I think a lot of guitarists learn by ear. Personally, I do most of my learning in the car. Having some basic understanding of theory allows me to listen and identify chords and melodies quicker (i.e. I, V, vi, IV)
    2) Writing – Theory helps to answer the question “how do you know what chords sound good together?” I’ve been asked that a bunch of times over the years. Or, alternatively, what might sound “odd”. Not that you have to know theory to write. It just helps to take some of the guess work out.
    3) Transposing/modulation – Not that this is difficult on the guitar. But it’s nice to be able to understand how to do it quickly. Vocalists tend to appreciate this. (“This is too high for me, can we try it lower?”)

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