Rock Guitar Theory - Do You Need It?
Every rock guitar player learns a little theory, at least. But there is an ongoing debate over whether theory is absolutely necessary for a rock guitarist. Some great guitar players never learnt any music theory, but on the other hand, it does help if you want to get work in a band.
When you start to get into rock guitar theory, there are two main schools of thought. There's the one that says you can never learn too much music theory, that even a rock guitar player will benefit from investing some time in learning theory. The other school says that there are plenty of famous rock guitarists who never learnt theory and that if you examine the music of some of the great guitar players, you will find that they only make use of a few ideas, using them as the basis for their solos.
Jimi Hendrix is one guitarist who is said to have never learnt to read music, Eric Clapton and Slash are others. If you know any rock guitar players yourself, you might know one who looks down on theory and thinks that it just takes up time that could be used in playing.
Some people would answer that if you know the notes on the guitar fretboard and some chords, then you do know theory, but maybe that's just splitting hairs. If you have a friend show you how to play a chord or two or get some out of a book, it's stretching a point to say that's learning theory.
Many guitar players know the major and minor pentatonic scales inside out. You can see that if you learn the notes they use in their solos. But it does not necessarily follow that they know the names of the scales they are using. If Eric Clapton learnt his licks from copying the material of the old blues players, of course he will show some knowledge of the minor pentatonic scale, but he does not show that he learnt it out of a book. He learnt it by playing solos derived from it.
What most guitar players see as rock guitar theory is basic things that every guitarist must learn like where to find the notes at any position on the fretboard and the boxes containing the scales, and how to move barre chords around.
There are two things to remember in this argument. One is that you can learn to play guitar without learning theory. Guitar teachers will tell you that if they teach you a song you will learn nothing about how to play the guitar. They say you will just learn song after song without actually learning how to branch out and write your own material or learn songs by yourself.
That is not true. Leaving aside rock guitar for a moment, flamenco guitar players learnt guitar by learning material from friends and family without learning any theory. Until the nineteen seventies, that is how flamenco was taught. Guitar students didn't even learn what key they are playing in. But they were still able to progress as guitarists. The same can be said for the blues players of the early twentieth century who couldn't write their names let alone learn guitar theory.
The other thing to remember is that if you want to communicate with other guitarists, and if you want to be sure of consistently getting work as a guitar player, you should learn theory. That's the reality of the music business. Jimi Hendrix became known as the world's greatest guitar player but he never had to work as a session musician. For that, even in rock, guitar theory is important.
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