Tag Archives: Theory

“Do I really need all this Music Theory?!”

Written music on the treble clef staff
Written music on the treble clef staff

Oh no, not theory!  With thirds, and triads, and sharps and keys…….I just want to play!!!

Do I need theory to do what I want to do?

I’ve been teaching a long time.  Since I was 17.  I’m now 97 (ok, not quite but still) so that’s a long time.  And in all that time, theory lessons are easily the most complex and the most confusing to students.  Even though we are applying it through the guitar, it’s still dizzying.

So again,

Do I need theory to do what I want to do?

The short answer is no.   I’ve played with many musicians – guitarists, bassist, singers, drummers (typically not keyboard players) who don’t understand what a key is.

Singers – the singer needs a good ear obviously and needs to know if the song is in his or her range and we usually find out the hard way.  And they may sing “la la la….right here….can we do the song here?” as you move the chords up and down and find the right key.

Drummers – although many drummers sing, and many play multiple instruments, the don’t need musical theory but they will be more keyed into intros, outros, breaks, fills, and tempo.

Bassists – I didn’t think it was possible to not know theory but I have worked with bassists that just learned bass runs, bass patterns and chord outlines without being able to say “This song is in the key of [fill in the blank]”.  They just play the song.

Guitarists – most guitarists learn open string chords, then bar chords, and pick up on the main Rock scale – the minor pentatonic or blues scale, or just pieces of it from learning by ear and figuring out solos on record.  Throw in some flashy effects, some stage presence and bingo – you’re a rock star.

I had one student where his band wanted to learn Led Zepplin’s The Wanton Song from the Physical Graffiti album.  He had a lot of the licks down, but was stuck on the bridge.  Good ol’ Jimmy page threw in a Diminished 7th chord as a “connecting” chord and once we hit that chord, my student said “That’s it; this is too hard!” and promptly gave up on that song.

So let me qualify that short answer of “no”.  If you’re going to be doing very simple rock, folk, or blues (and blues can get hairy too), then no.  You don’t need theory.  Dress in black or white or all yellow, spend $3k on a stacked amps, effects and work on your moves in a mirror (which one should probably do anyway to get a sense of performance) and stick to the easy songs.  When it comes time to do a solo, you can figure out what the recording is doing and noodle with that.

I am not being sarcastic or mean.  Many gigging musicians do just that.  There’s nothing wrong with it.

So why would I want to learn theory?

There are many reason but I’ll list them here:

  • To more quickly figure out songs as you’ll be used to the stock chord progressions
  • To more quickly figure out the key to do your own improvisations
  • To more quickly figure out the recorded solo since you know what you would use
  • To play a wider range of songs – ballads, or Steely Dan or “easy listening” music for playing during dinner time or wine tasting
  • To more easily write your own songs
  • To more easily transpose songs if the singer needs it
  • To figure out 2 and 3 part harmony in the vocals

Not all music is straight forward.  If you are into heavy metal the likes of Dream Theater, or Day of Reckoning you will do better if you know your major/minor scales, keys and modes.

Me?  I’m going to brush up on my pentatonics with my 7 string and go pick out yellow clothes for my next gig.

Have a great time y’all!  Hit me up with any questions you have.  I’m not a lawyer so I don’t charge by the question :).



Metal and Bebop

Hey all –

I took lessons from Jim beween 1972 to 1978, then he made me a teacher. Then I took lessons from the late Warren Nunes from 1980 to 1981, about a year and a half. Both teachers (more so Jim) were responsible for shaping my approach to playing.
One staple of their playing principles were to forget about modes. What are modes?
Let’s start with the key of C:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 or 1
So in a “modal” approach, C to C is the “Ionian mode”. D to D in the key of C is the “Dorian Mode”. E to E is “Phrygian mode”. F to F is the “Lydian Mode”. G to G is the “Mixolydian mode”, A to A is the Natural minor scale but also called the “Aeolian mode”and the B to B is the “Locrian mode”.
My teacher’s preferred approach was to use chord shapes within the context of whatever scale we were in (Major, Pentatonic of blues) and this is still what I primarily use.
As my sons have introduced me to more and more Metal – Speed metal, death metal, thrash metal, Garage Sale Metal (ok I made that last one up) – I got interested more in the guitarists than the bands themselves. Some of these players are nothing short of amazing.
Metal is a niche market. It’s not like pop and blues where guys like Clapton can tell Fender “you’ll make the guitar like this” and they do it. These guys have difficulty being a commercial success. Don’t think Metallica – who have a couple of hits – those hits generate royalties and a nice income. Think “Dying Fetus” – what, you never heard of them? See?
As a result of limited financial success, I assume, a lot of these killer guitarists teach. Hey it’s a good way to make money and solidifies your understanding of musical theory and concepts (it worked for me). So these guys have instructional youtube vids out there, usually promoting their pay for DVD.
Besides the fact that they all tune down a half or a whole step, and many play 7 string or 8 string guitars, their playing seems be centered on 4 approaches:
1) scales/modes
2) arpeggios
3) legato (hammer ons and pull offs) through the scales
4) fast alternate picking through the scales
Before I get into #1 above, let me say this : metal guys aren’t the first guys to play blinding fast music. Look at Bebop (“be-what? Who is he, some rapper dude?”). Let me explain.
Before there was the internet, and radio stations all across the country, music traveled with bands. This meant that if an area developed a style of playing, it took bands traveling across the country to get the word out. The new music would be heard by local musicians in their town and they’d pick up on it. In this fashion, styles of popular music would normally take about 10 years to change – we’re talking the 1920’s, 1930’s, and 1940’s. And if you study these styles, each style seems to be an answer of sorts to be different than what is currently popular.
In the 1940’s it was the big band era – everybody wanted to dance – why not? The world was in WWII and they needed some form of escapism. Then we were out of WWII and the world needed a way to celebrate.
But out of that, these jazz musicians wanted to not play for happy dancing couples but to play for their art, their music, to test the boundaries of harmonic structures and playing technique. So after WWII and into the 1950’s, Bebop was formed.
Bebop is a franticly paced, complex jazz style. Charlie Parker (sax) and Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet) are probably the two main pillars of this genre, but they guy I like more is John Coltrane.
John played tenor sax (my fav sax) and was technically very, very proficient. He wrote an historically complex song called “Giant Steps” that changes keys all over the place.
In 1958, Downbeat magazine used the term “sheets of sound” to describe Coltrane’s playing. This same description could be used to describe what some of these modern day shredders do.
OK, metal is not bebop – harmonically metal is still very basic, but their long runs tend to center around various modes in a singular key. (in quick key changes, like giant steps, I’d still much prefer a chordal approach). These long, fast runs create a “sheet of sound” that maps out the tonality of the mode in blinding speed. In this sense, I can see the use of modes to improvise with, going a bit against the advice of my teachers (but that was in the 1970’s pretty much).
So I now am working on modal exercises that are meant to be played at fast speeds. It’s not difficult for me to see them because modes are usually built on major or minor scales. It’s more of an adjustment of my approach, not a departure from it.
Shred on….