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The Importance of Music Theory For Blues Guitarists

May 4, 2008
This ultimately is the secret that unlocks outstanding lead guitar playing, great songwriting, and great musicianship in general. I have cited techniques used by rock and blues guitarists Kirk Hammett, Zakk Wylde, Eric Clapton and BB King, but a point I wanted to arrive at in that context is that each and every great guitarists (and great musicians, for that matter) understand music theory; guitarists who can play at that level understand what they're doing, in other words. Now, a few folks might say, "Well, yeah, but guys like Eric Clapton, Eddie Van Halen and Alex Lifeson are self-taught players and have never had a conventional guitar lesson or formal guitar instructor". That would be accurate, but rest assured, these guys unquestionably know and understand their music theory; it would be inconceivable for them to play the way they play if they did not.

What appears to be the common opinion in the music world is that it takes some arcane, cryptic, not-of-this-earth ability to interpret music and music theory when really it does not. For instance, lead guitar playing is broadly speaking going to sound good so long as the notes that are being played are the same as, or like to, the notes in the underlying chords of the tune itself. Easy concept, isn't it? Nonetheless, it calls for a great combination of chops on an instrument and knowledge of music theory in order to accomplish that concept in practise. Knowing music theory, in my belief, is so crucial that I am unwilling to take on a guitarist as a student if the student is unwilling or maybe too lazy to learn it, for whatever reason. What ultimately happens is that these students might get to the point of being able to play many musical compositions but never come to understand why a piece of music sounds great or how chords, scales, and keys all accommodate collectively to produce whatever sounds they're hearing or playing. Ultimately, the musician who does not know music theory is only going to get so far.

In discussing essential music theory, what comes to mind is, first of all, a thorough knowledge of the major scale and its seven degrees, the stacking of the major scale in thirds to create chords and major keys, the relationship of other scales to the major scale and how those scales are spelled out, the study of intervals (very important), and an understanding of modes and modal structure (which isn't as tough as it appears, given the right information). The absolute key to understanding music theory, in my opinion, is to understand the Circle of Fifths (Fourths); the reason it has this name is because the circle ascends in perfect fifths when going clockwise around the circle and in perfect fourths when going counterclockwise. Once a musician understands this circle and how it works, that musician has finally arrived.

A quick note about the "get-chops-quick" techniques on the Internet today: I would have to say that, based upon the ones I have checked, that I am skeptical with their claims. They extravagantly promise all these lightning accelerated results without even acknowledging if the guitarist who is considering purchasing their method can play even a simple bar chord! Now, unless the beginning guitar player is came down from Superman and has hands of steel, playing a bar chord for the first time (such as F Major) is going to hurt; it is going to be painful. Matter of fact, I've had students abandon and quit right in front of me as they felt that playing guitar hurt their fingers too much. Therefore, is someone who is still adjusting their hands to the guitar going to be able to play like James Marshall Hendrix in one week? I do not believe so.

This simple approach outlined here is conceptually simple, but not easy. Good things sometimes take time. It takes a few more words and a bit more effort to explain concepts clearly. My hope is that the information in this article will help make your musical experience less mysterious and more enjoyable, and that the next time you go into a music store or on the Web looking for guitar books and methods, you'll know exactly what to look for.
About the Author
Zack R is the founder of 50 Blues Studios. If you are a blues musician, listen to samples of free blues guitar backing tracks at 50 Blues. If you are a harp player, get access to 50 blues harp backing tracks at 50 Blues website.
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