Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced guitarist, at some point you’ll wonder whether you need to learn music theory. Can music theory help you become a better guitarist?
Music theory has always been a hotly debated topic among guitarists, so it’s not easy to decide whether you should learn it or not.
While some guitarists highly recommend learning music theory, others argue that it can hurt your creativity. You’ve likely heard guitarists say something like “X didn’t know music theory, so you don’t need to either”.
In this guide, I’ll explain the basics of music theory and walk through the pros and cons of learning music theory on guitar for beginners. I’ll share my experiences as a guitar teacher and go through some common myths about music theory.
My recommendation as a guitar teacher is that you should learn music theory on guitar, but only when you feel ready to learn it. Music theory is a powerful set of tools you can use in your music.
By the end of this guide, you’ll be able to decide whether you want to learn music theory or not and how to get started if you choose to.
What is Music Theory?
Music theory is the study of what works and what doesn’t in music.
When you play a chord progression, music theory can tell you why it sounds good or why it sounds bad. If you wanted to swap one of the chords in a progression, music theory can tell you which ones will work and which won’t.
Music theory can tell you why playing a scale works over some chords but not over other chords.
Think of music theory as a set of tools you can use to create chord progressions, write melodies and harmonies, or entire songs.
You can write music without knowing any theory, but theory gives you a set of tools that can take a lot of guesswork out of your playing.
Basic Music Theory Topics for Guitarists
Music theory is a big topic, so here’s a quick look at four essential topics and how learning about them can help you as a guitarist.
Intervals: intervals are the building blocks of music. An interval is the space between any two notes. All chords and scales are built from intervals. If you learn the basics of intervals, everything else starts to make more sense (eg: scales and chords).
Scales: a scale is a selection of notes that work well together that you can use to write music. Guitarists use scales to create riffs, melodies, solos, and improvisations. Some popular scales for guitarists include the Major scale, the minor scale, the Pentatonic scale, and the Blues scale.
Chords: chords are when you stack a few intervals together. If you use different types of intervals, you end up with different types of chords (eg: Major, minor, 7th).
Rhythm: Rhythm is the sound of music over time. The beats, pulses, and pauses you hear are what makes music so fun to listen to and play.
While music theory can dive into very deep topics and become complex, it all starts with the above basic topics.
Intervals, scales, chords, and rhythm are essential concepts for every guitarist to learn.
You can learn all of these topics without looking at music theory, but music theory gives you a clear way to understand why intervals, scales, and chords work and how to use them.
Do Beginners Need to Learn Music Theory?
As a guitar teacher, I’m often asked by beginners whether they need to learn music theory to become great guitarists.
The simple answer is that no, you don’t need to learn music theory to become a great guitarist. But music theory can help you become a great guitarist.
Over the years of teaching students, I’ve learned that every student has different needs. It’s wrong to say that every guitarist should learn music theory and it’s wrong to say that nobody needs to learn music theory.
Some guitarists will learn faster and easier when they learn music theory, while others will find it slows them down or frustrates them. So it’s important for you to figure out what is best for you.
Let’s start by looking at the most common arguments you’ll hear for and against learning music theory on guitar.
Arguments for Learning Music Theory on Guitar
- A solid foundation: the basics of music theory can help you with all aspects of your playing including rhythm, melody, and harmony.
- Improvisation skills: music theory can help you improvise more easily and confidently. You will know before you play a note how it will fit in with the rest of the music. You can use your knowledge of scales, chords, and progressions to create solos and riffs that fit perfectly.
- Songwriting skills: music theory can help you write better songs by giving you the tools to create interesting melodies, harmonies, and chord progressions.
- Communication with other musicians: when working with other musicians (especially non-guitarists), knowing music theory can help you communicate your ideas more clearly. You can discuss chord progressions, key changes, and other musical concepts with ease.
Arguments Against Learning Music Theory on Guitar
- Too much theory can stifle creativity: Some guitarists argue that too much theory can stifle creativity by limiting your options and making you stick too close to theory. I discuss this complaint in detail later in this guide.
- Not necessary: You can become a great guitarist without learning any music theory. Some styles of music, such as rock, punk, or blues, can be fully understood without any music theory. The reason why many famous guitarists don’t know music theory is that the style of music doesn’t require much technical knowledge to sound great.
- Overwhelming: learning music theory can be intimidating and confusing, especially for beginners just starting out. With so much information to absorb, it can be easy to become discouraged and give up. As a guitar teacher, I hate the idea of a beginner giving up because they were pushed into music theory too soon.
- Time-consuming: Learning music theory takes time and effort, and you may prefer to focus on learning techniques and practicing songs rather than on studying music theory. If your time to play guitar is limited, music theory may be too low of a priority for you.
Every guitarist has different opinions on the above points. You may instantly agree or disagree with some of the points and other guitarists will reach different conclusions.
The point I want to make is that there isn’t one right learning path to learning guitar.
Every guitarist has different learning needs and it’s up to you to decide how much music theory you want to learn and when you want to learn it. If you’re not ready for it now, you can always learn it in the future.
Music Theory Myths and Facts
Now that we’ve looked at the common for and against arguments for learning music theory, let’s have a look at some common myths and misconceptions you’ll often hear.
There’s a lot of misinformation flying around about music theory. Most of the misinformation is from guitarists who never tried to see how music theory could be useful.
Let’s go through some of these myths so you can make a more informed decision about whether to learn music theory or not.
Myth: “Music theory will kill your creativity”
I mentioned this earlier because it’s one of the most common arguments you’ll hear against learning music theory.
The problem with this view is that it’s a misunderstanding of what music theory is. Music theory doesn’t say “you must play this”. Instead, music theory says “this is how this works”.
Knowing music theory rules and principles doesn’t mean you need to follow them. It’s crazy to think that by learning music theory you will suddenly turn into an emotionless robot playing scales up and down the fretboard.
Music theory doesn’t ruin your creativity because you still have freedom over what you play. Want to change a chord to something that doesn’t fit into the key? Go for it. Want to play some notes outside of the scale? No problem.
Saying music theory lowers your creativity is as crazy as saying an artist becomes less creative when they learn that mixing blue and yellow paint together creates green paint.
Music theory can raise your creativity because it gives you more paths and options. Music theory solves the puzzle for you and gives you the freedom to follow the rules or abandon them as you see fit.
Myth: You need to learn to read music to learn music theory
A lot of guitarists believe that reading music is the same thing as learning music theory. This turns a lot of guitarists off music theory because they might not want to learn to read music.
Learning to read music (standard notation) isn’t the same as learning how scales and chords are created.
If you’ve been putting off learning music theory because you don’t want to learn to read music, don’t stress.
You can learn all the theory you want without needing to know how to read any of those black dots. Some musicians may cringe at that suggestion, but it’s true.
Music theory is not the same as being able to read Standard Notation.
Fact: You don’t need to learn theory to play or write music
Some guitar teachers try to force students to learn theory from Day 1. Forcing students to learn music theory before they’re allowed to pick up the guitar is a terrible idea. You don’t need to know theory to play guitar or to write beautiful music. It helps, but it isn’t required.
While I do recommend everybody learns some music theory at some stage, you don’t need to.
Over time you will gradually learn the ideas behind music theory – even if you can’t explain them.
You’ll eventually figure out why some chords sound good together while other chords don’t fit into a progression. Music theory would have helped you figure it out faster, but you can still learn guitar without it.
Myth: “Jimi Hendrix didn’t need to learn music theory”
It’s true that Jimi Hendrix never took lessons so never formally learned music theory. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t understand music theory.
He may not have been able to tell you what parallel keys or chord modulations are, but he understood those topics and used them in his music. If you asked him to play an E7#9 chord, he may not have known what that means, but he definitely knew how to play that chord (commonly called the Hendrix chord).
Most experienced guitarists who claim they never learned music theory likely understand the main ideas. Just like Hendrix, they may not be able to tell you what a chord inversion is, but they know how to play them.
If you hear somebody tell you that music theory is a waste of time and they learned guitar fine without it, they’ve merely taken the long way. Think of music theory as a series of shortcuts. What took somebody else 5 years to learn without music theory might only take you 5 months to learn with music theory.
Myth: “Music Theory is all about getting a certificate”
For some musicians, it is about getting a certificate. At some point, you may experience the elitism that exists in some musicians. There are many musicians who look down on anybody who doesn’t have a certificate to prove they understand a high level of theory. Ignore those people.
Having a framed certificate and passing exams is meaningless on its own. What matters is how you put that theory into practice. You can memorize the notes to every chord and scale possible, but it doesn’t mean anything if you never pick up your guitar and put those scales and chords to use.
Music theory is not about getting a certificate. Music theory is about understanding and playing better music.
Tips for Learning Music Theory on Guitar
If you’ve decided to learn music theory on guitar, here are some practical tips to help you get started:
Start with the basics
Music theory is a deep topic and it can quickly become overwhelming. So start out with the basics and only move on to more advanced topics when you’re ready for them.
Start by learning the basics of intervals, chords, and scales. Even developing a basic understanding of these topics will put you ahead of most guitarists.
Here are some guides to get you started:
- Guitar scales explained simple
- Guitar intervals explained simple
- How to find the chords in a key
- How to find the key of a song
Use online resources
There are many online resources available to help you learn music theory, including YouTube videos and lessons on websites like this one.
Hearing a topic explained in different ways by different people can make it easier to learn. If you don’t understand the way one guitarist on YouTube explains a topic, read an article or watch a different video and you’ll eventually get it.
Learning music theory takes time and repetition. Set aside some time each day or two to study music theory, even if it’s just for a few minutes.
Don’t worry if you don’t understand a topic straight away. Over time, you’ll start to notice patterns in music and the music theory topics you read about will start to make sense.
Apply the theory
Music theory is the most useful when you learn to use it in your playing.
Try to apply what you’ve learned to your playing and practice looking for the theory topics in the songs you play.
Practice scales, chords, and progressions, and try to incorporate any music theory you’re learning into your own songs and improvisations.
When you learn a new song, try to figure out the scales, chords, and keys used. Analyze the song using your music theory knowledge and you’ll gain a new appreciation for the song.
Music Theory FAQs
As a beginner, you may still have questions about music theory after reading this guide. Here are some common questions you might have:
Should I learn music theory on guitar first?
While you can learn music theory first before you start learning guitar, there’s no need. Learn the basics of guitar first, then when you feel ready you can start to learn the basics of music theory.
The best thing you can do as a beginner is practice your guitar. Develop a good practice routine and play music. Learn music theory later on when you’re ready to learn more about chords and scales. Don’t feel that you need to learn music theory first before you start playing some basic riffs and chords.
It’s perfectly fine if you don’t know the names of the notes you’re playing at first. Just have fun playing guitar and leave the theory for later when you’re ready for it.
The last thing you would want is to give up guitar because you were too bogged down on theory.
Is it better to learn music theory on guitar?
Music theory can help you learn and understand music better on guitar. When you learn to apply music theory to your guitar playing, you can learn at a faster rate and potentially become a better guitarist.
If you’re willing to spend some time studying music theory, you will be better off.
Do most guitarists know music theory?
Not all guitarists know music theory. Some famous guitarists don’t know any theory while others do. Most guitarists understand the basic topics of music theory, even if they can’t fully explain them.
For example, most guitarists know what chords work well together and can create great-sounding chord progressions with or without understanding the theory behind why those chords work together. So while not all guitarists know music theory, most experienced guitarists have developed an intuitive sense of what music theory teaches.
When should I start learning music theory?
You should start learning music theory when you feel ready. Rushing in to learn music theory before you feel ready can quickly become frustrating. You don’t want to lose your passion for guitar because you felt forced to study music theory.
If you ever start wondering why certain chords work well together or you have trouble figuring out what scales to improvise with, it’s probably a good time to start learning music theory.
As a beginner guitarist, you may find music theory challenging. But just like everything else, the more you practice the easier it will become.
Is music theory hard on guitar?
Music theory is a very deep topic and the more advanced topics can seem hard and confusing at first. But the basic principles and concepts are easy to learn on guitar. Music theory isn’t hard on guitar if you take your time and practice applying the theory to your playing.
Did Jimi Hendrix learn music theory?
Jimi Hendrix did not formally learn music theory. However, over time he developed a great ear for music. He may not have been able to explain a lot of what he played, but he developed an intuitive sense of what music theory teaches.
What music theory should a guitarist know?
As a guitarist, you should learn the basic music theory behind scales, chords, and keys. Just learning these topics can help you develop confidence in your playing and freedom over the fretboard. If you want to dig deeper, learning about harmony, rhythm, and melody is a great way to become a better guitarist.
How long does it take to learn music theory for guitar?
Some guitarists find music theory quick and easy to learn, while others may take more time. However, with regular practice and study, most guitarists can develop a good understanding of basic music theory within a few months. You can develop your music theory knowledge to a high level within a few years.
Why do guitarists not know music theory?
There are many reasons why some guitarists do not know music theory. Some guitarists are self-taught and never considered learning theory, some learned from a teacher who didn’t cover it, while others may just not be interested in learning it.
You can become a great guitarist with or without music theory, so some guitarists choose to not study it.
Whether you decide to learn music theory on guitar or not, remember that the most important thing is to enjoy playing music. Don’t feel forced to learn music theory if you don’t want to.
If you’re interested in getting started learning the basics of music theory, check out these guides and lessons:
- Guitar scales explained simple
- Guitar intervals explained simple
- How to find the chords in a key
- How to find the key of a song