How is Music Theory Taught To Guitarists

Every day I run across those who want to know what they should play in a given musical situation (What scales work with these chords?).  Or,  what chords can I play with this riff I worked out?

Lets be frank, the average guitar player already knows what it takes to be able to answer these questions.

  • 1.  Study, and a lot of it.  Lots and lots of time, memorizing huge amounts of information, cracking your brain to understand it, no matter how poorly its explained.
  • 2. Practice, and a lot of it.  Once you study to internalize and memorize everything, you have to put it into play, you have to spend time jamming, or creating situations, almost like a lab, where you can experiment with things.

The other truth is, that most guitarists feel that spending that much time learning something so traditionally dry and confusing  is second to a root canal.

It is generally agreed upon that learning the notes on the neck is a Good Idea, but what the people preaching these ideas, don’t do, is tell you HOW to do this! It’s left to you, the searching guitar player to figure out, and it is already assumed that its going to take a long time, because chances are it took a long time for the person extolling their virtues.   How to do it,  is up to you.

Learning all the possible ways a scale can be played on the neck of the guitar also is presumed to be a nice skill to have, but again, its assumed to take a LONG time, years even.  But does anyone tell you how to do this, in such a way that lets you learn quickly and get back to playing?  No, it’s left for the user to figure it out.

No wonder guitar players would rather just get the answers, than commit the amount of apparent study it would take to fully understand it so they can do it themselves.

They want shortcuts, and templates so that they can address the situation they are in now, and in the future.

This is what I find is lacking with theory and the way it is taught.

To better illustrate the conundrum, Let’s use an analogy.

Imagine we are ordinary people dropped off to fend for our existence way up in the hills, and on of the tenets of humans is that we all need homes.  So along comes a truck, and deposits everything on the ground to be used to construct a home.  Stacks and stacks of lumber, boxes of nails, lots of pipes, bags of concrete, all on brand new pallets.

But, no blueprints, no instructions.  Nothing to tell you how to do it.  Oh there’s the obvious, you need a foundation.  You need walls of course to fix into the foundation, you need plumbing, you need windows and a roof, you are fairly certain that they need to be completed in that order, even.

But how many of us would get a home created the way that we were supposed to?  Only those with enough exposure to homebuilding (Maybe you once helped out in construction somewhere?) would manage to get the home built right.

This is how I see it when it comes to answering one’s  questions about theory, or what to play, how to play, when and where to play, and mostly just how to make sense of it all.  It’s like having a blueprint to it, that,” if you follow this step and then this one, and do this thing and then that thing, you will accomplish the thing you set out to do”.

Throwing handfulls of theory at someone in answer to these questions points the answer out, but doesn’t lead them to understanding.  They need a guide, someone thats been there and so they know what to do, and what not to do, and so they can come alongside us and show us how, tell us whats important and the best way to do it.  Sure, work on their part is required, but there’s a sense that there’s a big picture to it all and the person helping us, has constructed a sure blueprint to reach that objective.

Today the way guitarists are expected to learn music theory to the extent where they can apply it all with understanding, all on their own, is ridiculous.

It would be similar to telling a writer that if he wants to get better, he should simply memorize the entire dictionary.