Guitar Theory and Mental Mapping : Post 2

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Do you need to learn theory?

When I think of theory, what pops to mind are scales, modes, arpeggios, chord progressions, inversions, and substitutions.

Music is about feeling and expression, but none of these topics seem particularly related to expressing my innermost feelings.

There are tales recounted of formidable musicians who have not a clue about theory but are able to produce the most amazing music and never sound lost for ideas.

I always hoped I would grow into one of these “no study, just play” guitarists.

Unfortunately, it didn’t happen. I eventually sat down to learn … and when I did, I found I quite enjoyed it.

Won’t learning theory hinder my expression?

Yes, learning theory does hinder your expression – after all, learning theory is about following some pre-set rules to gain some knowledge.

This hindrance, however, is only short term – if you follow through and really understand and ingrain the lesson, then it becomes a part of your playing and will pass over into the expressive part of your brain and playing.

Here’s the learning cycle as I see it:

  • Applying theory will impose rules on you but it will open new sounds to you.
  • Through practice, these new sounds will become an integral part of your playing – your inner musical voice will be embellished by new ideas.
  • The new ideas will be practiced so much that they will flow from your fingers without thought.
  • You now have your old ideas at hand but in addition, new ideas have been assimilated and you can reproduce both your old and new ideas at will.

Won’t learning scales and arpeggios make me sound mechanical?

There can definitely be a danger of this happening if you do not apply the lessons in your own musical way.

We’re all aware of guitarists who have practiced scales and arpeggios to death and can play them unbelievably well and fast, but their playing sounds nothing more than mechanical.

I would not say that this is wrong. It could just be a phase the player is going through – part of the learning process. It could be that the player is playing fast because it feels good to do it – we’re all allowed to indulge ourselves sometimes.

The danger comes when we get stuck in a rut of going up and down scales and our playing becomes more technical than musical.

The only way to get out of a rut is stop doing what we’re doing and learn new ideas.

This may be where many people come unstuck.

Learning new ideas means breaking habits and getting out of our comfort zone. It means taking a step backwards and inevitably not sounding as “good” as we previously did.

Learning new ideas takes time, dedication, commitment and effort!!

Not everyone can rise to that challenge.

If I follow the rules, won’t I just sound like everybody else?

We all hear different music in our heads – we all gravitate towards different types and styles of music.

When learning theory, I believe the idea is to understand it, but also to interpret it. You ultimately take what you like and leave what you don’t like.

As you assimilate more and more ideas, the ideas will merge into each other until what you are playing will no longer be a single set of rules set by someone else, but will be your own rules created from an amalgamation of the many ideas you have learnt and interpreted. There will also be additional rules you yourself have discovered and set along the way.

This is how your style will be born.

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