Guitar Players Who Don't Learn Theory

This discussion breaks down the difference between two types of learning strategies for guitar and why some players never pursue music theory...

If you've ever spent any serious amount of time teaching; rock, pop, blues or folk, (contemporary) music lessons you've probably already noticed that there's an apprehension among a lot of contemporary guitar students when it comes to learning music theory. And, I think it can be understood for guitarists, due to the way that the guitar is able to be studied, and quickly appreciated through practice of a series of shapes and patterns.


Learning scales and chords on guitar is fairly easy since they're created using geometrical shapes, and this does make the guitar easier to learn by ear. This also means that we end up with two groups of guitar students. The contemporary guitar student who learns mostly by patterns (like chord diagrams, TAB and scale diagrams). And, the classical guitarist who generally learns by a traditional theory based method, (often times the classical guitarist studies a traditional program - no pop, rock or contemporary styles).

So, let's call the group who are learning guitar using patterns /playing by ear, (incl., diagrams either on paper, or just shown to them by another player), we'll call them the "trained by ear" guitar player.

The other group, who are let's say learning to read music and learning music theory from a method like the Royal Conservatory Classical Guitar Books, we'll call those students the "Classically Trained" students.

Both groups are going to learn guitar, that's a given, but here's the interesting thing, both groups will be lacking in certain skills. Quite often, the trained by ear player is always bouncing around musical ideas, sometimes finding it a challenge to understand what to play in unfamiliar situations. But, through trusting their ear, (most times) they'll actually figure out something to do that can work.

The classically trained player is generally analyzing everything. With an attempt to compartmentalize everything, so they can name it and know what they might be able to do in unknown musical contexts.

Both players have advantages and disadvantages. But, the untrained player often has the upper hand because they're not trying to place theoretical names upon what's going on in a piece of music. They're only listening and testing. Which is great, until something occurs in the music that goes completely outside their frame of reference. Then, they'll get really stuck musically.

The traditionally trained player can be at an even greater disadvantage, (especially when it comes to playing solos and improvisation, even song-writing). The classically trained player often needs a reference. And, without it they're often really lost.

If a piece is written down, if there's a chart, if the solo is composed already (in advance) and they just have to read it, more often than not they'll really shine. Everything is done, and prepared and so there's no need to have to rely on "making up" anything from scratch. On the flip-side the "Trained by Ear" guitarist would be overwhelmed by charts, and worked out details that required knowledge of music road map symbols and terms to comprehend.

What we can take away from all of this is that the player who comprehends theory and written notation has certain advantages. But, so does the player who learned exclusively by ear. The "ear trained" guitarist can navigate a lot of uncharted water using their ear and their knowledge of patterns. They also tend to not be all too concerned if there's no charts for the next songs solo. In fact, quite likely they'd probably prefer it if there were no charts to begin with.

The take-away from all of this that is really important, is that all players need to try and make sense of taking the best of both of these learning scenarios and mix these skills together. This is what we often find in guitar players who are the busiest guitarists working in a local music scene. They can play a dozen different styles with ease, and they can solo over anything. They know their theory, they can read and they can also compose songs. They're versatile as all heck and they're always working!

So, in my experience, the reason why so many guitar players are reluctant to learn music theory is due to the fact that a majority of guitar players learn this instrument by ear. The group of players out there who are "Classically Trained" tends to be quite small.

Most players begin by learning rock songs or strumming folk tunes. And, unless the average everyday guitarist finds a teacher and a curriculum that goes in-depth (teaching all of the principles) of music theory and music and chart reading, combined with improvisation, scales, modes, jazz theory, and all of that stuff, it's quite likely music theory will remain a mystery to them for quite a long time.

Well, I'd like to end by just sayin', thanks for joining me... If you want to learn more about what I do as an online guitar teacher, then head over to my website at and sign up your FREE lifetime membership.

When you want more, you can always upgrade to either a Basic, or a Premium lesson package and start studying the in-depth practical and theory driven guitar courses that I've organized for the members of my website.

Also, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on all of this in the comment section below... if you enjoyed this discussion, give it a thumbs up and subscribe for more. Thanks again and we'll catch up next week, for another episode of the, "Guitar Blog Insider."



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