Play-By-Ear Guitarist

Dear Dude,

I’ve been playing guitar seriously for about 2 years. I had my guitar before that but, I didn’t play it much. It’s not my first instrument so it wasn’t that hard to start. Ever since I’ve started I’ve been absolutely obsessed. I taught myself how to play, and got a little advice from the Internet. However, I’ve run into a couple problems. I tried to take lessons once and the guitar teacher basically told me that whatever is comfortable is right. I mean, as far as I’m concerned I could have been playing the guitar backwards and he wouldn’t have known. So I stopped. Ever since I’ve worked really hard on playing with good technique and rhythm. However, sometimes I worry that no matter how much I practice, and no matter how good I get technically that I might not ever join a band (I’m only 16) because I have never learned or studied music theory. I mean, I know music theory as cello goes… but I never took the time to learn music theory for guitar. I can’t read treble clef so I wouldn’t be able to read the music. So my question is, do you think that I have to learn music theory if I want to join a band? Did you? Because I have no problem playing’ stuff by ear but I’m afraid that’s not enough.


Play-By-Ear Guitarist

Dear Play-By-Ear-Guitarist,

To learn theory or not to learn theory that is the question. Or at least, one I hear all the time. It’s just so fashionable to be a classically trained musician (fuck especially in metal). Although it may be fashionable, learning theory can be a lot of work. Very rarely do I meet someone in a band that actually has any musical training or has studied music theory. Does that shock you? Well it’s the truth. Most dudes who rock in pro metal bands have not taken formal classes in any type of theory. So is it better to have learned or not learned theory? Do those guitarists have an upper hand? Are you going to have problems joining a band because you can’t read or don’t have an understanding of music theory? These questions all demand answering as soon as we open this Pandora’s box.

Have I had studied music theory? Yes, the high school I went to had a very progressive music program and I took as many as two music theory classes. It’s funny because we really just used the class as a chance to torture the teacher for an hour or so. See it was me, a few punk dudes, a few metal dudes, and a few band dudes (band as in the band camp kind of band). While I may have absorbed some of the classes by just being there, really we just fucked around most of the time. My point is that no matter how focused and into music I was I just couldn’t translate that passion or understanding into music theory.

Did I learn by playing by ear? Yes, and more importantly I communicate my music to other musicians by ear as well. Where some people might write music down I tend to record or even play music when I need to communicate an idea to another musician. Actually, most bands I have worked with communicate this way too, although some use a combination of writing and riffing. So cast those fears aside little man. There are plenty, plenty, dudes rocking in bands worldwide who have never studied or even understand the first thing about music theory.

On the other hand, I have also observed musicians who not only can communicate in the above ways but, have also studied music and are able to communicate with other musicians in that way. In my opinion those musicians have an advantage. I think its fair to say that regardless of many wasted hours in that music theory class there is a bit of knowledge that sunk in. So yeah, you definitely don’t have to learn music theory if you want to join a band. But, you’re probably better off at least taking a shot. You obviously have learned music in some form (you mention the training on the cello) so you should be able to apply at least that same sort of thinking (or learning pattern) to learning the guitar. I mean as you put it yourself (your only 16) you got a lot of rocking ahead so don’t fear learning theory. Just try it out, you may find it helps your music grow while giving you another voice to communicate with other musicians.

The Dude

3 Responses to Play-By-Ear Guitarist

  1. theandysan says:

    I’ve been learning theory for a little while now and it’s helped me with constructing new songs and riffs. I can figure out what key stuff is in now lol!! Before, I just played some chords or some single-line stuff until I ran into something that sounded good. I still do that, but now I can play with progressions when I get stuck in a riff rut. It’s amazing how simply moving the pattern forward or backward a step (that’s 2 frets btw) can dramatically affect the feel of the riff. Try it out sometime!!

  2. I also learned how to play by myself and was never really interested in learning the theory behind it all until recently. I agree with the first commenter in that learning theroy has helped me greatly with creating new songs.

  3. Michelle says:

    See Ive taught myself everything I know in every other facet in life, besides the stuff my parents taught me. I taught myself Search Engine Optimization, Photography, Computers, Writing, Medicine etc etc. But I cant, for the life of me, figure out guitar lol. I dont understand it.

    I can read music by the way. But its much different than reading music for say, a saxaphone. Which I always was self taught with.

    Keep on keepin on I guess. Ill figure it out eventually (i hope). Thanks Dude

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