Do You Need To Learn Music Theory To Play Guitar?

The guitar has always been a bit of a rebellious instrument. At almost all turns we’re able to get by without ever really dipping our toes too deeply into music theory should we not feel like it.

We can learn songs using tablature, chords with chord charts, and there are box patterns that help us navigate scales without ever knowing exactly what we are doing.

But just because we can get by without knowing any theory, does it mean that we should?

It’s always been a topic of some contention within the guitar space. With so many guitarists playing the instrument to a high level and working as professionals in the industry without a lick of theory knowledge, it’s easy to see how the topic as a whole might seem unnecessary.

But there is undeniable value in understanding what we do on the guitar to a deeper level and many interesting approaches to the instrument that are only unlocked through the study of theory.

So today we’re going to take an in-depth look at what music theory can offer, what it can’t, and whether the topic as a whole is worth your time learning.

Should I learn music theory?

As you might have guessed the answer to this is not a simple yes or no. Whether music theory will benefit you or not ultimately comes down to the type of player you want to be.

The first thing to establish is that music theory is not something you just know or don’t know like a button that suddenly flips from off to on overnight.

It’s a long pathway of learning that you can walk down as far as you wish, from taking just the first few steps and learning some open chords to heading deep into the proverbial forest. With crazy and colorful scales, unusual chord voicings, and composing approaches such as using the circle of fifths are just a few of the topics you can tackle within theory.

But let’s try to give something a little more concrete to begin with:

Do you need to learn music theory to play guitar?

No, absolutely not. There are a ton of fantastic musicians who create great music, are well respected amongst the guitar community, and can handle themselves exceptionally well in a professional musical environment without any real in-depth knowledge of music theory.

Don’t believe me?

How about Hendrix, Clapton, Tommy Emmanual, and Stevie Ray Vaughan just to name a few!

Now just to clarify, these musicians are not completely devoid of music theory knowledge, they know how to play their chords and can make their way around scales. But they are also not trained music theorists in the classical sense of the word.

This is where the ‘sweet spot’ for many guitarists seems to be, knowing enough to get you into songwriting and being able to hold your own while playing with other musicians. But not enough that you lose your creative edge and become too clinical with your playing.

So, can I throw out the textbooks already?

Well, hold on just a minute. Just because there are musicians who have done incredibly well for themselves without that traditional theoretical education you might get in a school. That doesn’t mean the advanced theoretical knowledge cannot provide any value.

Depending on what your musical goals are and what will be expected of you in your chosen role, it may be massively beneficial (if not outright mandatory) for you to have a good grasp of music theory.

So let’s start off by establishing what music theory CAN offer, and then we’ll go through what it can’t. Because informing yourself of the benefits of learning music theory will help you greatly in understanding if the skills the topic will provide will be of any use to you.

What music theory can offer

Where to get started with Guitar Theory

Just because X or Y musician didn’t learn music theory, and still went on to be successful. That does not mean there is no value to be had from the study of music theory to a higher level.

After all, if it didn’t offer any value, then no one would learn it.

Here’s a quick rundown of the main benefits and skills you can get from learning music theory. This is not a sales pitch, this is just to inform. Ultimately you know your musical style and will have to deduce whether these things are a benefit to your end goal as a musician.

Advanced chord construction

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Learning some basic open chords, barre chords and power chords is all well and good. You can write some catchy pop tunes, jam some covers and have a darn good time on the guitar with just a few chord charts.

But that’s really the tip of the iceberg when it comes to chordal theory. As you become proficient with extended chords, alternate voicings, inversions, and substitutions your available color palette or vocabulary on the guitar extends massively.

This is where your chosen style and role as a musician comes in to play, this might not benefit you a great deal if you wish to play punk rock music where nothing beyond a barre chord will ever be asked of you.

But for many other styles of music having a wealthy vocabulary of colorful chords and the ability to construct them over a given key and scale is hugely powerful.

Fretboard navigation

How to learn all notes on guitar

Traversing the fretboard is a fairly easy thing to do with simple concepts like the CAGED system, or simply memorizing your pentatonic box shapes and linking them together.

This gives you a certain degree of fluency over the fretboard but is far from what we could consider ‘fretboard mastery’.

To truly be able to handle any musical situation, in any scale, and in any key, all while sounding like you know what you are doing – you will need to study your intervals, scales, and chord progressions to a fairly high level. There is simply no way to do this without advanced theory knowledge.

Improvisation

Once again this is dependent on the kind of musician you want to be. To join in on an A minor jam session using your favorite pentatonic box shape while sounding like a pro doesn’t require a great deal of theoretical knowledge. Perfect if you’re into blues or rock.

But there are plenty of more demanding styles of music out there such as jazz which require you to be comfortable playing within the scale, moving through the chords, and being able to handle things like modulations, particularly in non-diatonic harmony settings.

The comfort and ability to handle those things will only come from the study of music theory to a fairly high level.

Songwriting

While it’s absolutely possible to write a good song just using your ear and some very basic chords you’ve learned from chord charts. That process can be very slow, challenging, and quite luck based.

This is absolutely fine if you have no time pressures or deadlines to hit.
But in many professional settings, you may need to be able to produce work at quite a hefty pace. And that initial music theory knowledge can really help jumpstart the songwriting process by giving you an idea of what scale is going to work best for the mood you wish to present.

You may even have a rough idea of the chord progression and particular voicings you want to target before you’ve even picked up your instrument.

Communication

This is particularly important if you’re going to work with other musicians. The guitar already plays it fast and loose with music terminology. Did you know the power chord isn’t even really a chord?

And how many times have you heard people refer to a gallop as a triplet only to have your drummer exclaim that it’s “actually two sixteenths and an eighth” shortly before hurling their drumstick at the nearest bandmate?

Communication in musical settings is vital. And even just some music theory knowledge can be massively beneficial here so you can keep up with your fellow bandmates, understand what’s happening musically and even be able to contribute and lead yourself a bit.

Imposter syndrome

When deep down you know you really want to or know that you should learn a bit of music theory. It’s very easy to feel like a bit of an imposter, where your technique is really up there but there’s a sense of insecurity because you still don’t really understand what a mode is, and playing outside of A minor is really a struggle.

Learning some music theory can really give you that confidence and remove the self-doubt that many people who want to solidify their foundational knowledge of the guitar, but just haven’t taken the time to study it properly yet can end up feeling.

What music theory doesn’t offer

So hopefully we’ve established the value of music theory and the areas it can benefit you.

But it’s also important to understand music theory is not ‘everything’. It’s a set of tools and knowledge that can expand your musical abilities.

And in the same way someone might rely too heavily on ‘feel’ when a bit of music theory knowledge might benefit their workflow greatly. You can also rely on music theory too much to the point where the feel, vibe, and atmosphere can get left to the wayside in place of the technical execution of theoretically complicated music.

Terms like ‘feel’ can be very esoteric and difficult to quantify in musical terms, yet they are massively important in creating music that carries emotional weight and resonates with the listener.

Music theory is not a substitute for feel, and despite all the benefits some music theory knowledge can give you, if you had to pick between the two you should opt for feel every time.

It really comes down to that balance between feel, creativity, personality, all those airy terms that inject life into the music you create, while still utilizing tools music theory can give you to help and guide you along the way.

I’m afraid learning music theory will kill my creativity

This is a very common concern we hear from people who are considering learning music theory. You are absolutely right to be valuing feel and creativity so much to where you don’t want to sacrifice it in place of theoretical knowledge.

But today I’d like to formally debunk this, learning music theory will not kill your creativity. It will simply give it a guiding hand when your musical sense gets a bit lost.

There’s really no easy way to say this, but the majority of people who claim they don’t learn music theory out of fear it will kill their creativity are simply using it as an excuse because they are too lazy to do the hard work required to learn music theory.

As you move into more progressive styles of music with acoustic players such as Steve Wilson or Mikael Akerfeldt there are a lot of chord voicings and progressions that are ‘felt out’. Where your hands are left to just wander over the fretboard as your ear guides you to the mood and tones you want to hear in the song.

No amount of music theory study will remove your ability to disconnect from scales and shapes and just let your hands wander.

Writing within a scale or within a theoretical framework is a conscious decision and can be turned off at a moment’s notice.

So fear not! If you enjoy this style of writing music! Learning music theory will not hamper your ability to do this at all. And if you get stuck at some point then that theoretical knowledge is always waiting for you to fall back on when you need a bit of direction.

Music theory as a songwriting tool

So with this understanding that learning music theory will not hamper your ‘out of the box’ playing style. Writing ‘in the box’ is really where you’ll start to experience the benefits of some music theory.

When we say ‘in the box’ we are meaning more regular songs that you might hear on the radio. These all use fairly regular chord progressions and song structures. Here, a bit of music theory knowledge can have you absolutely blasting through these kinds of songs effortlessly.

Hell, given enough time you’ll be able to hear a song on the radio and call out the next chord before it happens!

So while it’s not impossible to write these ‘in the box’ songs without any theoretical knowledge, it will take much longer, be a far more stressful experience, and rely a great deal more on luck to find those right chords and putting them in the right order.

The progressive mindset

This is where how confident you are in yourself as a musician, who you want to be, and the style you want to write come into play.

There is a demographic of guitarists who simply have no need for any of the benefits music theory can provide. They like the process of ‘feeling’ out the notes and stumbling across the right chord progression.

Not only that, they are never in situations where they need to do things like improvising, communicate with other musicians, need to output work to a tight deadline.

For these kinds of players, there is a very solid case to be made that music theory will not benefit them. Now while I would argue this demographic is fairly small, and those people who fall into it are quite unlikely to read an article like this as they already have confidence in the direction they have taken within music.

So if you are reading this due to uncertainty about whether you should or shouldn’t take on music theory, I would recommend learning it. There are essentially no downsides and many benefits to learning theory.

The fun factor

Of course, not every guitarist is trying to be a working professional, or stand on stage and improvise alongside other high-level musicians.

Plenty (and I mean plenty) of guitarists take on the instrument as a fun hobby to unwind with after a hard day’s work. And for many of them, music theory is just straight-up boring! They have tabs, they have chord charts, they have Google, and there’s just no need for anything else to do what they want on the instrument.

If you are the kind of person who struggles to keep awake when you listen to people nerding out over music theory and finds the entire topic nauseatingly dull and boring. And all you long to do is throw on your favorite A minor backing track on youtube and jam over it for a bit before bed.

You are absolutely valid as a guitarist and a musician, and there is nothing wrong with just learning those absolute basics and calling it a day there.

If learning music theory to a higher degree will take away the excitement and positivity you feel towards your instrument, stay away! The guitar is a fun and fulfilling pursuit and should always remain a positive part of your life.

Final thoughts

While it’s not necessary to learn music theory to be a perfectly competent guitarist. There are so many benefits to solidifying your theoretical knowledge that, in general, I believe it’s best to just embrace it and learn it.

Learning music theory will give you the confidence to handle many musical situations, and assist you with your songwriting, and those claims that it will remove your ability to write based on feel are completely unfounded. Do not fear learning music theory!

While the whole topic can appear a little intimidating at first, I always remember what my old teacher said to me when I was struggling:

“Music is not difficult, it’s just unintuitive”

You do not need any special talent to be able to tackle music theory as a topic. Absolutely anyone can do it and once you get a few of those ‘eureka’ moments where the puzzle pieces start falling into place, you might find you actually enjoy it!

Liam Plowman

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UK-based guitar nerd with an unhealthy addiction to accumulating gear. Began playing properly at the age of 12 after hearing Soilwork's Natural Born Chaos and deciding that trying to solo like Peter Wichers was a respectable life goal. Full-time guitar teacher, mixing engineer, and trained guitar technician at the Oxford Guitar Gallery. Currently involved in the Perth-based metal band Decode the Design and British progressive project MERA.