How music theory relates to guitar playing is unique for every musician.
Apart from classical guitar students who are taught the basics of music theory alongside guitar technique in their first lessons, few acoustic or electric players start learning guitar like that.
The non-formal approach to learning guitar and theory has shaped the way the instrument evolved.
Ever since Chuck Berry and the Beatles, self-taught guitar heroes have been born out of every decade and genre. Many of them, like the great Jimi Hendrix, one of the best improvisers of all time, is known to not have had much music theory knowledge.
So, in the context of improvising guitar solos, the trademark skills of blues, jazz, and rock guitarists, is music theory helpful? And if so, how to get the most out of it?
Improvising in different genres
The concept of improvisation is as subjective as are the different approaches to it.
Different genres have different “requirements” regarding how a guitarist should improvise. Some genres, like the blues, are more flexible and allow for a lot of mixing up of concepts and approaches. That of course is also helped a bit by the simple chord progressions and amount of time often given for players to solo.
The same can be said about most rock music, with the exception that the structure of the solo can be “tighter” and dictated more by what the song needs.
Jazz on the other side can be both very structured and free at the same time. The best example is Joe Pass. A virtuoso that dictates the entire song based on his improvisation of complex changes and melodies.
Whatever the genre or approach, the one thing in common about improvising is that great improvisers know what the music needs and add their own style and flavor on top of what serves the song the most.
Different approaches to Improvising
One of many ways to know what the song needs and improvise a good solo is to analyze it through some music theory.
Analyzing a song or genre through music theory is a very common way that musicians approach their playing. The theory concepts used and the level at which these concepts are used are different for different players.
Take for example a simple 12 bar blues progression. These simple 3 chord progressions can be approached with very little or no theory knowledge. However, if analyzed in depth there are many levels in which music theory can be used to analyze it.
Below I will talk about 3 different types of players and how they approach improvising over it.
A classically trained musician might approach his playing by dissecting the chords, playing a dominant 7th arpeggios, follow the changes precisely and aim to land on chord tones.
This is only one of the many ways that a simple chord progression of 3 major chords can be perceived by the trained musician.
Also, there is also the possibility that a highly skilled musician in music theory will not go by the rules, for he knows them so well that he can break them without sounding off.
I, as a professional self-taught guitarist that has learned bits of music theory online or through other musicians, without a structured approach, would think about it another way.
The first thing I would want to know is the key and then I would first recall licks or make licks from what I’m hearing in my head in that key. So my first approach would be experience-based and recalling my music arsenal of leads.
I would use arpeggios but would not insist on playing arpeggios if it’s not a spontaneous choice to add some flow to the solo or something I play when I run out of ideas.
Color tones or tones that are out of the scale for me would come instinctually, without thinking about which extension the tone is precise. I would generally think consciously about chord changes while they are happening and playing some chord extensions, but not always.
My first safe zone would be the major and minor pentatonic and I would add color notes, or passing notes to them when it felt right.
Another type of player I’ll call the completely instinctual player. This player might only use the pentatonic scale and add licks and passing tones based on what he hears on his head without referring to any arpeggio or paying attention consciously to chord changes.
Many blues guitar greats probably fall under this category. They have an incredibly good ear for melody and only knowledge of chord shapes and some very basic scale shapes. That’s all they need to make their way around soloing and adding their unique style.
Are any of the above types of players using music theory?
The answer is a simple yes, they all are, but to a different degree.
Whether a guitarist starts their lead by playing a pentatonic lick or playing the 7th arpeggio, there is some music theory involved. The choice of how much to use is personal to every player and to what works best for them.
So, is music theory helpful for improvising?
Since music theory is used in most cases to a certain level, music theory is helpful for improvising.
For all the types of players, we described theory is applied differently, both consciously or unconsciously while improvising as both a guide, a way of thinking, or just a little help when stuck.
The level at which it can help is choice as to how much you rely on it to express the music in your head. If you are into more complex music like jazz, that knowledge of chord extensions and scales is almost required for you to improvise over difficult chord changes.
Our chords and scales Cheat Sheets can help you with that.
Common misconceptions on music theory
The trend of self-taught musicians and online learning has built many misconceptions about how music theory is applied to guitar playing.
1- Music theory is only classical music theory that involves reading notes on the staff
Music theory is a way to organize music and make it easier to study and understand. Knowledge of Intervals, how chords are formed, what to play over different progressions, almost all aspects of ear training are related to music theory.
Many of the guitar greats when interviewed refer to their guitar solos using references to chord tones. For example, you will hear a guitar player say he played the 9th of the chords or played the minor 3rd to make it more dramatic.
Even if the choice was instinctual, knowing what it was will help you build better solos and land on better tones when you want to achieve an emotion or effect.
Check out our 20 drills, built with the modern guitarist in mind. Learn music theory in a practical way though your instrument’s fretboard.
2- Music theory limits creativity
Every concept of theory, if used to make music and not just to play over chords will help you be more creative. Theory helps you learn why music sounds the way it does. This understanding will open up more possibilities.
Think about this with licks. Repeating the same lick all over again will make you sound repetitive and not so creative. The same with theory. Playing the same arpeggios shapes or same chord tones that you know will be safe but will end up making you sound boring.
If you, however, use the same lick in many different variations, different parts of the fretboard, and sparingly, it will sound great. Same goes with your music theory knowledge.
If you know how a chord is formed and what is the formula of the pentatonic scale, you have way more choices and available places to play on the fretboard, You can even make more wise note choices by mixing up this knowledge with your instincts.
3- Music theory can only be taught one way
The classical approach music schools have about theory is not the only way to learn it.
One way of learning theory was by practicing online with tutorials and apps like fretboard geek. Try out the comprehensive and easy-to-use drills useful to teach you almost every aspect of music theory applied right on the fretboard.
Other ways can be while playing with more experienced musicians that teach you bits of it after every show or rehearsal. Even “street” music theory counts as very valuable if that’s what pushes you to play better leads.
Improvising is the art of mixing both the unconscious part of your playing with the conscious part.
The conscious part of your playing is all your music knowledge expressed in licks, theory, fretboard knowledge, shapes, and muscle memory. All these support the ultimate goal that is being free to express all the music in your head through your instrument.
This is not limited to guitarists only. The same concept applies to every instrument.
Music theory is definitely useful and used to some degree by almost all guitarists in one way or another in their improvising. The secret to making the most of it is finding the right balance of applying theory concepts without sacrificing your natural instincts as an improviser but support them.
Check out our method of merging both theory and practical knowledge of the bass, guitar, violin and mandolin fretboard with our 20 drills. Sign up for a 7 Days Free Trial now.
About the writer
Altin Gjoni is an Online Session Guitar Player devoted to the cause of serving the song through his playing and serving the music industry as a marketer and content writer.