Should Rock Guitar Players Learn Music Theory?

James Hetfield, Metallica’s singer, songwriter, and guitarist, has made reference to his lack of formal knowledge of music theory many times in interviews and elsewhere. He does mention being taught basic music theory by the late Cliff Burton, but it’s unlikely he spent time in a class spelling out the relative minor of F major.

Simply put, some great Rock and Heavy Metal guitar players have little or no understanding of music theory.

In order to compensate for their lack of knowledge of music theory, these rock musicians usually develop exceptional aural skills. They are able to “hear” things (either from other musicians or in their minds) and easily figure them out on their guitar.

In the end, it’s the result that counts, and, even without formally learning music theory, James Hetfield has proven himself to be one of the world’s best rhythm guitar players and songwriters.

Nonetheless, learning music theory has many benefits for Rock guitar players.

Before I started learning music theory, I was getting all this new information on how to play the guitar, but I simply couldn’t connect the dots.

I knew what a D major and a D minor were, and how to play them on the guitar. I could also observe that the minor chords sounded a little ‘sadder‘. But I couldn’t understand what was really going on! I didn’t know what a scale was, let alone that the D major chord is built on the first, third, and fifth notes of the D major scale.

Things started to make sense when I started learning music theory. I began to understand why certain notes sounded good together, while others sounded more jarring to the ear, the concept of consonance and dissonance.

Eventually, when I started writing my own rock songs, music theory proved to be even more valuable. It was as if I was presented with a huge palette, illustrating the elements of music, from which I could pick, choose and apply in my songs.

For instance, something I found very valuable was learning how every scale tone can be harmonized with a chord and how the relationship between those chords creates the harmony of the song.

Let’s say you know zero music theory but know how to play a major scale pattern on your guitar.

You start the scale on note C, then, play the notes D, E, F, G, A, and B until you come back to C again.

If you know the names of the notes on the guitar fretboard, you’ll notice that the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, and B appear in the pattern you’ve learned.

Music theory explains why that pattern exists and why it is useful for expressing certain emotions through music. There’s a logical reason why that sequence of notes can be used to make music, as well as why you need more scales than the major to play rock and metal (because the major scale has a happy sound and isn’t commonly used in these genres).

It also tells you that each note is harmonized by a chord, which, in the case of the notes in C major would be the C major, D minor, E minor, F major, G major, A minor, and B diminished chords.

It tells you what role each chord has in the key it is played in. For instance, if you play G major followed by C major, the progression will sound very conclusive because G major is the fifth degree of the C major scale, which is referred to as a perfect cadence.

You will learn that in any key if you play the fifth chord followed by the first, (ex D major followed by G major) it will produce the same conclusive effect.

If you don’t know any music theory yet, this may get a little complicated, but don’t let that bother you. My goal here is not to teach you how to harmonize scales (which is intermediate music theory), but to give you a taste of what music theory is all about and to help you make a more informed decision about whether to study it.

If you’re still undecided about whether to go for music theory or not, I believe your answer should depend mostly on these 2 main criteria:

1. Your goals

If you’re only interested in the money and the chicks, learning songs from guitar tab and joining a cover band may be a shorter way to achieve your goals than learning how it all works.

If you want to become a complete musician, one that is prepared in all musical situations because (among other things) he has the theory to guide him, then, spending a couple of hours each week learning music theory, can take you a long way.

If you want to write songs, then I believe you should start learning music theory right away. You may figure melodies and harmonies out by ear like James Hetfield did, but what’s the point of not making use of a map just because someone else has succeeded without it?

Learn more about setting musical goals my book 5  Steps to a Correct Guitar Practicing Mindset

2. Your musical skills

Rock guitar players who don’t know music theory, may not know that G major followed by C major is a V – I progression, also called a perfect cadence, and that it fits perfectly at the end of a phrase or a song.

But they still use it to end their phrases and songs!

This means that something else has compensated for the lack of music theory knowledge, mainly, good aural skills and hours of practice figuring it out on guitar.

A good ear will discover that V – I progression is a great way to finish a song and by practice, you will figure out how it can be replicated in different keys.

Do you have the ability to learn these skills without the theory to guide you?

Maybe you can. There are many who did.

However, while it does take away some time you could have otherwise spent practicing on your guitar, learning music theory will actually save you a lot of time in the long run and make the process of learning guitar more enjoyable.

And If you think music theory can’t be fun, read this article to learn what music theory is not. The myths debunked in this article are mostly rooted in experiences people have with music theory taught wrongly.

Though these myths are widespread, Rock guitar players are probably more vulnerable to them than other musicians.

Rock and Roll is rebellion, we don’t need music theory rules!

Yet, when you listen to a Black Sabbath song, no matter how many times those rules are broken, you have to keep in mind there’s a method to that madness.

That when Tony Iommi is breaking those rules and, for instance, accents the most dissonant notes, he’s not defying music theory.

He’s creating new theory.

He’s adding to our collective wealth of knowledge. He found new ways of expressing emotion through dissonance.

Ways that have since been studied by musicologists, and replicated in different forms and variations by countless heavy metal musicians.

Because that’s what music theory does. It keeps evolving as new genres are born and new ideas are tried.


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