Playing with out Theory

Discussion in 'Playing and Technique' started by bastet, Jan 17, 2008.

  1. bastet

    bastet Member

    Jan 4, 2008
    Recently, Guitar World has added players to their training columns with guitarists claiming they don't know theory. (ex. Dave Mustaine and Slash).

    It got me thinking.
    For myself I don't know much theory but my technique is ok.

    For me when I look at a Major or Minor Pentatonic scale pattern written out - I am like that's similar to what I play without learning the actual patterns. I haven't taken the time to break down my standard playing style to specific modes (ex Dorian etc) but I bet I would find similar results. I kind of play what sounds good to me.

    I remember in an interview with Edward Van Halen where he stated "I just use 12 notes".

    Who here just plays without concern for or learning theory? And do you consider yourself a good guitarist?

    I guess I am just a hack that can fool non-players :messedup
  2. gainiac

    gainiac Senior Member

    Sep 14, 2004
    Da Bronx
    Well I for one will say good is good, period.

    I don't care how much "theory" anyone knows.

    Knowing a house is built with wood, hammer and nails is one thing.

    Building that house is another.
  3. Tom Gross

    Tom Gross Supporting Member

    Jan 4, 2002
    North Carolina
    On the one hand, there are many players whose music I enjoy that don't consciously "study theory".

    On the other hand, even those players call elements of what they play something. So it will turn out that many of the patterns, intervals, scales, substitutions, etc. that they use and discovered by ear or someone showing them, they call by some name but really is part of theory.
    That is how I finally got myself to learn a few things. In some cases, it is more work not to. And (without dragging a horse carcass out), it helped rather than hurt my feel and ability to express my emotions using a guitar.

    I still have some ancient notes of mine about songs I'm trying to write with "Hendrix chord....ZZ top riff in G....Elizebeth Reed cool chord".

    IMO, this also has nothing to do with the relationship (of lack thereof) between the Technical complexity and the quality of a particular piece of music.
  4. rob2001

    rob2001 Member

    Jun 16, 2006
    I think the word Theory is kindof mis understood. Yes, you have the school theory but a guy that has played a guitar for 20 years has theory too. It's just not a "technical" or written theory. I've never embraced scales, modes or theory in general. My brother has and it's funny when we jam. I'll do what I do and he feels a need to put a lable on it. I figure if that helps him to be a better player, it's all good. For me pesonally I think in terms of shape, color and textures. It's not "traditional" theory... but it IS a theory.
  5. brad347

    brad347 Member

    Feb 8, 2006
    Brooklyn, NY
    I always hear people discuss things in terms of "knowing theory" versus "not knowing theory."

    That's kind of like saying "I know science" or "I don't know science" or math, or English, or any other subject.

    Those statements are silly because everyone knows some scientific, mathematical, or linguistic principles, whether they studied them formally, picked them up intuitively, are born with them in the form of instinct, etc. So it is that most people, even non-musicians, know some principles of musical theory.

    On the other hand, there is not a single person alive that knows everything there is to know about any subject, music theory being no exception.

    If you know that there is a note that exists called "C," then you know something about music theory. If you know there are 12 notes in the chromatic scale, again that's musical theory. If you have a doctorate in musical theory and are a professor at a respected conservatory, you by no means know it all.

    Also, anything your brain does that systemizes what you do in any way is a form of musical theory. If you memorize the pattern of a pentatonic scale on the fretboard, that is a form of musical theory. You have a theory that when you select from these notes over a blues in a certain key, most of them will sound consonant and/or idiomatic to you.

    That's theory.

    Now, if you are interested in music and are hungry for the knowledge, you may choose to seek out what others have discovered. You may get so hungry for music that you want to know as much as you can possibly learn about the sounds you are making. You may develop a curiosity about why some notes sound a certain way together while others don't. You may hunger for a way to organize consonances and dissonances in your mind so that you can always select the note, when composing or improvising, that sounds just right. You may run out of ideas for awhile and want to check out others' ways of doing things, just for inspiration.

    At that point, you might 'study' music and music theory more intensively. But that's really no different from what you were doing before, it's only the logical extension of your development.

    Sort of how some people are content to watch their TV, and some want to take it apart and see what's inside, still others want to see if they can take it all the way apart and put it back together again, and a certain few want to see if they can learn how it works and build one from scratch.

    It's all about how far your curiosity takes you before you feel satisfied.
  6. Antero

    Antero Member

    Apr 17, 2005
    It's another tool. You don't necessarily need theory to be a good guitarist. You don't even need theory to write good songs, depending on the style of music you're playing.

    I learned chord theory because I tend towards harmonically complex songwriters and sounds in my own writing, and it makes things a lot faster.
  7. gennation

    gennation Member

    Feb 25, 2006
    Grand Rapids, MI
    I never really play with any theory in mind. But, I've went back and figured out a BUNCH of stuff I've played.

    I stressed to myself to not "play" theory a long time a go. I just threw everything I knew into a bucket and let it all blend together. I did that for about 15 years, blew off theory and technique completely, also blew off learning anyone else's music too. It's only been about two years ago that I started to get back into theory and technique.

    But, leaving it all behind allowed me to just write and play music, whatever I felt and heard. The outcome is 100's of songs that are pretty much just me, in no particular style, again just me.
  8. Clifford-D

    Clifford-D Member

    Jan 8, 2007
    Close to the burn zone
    I have a theory on this

  9. The Captain

    The Captain Supporting Member

    Dec 5, 2007
    In my profesisonal training, we were constantly urged not to "re-invent the wheel". This means , if you use prior knowledge and experience to access information and build your own knowledge base, then do so. To do otherwise is a waste of effort.
    Now applying this to guitar, which is a much simpler thing than medical practice, this means that deliberately ignoring theory and working out for your self what works and what does not is possibly more time-consuming etc.
    HAving said that, all the theory in the world will not tell you which note to play when. Sometimes teh best results come from breaking the rules too, butit is cool to know you are breaking a rule, cos that makes it even more fun.
    Theory is really just a means of communication. If you never want to communicate with anotehr musician, you don't need it.
    If you wish to communicate, or receive communication, you will need it.
  10. Nick31

    Nick31 Member

    May 10, 2007
    Quebec City, Canada
    anyone's style I think is developed by practicing (be it jamming, on your own), there's no universal way to become a good or great musician. I think the best way to go at it is having as many or various tools as you can have or develop. Theory might be great in certain instances or completely useless in others. That way when you want to create a song or develop a part of it or whatever you have this bunch of tools that you can use. I believe it's better to know something and not use it than needing something and not being able to use it.

    There's various theories or concepts, some are more formal or systematic than others while some are subconscious-like if that makes sense. In the end it comes down to your personality as to what method you want to use to make your music.

    Ultimately the common denominator to all this is accumulation of information and how this information corrolates to what you're doing if that makes sense again. You pickup information based on the media you have around (tv, internet, books, people, your own thoughts etc.), you basically fill your head with that and try to make sense out of it and test it to see if it's logical and corresponds to your needs.

    Also, being a good guitarist isn't only knowing the theory of the instrument itself, it's also about knowing the gear, how the technology works together, how pieces of a song work all this leads to understanding what has already been understood by others.

    The "trap" of theory in music or any theory in general or any system is that none of it is absolute. In general we tend to think of it as true and absolute while it's not the case. Even compared to lesser efficient methods or theories those other ways of looking at music or any environment will give you different perspective. Often people will think that what they understand is absolute because the information is widespread and that's the trap because it might prevent you from re-focusing your thoughts and put them back in a different order.

    A good read would be "everything is miscellaneous" because it gives a good indication on how not to fall into the trap of certainty. You have to be on the edge of assumptions you're making in order to not take them for granted. Sometimes you have to break your own assumptions or break general assumptions in order to evolve.

    Any system you use to perceive an information will give you a specific perspective on that information which is unique to that system. Another system will give you another specific perspective of the information which might make things easier to understand.

    I hope that helps and that it makes sense ... english isn't my first language so it might be confusing at times
  11. JonR

    JonR Member

    Sep 24, 2007
    I agree pretty much with everyone here: it depends what you mean by "knowing theory".
    What I don't like are players who brag about not knowing theory, as if it's better not to. In fact (of course) - if they can play well, and improvise well - they know plenty of theory. They just happen to have learned it through experience, partially subconsciously.

    So the argument is really about whether it's better to learn music that way, or via academic theoretical knowledge.
    IMO, it's like what's the best way to learn a language? By going to the country in question and picking it all up by ear? Or by reading books and going to classes? Answer - both is best. (a) gives you the accent and inflections, the slang, (b) makes things quicker and more understandable.
    Music's a little different, in that a foreign language at least has things in common with your own. Music isn't really much like anything else, and its "meanings" are mostly too vague to be written down, better absorbed by ear.
    Ultimately, theory is only a way of naming what we're doing - translating sounds into verbal language, to help us remember things and categorise them in our heads.
    And also - of course - to help us converse with other musicians.
    Eg, what Tom Gross said about "Hendrix chord....ZZ top riff in G....Elizebeth Reed cool chord" - worked fine (presumably ;) ) as a memory aid for himself. But how many other musicians would be able to get that? It would need demonstrating. But if he could have written it out in chord symbols or notation... ;)
  12. Jon Silberman

    Jon Silberman 10Q Jerry & Dickey Gold Supporting Member

    Jan 3, 2002
    Northern VA
    I also agree with what's been posted already.

    Do you know that objects fall to the earth? That the earth orbits the sun? Congrats, you know Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. ;)
  13. Free

    Free Member

    Jun 18, 2005
    That's a good point, Jon. Players think they are not employing theory, but believe me too, they are playing from patterns wether they know it or not. And, a pattern is completely analogous to employing theory.

    In fact I contend that the vast majority of players ultimately are playing from patterns even after theory is employed in practice or in playing. The best players who do employ theory ultimate render that knowledge subconsciously into patterns and tonalities they know. So, wether one comes to knowing these patterns via theory or experience, it's all the same end. Patterns are one crucial aspect of what gives most players their signature styles, etc. etc...

  14. DrSax

    DrSax Member

    Nov 16, 2004
    between a rock and a hard place
    all i know is the more I know the better I am. I usually just follow Bird's advice, practice lots and lots, then when you play just play.
  15. dewey decibel

    dewey decibel Supporting Member

    Apr 12, 2005
    we eat a lot of cheese and drink a lot of beer

    I never tried to hard to learn theory. I did try and learn the notes in the chord and where they were all over the neck, but that seems more like common sense to me than theory. I mean, if you're going to play over chords, maybe it's a good idea to learn the notes in them, right?

    But like Brad and the others say, I had developed a vocabulary of things that worked in certain situations and things I've picked off of records. It wasn't until I began going to online forums that I learned what this stuff was called.
  16. Redhouse-Blues

    Redhouse-Blues Member

    Sep 1, 2006
    Southwest MI.
    This is the way I look at it, yes I can play with out it and I did for many years. But the more I know, the easier it becomes to play. I became a better player when I understood what I was playing and that just happen in the last few years and I'm still working on it. Another thing that learning Theory did for me, was allow me to be able to understand and play music out side my normal style.
  17. JohnM

    JohnM Member

    Jan 4, 2008
    If you think of music as a language, the better you know the language, the better you can communicate. Also, more knowlege could increase your appreciation of complex music like jazz, etc... sort of like standing near a group of people speaking a foreign (to you) can get more out of what they're saying if you know their language. Likewise, if someone with little or no theory knowlege tried sitting in with a straight-ahead jazz group, they might have a tough time fitting in.

    I guess it just depends on what you want to play. Some of the coolest music is really simple to understand theoretically. Like some said above, even in a basic blues situation, a player that just plays simple pentatonic licks IS drawing on some amount of (however limited) theory, while the guy blowing endless 16th notes over Giant Steps is also drawing on rehearsed and learned material...just a different type, and perhaps more of it!
  18. Mike T

    Mike T Member

    May 8, 2007
    If you have some technique and can play actual music then you have at least an innate concept of theory even if you cannot recite the note names of a scale or arpeggio or key signiture or diatonic chords or rhythmic figure etc. If your technique is really developed and you can really play and have not studied, then you are just higher on the food chain. There can be a seamless boundry (or no boundry) between your theory and technique at any level. I think that is the most important thing. No matter how highly developed or undeveloped your knowledge of theory is, if you can play what you hear with no boudaries, from Mary Had a Little Lamb to Giant Steps, then you're there, man. At least that is where I wanna be. If you play something or hear something you like and want to know in nuts and bolts terms what it is then you study and hope all the book knowledge doesn't get in the way. That's my theory...
  19. JohnM

    JohnM Member

    Jan 4, 2008
    I'll play devil's advocate here...:Devil

    Have any of you sat down with someone who could actually rip through something like Giant Steps (not that that is the end-all song, but for the sake of the argument...insert any hard tune...) who didn't have a pretty good handle on music theory?
  20. matte

    matte Senior Member

    Nov 16, 2003
    my body.
    depends entirely on the player's musical and professional objectives. for me, theory, reading music, etc. have enabled me to communicate with other musicians more effectively.

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