Jamming and Improvisation. Songwriting. Creativity.
Without a working knowledge of Music Theory, good luck.
...I’m already aware that probably 80% or more of guitarists just won’t see the value of mastering music theory, and applying it to the guitar. Why? Because as Henry Ford said: “Thinking is the hardest work there is.” And let’s face it, many of you reading this probably have an aversion to that type of hard work.
The 80% who are “guitar dabblers” don’t concern me. The Metal Guitar Academy resources are probably not for them (they can look at YouTube instead, the dabbler’s paradise). But, for that hard-core 20% who don’t mind getting their brains dirty, the following guitar-parable will be illustrative - and could explain why you aren’t playing as well as you’d like.
Meet two guitarists - Mitch and Merle. Both have been playing for about the same time, and both put in about the same hours for practice each week. These two guys even share some of the same goals, like being able to jam and improvise, writing their own riffs and songs, and learning songs quickly and accurately (hey, what guitarist doesn’t want to be great at that stuff?)
Let’s take a look at a typical practice session for Mitch. He’s into prog metal and fusion, and wants to be able to play like those guys (and even write original material for his band, which right now just does covers). He warms up with some finger exercises, and does some technique practice for about 45 minutes (which is a great habit!) The problem is though, Mitch doesn’t quite know where to go next.
See, Mitch isn’t too worried about his technique - he can play pretty fast, pretty clean - but he’s been getting frustrated. It seems like what he plays hasn’t really changed very much for the past several years. On top of that, whenever he tries to make up his own leads, or play to a jam track, it always just sounds to him like he’s running up and down a scale. Pretty boring, and he’s getting sick of it.
From looking at YouTube and reading some Guitar World articles, Mitch has some idea that scales and chords are somehow supposed to “fit together”. He also knows that a lot of the prog metal guys he likes use “bigger chords” than he does, and he likes the sound...but really doesn’t understand why it sounds that way, or how these guys know what to do with these chords.
Mitch even bought “The Real Book”, a big book of jazz songs with melodies and chord progressions, because he heard that Berklee dudes use it a lot. But, looking at all those chord symbols (Bm9? C#maj7#11?) hasn’t helped any. He’s even looked a few of them up, but even if he can play them, what good are they? How do they work together in the song? And most frustratingly, how do the prog-metal and fusion guys use them for rock and metal?
Mitch feels like he’s got a lot of work to do - he’s one of the 20%, a serious player, but feels helpless about where to even start. So, he just starts practicing the same speed runs again.
Now, let’s head over across town to Merle’s place. Merle has the same amount of time to practice, and he’s just finished an intense 20 minute technique and speed workout. Now though, he turns to something else for the next 20 minutes - improvising over a couple of chords (coincidentally, a Bm9 and C#maj7#11 !), which he just yesterday turned into a bad-ass riff for his original prog-metal band.
He loops the riff and starts jamming - using modes and arpeggios (and variations on them) that he knows will work great over this progression. Because Merle has had the proper guidance, with teachers and authors who themselves understand how important music theory knowledge is, Merle’s been making great progress with his jamming and writing. He’s discovered that soloing doesn’t have to just sound like quickly running scales up and down - that there’s more to it than that.
He’s using some shapes and patterns, but because he’s been sold on the importance of actually knowing where the notes are on the neck, Merle’s not confined to “boxes” or the same old fingering patterns that every other guitarist uses.
He knows that those things are a tool to use when appropriate, but because of his neck and music theory knowledge, he can break out of those conventions when he wants to. And it shows in his playing!
With 20 minutes left to spare, Merle fires up his computer to get to work on one of his band’s songs for the new demo. He’s writing a bass line for a new song, and is even going to put in some keyboard parts and orchestrate the background a bit. Merle used to be afraid to even try something like that - he’d hear the riffs, but had no idea how to write a cool keyboard or string section part. It always just sounded amateurish before, like he was just randomly choosing notes, and hoping they’d “fit” okay (usually they didn’t!)
Now though, since Merle’s been studying music theory, he’s starting to understand how everything “fits together” - that there are universal musical concepts that apply to everything, and that if he understands how his riffs work, he can put together an effective keyboard and string part to perfectly compliment it. Sure, there’s still creativity and spontaneity involved, but now he knows where to start. It’s not an overwhelming “random” process anymore, and he’s confident that what he writes will work.
Luckily, this isn’t the end of the story for Mitch. Frustrated as hell by the end of his practice session, he heads over to Merle’s place. He’s not clueless - he’s been hearing how much better Merle’s playing has become recently, and he wants to know why (he’s heard some of the new demo, too).
While not an expert yet, Merle has the right idea about where Mitch needs to focus. He explains just how important music theory is for great guitar playing, and points Mitch to some great resources (especially a site called Metal Guitar Academy!)...
The “Missing Metal Ingredient”
If you saw some of yourself in Mitch, then you’re certainly not alone. Happily though, you’re also in the 20% - that breed of guitarist who knows what they want, and who is willing to do the mental and physical work necessary to achieve it.
Increasing your knowledge of music theory is absolutely the key for becoming a better player in all areas - and it’s time to get started.