Practical application of music theory for guitarists

by Seth Morris

“Why study music theory?”

I'm sure that every guitar instructor has been asked this question many times over. It seems that it is a common belief, among those that have not studied it, that studying and applying music theory will make you less expressive as a guitarist or song writer. The thought is that music theory is a set of rules that one must follow.

This misconception has led many players down a frustrating path. Music theory should never be viewed as a set of rules that must be followed without question. It should instead be viewed as an in depth and evolving observation of how music works and the relationships between rhythm, structure, melody, harmony, etc. A good understanding of music theory can be a powerful tool for any guitarist or songwriter. The benefits grow exponentially as the guitarist becomes more advanced and moves from the bedroom to the big stage. The following are just a few of those benefits for a handful of examples of guitarist with different goals:



The early stage of guitar development can be very frustrating. A vast majority of guitar players fall into the beginner category simply because they cannot find ways to overcome this frustration and easily become burned out with their practice time. However, even the simplest music theory understanding can help the beginner grasp the concepts that they are trying to learn more quickly and easily. These successes can be all the beginner needs to keep working while avoiding the burnout. The end result is the guitarist advances more quickly beyond this early stage.


The hobbyist is a player who enjoys learning a few songs here and there. Playing his or her favorite songs around the campfire or with friends. At first glance, it would seem that music theory wouldn't be a benefit to a person like this who only needs the ability to read guitar tab. However, with the application of music theory, this person would be able to recognize progressions and patterns that would allow him to learn songs more quickly and have fuller understanding of the songs that he is learning and playing. The hobbyist with a good ear would be able to play melodies, harmonies, and more easily improvise when jamming with friends.

Cover band guitarist:

The cover band guitarist, whether in the garage or on stage, would enjoy all of the same benefits of the hobbyist. He or she would also, with the application of music theory, be able to change the key of a song to match a vocalists range. This is greatly helpful when a vocalist unexpectedly loses their voice or otherwise becomes ill and cannot perform at their normal range. The guitarist could even completely change the feel of a song simply by changing it's tonality.

Professional guitarist/songwriter:

This is the category where the application music theory really begins to show it's great potential. Music theory becomes a fluent language for the songwriter to convey moods and emotions to his or her listener. The songwriter gains great understanding when seeking a certain feel or mood of a song. He will understand how to build tension and release in a song with the application dissonance and consonance, meter and tempo changes, key and mode changes, among other things. The songwriter is able to compose for more instruments and work with a more diverse group of musicians, which leads to a wider variety of work. He is more effective and efficient. This allows him to take on more projects in less time and, consequently, earn a better living.


“But there are songwriters and musicians that have never needed music theory!”

This is somewhat true. It would be more accurate to say that there are songwriters and musicians that have a very limited knowledge of music theory. However, chord names, keys, note names are all the very foundation of theory and you would be hard pressed to find a professional songwriter/musician that doesn't have this basic understanding.

But to continue on the above statement, it is true that there are songwriters that have a limited application of music theory, and that the task of writing a song can be done without music theory. However, o dismiss it completely in the songwriting process would be similar to digging a hole with a spoon instead of a shovel. Combined with solid aural training, an in-depth understanding of music theory is possibly the most powerful tool in a guitarist and songwriter's arsenal.

© Seth Morris. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.