Theory Doesn't Matter? Don't Be An Idiot!
Updated: Aug 28
I was about 13 when I had my first moment of clarity about the value of the intellect when it comes to playing music.
Everyone knows that music is all about the feeling. I tell my students, "Feeling is the meaning of music." As Duke Ellington said, "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing!"
Even though feeling is the point, what you say, and how you say it, expresses your feeling, and causes an emotional response in the listener.
What you say is vocabulary. How you say it is technique.
The how I've covered in another blog series.
The value of the intellect when it comes to music has to do with, among other things, vocabulary. The greater your vocabulary, the wider the emotional range and the more nuanced the feeling can be. The same could be said for technique.
Back to 13-year-old me:
I had obtained my first electric guitar, a Burns Bison. This opened up the possibility and sparked the desire to be a hot-shot lead guitarist.
Circa 1968-69 I taught myself lead by listening to records - Clapton, Hendrix, Santana, Page; the late sixties guitar gods. Oh yeah, B.B. King - The Thrill is Gone hit #1 in 1969.
It was a very laborious and time-consuming process, put the record needle down, listen, listen, listen, hunt-and-peck, hunt-and-peck until I found that sound. Then put the needle down again, listen, listen, listen, hunt-and-peck, hunt-and-peck until I found that sound, and so on.
It was by this "method" I discovered what I would later come to understand to be the Minor Pentatonic Scale. I had one pattern for it like so:
I would play it at whatever fret sounded right for the tune. It was the first scale pattern I figured out by listening to my records.
I could hear that it was minor in sound and associated primarily with a sad, crying kind of feeling.
I also discovered what I called an extension of it - like so:
I understood that the guitar neck repeats itself above the 12th fret, so any pattern could be moved 12 frets up and it would still work but would be an octave higher.
A little later, by the same laborious and time-consuming process I worked out a different pattern; I would later come to know it as the Major Pentatonic Scale. Instead of moving across the the neck like the other one, this one moved diagonally along the neck - like so:
I understood this pattern to be major in sound and so it was associated with a happy feeling. It also could be moved 12 frets up.
So I had two patterns: the minor one moved across the neck and the major one moved diagonally along the neck.
These two patterns comprised 13-year-old me's vocabulary for soloing. Limited? Yes, but I had them down stone cold and could play them really fast - up high above the 12th fret and down low below the 12th fret. I had them down so good because I practiced them 8-10 hours a day the summer between 7th and 8th grade.
Consequently, I was in-demand as a lead guitarist! I had more than one band asking me to join them. I went from being an awkward pencil-neck geek to cool very quickly - all because I played lead guitar in a band! (I'm still a pencil-neck geek, it's just overlaid by this musician-personae.) By 1970 I was playing in a band that had gigs and getting my first taste of actually getting paid to play the guitar.
One day I was messing around with my diagonal major pattern from a 5th-string root. I didn't know keys or letter names at the time but I now know I was playing in C Major Pentatonic. This was the pattern:
I happened to notice that, with the exception of the first note - which was the 5th-string at the 3rd fret - every note in the pattern after that was the same as my minor pattern (with the extension) from the 6th-string, 5th fret.
"Hmmmm" I thought to myself, "I wonder if this note on the 5th string, 3rd fret can be found anywhere in my minor pattern?"
After a little hunting-and-pecking I found it. The 5th-string, 3rd fret is the same note as the 6th-string, 8th fret!
Then it hit me like a bolt of lightning: The 5th-string, 3rd fret MAJOR pattern was the same thing as the 6th-string, 5th fret MINOR pattern!!!!
CRAAAP! All that work I did to come up with the major pattern! If only I'd known that if I wanted a 5th-string, 3rd fret major pattern all I had to do was play the 6th-string, 5th fret minor pattern! THEY WERE THE SAME THING!
Thus I stumbled onto the concept of the relative major/minor. I realized that all my minor licks were also major licks - but only if I KNEW the relationship of those two positions: 6th-string, 5th-fret minor = 5th-string, 3rd fret major. Or: A minor = C major.
This was the first instance of discovering that one pattern on the neck could have more than one function. If I'd only known of the relationship beforehand, I could've learned just the Minor pattern and then doubled my vocabulary with a concept!
Concepts are easy - what's hard is all the time and repetition that it takes to get a new pattern programmed into your brain and muscle memory.
The discovery of the relationship of C major to A minor made me realize how valuable knowing music theory is. If you know one scale, but have 2 functions for it, you've cut the time it takes to master both applications by half. C major and A minor are different in how they sound, they're different conceptually, they're different in emotional content, they're different in every way, but mechanically they can be played exactly the same way - and it's the mechanics that take all the work.
Do you know how to solo over a D9sus? Try an A Minor Pentatonic.
How about G9/13sus? A Minor Pentatonic.
Bbmaj7(#11)? A Minor Pentatonic.
Eb13(b9)? A Minor Pentatonic.
Yes, all your typical A Minor Pentatonic Blues licks will work over a chord like Bbmaj7(#11)! And in that context, they become something completely different! Yet, mechanically, they are the same. It's a beautiful thing.
In fact, there are 12 possible functions for an A Minor Pentatonic - actually, there are way more than that but 12 would be the number to shoot for in the beginning. Plus, since you can play a Minor Pentatonic scale in all 12 keys using the same fingering for every key, and there are 12 possible functions per key, that would be 144 functions FOR THE SAME PATTERN!
Try learning a different fingering for each application and see how long it takes you to get to 144. Good luck with that. Get back to me in 10 years. I'll teach you for a year and get you farther than all 10 previous years put together (see A Little Story).
Though implied in what I have previously said, we haven't even begun to touch on the concept of modes. Or that the same phenomenon - multiple functions for a single fingering - also applies to chords as well!
My revelation at age 13 about C major and A minor being the same pattern convinced me that understanding music theory would make me a way better guitarist in a shorter period of time than I could ever be otherwise and sparked a life-long journey of musical discovery.
Students ask me, "Is there a shortcut?" My answer? "Yes, there is! Take lessons that apply music theory to the guitar."
That's what I teach. That is the shortcut!
Anyone who tells you music theory doesn't matter is an idiot who is doomed to massive amounts of work for very limited returns.
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