Guitar Theory: The Secret To Effective Blues Soloing
Of all of the popular musical styles out there – blues is one of the simplest in form.
The vast majority of songs are made up of just a handful of chords and the structure of the songs also tends to be very simple.
Getting to grips with entry level blues soloing is also quite straight forward. Once you have the hang of the basic pentatonic shapes, you can put together some pretty sweet solos. After all, legendary players like Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan both seemed to manage, and neither of them had any formal music training.
Why do you need Guitar Theory?
The problem, is that neither you or I are anything like Jimi Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughan. Aside from the fact that we haven’t been born with supernatural guitar playing abilities, there are a few further crucial differences worth considering.
The first is that these guitarists – and any other famous players without formal training – spent almost every waking hour practicing or playing with other musicians. During high school, Vaughan used to spend every evening jamming in Antone’s – the legendary Austin blues bar. After being discharged from the army Hendrix became a session musician for Little Richard, Sam Cooke and the Isley Brothers. Eric Clapton got kicked out of art college for bunking every lesson to go and play his guitar.
When you’re playing that often, constantly learning new material and also practicing regularly with other musicians, you can get away without a sound understanding of guitar theory. Not to mention, these musicians were all naturally gifted in audiation. (This post on Quora does a good job of explaining what this is all about, if you haven’t heard the term before)
Unless you are also a professional musician, I would guess that you’re not able to devote as much time to practice as your guitar heroes. If that’s the case, then neglecting your knowledge of guitar theory will hinder your playing significantly.
Guitar Theory – The Thorn in My Side
The biggest gap in guitar my playing is that I am only now starting to gain knowledge of guitar theory. When I first started playing, I had a brilliant guitar teacher who used to teach at my secondary school. His whole ethos was around teaching us songs that we enjoyed playing, with the aim that we would start a band and play them together. This to me is what music is all about – sharing and collaborating with other musicians.
I didn’t learn the guitar to play it alone in my bedroom. Playing an instrument should be an experience that you share with other musicians, and if you’re lucky enough – in front of a decent crowd too. The approach was perfect at the time, and my guitar teacher knew his audience. When he tried to teach us theory, we totally switched off. All I wanted to do was play Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix. Everything else was of secondary importance.
As I’ve progressed though, my lack of theory knowledge has become a real thorn in my side. The problem I’ve found in not having a solid grasp of the guitar, is that my playing is one dimensional. I’m only now learning how the fretboard fits together and how to transition successfully from one portion of it to the next.
If you’re also in this position, then you’re most likely facing the same issue with which I was confronted.
Guitar Theory – The Magic Bullet?
You might be able to play nice solos and cool bluesy stuff, but you’ll always stick to what you know. Then you’ll play it over and over again, because it sounds decent and you don’t want to make a mistake by trying something else.
That’s problematic on a number of levels:
– It’s frustrating as a player (no one likes to be in a rut)
– It’s boring for the listener
– You stop developing and progressing
– It’s difficult to spontaneously play or jam with other musicians
When I learnt Pride and Joy, I learnt two sections of the fret board where it sounded cool to solo in the key of E-flat major. I ended up playing those two positions every time I played in that key. I had no idea how to transition between the two, so I just ended up playing a poor version of what Stevie Ray Vaughan did, on every single song…
Learning guitar theory has helped me to start to break out of this rut (I still have quite a way to go!) and I would strongly urge you to try it. It will expand your repertoire and totally re-invigorate your playing. It’s also the best way to feel comfortable improvising and jamming with other musicians, or over backing tracks.
Here are some of the resources and tactics I’ve found helpful in the quest for becoming a more cerebral player:
Guitar Theory Lessons
I resisted hiring a teacher until recently. Lessons are not cheap and as a long time player and guitar fanatic, my ego got the better of me. I held the belief that I should have been able to muddle through on my own. What I’ve found, is that committing to lessons (I have them once a fortnight) helps keep me focused and accountable to practice. I can also ask questions and get extra help and support on those areas that pose the greatest challenges. If money is an issue, then Skype lessons are a good option. You can learn from the comfort of your home and they’re also cheaper.
I know that not everyone can afford to shell out on lessons each week. So in the absence of hiring a guitar theory teacher, here are a few of the cheaper resources I’ve found useful:
Guitar Theory for Dummies
When I spotted the title of this book on the shelf, I thought it was a good place to start. If you’re just starting out then I’d also highly recommend it. It runs through a lot of the key principles you need to get your theory chops up to scratch, and it goes into a decent amount of depth on them. It won’t break the bank and you can find it easily on Amazon (as well as any bookstore that has a decent music section). If you want to try before you buy, then Desi Serna – the author of the book – also posts a lot of free articles and videos on his website.
I’m also signed up to a couple of Udemy courses; ‘The Professional Guitar Masterclass’ and ‘Music Theory Made Easy’
I’ve found these to be pretty helpful. Watching videos of the techniques is more engaging than reading a book and you can obviously go back and replay the sections you’re struggling with.
Although I’ve never utilised it, the ‘Professional Guitar Masterclass‘ has a feature that allows you to message the teacher of the course directly. I think that’s pretty useful and offers a lot of value for the money. Somewhat mysteriously, the ‘Music Theory Made Easy’ has disappeared from Udemy, but you can find the same course on the Guitar Zoom website here. If neither of those take your fancy, then there are a lot of other courses to choose from on Udemy. I haven’t tried them and so can’t recommend them, but the website puts out decent content. You can also read reviews of all of the courses before you buy one.
It’s worth mentioning that there are gaps in the content of these resources where knowledge is assumed by the author. This does make it slightly more challenging as a student. So as a head’s up, if you opt for the self-teaching method, you will have to do more reading around the subject.
Having said that, using all three resources together has been quite useful, as where one course is a bit light on a particular area, another one will go into a bit more depth. Using a combination of all three is allowing me to piece things together quite nicely.
Beating the Boredom
There are no two ways about it, learning guitar theory is supremely boring.
I learnt the guitar because it’s the coolest instrument in the world. I wanted to play like Jimi Hendrix and David Gilmour, not to learn the guitar theory behind what makes them such great players.
When I first started playing guitar as a teenager, it also offered me an escape from the academic pursuits of school. Now it offers me the same respite from my email inbox.
Guitar theory feels very academic in nature and so it’s difficult to get motivated about. But it is a necessary evil, so if you’re struggling, here are a few tactics that I’ve found to make it feel like a little less of a chore:
Commit to learning ten minutes of music theory a day. Set a timer on your phone, then put your phone on airplane mode. Crank out those ten minutes and get it done every day. It’s a small enough unit of time that you can commit to it quite easily, but big enough that you can make some headway as the days and weeks stack up. Aside from relatively exceptional circumstances, you should always be able to manage those 10 minutes. If you’re having one of those exceptional days then see my final point below.
Learning guitar theory is boring. Learning your favourite blues songs or playing along to a backing track is not. Structure your practice so you start with the boring stuff and get it out of the way. Then reward your efforts by playing something you enjoy. I aim to fit in at least 30 minutes of practice a day. I tend to learn theory for the first 10 minutes and then get into the good stuff.
Two or three times now, I’ve spent time learning an element of guitar theory (like the CAGED system) only to forget it two weeks later. I have then had to go back and spend almost as much time relearning the same material before moving on. Little and often is the way to tackle the challenge. It’ll save you a lot of time and hassle in the long run.
The other night I got home from a pretty rough day at work. It was late and I sat down to start my guitar theory. Two minutes in and I lost concentration. I reset my timer and tried to go again. I got to 4 minutes and then my mind wandered off again. Two or three attempts later, it was clear I was just winding down the clock for the sake of it. So I sacked it off and learnt the solo to Black Magic Woman instead. I then just doubled down on theory the following day, when I felt fresh.
The same went for a week recently where my social calendar was packed. I kept getting home close to midnight, and then I was getting up at 5.30am the next day. Rather than get stressed at the lack of guitar theory time, I just put aside more time for it at the weekend. Over the course of the week the time I spent learning guitar theory balanced out, so it was all good.
My final piece of advice is to cut yourself some slack. Learning guitar theory (for me at least) has been a slow and frustrating process at times. There have been a number of occasions where it’s gotten the better of me. Luckily, I’ve since learned to chill out a bit. If you’re making progress – no matter how slow – it’s still progress. Ultimately, that’s all we can ask for.