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Do You Need To Understand Music Theory?

You might be surprised to hear…

Many working blues guitarists really don’t know a lot of music theory. They developed good ears when they were young and learned the basic chords, so they manage to get by without knowing what’s going on “under the hood.”

Some started with a basic style of rock music or blues and never “graduated” to more sophisticated styles of music that required a high level knowledge of scales, chords and harmony. My view is that being a great blues guitarist is about tone, taste, and technique. And technique is last for a reason.

The Blue Notes Scale

The Blue Notes Scale

Maybe you’re not surprised. You may even be thinking that blues is so simple, knowing music theory really isn’t required.

It’s just three chords right? It’s the feeling that counts.

Well I agree to a point.

I’ve been playing in bands for years. One of the keys to having a great band is being able to communicate with band mates. You have to be able to talk the same language. At a rehearsal, if you can run through changes and arrangements quickly and accurately, your band can be that much better… sooner.

And when it’s time to start the song, especially at a jam, you need to know what it means when the leader says…

“OK this is slow blues in B-flat that starts by coming down from the 5. The turnaround is a 1-6-2-5. Watch for stops after the chorus.

If that sounds like another language to you… then you got some ‘splainin to do.

Even to be at an intermediate level as a musician, you must know this kind of thing. This is pretty basic stuff.

And I bet many blues guitarists wish they knew more about music theory. I confess even I wish I knew a lot more. I don’t read music. And I’m certainly not a jazz player. Although I would love to be able to play some jazz.

Why would I like to know more music theory?

Because it always helps you communicate with other musicians. And if you start working with real pros, or want to be able to get called for a high-paying wedding gig, for example, you better be able to cut and maybe even be able to read charts.

OK I think you get it.

joe bonamassaWhat You Need To Know

Here’s the basics that you really should know about music theory.

Major and Minor Scales (particularly the pentatonic scales)

Of course your leads are built from scales which come from understanding the notes in a key. But the blues goes beyond standard Western tonality. Those “blue notes” give the blues their distinctive sound and emotion. You want to know why don’t you.

Basic Chord Theory

Sure the blues is mostly just 2 chords, but you can do a lot with those three chords. The more you understand their role in creating tension and resolution, the more you can turn your music into something that moves people. But the reality is… you’ll use more than 3 chords all the time. Here’s a page about good blues chords you should know.

Basic Musical Rhythms

You may not need to know things like time signatures or exotic patterns, but you certainly want to understand bars and note values. You’ll frequently communicate with your band mates by talking about “which bar to come in on” or “this is a rumba.” Although this is less theory than blues standard jargon… you still need to know it.

And don’t forget about playing in time. The key to grooving with your band mates is being able to keep your playing in time and insync with the rest of the band. And understanding what make a good rhythm player is important.

Basic Harmony Principles

If you want to go beyond very basic blues, you certainly want to understand how to add vocal harmonies to a song. Understanding what a third interval is and what are the best intervals to use for guitar harmonies or horn parts, well that’s still pretty basic for advanced blues.

What You Don’t Need To Know

You don’t really need to read music to a be a good blues musician… but it doesn’t hurt. If you ever plan on moving into jazz or being a full-time pro, then you certainly should know how to read music charts. The great, high-paying gigs may require you to come in cold, with other great musicians and play from charts.

Where To Learn Theory

So how do you go about learning some music theory?

Here’s some super websites that I’ve found… My favorite… at the moment.

And if you prefer videos here’s a site with video lessons on music theory. This uses the English terminology which is different than the American music terminology.

Also, a great site to learn guitar is They have lots of beginner classes that will teach you basic music theory. Go here to learn more.

Here’s a couple of basic video lessons from…

Another great online lesson site is JamPlay. Here’s a couple of videos from them that goes over some basic music theory. Learn more here.

Here’s Bonnie Raitt’s old bass player Freebo showing you some really basic music theory. This is excellent for a raw beginner.

Click To Watch A Free Lesson

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