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Do You Need to Learn Music Theory to Play Guitar?

You probably know, or have heard of, people who never went to college, or barely got of high school, but yet went on to be wildly successful. Through hard work, determination and persistence many of these people wound up becoming millionaires living the life of the rich and famous.

On the other hand, we have all known people that had the degrees and sheepskins. That spent years in the hallowed halls of higher learning only to wind up in a mundane job with little room for advancement, or, out of work altogether.

What's the moral of the story? It is that the "act' of getting a formal education, although admirable, in no way guarantees success in a given pursuit.

The years of studying, the sleepless nights and untold dollars spent on a higher education can leave one no further ahead of the game than the "uneducated" individual that just "jumps in there" and gets busy!

Music Theory - The Reality

Much of the same can be said about playing music. The profession is littered with individuals that worked hard to get a degree in music and have a thorough knowledge of music theory, but would be hard pressed to get on stage with a band and just "jam" through improvisation.

In my early years I became enamored with the idea of taking my music to the next level by pursuing a degree in music. I enrolled in college as a music major and spent several semesters learning how to analyze and dissect the music that I had, up to that point, played strictly by "feel" and instinct. It was, unfortunately, an unrewarding experience for me.

The Allman Brothers got their start in my hometown of Macon, Georgia. They lived here for many years, and there is a story around town that during their heyday, Dicky Betts, the famous lead guitarist, approached a music professor at Mercer University and wanted to pursue a higher education in music theory.

As the story goes, the professor sagely advised him that a formal education would do nothing but dilute what Dickey did naturally. That focusing his thoughts and energies on learning the "theory" of playing guitar could have a serious negative impact what he did by "feel" and by instinct. That he would run the risk of "over-thinking" his playing, which can slam creativity into a brick wall.

Of course every individual has their own goals and desires. Many guitarists have their sights set on a career in classical music, or, to one day become a music educator. These are pursuits where a formal education in music will be of good use.

What It Means to You

As a beginning guitar player you will eventually discover which path is right for you. You may discover an affinity for the ins and outs of music theory and want to pursue a formal education.

On the other hand, you may just want to learn "how" to play without the shackles of having to analyze "what" you are playing. It's totally realistic to become a proficient guitar player without having to spend years learning music theory.

The truth is, much of what you "need" to know about music theory and concepts will be acquired through the actual process of learning to play. Learning songs off of the recording, jamming with friends, writing songs, and playing on stage. These will all give you musical experience on the guitar that you could never get out of a book.

I can personally attest to the fact that some of the best guitar players I have ever met did not have one bit of formal music theory education. In fact, many never even had the first guitar lesson!

In my life I had the honor of sharing stages with major recording artists and was able to tour internationally making a good living in the music business without the need of a degree in music, or years spent studying theory.

As is so often the case with schooling, there can be an overload of "book knowledge" that never sees the light of day in "real world" applications.

This is in no way meant to diminish the advantages of a pursuit of a formal education in music. It is an admirable pursuit that is a good fit for those of that mindset.

But it's also important to be aware of the fact that you can become a very good guitar player, and accomplish some amazing goals, by focusing on playing by ear and by feel, by picking up things from other players, by listening, and simply by playing and practicing - without ever having to step into a classroom.

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