Category Archives: Advice

Why the piano paradigm prevents you from learning theory

Broken piano keys
There’s a piece of ‘common wisdom’ that is preventing many guitar players from understanding and using music theory. It’s embedded in how millions of guitar players approach their instrument and is responsible for the poor reputation that guitar players have when it comes to understanding theory.

It’s the idea that the piano is the best instrument to learn music theory on. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people on guitar forums ask how they should go about learning theory, and the inevitable answer that they should sit in front of a piano or keyboard with a piece of sheet music.

The problem is that most musicians have been indoctrinated into the piano paradigm

Did Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix sit in front of a piano to improve their guitar playing?


I’m not saying you shouldn’t play other instruments like the piano or learn to read standard music notation. It’s all part of becoming a well rounded musician.

But if you want to use music theory in your guitar playing here and now. For example to solo along to a Joe Bonamassa track or have a jam with your friends in the garage then you don’t need to subject yourself to that outdated way of thinking.

The problem is that most musicians have been indoctrinated into the piano paradigm that makes them believe that it is the one true instrument that holds the key to all musical understanding.

And that’s just not true. Our current understanding of how music works and the words and concepts we use to describe them have evolved over thousands of years from the time of Pythagoras, through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance into the modern day.

The piano was invented a couple of hundred years ago when the Western music tradition settled on 12 tone equal temperament. Yes, before that many different tuning systems existed (and still exist) and the piano was built to reflect those conventions.

Now these conventions were in some cases practical (you can now make instruments that can play across different keys) and in other cases just legacy rules that were only preserved to ensure backwards compatibility.

The guitar is played in two dimension with chords across strings, not a linear like the piano.

I mean the reason we have sharp and flat notes is because for a long time people made music with just 7 notes at a time and later they added in an extra 5. So rather than renaming every note they just stuck the new ones in between and called them sharps and flats. I’m simplifying things here but you get the general idea that some of these ideas are a total mess.

Meanwhile guitar players are told they have to treat their instrument like it has six rows of keys. How is that helpful? The guitar is played in two dimension with chords across strings, not in one dimension like the piano.

Here’s the crazy thing. I believe the guitar is the better instrument for learning music theory. A case can be made for the piano as being better for reading music notation but we all know you can learn to speak without learning to read or write. Not that that I’m saying you shouldn’t learn to read music, you should.

But if you want to learn music theory for playing guitar, then learn on the guitar.

Don’t believe me?

Here’s a quick example. On the guitar you can literally see the cycle of 4ths and 5ths spiral along the fretboard. That’s how the strings are tuned!

Notice how I called it the cycle of 4ths and 5ths and not the circle? That’s because it’s a cycle or spiral, and you only really notice that on the guitar. People in the piano paradigm don’t have that instant visual aid available to them.

This kind of instant insight is the kind of thing that comes in handy when you want to improvise in a jam situation, learn songs by ear or come up with your own arrangements.

There are many more ways in which you can use the inherent properties of the guitar to understand and use music theory. Check out the lessons on this site and you’ll find a roadmap that will show you exactly how. For a set of free lessons make sure to sign up to the free newsletter as well.

How a guitar pedal can help you learn music theory

Boss RC-3
There’s one thing I wished I had done a lot sooner when learning music theory and that is buying a loop pedal. It’s been one of the best investments I’ve ever made when it comes to becoming a better guitar player.

I always avoided getting one because I didn’t really see the need. After all I have my laptop and I can use it to record myself to play over. But in practice this never happens.

But I started to see people using loop pedals at gigs more often and I noticed how powerful they are these days. Many of these pedals can record music for several minutes and allow you to record several different channels. Some also have basic effects like delay and echo or drum tracks to keep you in time

Not that you need the most advanced versions of these pedals. In fact when it comes to practising at home a simple pedal that allows you to record one track is all you need.

After I bought one I found myself practising scales and soloing much more often. I’d record a basic chord progression and then play over it. Even running up and down scales is so much more fun when you have something accompanying you.

Below I’ve gathered a selection of loop pedals. Like I said, if you’re just using it for home practice then all you need is a simple one-track model.

The multisensory approach

Old guy playing a red guitar
Something that makes learning and applying music theory much easier is making sure that you take a multisensory approach.

By this I mean that you make sure to employ as many of your senses as possible when studying music theory. I’m going to show you how can do this in a practical way.

Now the reason I put such an emphasis on practical exercises in my method is because there is a big difference between being handed information and being shown how to get it into your head and your fingers.

Now obviously by learning with your guitar in your hands you are already using two senses. Your eyes for reading the information and knowing where to put your fingers, and your sense of touch to get those scales and chords into your muscle memory.

The next sense that is critical and funnily enough most often overlooked is your hearing. You might not realise it but many guitar players are so focussed on looking to see whether they are playing the right notes that they don’t spend as much time actually listening to what they are playing. Whether they are fretting the notes cleanly, bending up to the right pitch or strumming in the correct tempo.

I kept listening, kept going to see people, kept sitting in with people, kept listening to records. If I wanted to learn somebody’s stuff, like with Clapton, when I wanted to learn how he was getting some of his sounds – which were real neat – I learned how to make the sounds with my mouth and then copied that with my guitar.
– Stevie Ray Vaughan

There are two ways to open your awareness of how your hearing interacts with your playing. The first is to sing or hum along with everything that you play. I mean everything. Scales, melodies, rhythms. It doesn’t matter if you can sing or not, it’s not intended to be for other people. It’s about connecting what you hear   in your mind with what you can play on the guitar.

Have you ever wondered why so many famous guitar players emote and make noises when they play? It’s because they have a strong musical link between their mind and their hands.

Something I often do is sing and play along with TV or Movie tunes. Things that I know off by heart because I’ve heard them a million times. Or something like the Happy Birthday song. I bet you can hear that in your head right now. Can you play it on your guitar? If not just grab your guitar and figure it out one note at a time.

Another thing you should do from time to time is play with your eyes closed or blindfolded. In this case you’ll find out just how much you are relying on sight in stead of your ears. You’ll also become much more aware of your touch on the fretboard and how it affects the sounds you are making.

Countless studies have shown that imagining doing something gives you almost the same kind of brain activity as actually doing that thing in real life.

Many guitar players feel like they are just running up and down scales when they try to solo. This is one of the best ways to break out of that box because you are putting half of your attention on the feel of your fingers on the fretboard and half of your attention on the music. That’s a lot better than one third on what you see, one third on what you feel and only one third on what you can hear.

Now sometimes you may want to practice when you don’t have your guitar at hand. For example when you’re driving to work or sitting on the train. This is when you should practice singing melodies in your head.

Again, just stop and think about how many famous guitar players or musicians said they would practice in their head when they were sitting in a school classroom when they were young. Countless studies have shown that imagining doing something gives you almost the same kind of brain activity as actually doing that thing in real life.

So just try singing the theme tune to your favourite tv show in your head, or imagine a rhythm to go with the noises of the traffic outside, hear the Major scale in your head or even come up with new melodies. These little things add up and train your mind to become more musical.

If you want more tips and lessons about learning music theory as well as several free e-books then sign up to my free newsletter.


How to memorise scales, chords and other elements of music theory

Old guitar player sitting sofa
One thing that can be intimidating when learning music theory is the prospect of having to memorise so many different things. Scales, chord formulas and chord progressions can all get jumbled up in your mind and you might struggle to recall the information when you’re actually playing.

There are a couple of things you can do to make this easier. First of all realise that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Just because you have all the music theory in front of you on the website or in my course does not mean you have to be able to use it all at once right from the start. It’s going to take time.

Next you have to use the power of focussing on one thing at a time while allowing your unconscious mind to learn from the context in which you encounter information. Information is less meaningful and harder to remember if it’s presented in isolation.

Lets go through an example. Say you want to learn the Major scale formula. For a couple of days or weeks this will be the one thing that will be in your mind when studying music theory. Set yourself a goal of being able to recite the Major scale formula and being able to play it on one string and across all six strings starting from the Low E.

Your mind will keep seeing the patterns repeating over and over even though you’re not putting much conscious effort into memorising them.

Now this doesn’t mean you stop reading or practising other aspects of music theory. You should actually continue your studies. However you do this without feeling pressure to memorise or deeply understand anything else. The only exception is when you see something that relates to your topic of focus. But even then you take it easy on yourself.

So for example imagine you are reading about how Major triads are constructed by taking three notes from the Major scale. You will read which three notes these are and how you can get all the triads in a Major key from just this one scale.

So you’ve just learned something new about the Major scale and triads, which is great. Make a mental note of it but don’t pressurise yourself to remember it. Just file it away as a nice-to-know idea.

What will happen is that over time you will read and re-read the same lessons and do the same or similar exercises again and again. Your mind will keep seeing the patterns repeating over and over even though you’re not putting much conscious effort into memorising them.

To this day this is still how I approach learning of any kind. I’ll read broadly about a topic until I have a rough understanding of how it all fits together.

After a couple of days or weeks you have the Major scale formula memorised and you can play it in a couple of places. Also you have some idea of context around why it’s important and how it can help you understand triad and chord construction. You may not remember the exact details but you have a rough idea about how it works.

Now you’re ready to focus on the next topic. Btw the lessons on this site and my music theory course are set out like roadmap so you always know what to focus on next.

The next step is understanding how you can choose three particular notes from the Major scale to build triads (often described as Major chords) and because you’ve already read over the topic a few times and understand the context you’ll be much better prepared to understand and remember the information.

To this day this is still how I approach learning of any kind. I’ll read broadly about a topic until I have a rough understanding of how it all fits together. Then I’ll focus on one thing to really understand thoroughly. In the mean time I keep studying the wider context in a ‘casual’ way with no intention of getting a deep understanding. Once I have mastered my topic of focus I move on to the next one.

If you’re interested in more tips to help you learn and memorise guitar music theory make sure to sign up to my newsletter. I’ll send you several free e-books about music theory as well.


Feel like you’re not making progress?

Man wearing red shirt playing guitar
Something I struggled with in the past was the nagging feeling that I wasn’t making progress in some of areas of my guitar playing.

For example, I’d be practising ear training exercises every day and to be honest I wasn’t sure if I was actually getting better at recognising intervals. I felt like I was just guessing the answers even though I was doing everything possible not to.

I’d sing along with the notes, I’d imagine hearing a well known melody continuing  after the second note and try to find the notes on my guitar. Basically I was doing everything right but I felt like I was grasping around in the dark.

But I persevered.

And slowly, very slowly my ‘guesses’ were right more often than wrong. And after a while I was consistently correct in hearing the different intervals I was testing myself on.

What I had to accept was that I had to keep doing the exercises and trust that my brain was learning on an unconscious level. My abilities were improving at such a small rate each day, that consciously I wasn’t aware that I was getting better.

But small improvements every day start to add up. Get momentum through that initial shallow part of the learning curve and soon you’ll start to notice that you’re getting better.

Keep practicing, trust that your unconscious mind is recognising the patterns and learning each moment and focus on doing the required exercises regularly.

It’s like any other skill where you have to attune your perception to more details than you would normally. In the same way that someone who wants to become a better cook has to develop their palate so they can discern different kinds of flavours better.

The same way that a dancer or martial artist must gain more precise control of their limbs and a better perception of their body in space.

And the same if you wanted to become a painter you would have to train yourself to really see the colours in front of you and to be able to select the right combinations of paint to represent reality on the canvas.

It’s just that in stead of paint you select notes to bring together in a way that reflects what you hear in your mind.

So whichever aspect of music theory or guitar playing you are working on. Keep practicing, trust that your unconscious mind is recognising the patterns and learning each moment and focus on doing the required exercises regularly.

Even if it’s only five minutes a day. It will all add up and soon you’ll notice real improvements in your abilities.

To get started learning music theory in the right way using a clear guide, sign up to the free newsletter and receive a free multi-part music theory course.