There’s an all-too-common affliction running amuck among guitarists these days.
Raised in a world of TAB, YouTube tutorials, chord grids, and scale shapes, there are legions of pickers who have the physical parts of guitar playing down cold, but don’t know a single thing about theory.
And I’m not talking about fancy-pants four-part harmony writing, plagal cadences and all that esoteric music school stuff.
I’m talking about the names of notes, how chords are built, communicating with other musicians, playing the changes, Nashville numbers, transposing, basic rhythmic awareness and rudimentary chart reading.
Then I see the exact same players trying to make sense of their musical world using the same shape-based shortcuts, being frustrated again and again, and ultimately becoming stuck in a musical purgatory.
Explaining The Infield Fly Rule
Imagine your friend Ganesh is visiting you from Nepal, and you’re taking him to the quintessential American activity: a baseball game.
My question is this: how quickly can you explain the infield fly rule to Ganesh?
Let’s say you start by reading him the wikipedia entry:
The infield fly rule is a rule in baseball intended to prevent infielders from intentionally letting drop pop-ups in order to turn double plays (or triple plays). Without this rule, a defense could easily turn a pop fly into a double or triple play when there are fewer than two outs with runners at first and second base or when the bases are loaded.
Do you think that would adequately explain it to someone who has never before seen a baseball game?
Think of all the things you’d have to explain to him before that wikipedia entry even began to make sense:
- pop ups
- ground balls
- base running
- loaded bases
- tag ups
- double plays
- triple plays
Every time you attempt to explain or understand music theory using the “By Shape” mentality that dominates guitar players’ thinking, you’re attempting something exponentially more difficult than explaining the infield fly rule to a Nepali.
Theory Can’t Be Taught On A Need-To-Know Basis
It just can’t. It’s too daunting, both for the teacher and the student. For (almost) every other instrument, this is no big deal.
Knowing about notes and notation is the only reliable way to learn (for example) the trumpet.
But we guitar players have a half-dozen ways around this limitation. And it reliably produces a curious effect:
great-sounding players who have plateaued, lacking both the means and the motivation to move forward.
The means sure, but why the motivation?
Because all that basic theory stuff feels like starting over.
Who wants to play Hot Cross Buns when they can already play Hot For Teacher?
I’m convinced that overcoming this self-imposed hurdle is THE defining challenge of my generation of guitar teachers.
Hopefully that explains my constant harping about why you need to start learning the notes names on your instrument.
There is so much amazingly cool stuff to be found down this path.
“The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago.
The second best time is now.”