A Theory course?


I love the way you teach. I gained so much from watching your pick-slanting videos.

I was wondering: you teach theory as well? (Scales, modes etc)


The CtC team its brilliant and they changed my life but the moment that you can run away from guitar-oriented instructional material immediately do so; music theory is one such opportunity.

Gotta check out the the Frank Gambale Technique books (Volumes 1 + 2) - Awesome improv/theory system. Ted Greene’s Chord Chemistry + Single Note Soloing books are also excellent.

I don’t know to what extent the world needs yet another explanation of what chords and modes are. However there are topics related to how to do that stuff on a guitar specifically where we might be able to add some simplicity or clarity. With that in mind you might like the tutorial we just put up today on getting around the fretboard over dominant chords. Here’s the link:


Awesome video.

I know there’s a plethora of theory/scales/modes videos out there, I’ve watched many, but nothing seems to stick. That there are so many videos proves (I think) that I’m not alone. Admittedly, it is a difficult subject. Inevitably what ends up happening (and I think this is true for a lot of guitarists), is that they try to learn some theory, try to apply it, and then say ‘screw it’, I’m just gonna play whatever sounds good (and if it doesn’t sound good, play it loud and proud).

You’re a great teacher Troy! You know how to get into the mindset of the student, and I think that’s what distinguishes you from a lot of the rest. For instance, in the pickslanting primer, you make the point that it’s not only ok but encouraged to practice fast: that was the first time I’d ever heard a guitar teacher say that. And it worked!

In any case, I hope you consider (some day) making a theory/scales/chords/harmony module, we’d eat it up in a second.

Again, I don’t know that we’ll do something like “what’s a dominant chord” just on its own. But you may end up learning that anyway in lessons like this one from today, where learning the sound of a 13 chord is kind of the byproduct of learning how to play the phrase we’re walking through. Did that message come across, or is the subject matter still a little foreign without the specific harmony instruction?

I think it came across well. It is the type of subject matter that (I think) one has to watch a few times to really understand, but music is often that way!

That’s how music works actually. You play something that you like, and then you can analyze - why it sounds good. Musical theory is descriptive in general, not prescriptive. Practice and experimenting gives more than knowledge how to write a species counterpoint )

I cannot understand why guitar people are obsessed with improvisation before they (a) learn a large body of pieces or (b) learn to compose when they have lots of time to perfect their composition. Indeed, what guitar people call “theory” is often heuristics for improvisation, and that makes me sad. I believe that the single most catastrophic thing that can happen to a musician is premature improvisation, and note that this does not happen with the classical violin or piano students, and note their superior outcomes.

You make an interesting point. What would you suggest we do?

Actually there’s nothing wrong with creativity even at the beginner level. I created my first melodies on my first year of piano, though they were very simple and silly… but I was 6 ))
Problem is that people tend to think that musical theory gives the ability to create music. Well, it does but not in the way they suppose. It’s not like “according to the theory I must play that note next”. More like “funny scale… though it has interesting sound and I bet I can use it!” And, of course, tons of material you listen that gives you inspiration. For example, I can clearly hear Bach in Malmsteen’s stuff.

Though sometimes you see another extreme, when people don’t want to learn theory. It’s not like you can’t create music without that knowledge, but why deny the possibility to learn something new?
“But classical music is boring and old… no experimentaion, no avant-garde!”
Yeah sure… academic music was always big step ahead in terms of experiments. Serialism, sonoristics, aleatoric, even the freaking “4’33” by Cage which I call “soundtrack to Malevich’s Black Square” )

1 Like

Just a guess here, but it probably has a lot to do with…

  1. Guitar is the dominant instrument in the rock genre,
  2. Rock, in its earlier days, was borne from the combination of blues and country/western genres, and
  3. Blues has a deep history of improvization, at least in part because blues was primarily an oral/passed along musical tradition with little to no formal notation and in turn composition in the traditional sense

…on one hand, and on the other…

  1. One of the other major genres where the guitar was adopted was jazz,
  2. Jazz was more “composed” than blues, perhaps, but was based on the principle of a bunch of musicians learning “heads” with a composed melody and an indicated set of chord changes but no strict notation, and
  3. Jazz musicians were expected to use the heads as structure, and then launch into long improvisations around them.

The other major musical tradition the guitar was as deeply present in as rock and jazz was classical, and there’s little to no emphasis on improvisation there.

Even in more “composed” genres, there’s still a surprising amount of improv playing - Satriani plays a lot of his solos note-for-note, but he’s also said in interviews that the only “rehearsed” solo on Surfing With The Alien was “Crushing Day” and he was worried it sounded “too” rehearsed, so he stopped playing it live for a long time, and I think it was around the time of Super Colossal that I remember reading an interview when he mentioned one of the solos he played he was happy with it right up to the point where he ended on the major 6th and decided it was a little too “jazzy” for a rock solo so he overdubbed either the root or the 5th, I forget, in its place. Reading between the lines, it sounds like he was still improvising there, and it seems like his normal workflow is to improvise solos, figure them out later, and then play them live note for note. That’s not always the case - some of the solos off The Extremist are at least partly worked out, and in particular I’m thinking of the long pedal-point ascending runs on “Friends” and “Summer Song” where he’s pedaling off open strings, but some of the other sections in there definitely have more of an off-the-cuff feel, and I suspect there’s a combination of both in play.

Speaking personally, when I’m recording a solo, I’ll usually have a rough “melodic contour” in mind, but I feel like if I try to 100% work out a solo in advance it sounds too robotic and “planned” to me, so while I’ll have a general outline and a few specific things I want to hit in mind, I’ll just improvise around those ideas. Of course, I’m also like a quarter the musician as Satch. :lol:

tl;dr - I think the focus on improvisation is because improvisation IS such a big part of a lot of guitar traditions, and sometimes the line between improvisation and composition gets pretty blurry.

1 Like

Thanks for the explanation, I think you’re right and have answered all of my questions.

1 Like

Run away from guitar instructional material?

What exactly do you mean?

By this, I mean that If one wants to learn about topic X (where X could be composition, theory, music appreciation, whatever), find the relevant books, determine what the author does, and try to avoid guitarists as much as possible unless one is left with no choice. In cases like theory there is absolutely no reason to go anywhere near guitarists because there is a huge body of literature in this area. Now, it is probably OK if the author is a guitarist from a conservatory, but even then, one must be careful. The problem with guitar is that there is no consensus like there is in other fields, hence there is huge variability in quality, and a terrible risk that one is reading nonsense. (By the way, keep that in mind when you read my post, as I play guitar.)

It’s totally normal, it happens to everyone and it’s not a big deal.

edit: To address the topic more directly, I think the single most catastrophic thing that can happen to any musician is being erroneously told “you can’t/shouldn’t do (thing you want to to do) before you’ve done (other thing that you have no interest in)”

Another question is: what kind of theory do people need? Pure basics like scales, intervals, chords? Because more advanced topics are depend on preferred musical material.
Basically there are only two genres that have their theory more or less codified. Academic music (“classic”) and jazz music. Though, of course, there are a lot of improvisations and experimentations inside these genres. And even between these two there are many differences in terms of theory, practical approaches, and - of course - terms (last time I was jokingly arguing with one Berkley guy about ‘melodic major’ scale which he called ‘mixolydian b6’)

May be some day someone would write a book like ‘Dethmetal theory’ or ‘Djent and polytonality’ or something like that )

Everything with a flat 2nd is your friend.

‘Tritones for verse, sus2 for choruses’ videotape course )
and of course:
‘Djent school. Applied binary arithmetic: making sense from 010100011…’

Doubt it - theory is theory, it’s just what particular concepts are more prevalent in a given genre.

I think if you have a good grasp on scales and intervals, and how to construct chords from them, and a grasp on cadence and resolution, then you have the toolkit to at least understand any other sort of theory related to melody and harmony - substitutions, modulations, whatever. Rhythmic theory is sort of its own beast, of course, but if you can take a scale, harmonize it into 7th chords, and understand WHY the resolution from each of those chords to any other sounds weak or strong, then you can do rather a lot with what you know.