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How do players who know "nothing" about theory get it so musically correct?


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So I'm reading the interview with Alex Lifeson in this month's issue of Guitar Player magazine. Every time he gets asked about how he does something from a musical perspective he always says "I don't know how I do it." This just peeves me off to no end. [cursing]


I learned theory starting at the age of 8, so I have no understanding how these players do it without theory. Lifeson probably had no clue that the solo to YYZ is written in Spanish Phrygian mode but he nailed it. Other examples include the beginning of Freewill which is in Lydian mode or the solo to Tom Sawyer which is in Mixolydian mode (this follows the bass line which is also in Mixolydian mode). He's got a concept but has made it clear that he knows nothing about the theory.


SRV is another example. Listen to this:




There are a lot of neat jazz turnarounds and neat chords. For example at 0:34 he plays a D7#9 chord to a D7b9 chord. SRV had no clue what he was playing, but it all makes perfect sense from a musical point of view.


I know it's gifted talent. I just wish I had some!

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Heres an article




this is the first couple of paragraphs..


Find Your Zone




Pat Smith

Learn how to zone in and play, no matter your skill level


Longer ago than I care to admit, I attended a seminar with one of my all-time favorite pickers, Howard Roberts. It was a two-day deal, and for the most part I was too inexperienced to have a clue about much of what he talked about. But one thing that stuck in my head (and I am sure he wasn’t the first to say this) was to study your instrument—but, when you go out to play the gig, forget everything you know and just play. At the time, this seemed completely unfathomable to me. How could you forget what you know—and why in the world would you want to? I guess the reason it stuck was that it was so far off my does-not-compute scale that I just had to file it till later.


It’s Later Than You Think…

Meanwhile, I was playing in bar cover bands and waiting for my genius to be discovered (I’m still waiting, by the way). One night at the OK Lounge in Marion, Iowa, we launched into our version of “I’m a Man” (a la Chicago). During my solo I had what I can only describe—and, believe me, I hate to say this—as an out-of-body experience. I had no sense that it was me playing and somehow, at least in my head, I entered “the zone.” Before I continue, I will splash some cold water on this and say that I have no idea if anyone else noticed—or even if what I played was actually good. But the important thing is that it was just the music sailing under its own power. I had no sense that it was me doing anything. I saw my hands doing things I didn’t think they could do and I was amazed.

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All I can say is this:


When I play too much from my head, my solos are terrible and I don't feel it. When I play straight from the heart, off the cuff and in-the-moment, it turns out great, and I feel it.




Paul McCartney can't read music and states he doesn't know a lot about school taught theory and we all know what he's done.

Don't let it peeve you, admire it and do what you do.

I think the Rocketman defining album is coming soon.

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Well I am no SVR or even close it any one famous but I do have some insight on this. I have been working in and around music all my life. I never studied music apart from some drum lessons when I was a child. I worked as a sound engineer for many years and hence I was always around at band rehearsals and watched and listened to what was going on. I learned a lot just from being around musicians. I was always good with computers so I started messing around and putting stuff together, and eventually, I wrote produced and recorded many records. Now that I have studied guitar and learned how to play I look back at stuff I did having no idea. Turns out I went with what sounded good, what went together and what felt good. I think a big part of it is being tuned in. As a youngster I listened to all the popular Rock bands and loved Fusion... I don't think I was much different than most youngsters growing up in the 70's listing to my recores until I wore them out. I trained my ear without knowing it. I could hear when notes clashed or something was out of key... There are many people who can't. I do understand when someone who hasn't studied theory can make music and not know that they are doing it right...

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A perennially fascinating topic... [thumbup]


IMO as complex as life itself :blink:


Whatever floats your boat...(see below)...


People aquire high level skills in their own individual ways, 'theory driven vs hands-on'


Perhaps the 'entrepreneur' analogy has some relevance...


Guys/Gals with less further education than the majority


Becoming £B-aires with creative business ideas, huge ambition and drive...





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Oh, he knows it. He just don't know that he knows it.


And this reminds me of a guy. I really suck at remembering names, because in this case, I really SHOULD be able to tell you his name. (Trying really hard to). He was (or still is) a BLUES guitarist who became also a successful Jazz AND session musician, who could not read music, or understand any of it. He would say, "just because someone can't tell you what he is playing, doesn't mean he doesn't know what he is doing".


Fascinating subject, that is, how each musician comes at it. Take a simple concept like "Phrygian" for example. Some think of it as a pattern, some think it terms or intervals, and some think in terms of harmony.


Hell, it used to freak me out HOW I can not remember for the life of me how a song goes, but yet, when it starts and I am playing it, it just sort of happens. You know? or, like sitting on the porch or something with a guitar, and you strike a chord and you are playing a tune you used to play from years ago, even as you can't remember how it sounds or how it goes? Is it some form of muscle memory from playing it so many times?


If not, what about this: (when I USED to play...) We would come up with a 'set'..maybe 45 minutes of tunes. We might spend 20 minutes of rehearsal coming up or deciding WHAT the tunes would be. Sometimes, tunes I never heard of knew of before, or played a way different than what we heard or done before. So, without actually PLAYING them enough to commit to memory. But yet, even though I can't actually remember them or have it written down, they still come out?


Anyway, the reason I mention, is that while music is happening, as we are PLAYING, it often happens faster than we can think. And thus, THEORY, what we know, how does each apply it AT THE TIME? One guy might play "phrygian" becuse he is hearing certain tones and matching them...and thus, learning the term to describe or recognize what he is hearing or playing. Another guy might think "phrygian" and make an effort to play the notes to MAKE it phrygian. And thus, each guy might LEARN it, or practice it differently, according to his capabilities.


I could go on to say, this is a reason why no two different musicians sound the same when playing together.

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I'm trying to figure out how to join this discussion without typing a short novel on the subject... for I have dealt with this "syndrome" for many years in both the engineering AND musical fields.


There are two types of "studies" for almost any vocation; theoretical and applied. In many areas of technical study (including music), the two are very separated. The theorists NEED to put names to things to convey their ideas to others, for their PRODUCT is scribbles on paper for education and discussion. For those who APPLY it, their product is something you can feel, touch, see and hear, and in the case of this discussion.... recorded MUSIC.


I run around on the fringes of music academia (hiding in the shadows so not to be "called out"). In my little jazz world I interact almost daily with Phd's, music professors, music "educators" (don't call them teachers, it pisses them off), and musicians that have had years and years of formal music training. I DO NOT fit into any of these categories, but through 40 years of "applied" learning, who's the guy they come to to tweak an arrangement, recon a concert venue, spec the technical and logistical requirements, or ask to critique a rehearsal or concert performance.... you guessed it, the guy WITHOUT the letters behind his name.


Formal education is NEVER a bad thing, but the "application" of the knowledge (however acquired), is always MOST important.


A couple of closing thoughts and I'll shut up:


Frank Lloyd Wright did not go to architecture college.

Albert Einstein did not study physics as a university student.

Isaac Newton was not "taught" calculus, he invented it.

Thomas Edison did not have a degree in electrical engineering.

Brian May does not have a degree in music, he has PhD in astro-psysics.


So... If it sounds good play it. If it sounds like ****, don't play it. But somehow, somewhere, you need to have learned the difference!


OK, I'm done.

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"You've got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail." -Charlie (Bird) Parker


I've played guitar off and on for over 45 years, seriously for the last 15, and taken lessons on and off for the last eight. I am far from being a gifted player, but I practice every day for an hour and two-plus hours a day on weekends. In my lessons, I have been learning theory, sight reading notation, and new tunes- mostly jazz. I love improvisation. Improvisation is like song writing on the fly.


Learning scales and modes has improved my improvisational skills immensely. What learning scales has taught me is where everything is on the fretboard, intervals, but most importantly, what my options are while I'm improvising. What has done me the most good is the pure act of practicing!


When I record a tune, I will play the rhythm sections first, then lay down the lead track- usually the main melody, bridge and chorus of the song (the "head"). Then I will improvise over it, and come back to the head and end it. I will usually record multiple tracks of the improvised lead section. What I find is that often I don't realize what the best tracks are until I play them back. I try to get lost in what I'm playing. I'm conscious what my options are, but I let myself go within that framework. My best results come from a re-interpretation and re-invention of the melody I'm working around, and that melody has a certain scalar structure. I agree, you don't need to know theory to create great music, but it definitely helps. Like some have already said, the greats know the theory, whether they know it or not.

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I agree with just about all the comments made here. I'll just chime in to say that some people just "have it". That does not mean you can't be a great player with a lot of practice but that raw talent is a gift.


I have had friends that don't play and they pick up my guitar and nothing comes out. They have a hard time fretting a note. One other friend friend picked up my ax and right away he was picking out a melody. Nothing great but still he was making music right off the bat. He never pursued it despite my offers to teach him what I knew. He was just not that interested.


Everything I know is 2% inspiration and 98% perspiration.

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Its all about the ear! What SOUNDS right!


Exactly! I studied Music Theory for years, but I rarely give it a thought when I am writing a song. In fact the only time I ever think about theory is when I am discussing it with my Daughter who studies Music Theory at the Nashville School of the Arts.

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I think Larry really hit 98 percent of it.


The other 2 percent?


"We" listen to far more music than our forebears even 100 years ago.


We may not know this or that mode or scale or whatever, but it has become part of our mental repertoire of what we know and like.


So, when "we" compose on the fly, better known as improvisation, we're playing from within our own repertoire.


I complain to myself that so often I sound even to me like "elevator music" when I'm working out fingerstyle arrangements of stuff that I have in my musical memory. %$#%#$@ But then, if I'm with somebody doing some blues... it's as if there's a different player with material coming out of another section of musical memory.


Nowadays... I think we all tend to be that way, each in their own way, regardless our training or musical preferences. We each have a huge musical memory that just needs a bit of prodding to come out.


I'll add too that the musical memory within us also is a significant part of what brings us the thread on "plagiarism."



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The trick is being able to play on guitar the note or chord you have in your head. Most anyone can make good music in their head.


I agree...but man there are so many times where i am just noodling....nothing in my head...and i come up with a bad *** riff...i almost love those ones better than the ones i hear in my head! ;)

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I agree...but man there are so many times where i am just noodling....nothing in my head...and i come up with a bad *** riff...i almost love those ones better than the ones i hear in my head! ;)


I hear you Shred. But knowing what that riff is in a scalar or modal or chordal sense makes it easier to remember and to become part of your vocabulary.


As I have said here before, no one ever got worse knowing theory, and anything that makes you play makes you better. I know from personal experience that I improved as a player much faster once I started studying music. My goal is to be a musician, not just a guitar player. I don't aspire to be a great song writer, but I do love improvising.

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