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How do you approach theory in guitar playing?

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Joined: 19 May 2004
Posts: 3
Location: Pittsburgh

PostPosted: Wed May 19, 2004 9:21 pm    Post subject: How do you approach theory in guitar playing? Reply with quote

I've been having issues recently on how I should be approaching my guitar playing from a theory standpoint and was wondering what anyone's thoughts might be regarding my way of thinking. Let me tell you where I'm coming from:

I'm 24 years old and have been playing guitar for about 10 years all together, but only first started taking serious lessons and seriously studying music and guitar playing for about 6 years. Over most of these years, I've learned most of the basics of music theory and jazz...between taking lessons, taking a jazz improvisation course in college, and watching instrucitonal videos and such. However, the application of a lot of the theory has always been very difficult for me to execute properly and I have often gotten tired and put off by it. The result was I would tend to practice technique more than theory. So I'm at a point in my playing where my chops are pretty damn good.....but my application of music theory least as far as jazz or fusion type playing goes.

So now, here is where I think the problem lies....and I'm wondering if any other guitarists out there can identify. The way I started out approaching the guitar is probably the same as most guitarists (I think)....I concentrated more on patterns and fingerings, rather than notes. I've spent all these years memorizing and practicing scale patterns and chord patterns with various fingerings all over the frettboard, but never thinking so much about the actual notes I was playing. So I could jam in any random key, playing scales and arpeggios all over the place, and never once even think about what notes I was playing....I would just think through the fingerings I had memorized --(whole step, half step, whole step, whole step...etc).

So when it was time to play over a II-V-I progression and I'm supposed to emphasize the 3rds of 7ths of each chord, I was suddenly lost if I changed positions on the neck. In one position I was okay finding the 3rds and 7ths (although I had to think a little first to figure it out). but to truely improvise and move around the neck....I'm hopeless. Like I said before, I was taking a jazz improv class at college at one point and I realized all the horn players were going about it completely differently. They were thinking "I'm in this mode in this key...the third is B flat the 7th is F." and just playing through those notes. Where as I was lost because I wasn't thinking about any of the notes I was playing...I was just going through the fingering's I had memorized.

And if I had to play over non-diatonic chord changes...I was really screwed....and still am. I can do it, but it doesn't sound good because I restrict my notes to ones close to the root of each chord and usually play the same fingerings every time....sometimes I have to play the root first for each bar, or I'll loose my place. I'm really bad at playing a continious melody that flows through the changes.

So now I've been trying to think more about the notes on the neck and sometimes picture them as they lie on a keyboard (I also took piano lessons as a kid). And I'm thinking I'm on the right track, but it's difficult because sometimes I feel like I'm starting all over again and learning the guitar from scratch....which in a way I guess is what I'm doing. And I still feel like I'm miles away from being able to play a decent solo over complex changes.

So I was wondering if there were any other guitarists or musicians out there that could relate to this situation and what your thoughts might be.

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Joined: 17 May 2004
Posts: 119
Location: Bangkok

PostPosted: Wed May 19, 2004 10:27 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Learning fingering patterns for scales and arps (along with learning chord/scale relationships) is just the first step in a process. The next step is developing a vocabulary of melodic ideas, i.e., licks, lines, and phrases built from those same scales.

What initially helped me most in this endeavor was learning licks and lines of the master improvisors, e.g., Bird, Trane, Bill Evans, Miles, Wes and others--either by transcribing lines and solos or by getting these lines from transcription books. This sort of endeavor is an invaluable education when it comes to learning how melodic lines relate to harmonies.

It's good to learn lines that work over major and minor ii-V-I's, turnarounds, modal progressions, Coltrane changes, and more. Also, a lot of guitarists don't realize that you have to practice improvising (just like every other musical subject) to become good at it. I find it very helpful to practice playing through changes using a sequencer to provide "the band" for me.

Nowadays, there are a lot of good books out there which contain transcribed lines of the masters.

One good series is called "Essential Jazz Lines in the Style of_________" (Parker, Coltrane, Evans, Montgomery, Green, etc.) By Corey Christiansen (Mel Bay.)

Another excellent book is "The Complete Book of Jazz Guitar Lines and Phrases" by Sid Jacobs (also published by Mel Bay.)

Good luck!
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Joined: 19 May 2004
Posts: 3
Location: Pittsburgh

PostPosted: Thu May 20, 2004 2:53 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Hey, thanks a lot for the advice! I've been looking online at those "Essential Jazz lines" books and they look really cool. I'm just trying to decide which one to check out. I'm thinking about maybe picking up the Coltrane or Joe Pass ones since I listen to them more.....although I'm sure their probably all good.

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Joined: 21 May 2004
Posts: 15
Location: London UK

PostPosted: Thu Jun 03, 2004 9:41 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

what helped me alot was the CAGED system. this helped me know what to do and where all over the neck, and also helped me learn where all the notes are. It sounds like you are an advanced player, and this is a simple system, but it really helped me.
i did a search on the net, and it came back with this

but have a look yourself.

it may not be the total answer to everything, but it certainly set me on the right track.
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Joined: 18 May 2004
Posts: 40
Location: Waco, TX

PostPosted: Thu Jun 03, 2004 12:14 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Like fusion58 said, you need to take those scales and arps you learned and learn some melodic phrases...licks, lines etc. WRite them down in a book. I have a 3 ring black notebook I keep all my printed lines in. I either write them based on lines I learn..or I just steal them note for note from someone...usually Scott or Don Mock hehehe,...then I put them in either Finale or Powertab and if i really want to save them, I print them and put them in the book.

Here's the important part though. When you get these printed out, find the licks/lines you like and write their intervals down over each note in the staff for the chord you're playing it over. Of course, you have to realize a line you learn for E dorian can be applied to any mode/chord in the key of D major. So if you learn a line in E dorian over an Eminor7 chord....try that same line over a Gmaj7 chord...G is the 4th in the key of D right? So, there's you a lydian line now. Or try that line over a C#m7b5 chord....Locrian line now. (It's so great how one line can go so far...I guess that's why it's important to know your harmonized chord scale for all your major and melodic minor modes)

I hope I'm not insulting your intelligence here with all this....But only since 2 years ago when I started getting serious about jazz did I realize you HAVE to know the intervals of the scale/arps you play compared to the bass note of the chord you're playing them over. I mean if you find yourself on the 7th fret B string over a Cmajor7 chord....well....why does that sound the way it does?? Well, that F# is the #11 of C....#11 = add a G#/Ab to that same scale and you're really jazzin!!

John R.
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Tim Goynes

Joined: 18 May 2004
Posts: 19
Location: Denton, TX

PostPosted: Thu Jun 03, 2004 9:33 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Hi Jeff,

I used to have trouble making a flowing line through changes too. All the above suggestions are really good, and here's some things that helped me...hope they help you too.

I don't know if you've seen Scott Henderson's Melodic Phrasing video, but the section on phrasing through key changes is especially helpful. If you've seen it, skip this part and read on (and if you don't have it, I highly recommend it). What he does is takes a chord progression that simply goes Gm7 to Bbm7...a simple progression, but it physically changes keys (rather than, say, Gm7 to Bbmaj7, which is out of Bb major). Then what you do is, start by playing one note over each chord, and try to go up in whole steps or half steps to the next note that fits the next chord. For example, if you started on G for the Gm7, the next note (that fits Bbm7) is Ab, then Bb over Gm7 again, then C over Bbm7, etc. So you go up like that until you run out of fretboard, and then come back down. Then increase it to two and then four notes on each chord. What this does is it trains you to keep the melodic contour steady no matter the chord progression--if you're going up, you can keep going up, or if you're going down you can keep going down. This breaks you out of the habit of "playing a new lick over each chord."

The way I actually learned to play over chord changes was simply playing the notes right out of the chord shapes on the guitar (like D9, for example) and trying to make a melody out of it. After I learned more scalar-based improvisation, I inadvertently through the "chord approach" out the window. But in a recent lesson I had with Tim Miller, he brought this back up to me--he had transrcibed a Chick Corea solo and found that a lot of the licks were actually chord shapes on the guitar. So try this--take any chord grip (even ones you hate) and play it as an "arpeggio." Notice that it's actually a lick, instead of just a 1-3-5-7 arpeggio or whatever. It's really easy to do, it works with any chord grip you know, and it can also help you out of tight spots during harder changes (because obviously, notes out of a chord shape will work over its respective chord).

Here's another idea to help you get out of just playing scale-pattern-solos, a tip from Mick Goodrick: Try playing on one string. It sounds like a dumb concept, but notice how all of your stock licks don't work anymore--you actually have to improvise. This trains you to really hear a melody in your head and be able to play it. So try playing a whole chorus of a tune just on one string. This is really a workout on harder changes! Tunes like Stella By Starlight, Inner Urge, Giant Steps, Moment's Notice and others can really stretch your brain when you only have one string! So after that, maybe try two or three strings. You'll notice that you're playing ideas you NEVER would have come up with before.

Anyway, that's all I have for now. Hope it helps! Good luck!

Tim G.
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Joined: 17 May 2004
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Location: Tampa

PostPosted: Tue Aug 24, 2004 8:24 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

well, I would say, the biggest problem for guitar players is to play by thinking in a specific "note" or Letter (A,B,C,D,E,F,G). That's why, in jazz, we usually try to sound like a wind instrument, at least I try to sound or think like a trumpet, because my ear is always there. The trumpet player have to hear the notes inside his head and then play them. Maybe a sax player would be different, but the still have to improvise by hearing the previous notes. The problem with the guitar is that we have so many ways of playing the same pitch, therefor, we have to think in patterns most of the time. The thing is to have a point of reference in which you could apply those patterns by knowing where to go.

In my case, I think in Cmaj7 as in the key of G so it has an F#, and, in that case, I would use 2nd position, so my patterns could go to another position change but my point of reference is the second fret of the neck, and, by then, depending on where the change is going to happen, if it goes up, say Cmaj7 in the key of Cmaj7 then I go to 7th position, so my F# is in the first string (2nd fret) and when the Cmaj7 tonality shows up, I use the F note of the second string, so, If I see a piece between Cmaj and Gmaj, I wouldn't use the note "F" in the first string.
The moment you lose yourself in the music is the moment you begin to find yourself. -John Mclaughlin
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Joined: 07 Oct 2005
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PostPosted: Wed Dec 21, 2005 3:11 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I am curious as to whay people who play guitar feel the need to "think" as a horn palyer does with regard to note selection. I understand the phrasing aspects as well as the interval aspects of mimicing horn lines in improv, however we play guitar.

Horn players can't think as easily in patterns as guitar players do, however we as guitar players almost have to think in patterns. These are the facts of our respective instruments.

Why not instead of thinking in "letters" just think in terms of where your intervals are in relation to the root. Find your target tones, extensions, etc. It's the same thing anyway, easier for the guitar and if the results (it sounds good) are the same then why make it harder than it is. Many guitar players think like this and also hear their melodies in their head.
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PostPosted: Mon Jul 03, 2006 6:13 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Have you tried to allow your playing to breadth? To let your self sing what you play? To just focus on the sound you wish to hear. I guess I am on the other side of this equation as there are many things I hear in my head that my fingers still can't play so for that matter, I just play, be happy, and practice even more Smile
"Have a marshall there and lets see what happens..." --George Lynch
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Smarty Essie

Joined: 20 Jul 2006
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PostPosted: Thu Jul 20, 2006 2:15 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

maybe its a little off topic, but anyone know where i can get an acura car manual, specifically for a legend?
I have 3 (acura) cars in my garage.
Cheap Mitsubishi Eclipse Part Accessory
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PostPosted: Thu Aug 10, 2006 4:05 pm    Post subject: Theory and not thinking on stage Reply with quote

For me theory is fascinating, but one thing I've learned after years of playing is to not think at gigs. I spend a lot of time working on theory at home, but never think about it on stage. It seems that as long as I'm relaxed at a gig, some of the concepts I've been working on start to filter into my playing naturally. But if I try and force it and actually think "okay this is an altered V chord, so what are my options...well, I could play melodic minor a half step up..." etc.. the moment has usually passed and it sounds forced.

I like the approach of thinking about the chord tones and then treating each extension or altered note as a sound or colour that can be added, rather than learning stock licks and scales.

I played in my teen years in bands without knowing any theory, but after I decided to learn it, I became hooked and it's opened up a lot of doors for composition. I strongly disagree with people who say that learning theory will prevent soulful, spontaneous playing. As I said earlier, learn it at home but don't think too much at gigs, just play.
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Joined: 30 Jul 2006
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Location: N Little Rock, AR

PostPosted: Tue Aug 29, 2006 4:02 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Playing on 1 string is a great way to work stuff out.

Giving yourself some limits really helps. TMI is just that. Too much as once. Take a .small amount of info, and work it to death.

Here's an idea I use.

Just learn to play the melody. Now, slowly incorporate some theoretical idea. Just start with 1 note (target).

For example, try to target just one note, in one chord of the progression. Say, the 3rd. of one of the V chords.

Pick a note that has a little longer duration. Maybe a 1/4 note, or a 1/2 note. This will give you time to work with the concept(s).

Now, try a concept. Maybe the old Charlie Parker device of surrounding the note. (Play the note a m3rd. above your target, a 1/2 step below, and then chromatically walk down to the target from a 2nd. above. If your target is a B note, you'd play the notes D Bb Db C B).

Any technique you want to try. Just try to work on one chord, or tone. Then try to target a note, every 4 bars. Then every 2 bars, etc.

As you play with it more, you will find yourself feeling more naturally "free" with the melody. Eventually, you'll start forming your own voice on tunes.
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Joined: 28 Oct 2006
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Location: fl

PostPosted: Sat Nov 04, 2006 9:55 pm    Post subject: voice leading exercise Reply with quote

I see this thread started forever ago,but here is an exercise which made my playing grow leaps and bounds. On standards and bebop when chords are separated be a descending 5th voice lead the 7th of the chord you're leaving to the 3rd of the chord you're resolving to.That'll keep ya busy awhile.Jim
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 28, 2011 12:53 am    Post subject: Check this book out! Reply with quote

Anyone who wants to know about guitar theory as it relates to the guitar should DEFENATELY get the book "Serious Guitar." You won't believe the amount of information in this thing. It's the only book you'll need. It takes anyone from knowing nothing, to super advanced all in one book. It explains EVERYTHING. Best purchase I ever made. You won't regret it! It's not in stores, it's only online at
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PostPosted: Fri Sep 30, 2011 5:38 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Hi JeffV, who is your ultimate guitar hero(s)?
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