Is Guitar Theory The Same As Music Theory For Other Instruments?

Author: Tommaso Zillio

Author: Tommaso Zillio

You might be surprised to see how heated people can get when it comes to music theory. I have definitely seen my fair share of debates happening around the topic. Such as this most recent one I witnessed on my fb page:

"Music theory is music theory, same on any instrument, !"

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I mean, I don’t completely disagree with this guy. Learning music theory should be the same no matter what instrument you play.

However, you will find that there is actually a difference once you start learning. And it’s best to realize this sooner than later as to not make things more difficult for you.

Many Theory Books Are Written For Pianists

Have you ever read through a theory book that assumed that you were able to fluently read music notation? Or play and identify chords/harmonies on a keyboard? The reason for this stems from the fact that books were originally written for institutions such as the Royal Conservatory. In these institutions, students are expected to have a basic set of piano skills, whether piano is their main instrument or not.

These original theory books are now getting copied into newer versions, which is what can leave some guitar players scratching their heads if they don’t realize this.

The Guitar Works Differently Than Other Instruments

With any instrument, making music is the end game. But how we get there is going to be change depending on what you play.

On guitar, we are working with strings and a fretboard where the notes are spaced out in a way that gives us patterns we can easily use for scales, chords, arpeggios, and so on. The structures (lucky for us) is going to be the same no matter the key. Which means a minor scale in the key of F will be the same as in E (you just move up the fret).

Contrasted with say, a piano or brass and wind instruments. They aren’t using these same kind of patterns to play their scales or chords. Even other stringed instruments such as violin or cello have a different tuning (tuned in 5ths instead of 4ths). So they aren’t going to be played in same way or with the same patterns as a guitar.

As a result, a guitar player is going to understand and learn the theory behind playing their instrument in a way separate from any other instrument. No one way is greater than the other, it’s just not going to be (and shouldn’t be) the same. So of course you are going to need separate ways to also learn theory.

The Guitar Works In Different Ways Than Other Instruments

There is a lot more you can do with a guitar than simply strum it. Guitars can be chordal, melodic and rhythmic instruments all at once. Often times, people will looks to the guitarist to improvise or even create their own ideas on the spot.

And this happens in all kinds of musical professions. Obviously when you are jamming with a band, but even in an orchestral setting as well.

I played in a local production the Broadway musical "Hair", and I can tell you that the score for it is mainly made up of chord charts. With this, the guitarist is meant to create their own music ideas (such as rhythms, riffs, and leads) throughout all 51 of the musical cues.

The other instruments (including drums) have a more detailed notated score to work with. I showed my score to the keyboardist and they couldn’t even imagine working with a chart like mine. But that is only because we both learned the music theory that’s appropriate for our instruments. While a keyboardist might focus on sight reading notation, I focused on learning how to sight read through chord charts (though it’s important to note that some musicals may also provide a standard notated score for the guitarists too).

And if this sounds impossible to you right now, I promise it’s not. Once you start learning you will see it’s actually easier than it seems.

Depending on what instrument you play, and what exactly you want to play on that instrument, your focus of study may be vastly different than someone else’s. Someone may want to focus on composition, while the other on music analysis. Or maybe someone wants to study it ALL. I say, best of luck to them!

Music Theory – Same On All Instruments?

Well, is guitar theory and music theory all the same theory?

The principal of music theory is the same for everyone, but in practice it is actually different. And it is crucial to realize this.

So don’t just pick up the next theory book you find and hope for the best. Make sure what you are reading was specifically made for a guitar player and soon you will find that theory really isn’t as complicated as it may have once seemed.

About the Author

Tommaso Zillio is a professional guitarist and guitar teacher. Visit Tommaso’s site to know more about music theory for guitar and visit his YouTube channel for more videos

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