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How much did/do the 'greats' know what they were / are doing?

Discussion in 'Sidewinders Bar & Grille' started by Martins Strat, May 14, 2019.

  1. Martins Strat

    Martins Strat Strat-Talker

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    I found it really hard coming up with a title for this, let me explain! Apologies if this has all been discussed many times before.

    I was wondering how much our guitar heroes knew about what they were doing? I guess I mean music theory really. I know many guitarists don't read music, but I wonder how many of them understand theory of whether they just developed a feel for what they were doing?

    Did Hendrix consciously think to play a major based lick and then throw in a minor pentatonic part for a different flavour or was it all done by instinct?

    I think like many of us I learned the pentatonic 'blues' scale pretty early on, and then recognised that in the vast majority of Hendrix / SRV / Clapton etc playing, and so didn't look much beyond it. Recently I've been watching a lot of Justins Guitar tutorials on Youtube and learning some new approaches which I now realise was evident in Hendrix / SRV / Clapton playing all along. So, do those guys and other understand all the theory stuff or did they go by feel alone?

    I'm certain guys like Joe Bonamassa understand it all but I wonder if that's why his playing can be interpreted as a little clinical?
     
  2. Fakenewts

    Fakenewts Strat-Talk Member

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    I think a lot of players are on record as going by ear only, although I have no citations for you. But even a classical musician I know once admitted to only ever pretending they could read music, but just listened to the pieces.

    There are pros and cons, for example I once read an interview with a famous guitarist (who shall remain nameless to avoid starting ****) who proudly claimed they were "above" music theory and just played from their heart, and that kids should avoid it to preserve their originality. At the time I wholeheartedly agreed with them. However the more I learnt about music theory the more it was apparent the guitarist in question was actually just playing Aeolian mode 99% of the time anyway... and why not? It sounds good... just maybe they could've bypassed a lot of trial and error and been more honest about what the 'music of their soul' actually was (i.e. one of the most common scales in popular music). After all it's easier to break patterns in interesting ways if you know what they are first.

    On the flipside, people easily get bogged down thinking of theory as a system of rigid rules to abide by at all costs (and stay diatonic at all times) whereas in fact all it seeks to do is explain. There's nothing really a player can do that won't be explicable in theoretical terms, whether you're aware of it or not. So obsessively and stringently adhering to scales/modes is an easy trap (I often fall into) that can make players predictable and boring (like me). Trying to re-learn to trust your ear after being in the boxes for a long time can be hard. Reducing everything back down to intervals only can help.

    I've lost the thread of what I'm talking about... I think I mean 'there's a place for both' and that if a player has a strong ear they should absolutely trust it, although acknowledge that there is nothing to fear from music theory, just as there is no escape from it, and you may be making life unnecessarily difficult for yourself by ignoring it.

    Apologies for tangential rambling.
     
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  3. Musekatcher

    Musekatcher Strat-O-Master

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    A few, very few really knew what they were doing, and that it would be successful. For each of those, there are thousands who are just as good and trying to intentionally apply a formula, but we never hear about them because its not different enough to matter. The rest of the commercially successful were being their unrestrained selves, and out of thousands, a few just did something unusual and appealing, and were plucked by producers. Of the three you mentioned, they played almost non-stop, and kept working to be different. I think they weren't so different when they began, but wanted to be different/distinguished at all costs. They achieved it.
     
  4. Morf2540

    Morf2540 Strat-O-Master

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    I may be in minority here, but I believe most great rock music was made by guys who just played what sounded good. When I sometimes hear long detailed explanations of the musical theory inside a song like, I dunno, My Generation or something, I think that’s just an analysis applied afterward.
     
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  5. nederemer

    nederemer Senior Stratmaster

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    In the past? No.
    In the present? Yes.
     
    Last edited: May 14, 2019
  6. Stormy Monday

    Stormy Monday Most Honored Senior Member Strat-Talk Supporter

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    Glenn Campbell said he couldn't read music. Look what he did. And I am sure there are equal and opposite player that read extremely well.
     
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  7. Martins Strat

    Martins Strat Strat-Talker

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    This is my feeling too, maybe we know too much now?!
     
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  8. Dadocaster

    Dadocaster Dr. Stratster Strat-Talk Supporter

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    Nope. Knowing more does not make you less.
     
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  9. dirocyn

    dirocyn Senior Stratmaster

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    The people who came up with the blues scale surely didn't have formal training in the western European model--but they did have musical training. Robert Johnson took guitar lessons that included playing guitar while sitting on a tombstone at midnight (and may or may not have involved the Devil at the crossroads). I seriously doubt he would have understood the term "Aeolian mode," but of course we don't have a huge amount of information about him so the world will never know.

    I'm sure the Beatles all had immense knowledge of music theory dating to before the band formed. You wouldn't have all those weird chords without it.

    One model for performers in the 1950s was for the lead performer to travel--with just a guitar--and find a band to play with for an evening or two, before moving on. They usually wouldn't even carry an amp, they'd rent one for the show. Chuck Berry and BB King both did this way, extensively, and Ray Charles as well. If you're doing that, you have to either play over a really simple & repetitive rhythm section, or you have to be able to explain the theory to the band in a very short time. Those guys knew damn good and well what scales they're playing. At least enough to know that's a G scale, that's an A minor. You can't just teach your set to a new band in the 24 hours before a show if you don't share a common musical language and at least a little bit of theory.
     
  10. rich815

    rich815 Senior Stratmaster

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    Somehow this sums it up... :oops:
     
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  11. BallisticSquid

    BallisticSquid Senior Stratmaster

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    I don't see how you can know too much.

    As we practice and learn theoretical stuff, it becomes internalized and eventually becomes part of your playing.
     
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  12. s5tuart

    s5tuart Resource limit reached Strat-Talk Supporter

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    I think it varied, just like it does now.
    There were bands like Squeeze, King Crimson, Elvis Costello etc who were certainly technical.
    Then there were bands like Status Quo and Slade who just had a damn good time.
    Along with those there were varying degrees of technicality but it's hard to say with any certainty who had what.







    Where for instance would you put Wilko?

     
    Last edited: May 14, 2019
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  13. fezz parka

    fezz parka Making a record.... Strat-Talk Supporter

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    But he was gifted. Probably the most natural born musician we've ever seen/heard. Roy Clark and Brent Mason fall into that category as well.

    Paul, John, and George grew up when popular music had sophisticated chord progressions. They learned it by playing them. Listen to Till There Was You and A Taste of Honey. None of them could read, but their theory knowledge was great. They didn't talk about it they just did it.

    Great musicians know theory...they may not be able to communicate it verbally, but it shows in what they play. And that's what counts.
     
    Last edited: May 14, 2019
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  14. Electgumbo

    Electgumbo Lost Planet Airman Strat-Talk Supporter

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    Theory is present whether your aware of it or not.
     
  15. Morf2540

    Morf2540 Strat-O-Master

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    Perfect response.
    You can know a C#m chord sounds good with an A chord, without knowing it's called the minor third.
     
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  16. Fakenewts

    Fakenewts Strat-Talk Member

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    This.

    Saying that music theory limits your expression is like saying grammar limits your ability to express yourself. You're manipulating it by default when you use a language. It is just a system to explain what we do, and you're not cannily escaping into a world of free expression by not learning it... which is what some people seem to think.

    You don't have to learn it by any means, and any musician that's in it purely for entertainment (and more) shouldn't feel obliged to if they don't wanna, just... yeah... there is no escape. Sorry.
     
  17. Seamus OReally

    Seamus OReally Strat-O-Master Silver Member

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    Paul McCartney called a maj7 “the pretty chord.”

    Having a great ear is not the same as knowing music theory.
     
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  18. mjark

    mjark Senior Stratmaster

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    I hate these threads. Ignorance only holds people back.
     
  19. Nate D

    Nate D Most Honored Senior Member

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    Bingo. OP mentioned Clapton and using the live Crossroads performance from Cream most of us are familiar with, if you break down his solo he starts it in the A major pentatonic and then moves into more traditional blues licks by playing the A minor pentatonic (aka the blues scale). The relative minor in the major scale is the vi, or in this case F#m. Clapton applied the blues scale to the relative minor position to play notes that fall into the A major scale. That's theory.

    Being able to speak to it and have the knowledge base will make you a more flexible player. It's that simple. Most of the artists we've discussed so far in this thread have the luxury of not having to be fungible- they get to play what they want. Clapton gets to play Layla and Wonderful Tonight and the blues tunes he chooses to incorporate into his show. Keith Richards has played Satisfaction at almost every show for the last 50 some odd years.

    If you're a real, live studio/gigging professional, you will have to be able to play country licks in the morning, rock licks in the afternoon and then flamenco guitar in the evening because that's what's paying the bills. Theory gets you that flexibility. The more you know, the more you can play which means, particularly if you're making a living through music, the more you will get paid and be in demand as a player.
     
  20. GuitarMechanic

    GuitarMechanic Most Honored Senior Member

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    Yes

    100% correct

    Yep

    Yes it does. The current state of the world is an example
     
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