Jimi Hendrix Didn’t Study Music Theory – why should I?

By Vishaal Kapoor

Many guitar players tend to shy away from Music Theory. This tends to be true especially for self-taught players, but applies to the majority of guitar players everywhere. I can understand it – I too used to run away from Music theory and thought that I didn’t really care for any of it. But when I decided to learn to understand what I was doing on the guitar, why it sounded good and how I could write better songs, or even understand what the heck my favourite guitar players were talking about, my eyes were completely opened by the world of Music Theory.

So, one of the common objections to learning Music Theory is that some of your favourite guitar players never learned music theory in a formal way. You might say something like, “Jimi Hendrix didn’t learn music theory, so why should I? I just want to play!”

So, I’m going to attempt to answer this question and clear up some doubts.

In short, Jimi Hendrix was a musical genius, had perfect pitch and was a true pioneer in sparking many genres of music. Most of us are not.

Yes, it is true that Jimi Hendrix, or perhaps another of your favourite guitar players, never formally studied music theory. But that doesn’t mean that they didn’t understand or were clueless to the knowledge of any music theory.

See, music theory at the very core is studying and observing what happens in music that makes it sound the way it does. There are musicians who listen to songs or pieces and figure them out by ear, listening and making note of what they like and what they don’t. What works and what doesn’t work. In a way, these musicians ARE using music theory, just that they may not know officially what it is called, why it is called that, where it came from etc.

Jimi Hendrix wrote many songs that rely on the traditional I, IV and V chords in blues progressions. He understood how to solo over them, and knew what notes to hit and when.

He may not have been able to tell you what modulating keys was, or about the circle of 5ths chord progression but he used these tools all the time. He played a specific jazz chord (7#9 chord) so much, people even named it The Hendrix Chord!

How was he able to use all this music theory without having studied it formally? Well, he studied it using his ears and by figuring out what other musicians before him did. Really, if we could all do that just as easily as he did, we wouldn’t need any music theory knowledge. So, for a genius like Jimi Hendrix, studying music in a formal and structured way was not necessary.

For the rest of us, it is probably a good idea to study music theory.

If you’re anything like me, and love music so much, you’d want to learn everything and how it applies, where you may have heard it before and then try to use whatever theories you learn creatively!

Having said that, you don’t need to go out and study every music theory textbook or scour the internet for the best music theory subjects to learn. You only need the ‘right’ music theory that enables you to play guitar at the level you want. For example, if you just want to learn how to play your favourite songs and enjoy them, you’d at least need to understand what the notes are on the fretboard so you can easily find chords.

Or, if you wanted to learn how to play the blues, you would need to understand what chords and scales are used. If you wanted to learn how to solo or improvise in any key, you would probably need to learn some scales and what chords fit into what key, and so on.

I know for many guitar players I have taught, teaching them some music theory enabled them to solo all over the entire fretboard with more expression and emotion than they ever could have by learning a bunch of songs, solos, licks or tricks.

So, what will it be for you? What style(s) do you want to play? What level do you want to reach? If you’re not sure what music theory you need to get there, a good guitar/music teacher will help you to learn it, pace the material appropriately for you and also help you to apply what you learn.

Get help with your music theory knowledge and how to apply it in your solos, songs and songwriting skills. Contact Vishaal Kapoor if you live in or near Kuala Lumpur or Petaling Jaya, Malaysia. You can reach Vishaal now at Guitar Lessons Kuala Lumpur.