Most guitar players have heard that learning music theory can boost creativity, but many also believe that all those rules can be restrictive.

The world’s most iconic guitarists cover both sides of this argument – some are theory-soaked virtuosos, others prefer to just follow their ear.

If you’ve ever wondered whether music theory could take your playing to a new creative plane, look no further! In this article, we’ll take an unbiased look at both perspectives and let you decide what’s right for you.

What is musical creativity?

Before we launch into the fiery ‘theory versus no theory’ debate, let’s try to define what we mean by ‘creativity’.

It’s an elusive subject without a fixed set of rules or guidelines, but here are some ingredients to go into a creative mindset.

  • Curiosity: Exploring possibilities and being motivated to make new and exciting discoveries
  • Imagination: Letting your mind wander and go to interesting places.
  • Taking Risks: Experimenting and being comfortable making mistakes is vital to the creative process.
  • Persistence: When you hit a creative wall, you have to keep pushing – these difficult moments often lead to the biggest breakthroughs.
  • Collaboration: Bouncing ideas off other musicians is one of the most enjoyable creative experiences you can have.

Have you ever been hit with an overwhelming urge to grab your guitar and start playing something new? If the answer is yes, you’ve stepped foot on the creative ladder – keep climbing!

What does music theory offer?

Music theory is an incredibly wide and varied topic. Put simply, it’s a set of rules that can help us write songs.

Theory is a way to understand and express the fundamental elements of music, such as:

  • Harmony
  • Melody
  • Rhythm

Think of it as an advanced labeling system that helps you categorize all the cool sounds and ideas with an explanation for how they are created.

Music theory for guitarists

A working knowledge of music theory is less common among guitar players, but investing some time into this skill will teach you:

  • How to create unique melodies using different scales.
  • Why certain chords carry certain emotions.
  • A universal music language, which is crucial for collaborating with other musicians.
  • An understanding of rhythm and how to describe any groove or general rhythmic pattern used by the drums, guitars, or other instruments.
  • A way to analyze a piece of music to discover all of its fascinating musical secrets – like a painter collecting new colors for their palette!

Lead with the mind or explore with the ears?

There are many guitarists who glance at the vast world of music theory and get a sense of impending doom 😱

All the rules and complex terminology can seem restrictive at first, but remember this:

Music theory is just a map to help you navigate your way around, it’s not a fixed route telling you where to go.

With Theory

Even a basic understanding of music theory can take you a long way when composing, practicing, or improvising.

Sometimes, starting with a theory-based, tried and tested chord progression is a great way to get the creativity flowing.

  • When you write a melody, knowing which scales elicit certain emotions can save a lot of time.
  • Understanding some practical theory like the CAGED system can show you how to experiment with your ideas by moving them around the fretboard.
  • Music theory can be a priceless tool for unlocking a new idea on the fly.

Without theory

For others, using your ears to guide your creative decision making is a more natural way of finding new ideas.

Following your ears and other non-music theory methods can help you explore avenues that conventional music theory would not typically offer you an explanation for.

  • A theoretical approach can give answers to musical problems, but sometimes those answers may not be what you’re looking for.
  • Imagine a specific dissonance or note clash that music theory would typically tell you to avoid – this is where your ears can be a better judge than the theory.
  • Working with your eyes and ears can feel more intuitive than the mathematical approach of theory.

Where music theory falls short

European music theory is a system that helps to organize sounds and melodies into categories.

These categories often reflect the compositions and songs heard in Western music, but it’s not the most useful system for describing music from other cultures.

Western music theory does a poor job of expressing the unique and nuanced sounds within Indian classical music, West African drumming traditions, and Indonesian gamelan, just to name a few.

  • Not all music can be described, learned, or composed using Western music theory.
  • Some styles of music are easier to learn through feel.
  • Music from other cultures can explore methods, practices, and cultural expressions that are often lost when translated to Western music theory.
  • Lots of popular songs are not written from a music theory standpoint, but rather from the place of ‘what sounds good’ to the composer.
  • Sometimes overthinking can ruin a creative flow – intuitively exploring the links between sounds and their connection to specific feelings.


We’d like to stress that it’s not about finding the right answer – it’s about finding the answer that works best for you.

The most important thing is you feel inspired to keep creating. If you find yourself feeling a little lost and need some direction, try changing your approach.

Learning basic music theory for guitar can help you get out of a playing/writing rut, but equally, you might find it more helpful to follow your ears once in a while.

If you’d like to know more about how you can level up your music theory game, check out our Music Theory Learning Pathway led by fretboard wizard, and theory guru, Dr. Quentin Angus!