Electric Guitar

Newcastle Guitar Lessons

In the spirit of the late Don Andrews, Angelo does not want to make you a clone of himself—he wants you to be all you can be as an artist.

Practice without Theory is blind, Theory without practice is sterile.

Karl Marx (1819-83) said “Practice without Theory is blind, Theory without practice is sterile.” So what does that have to do with guitar? In a sense: everything; that is, if you are serious about becoming a better guitarist and musician. Although I am taking Marx a little out of context, this is a great philosophy we can use as far as our playing and musicianship goes. I will exaggerate two extremes to make my point, so if you see yourself in one of them, please don’t be discouraged because I was in both camps.

An example of practice without theory is blind is when you see the young guitarist just blindly copying music from a tablature page or YouTube video and playing it, without thinking about what is actually happening musically. All that happens is that they play notes on the guitar, learn a few licks, and become a clone or mirror of someone else. This is OK for a start, and I think many start there in their musical walk. However, we should progress from there and start to think about what is happening musically. One of the few things that Don Andrews disliked was tablature because you could not see the music. Now I don’t disapprove of tablature completely and admit I was quite a fan of it in my Jimi Hendrix days. I used to learn a heap of Hendrix guitar solos without understanding the context of what I was playing and why it worked. It was also a bit like how it was when I studied finger-style Jazz from Bruce Mathiske. He was, and still is, a fantastic world class guitarist, and was able to show me how to play his solo guitar arrangements of Jazz standards. I learned the tunes note for note, and was able to play the song just like him(well not exactly)—and it did sound impressive. However, when it came to improvising, I really was not able to. I was not able to make my own arrangements because I had not yet made the link between what I was doing and why I was doing it—or rather, why it worked. This is not limited to tablature readers, but also to classical guitarists. I remember when I was an undergraduate; there was a guy who was an OK guitarist (after all, he did get into to university to do a music degree, but I don’t think he graduated). He could sight read better than me, however, he just read the notes. He did not know what was actually happening musically in the piece and did not know the chords or the harmony behind the music. I have seen a similar thing with some piano players—they have great reading skills, but don’t know how to play against a chord chart.

I am now seeing a phenomenon that involves people put up great videos of how to play a guitar piece on YouTube with full descriptions of what to do. I think that this is great, and I have used it myself to see how someone may execute a particular piece or solo. We are now, however, seeing a great number of young people who can play these songs or solos really well, but when you ask them to play something that is really simple—like a G7 chord— they can’t do it! (please don’t be discouraged if this is you now). It reminds me of the scene in Curly Sue (1991) where the little girl, Curly Sue (Alisan Porter), was able to spell very large words to strangers. It was part of a con that her father (James Belushi) employed to solicit an encouragement gift from strangers to his daughter. However, when she was challenged to spell some easy words like “cat” or “mom” (it is American!) she was unable to, thus exposing her real spelling ability. We see that sort of thing in guitarists—they can do the Van Haalen hammer-on series from Eruption or the Joe Satriani licks from Always with me, always with you, but that is about it.

There is, of course, the other end of the scale: theory without practice is sterile. These are the people who read about everything and are like a walking encyclopaedia. They know about every great guitarist that ever lived, what records they played on, and even the favourite food. They know every note in every mode in every key. The problem, however, is that they cannot apply this knowledge in a song. They know what cadential 6/4 chords, Neapolitan sixths, and flat fifth substitutions are; but cannot play simple chord substitutions. It is a bit like mathematics—you don’t get good at maths by learning formulas, but by doing problems. The solution is to mix both theory and practice the same way we do it in maths. In maths we learn formulas and apply them to problems (hopefully, the goal of our mathematical ability will be to solve some real life situations at some stage in our lives).

In music, we study a song or musical piece, learn how the melody and harmony flows in that song, and then write or improvise using what we have discovered. Composers study the orchestration of previous masters. Artists do the same with painters or sculptors, and we musicians must also do it. We should not be a record machine; rather, be artists. By all means learn a guitar solo on you tube, but then analyse what is being done and why it works. Then modify the solo with what you have worked out and see if it still works. Think about the solo, play with it, meditate on it, and ask yourself questions like “why does that work?” Then you will be starting to join your practice and theory

So find a good teacher that will not just make you a clone of him or her self. Find one that will help you learn how to be a complete musician.

23 Responses to “Practice without Theory is blind, Theory without practice is sterile.”

  1. Peter Bennett says:

    Tablature is one of the oldest forms of writing music for guitar, and is really common today.

    It tells you where to place your fingers, but it’s true using tablature without a reference to the original recording and how the notes ‘sound in time’ isn’t much use.

    If you were to write the rhythm underneath the tablature to help, I feel you may as well learn to read music….it’s easier.

  2. Peter Bennett says:

    Also… I’m sad the hear that Carl Marx was blind…I dind’t know that…

  3. Mark says:

    Become a player – not a technician – learn the rules and then forget them, and enjoy the freedom of creating your own lines!

    • angelo says:

      That is exactly what Don Andrews told me

      • Brett says:

        awsome !! i agree , the quesstion remains, what are the rules that need to be learned before you decide to forget them? and……… how to be sure that you can play by the rules before deciding to forget them? and…….. i have trouble remembering letalone trying to remember what to forget and im easily confused so I need a rule that tells me which things to forget and what not to forget.

        • angelo says:

          It is really about principles, not about strict rules. People that a rule followers only do what is in the rules and don’t tend to think. I do a lot of arpeggios in different positions with the view of moving them from my conscious thought to the back of the mind. Make rules and then we slack on them to make them general principles, then later, your subconscious will do what is best. An example outside of music might be in a manual car to move from fourth gear, back to third, and then into second. This just becomes second nature, but sometimes, you are in fourth and you have slowed right down and you need power, so you subconsciously go straight to second gear. I think we should do a similar thing musically.

          • Brett says:

            what I tend to do is make sure i can play the melody of the song in a few positions , know the chords and arpeggios in several positions and use that knowlege as the canvas to paint on. I tend to stay away from depending too much on specisl scales because its haphazard and risky especially when playing jazz , although i use the 7 modes a bit which are all part of the major scale anyway.I think a lot of people learn a few scales and think that is all the theory you need to know to play over anything.

          • angelo says:

            That is a great idea about playing the melody in various positions.

  4. Duncan Smith says:


  5. Duncan Smith says:

    I think tablature is actually a better way to write guitar music for anything above the 7th fret.

    Transcribing a rock guitar solo in E on the 12th fret position in classical notation is a bit silly,\.

    But it’s important to understand the structures behind the notes, I agree with that.

  6. Brett says:

    I agree with Duncan , reading music up the neck can screw with your head , and theres so many different ways to play the same thing on the guitar ., tab sure has got its place !

    • angelo says:

      Tab does have its place. However, any amount of reading can screw your head up if you are not used to it. Practice makes perfect. I remember taking a Barry Galbraith book to Don Andrews and he just read it – and I mean they were complex. Ands whats more, when I practiced and played them back, he could hear what notes in he chord I had played wrong.

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