Is Knowledge of Theory Necessary?

Discussion in 'Technique [BG]' started by GonzoBass, Dec 29, 2002.

  1. GonzoBass


    Jun 10, 2002
    Hilo, Hawaii
    Endorsing Artist: Gallien-Krueger
    I had a student ask me the other day if music theory was really necessary to him as bass player.

    His point being that there are many of his "bass heroes" out there who can't read music, don't fully understand the modes and really don't even have a clear grasp of major/minor other than the fact that some notes sound better than others at times, (and some should be avoided altogether!) and yet these players are still on the covers of magazines, making CDs, and playing on MTV.

    To this end, all my student wanted to know was technique, technique, technique!
    He didn't want to hear all that boring theory about the relative major/minor... just show him how to do the four finger tapping riff! And forget about the modes... how do you do the double thump?!!!

    I found myself searching for a way to explain to him why he should "eat his vegetables" and not just his "cake" without using the old parental sounding cliches of "...because they're good for you" or even worse- "...because I said so"!

    Finally, I came up with an age old adage;
    "Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, teach him to fish and he will eat for a lifetime."

    In other words-
    I could just show you the tapping riff you so desire, young Jedi, and you could use it to impress your friends, fans and possibly even a talent scout or A&R man (the first time they saw it)... or I could explain to you what notes make up this riff, the scale or mode it is based on and how to apply this knowledge to other keys or even a progression and you could in turn adapt and expand upon this idea to suit your own playing style and use this technique to express yourself in many new, different and very musical ways, not just use it for what is called "technique for technique's sake" because all you learned was that one riff, in that one key or position.

    But I could see by the look on his face he hadn't heard anything past the "use it to impress your friends and fans" part...

    I have found my knowledge of musical theory to be a bit like a box of Crayons.
    (Follow me here...)

    You may not use every color you have on every drawing, and in fact to most, that might be considered "overplaying" or in this case, "scribbling on someone else's drawing." In fact, sometimes you could even get by with just using only the black and white crayons to convey your ideas (major/minor?), but when you are able to bring out just the right color for a song, (say, Dorian Mode for a funky feel?) and bring out yet another color for the next song, (maybe Mixolydian for a Blues?) and then convincingly use yet another color for the next (coaxing a Spanish feel from the Phrygian Mode or throwing down some Diminished riffs for a Fusion feel) I think it makes your palette all the more interesting and in turn just may help you to express yourself better and help you to reach your musical goals.

    In the same instance, extent of music theory (again, like boxes of Crayons) come in many different sizes. The basic box will consist of maybe 8 colors, but through synthetic scales (secondary colors?), harmonization and chords (blending colors?) you will find the palette of colorful possibilities to be nearly endless! (Remember the 64 box?!!!)

    Learning music theory is a great way of both improving your music vocabulary and expanding your appreciation of music in general.

    The bottom line to me is-
    Why limit yourself?

    Need a starting place?
    By just adding the Flat Five to your minor pentatonic scale, you will find yourself in possession of a very cool shade of blue!
    = )

    I hope this helps you as much as it did my students and me.

    Let me know by dropping me a line at-
    Or visit me on the web at-
    There you will find some more info about myself and some samples from my All Bass CD.
    Aloha for now-
  2. Lovebown


    Jan 6, 2001
    Learning theory goes a little beyond knowing scales though. If you want to be able to play or compose more harmonically complicated music (like jazz) you will have to learn chords, functional harmony, which scales accompany which chords , notation etc. etc.

    And of course all this is unuseful (at least in the sense of playing music) if you can't get it in your ears.

    "throwing down some Diminished riffs for a Fusion feel"
    :rolleyes: Pluggin in a few notes of the the diminshed scale hardly makes you "fusion" or anything for that matter.

  3. krebsik


    Oct 9, 2002
    Czech Republic
    I have so say that to certain extend I understand thoughts of your student since I had the same attitude to learning playing bass. I wanted to learn everything as soon as possible, skip those unimportant things like theory, and play amazing slap bass solos straight away. This plan, of course, failed very soon :)

    And yes, I desired to take a shine to girls, and impress everyone around me. But what had cleaned my mind was THE moment when I realized that this way it wouldn't work for me. Of course there are some bassists playing without knowledge of theory, but these are rare exceptions. And magazines always write about exceptional people first, don't they?

    Currently, I am self-teaching myself, and I know it's not a good way as well. I am about to get a teacher because I've picked several bad habits. But that's another thing.

    So how to show your students that without theory things will be harder than with it? Well, that's the question.. :D
  4. fireworks_god


    Oct 30, 2002
    I have sort of the same philosophy with cover songs. We had this lead guitarist (who wasn't all that great anyways), who "only wanted to work on originals". He knew a couple of other people's songs, none all the way through, and he slopped through them all. And the "original" stuff he comes up with aren't all that great anyways.
    I have tried explaining how you need the cover songs, to bring your band more connectivity, to use them as examples on how to make your own songs. You need the colors before you can paint.
    Like a drummer I was talking to the other day said, "people tell you that you have to read books before you yourself can write one. the same thing applies to songwriting."
  5. Christopher


    Apr 28, 2000
    New York, NY
    The answer is yes.

    If you play a melody instrument, you don't really need it. Melody comes intuitively for most people, and I've run into some very good musicians who play horns/guitar/strings and are more or less complete theory dunces.

    If you're a drummer you're off the hook.

    If you're a bassist, you don't really have the luxury of ignoring theory. Some knowlege of chord construction and chord progressions is a necessity regardless of what genre of music you play.

    Not that theory is particularly difficult. A lot of people seem turned off by it based on the erroneous assumption that you need a degree of some kind to understand it. Keep an open mind and you can absorb a lot of information painlessly.
  6. no, it's not necessary for a beginning student. show him how to play his favorite songs and rock out a little. chances are, he'll come around. the biggest detriment to learning, IMO, is being forced to learn stuff you don't care about.
  7. After a while, he'll probably get bored just sitting around at home twiddling at his strings. Then, you can slap him in the face, and say; "see, I told ya so." :D
  8. jazzbo


    Aug 25, 2000
    San Francisco, CA
    Is this an ad or a story?
  9. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member

    I think this is the question - so here is a quote from another Gonzo post :

    "I hope you all had a chance to check out my first article "Hand Coordination Exercise for Musicians" and found it helpful. This month I would like to share an excercise I have been using in my regular practice routine for some time now."

    I think there is an element of self publicity here which maybe needs to be "formalised" with Paul?

    I think it's nice to have teachers around, who are willing to help people if they want it, but this seems kind of random and there must be better ways of doing it - like posting lessons on the front page(s)
  10. BlacksHole


    Mar 22, 2000
    Rockville, MD
    Like pretty much everybody else here, I've worked with musicians who have run the gamut on knowledge of theory. For my current band, which is a classic rock act, there is no need for theory really. But I really enjoy playing jazz and also like to do original music in the jazz and fusion genres particularly. I wouldn't consider doing this with musicians who did not know theory and the more knowledge the better. I doubt there will ever be a bassist afforded the stature of Jaco or Stanley or Vic who is incompetent in theory. So for teaching, there are plenty of players who don't need much theory and that's okay, but they have to realize what limits they have decided to set for themselves.
  11. godoze


    Oct 21, 2002
    didn't we recently go thru the theory/ no theory debate ?
  12. Gabu


    Jan 2, 2001
    Woodland Hills, CA
    Yep, good point!
  13. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member

    I was also wondering why this was in technique - surely it's not to do with technique as such?

    We need a theory forum! ;)
  14. moley


    Sep 5, 2002
    Hampshire, UK
    There you go again! :D