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This Is Why You Need To Learn Music Theory If You’re A Heavy Metal Musician


The following is a guest post by GearGods editor Trey Xavier.

There was a time when having an intellectual understanding of music was considered beneficial. Now, when the topic of music theory comes up, all I hear is “Nah man, that shit makes your music sound too clinical and boring. I just write by feel!” ::proceeds to play the same boring shit he complains about::

I’m not sure exactly where this misconception came from, but let’s take a closer look at a couple of the towering influences and early innovators in metal music: Randy Rhoads and Cliff Burton.

This Is Why You Need To Learn Music Theory If You’re A Heavy Metal Musician
Illustration by Jodham

Why is their influence on the bands they played in so highly revered? “Man, early Metallica is so much better, I wish Cliff were still alive!” says every metalhead ever. We think of them as these untouchable gods who had gifts handed down from on high, but although they had natural talent, their musical knowledge wasn’t some dark mystery – the things they brought to the table were all concepts that anyone can learn.

Across the board, I see a huge amount of resistance to the idea of learning music theory, scales, and any kind of advanced philosophy in music at all. There’s an air of pride about not knowing things like note names or chords, like it makes musicians feel good that they can play music without fully understanding it. I don’t find that this attitude exists outside of heavy music, but punk, metal and hardcore all seem to share it.

But the idea here isn’t to learn about the ins and outs of music to save you from embarrassment – it’s because metal can be better than it is, and your contribution to the world of metal can be made FAR more easily if you have at least a basic understanding of the fundamentals.

A musician who doesn’t know any theory is like a painter who doesn’t know the names of colors.

They might still paint beautiful pictures because they have eyes and can see when something looks good, but it sure as shit makes shopping for paint a lot harder, and if they see a color they like in nature, trying to achieve that color in their work becomes a chore instead of a joyful making of art.

Knowing that a power chord is the musical interval of a perfect fifth doesn’t make it sound any less powerful. If you play the guitar and you play heavy music, you’re using these all the time – why not learn the name of it?

There are still theory-ignorant musicians pumping out great music, but the thing that they all lack is freedom. The freedom to get their musical ideas from their brain into their fingers, and to go anywhere at any time.

This isn’t just for the sake of playing well, either. If you want to know how to build huge epic choir parts like Blind Guardian, or arrange orchestral masterpieces like Dimmu Borgir or Nightwish, this is shit you’re gonna need to know. Anyone who’s ever struggled in the studio to come up with vocal harmonies, or can’t figure out why they can’t make a second guitar part sound good, needs this information in their life.

I’ll start your journey by saying this: music theory is just names for sounds. That’s it.

If you play an instrument, you should know the names of the sounds you make. Imagine not knowing the name of a fork, and having to describe it to someone or have a picture of it anytime you want one at a restaurant. How dumb is that instead of just learning the fucking word “fork”?

Music theory is the same. We give names to things so we can:

A) communicate with other musicians and

B) remember things for later.

Writing and playing music gets WAY easier when you’re not reinventing the wheel every time. Imagine hearing a song and just knowing what chord changes were used. No trial and error required!

The most important thing for you to know is that if you play music, you are using the same 12 notes as everyone else. The things you’ll play still have names, whether you know them or not. The notes have absolute relationships to each other, and knowing what they’re called only increases your power as a player and a writer.

Slayer sure as hell don’t know any theory but their note choices that make “Reign in Blood” so goddamn evil sounding can still be quantified in theory concepts so we (or they) can understand how that sound gets made. We can then either repeat the process or avoid it so as to not be a copycat.

Do you spend time watching top players in metal, wondering how the hell they do what they do? Not just the technical ability — that’s a discussion for another time — but the way the notes they choose to play at any given moment can move you, especially things like “evil” sounding riffs and note combinations.

Modern metal musicians leading the way such as Dave Davidson from Revocation, Alex Skolnick from Testament (both big jazz heads as can be seen in this sick video on Gear Gods), John Petrucci of Dream Theater (all of Dream Theater, actually), Tosin Abasi of Animals as Leaders, and Wes Hauch of Alluvial are all people who know their shit inside and out.

They’re the Randy Rhoads and Cliff Burtons of today, pushing the musical envelope every step of the way. If you ever watch guys like this and wonder what they’ve got that you don’t, well, it’s probably a lot of things, BUT the one thing they have that you can have, that everyone can have, is knowledge of music theory, harmony, scales, chords, arrangement, phrasing.

So, like Lucifer, the light-bringer, I share with you this knowledge today: it’s literally open source information.

Lucky for you, it’s 2018, and you don’t have to lose your ass going to music school like I did; all of the information you need can be accessed for free or cheap on the internet. If you’re brand new to the game and don’t know where to start, may I humbly suggest Trey’s Theory Corner over on Gear Gods. My video series starts from the absolute beginning and feeds you bite-sized nuggets of knowledge broken down into the simplest possible terms so ANYONE can understand music theory. It’ll give you a solid foundation to build your more advanced knowledge upon, which will in turn aid in your every single musical endeavor for the rest of your life.

And for learning scales on the guitar, there’s only one course you need (and you don’t even need to know any theory to start it): RelationShapes, the ultimate system for learning and knowing scales and modes on the guitar.

I created this course because there’s a FAR easier way to get around on the guitar than just memorizing scales. You can get in on my incredibly easy and simple method with this 50% off coupon to my one-hour course that will transform how you navigate the fretboard.

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