While recently hanging out with Winger leader Kip Winger in his podcast, legendary electric guitar virtuoso Steve Vai reflected on the topic of whether guitar players today need to know music theory. With both Kip and Steve being very deep into music theory, Kip being a full-blown classically trained musician, they both went into some details about composition and overall musicianship.
Reflecting on the music he makes, Steve Vai said (transcribed by Killer Guitar Rigs):
“Some of what I do compositionally is… I don’t like to use the word ‘experimental’ because it almost sounds like you don’t know what you’re gonna get. And I usually have a good idea. But sometimes I allow my intellectual mind to construct something.”
When Kip mentioned how it’s an intellectual endeavor and how one needs to be thinking about the form and the structure, Steve then confirmed that “you have to have the background.” He then proceeded to address the famous “do guitar players really need to know music theory” discussion by adding:
“I tell guitar players, you don’t really need to know the theory. If you have a good year, you’ll be employing it without knowing it.”
Sure, but if you really want to get into composition and serious writing, then it’s a different story. Steve continued:
“But if you want to be a composer, no, there’s no messing around, right? [Laughs] You got to know the rules.”
The next thing that Winger addressed is how some rock musicians tend to write classical music without really having a proper background for it. In fact, he said it’s “a bit of a pet peeve of mine” to which Vai replied:
“Well, what they do is gravitate immediately to what conventional classical music is. So they’ll go and listen to, you know, Bach or Mozart, this kind of thing.”
“Which is fine, it’s great… And then [they’ll] try to emulate the atmosphere of that. And that’s fine. A lot of people do that. They do it in rock music but it doesn’t it doesn’t carry the inspiration. It’s the pantomiming of somebody else’s genius.”
Being one of the most proficient and best-trained guitar players, Steve Vai often discusses this topic of music theory and whether it’s useful for our usual guitar-oriented music. But despite his vast knowledge, Vai doesn’t necessarily feel like every single guitar player should be focusing too much on it.
For instance, in a last year’s interview (via Ultimate Guitar), he discussed this same topic, reflecting on technical skill and music theory knowledge and whether it’s really necessary for everyone to know more about it. He said:
“In any field, whether it’s sports, business, or art, there’s a period of time where you gotta hone your vessel, where you got to focus on technique. And the amount of technique you need is dependent on what it is you want to do.”
“You know, I’ve always liked the idea of being able to play the guitar a particular way, and writing a particular type of music. So I needed a lot of technique.”
But then again, you have other legendary musicians who made a huge impact on everyone but aren’t necessarily technically driven or even too deep into music theory. Vai continued:
“When you take someone like Bob Dylan, he doesn’t need a lot of guitar technique to get his point across, you know. So, a person has to balance how much technique they need to get their point across.”
Discussing it further, Vai also explained how obsessing over technique can be, in a way, counterproductive:
“A lot of times, it’s easy to get fascinated with the technique and carried away with it. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Because there’s people that enjoy watching people that are just incredibly amazing with their techniques.”
“But the longevity and the effect of a piece of music on somebody, I believe has to do with the other dimension — how deep you go beyond the technique, so to speak. That’s always been a natural interest in me.”
The same goes to any music theory knowledge one has. As Vai also added, music theory is nothing but a tool for expression. And doing it just as a set of super-strict rules for the sake of it doesn’t usually make that much sense. He concluded by adding:
“There were periods of time when I would focus on academics and writing and the music would sound that way. And I still do that sometimes just as an expression. But usually, the academics just become a tool, the technique becomes your creative tool, as opposed to you being the tool of the technique, so to speak.”
As of this moment, Steve is deep into his tour promoting his latest album “Inviolate,” released in January 2022. The current touring plans go all the way to mid-Novemeber this year and, so far, there’s even one show scheduled for early January. For more information, visit Steve Vai’s website here.