How To Play Guitar For Beginners: Songs First Or Theory?
Should you learn to play songs first or music theory?

How To Play Guitar For Beginners: Songs First Or Theory?

If you start learning how to play guitar by only learning songs then you may not understand why the songs sound good. On the other hand, if you only learn music theory first then can you actually play? My first thought is to learn songs first but the real answer involves time. Let me explain.


How To Play Guitar: Songs, theory, or both?

I think if you had to choose one method of learning how to play guitar it should be to learn songs first. Isn’t that why you are learning an instrument? But the answer involves the time you spend learning songs and then theory.

How much time will you spend playing songs but not learning theory? Or how much time will you learn music theory and not put the theory into practice by playing songs? Let’s look at both approaches.


How to learn guitar: learn songs first
Find other musicians to play with!

Should I learn to play songs first?

Hell yes! Learn some simple songs that you love so that the bug of playing music embeds itself into your heart. Plus it’s amazing to be able to play the music you love.

Just imagine being at a party and playing backup rhythm to another musician as you play a bunch of sing-along songs. Or maybe you are on a beach or in front of a cliché campfire. It’s a blast!

But do you even know what you are doing or why the chords you are playing sound good together? If you don’t know why then you won’t be able to write your own songs, or if you do they will sound like the cover songs you play. Not very “original”.

Another problem is that you most likely won’t be able to play lead guitar unless you learn simple scales and riffs that are uninspiring. So maybe you should step up your game and learn basic music theory.


When you are learning guitar also learn music theory
“Got to pay your dues if you wanna sing the blues…” ~ Ringo Starr

Should I learn music theory first?

I’m a big fan of music theory even though music theory gets poo-pooed all the time. Probably because people who can’t play often correct people who can play. But let’s ignore all that.

Music theory is great unless you do not put it into practice. I’d rather play with a guy who can rip a great lead and doesn’t know theory than with a guy who knows the theory but can’t play his way out of a wet paper bag.

So I guess learning songs first is the answer, right? Maybe…


Which one is best? The answer involves time.

Imagine these two different scenarios:

Scenario #1: for the first few years of your playing you learn lots of songs but absolutely NO music theory.

Scenario #2: for the first few years you learn lots of theory but absolutely no songs.

Obviously, both scenarios are totally unlikely. You can’t help but learn some theory by playing lots of songs, and you will learn songs as examples of the theory you are learning.

You can learn either music theory first or songs first, but it boils down to the amount of time that passes before learning the opposite approach.

Imagine a teacher who teaches you intervals, the 4 triads, and the triads and 7ths built from the major scale. That would be the first day of lessons. Then for the second lesson, he shows you some songs and you both analyze the songs. And by analyze I mean answering “What’s the I chord, what’s the V chord”, etc.

Or you could have a teacher who shows you a handful of songs in lesson 1. In the next lessons, he or she covers intervals, triads, major scale chords and you both analyze the songs learned in your previous lesson. Six of one or half a dozen of another.

Both approaches are fine assuming you learn the opposite approach in a reasonable amount of time. Don’t go too long without learning some theory, or don’t learn too much theory without learning song examples of the theory.


Chord chart
Chord Charts: Learn the chords to a song and some theory at the same time

Examples of all 3 approaches to learning guitar

First off, look a the chord chart above. It shows the chord names to play, the time signature, and the “strums’ or beats for each chord.

Without any key signature, it also signifies the key of C major which is obvious given the chord names(assuming you know theory). One simple graphic shows the chords and some basic theory.

Let’s look at the results of all 3 approaches:

Songs only

Pros: You can play and you can form a cover band – ‘nuff said.

Cons: You have no idea what you are doing, most likely can’t play lead and any original song(s) you write is most likely plagiarism of the cover songs you know. Way to go.

Theory only

Pros: You know how to make music, you understand chord progressions, rhythm, song structure, etc.

Cons: You most likely lack heart and emotion in your playing. If you write originals, though they are probably technical and exquisite they also probably suck.

Songs and theory

Pros: You can play other people’s songs, know how they are constructed, and can play solos over them. You also know what it takes to write a great original song.

Cons: NONE.


Final Thoughts

Instead of teaching yourself, find a guitar teacher who believes in the approach of songs first followed soon after by the theory behind the songs.

If you can’t find a teacher, or can’t afford one, then do it yourself. Learn how to play simple songs you love then analyze the heck out of them from a music theory analysis. Once you know how to play great songs and know what makes them great, then you can start writing your own great songs!

Check out my Music Theory category and my Songs and Chops category for the basics in both approaches to learning how to play guitar.