GuitarOS Practical Theory: Update The Operating System Between Your Ears
the original GuitarOS musical operating system update: the confusion-free guide to professional grade music theory
If you’re an American, you probably suck at the metric system.
You don’t know if 20 kilos is too heavy to carry in one hand.
You’re not sure if 100 kph is fast or slow.
And other than 0 and 100, temperatures given in Celsius are probably meaningless to you.
That’s not a problem while you’re in your native US, but as soon as you travel elsewhere, you start having difficulty.
The newspaper they left outside your hotel room door says it’s going to be 35 degrees today, so you grab your coat as you leave.
Except thirty-five degrees celsius is ninety-five degrees fahrenheit––way too hot for that coat.
The guitar is like America.
We have some truly great and admirable things going for us. But we’re so large, influential, and insular that we tend to think our way of doing things is automatically the best and only way of doing things.
The way we teach guitar is analogous to learning inches, feet, miles, quarts, & degrees fahrenheit even though the entire rest of the world uses a different system.
[Countries on the metric system shown in green. Get with the program Antarctica.]
There’s a reason for that––if you simply want to have a little fun with a guitar, it’s easier to use the system that’s native to you.
Shapes are the system most native to guitar.
That’s why we all learned using shape-based methods––TAB, chord grids, scale shapes, & CAGED.
But once you’re playing at an intermediate level, you start to run into trouble. If you decide that you like playing guitar enough to want to get better at it, you quickly discover that what got you here won’t get you there.
You're at the top of the wrong ladder.
Inches, feet, quarts, & pounds are a perfectly fine operating system for day-to-day living in your native America.
Unless, of course, you want to be a scientist.
Being a scientist requires thinking in the metric operating system. Not just converting back and forth between inches and centimeters, between pounds and kilos, between milliliters and ounces, but thinking in and intuitively knowing the OS of the metric system.
If you just want to be pretty good at guitar, then the shape-based operating system of TAB, scale shapes, & chord grids is perfectly fine. Combine it with a really good ear, great taste, and a shit ton of luck, and you might even get famous this way.
But if you want to deliberately become a badass guitarist?
Then you need to learn the operating system that all serious musicians use.
This used to mean you had to go back to square one to re-learn the instrument by reading through basic method books, and then diving into the deep end of music school and trusting that you’ll learn to swim before you drown.
I’ve done it. It fucking sucks.
And that’s why there are millions of guitarists who are pretty good at the guitar, but who can’t quite seem to make the leap to the next level––badassery.
Even though we know what the problem is (how many times have you decided to “learn theory?”), we haven’t had the proper tools to do it well. Until now.
You see, there’s another problem that’s invisible to us. Because most of us never venture out from our native Guitarlandia, we don’t realize that the rest of the world has already devised a slick, tidy, dare-I-say easy solution that actually works.
Even if you have no need to read music, don’t read music, won’t read music, hate reading music, are terrified that I might ask you to read music… the answers you seek are found in the seeds of one tiny portion of the music-reading world: note names.
If you switch your operating system over from shapes to names, a world of possibilities opens up to you.
Once you can look at your instrument and see names of notes instead of a set of coordinates, your brain has a powerful new way to organize the huge amount of meta data that’s stored in each and every piece of music you ever learn, play, or hear.
Once you’ve updated your “operating system” in this note name-centric way, everything useful about music theory flows logically from one thing to the next.
- If you know the names of the notes, it leads ipso facto into understanding keys.
- If you know both notes and keys, you can easily understand chord construction.
- Once you know how to build chords from notes & keys, you can easily build progressions from chords.
- If you understand notes, keys, chords, & progressions, then learning about rhythm goes from "nice to have" to "incredibly useful to have."
- If you know about notes, keys, chords, progressions, and rhythms, you can easily learn to read & write basic charts.
- If you understand enough about music to read & write basic charts, you can get paid to gig with other people, and you can hire the best musicians to play in your own band.
- You can pick up a book on music theory and understand it in the same language it was written in, without needing to translate back and forth into guitar-ese.
- You’ll think and talk about music in the same way that badass professional musicians do.
Being a musician who doesn’t think in notes is like being a scientist who doesn’t use the metric system.
It’s not that you can’t enjoy Neil DeGrasse Tyson without using the metric system, or that you can’t be famous without understanding notes on guitar.
It’s that being a scientist is SO MUCH EASIER with the metric system, and becoming a badass guitarist is SO MUCH EASIER when you’re using a note-centric operating system.
Let me show you.
You & I Are Alike
If you’re anything like me, you’ve avoided this path precisely because it’s so hard and because the benefits are so vague. I spent a long damned time trying to avoid the work of going back to square one, the work of having to re-learn the entire instrument from the beginning.
You & I Are Different
I'm way, way dumber than you on your worst day. Because I eventually did just that—relearned the instrument from the beginning. It was a shit show of failure.
The only reason I succeeded at it is this:
- I’m stupid
- I'm stubborn
- I have no sense of shame
Anyone with any sense (I'm assuming that includes you) would've given up after the first few years of failure.
Only the most ornery, obstinate idiot (hey that's me!) would've kept at it this long, scouring the world's instructional materials, trying to separate the astronomy from the astrology, trying to put the pieces in the right order.
And only someone with a congenital lack of shame (hey that's me again!) would've spent so long pestering smarter, more talented, more accomplished players, asking Why? Why? Why? like some caffeinated toddler.
I Was Stupid, Stubborn, & Shameless So You Don’t Have To Be
One of the smartest things you've ever done was to let me go make all the mistakes for you. I'm like your personal failure mine sweeper. I went back to the very beginning and painfully re-taught myself the guitar. I've returned with excellent news for you:
There are only a handful of things that are difficult about becoming a guitar badass.
- Figure out what’s actually important.
- Learn it in the right order so it all makes sense.
- Show up consistently.
Sadly, those three things took me over fifteen years to get right. Fifteen plus years of being so-so at guitar, of making haphazard, incremental progress in no particular direction. More than fifteen years of failing in ways both big & small.
But it's funny—once I did get those three things right, it was like knocking over the first domino in a line.
I want to save you the frustration and wasted time of figuring this out for yourself.
Just because I wasted half my life getting this stuff together doesn’t mean that you have to too.
It took me fifteen years... but most people never figure it out.
Which really pisses me off, because if you approach it the right way, it's actually not that hard.
Let me show you.
StartCircle Of Fifths Day One (4:43)
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StartCircle Of Fifths Day Fourteen
StartChord Building One
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StartChord Building Fifteen
A lucky break forced me to make the jump from "fairly decent bar band guitarist" to "professional musician" long before I was ready or qualified.
Suddenly I was surrounded by elite professional musicians, people who'd toured with huge acts and had long lists of recording credits.
It was a baptism by fire as I scrambled to quickly develop the skills & knowledge necessary to operate in this new space.
Along the way, I discovered something surprising—internet gurus and big-name music schools alike are focused on all the wrong shit.
Badass musicians the world over share a common language & a set of priorities I've never seen taught anywhere else.
It took me awhile to piece it all together & put it all in the right order.
But now that there's a clearly defined path, all that's left is for you to decide you're done with wandering blindly in the darkness, done depending on luck, ready to show up and put one foot in front of the other on the road to badassery.
I hope you'll join us.
Frequently Asked Questions
If these were lessons taken in-person at a guitar shop, you'd pay at least $1500 for them. ($20+/half hour x 75 lessons).
If you took these lessons at a university or music school, you'd pay even more. (I paid just over $90/hour for lessons at DePaul. Even if you hustled and covered three lessons per hour, that'd be $2250. Ouch.)
But Practical Theory doesn't cost anywhere near that.
It's roughly the cost of one month of guitar shop lessons, aka a hundred bucks.
And maybe you already take in-person guitar lessons, so you're thinking do I even need this?
First off: good on you for caring enough to take lessons. Seriously, that's awesome.
But think of GuitarOS: Practical Theory as a booster pack for in-person lessons.
One-on-one guitar instruction is a wonderful thing. Fixing problems as they arise, learning songs the student is interested in, answering questions, and tailoring lessons to fit the individual’s needs are the province of traditional guitar lessons, and I have no intention or desire to replace or change this.
But individual lessons, spaced a week apart, are not well suited to learning the important bedrock material that all guitarists should know, understand and apply.
These things require a shorter-but-more-frequent format. I want to lift that burden from your teacher, allowing him or her more time to focus on the fun things that work best in the lesson room.
The fact that you'll show up better prepared to your lesson is just icing on the cake.
Or you could keep doing what you've been doing, and keep getting what you've been getting.
If you're as pig-headed (and quite frankly, lucky) as me, it might only take you another decade to figure this out.
It's up to you.
Update the operating system between your ears.
Get started now!
Beautiful methodology. A real breakthrough in thinking about guitar.
Awesome. It has genuinely helped my playing.
-Todd L, Los Angeles
Now everything I’ve done over the last 25+ years makes a hell of a lot more sense!
-David M, Wisconsin