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I've often heard that Jimi Hendrix didn't know anything on music theory and harmony, and he was just playing 'by ear'.

Is this true or just a urban legend?

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    So far as I know from the multitude of biographies I've watched and read, Hendrix never took lessons. So, it's probable that he had limited knowledge of music theory. However, among other things, he knew enough about music theory to tune his guitars a half pitch down so it would match his voice. Given his catalogue, I'd say he knew some things which he likely discovered through playing, so to say he "didn't know anything" would be false. – Johnny Bones Jun 18 '15 at 16:53
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    He was self-thought. He certainly knew a lot on how to play, just never took lessons. – DJ Aftershock Jun 19 '15 at 7:59
  • Bear in mind that a lot of 'music theory' is terminology; It helps you communicate with others who know music theory, but there's not necessarily a lot that will help you create new sounds, and if you have a good ear, you may not need it to copy the old sounds either. So it's not surprising that many pop song writers aren't great on theory. Also, conventional music theory often centres around orchestral music and instruments, especially the piano; a lot of guitar music blends those ideas with folk and blues traditions that don't fit so easily into the way music theory is often explained. – user16 Jun 19 '15 at 15:19
  • @topomorto that's completely wrong in every way. It's much more then just terminology, it can help you create music if you know how to use it, and it applies just as much to blues and folk as it does to classical music... – Dom Jun 19 '15 at 17:20
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    @Dom Quite a few of the points made in the accepted answer for that question (as I read it - it's not the best-written!) seem to be along the lines of what I said... – user16 Jun 19 '15 at 18:04
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Like other people said Jimi Hendrix never took lesson so he would have never formally learned any music theory, but that doesn't mean he was absent of the knowledge of any music theory.

Music Theory in the simplest is the study of what works and what doesn't in music. So while there is a formal path for studying the subject, simple things like someone listening to a song and figuring out what they like and what they don't is also music theory.

Most people only equate music theory to an intro class that focuses on the classical era which most modern types of western music are rooted in, but there is so much more. There are pop, jazz, blues, and rock music theory classes and books that focus much more on modern songs and deconstructing them so people can learn what works and what doesn't. People who study music theory in depth eventually tailor their ideas towards what they find works and what doesn't using what they learned as a foundation for this and utilizes this in what they compose.

So while Jimi Hendrix probably couldn't tell you what a modulation was, he did it all the time. While he wouldn't have known about the circle of 5ths, he took advantage of progressions that used it, like Hey Joe. While he was never taught how to build chords, he did so in the typical fashion even his famous 7#9 chord that is even called the Hendrix chord. While he probably couldn't tell you the notes in a key, during improved solos he would always play directly in the key.

Coincidence? Not at all. On his own he figured a lot of it out by studying what he and other played and figuring out what worked and what didn't. So in the end you could say he learned music theory "by ear".

  • Great answer. Any successful musician, even if they are self-taught or cannot read sheet music, knows more about the theory of music than they even realize themselves. Playing in a group with other musicians requires one to learn about the language of music and how to communicate one's own ideas to other musicians. Studying music theory in the classroom is not essential for genius musicians like Hendrix. For the rest of us who are not geniuses, however, studying music theory out of a textbook is a good idea. It does not hurt. – user546 Jun 22 '15 at 15:36
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I think it is important to understand that formal training which, by nature, is all about what has already occurred in the past, well-beaten paths if you will, while offering an essence that can be used to create is also at once both a tool and a limitation. If one wishes to innovate and improvise, no small task, formal training can get in the way. Miles Davis was shocked that Jimi could "get clear" without the discipline of BeBop where one first learns deep rules then breaks those rules.

Most accounts say that Jimi rarely was seen without his guitar. He played constantly. He sat on his windowsill and attempted to mimic street and traffic sounds or nature sounds like running water and imaginary sounds like spaceships, rockets and bombs. Jimi developed his own "theory" and to the point that his guitar was a a natural appendage, hardwired to his creative brain.

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