Do Metal Musicians Know Music Theory?

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Music theory sometimes seems reserved for classical or jazz music. But some heavy metal is also equally complex, so do metal musicians know music theory?

Here is what I’ve seen:

Some metal musicians such as Eddie Van Halen did know music theory, but most, such as Randy Rhoads, Slash, James Hetfield, and Cliff Burton, lacked formal knowledge and still wrote amazingly complex riffs. Knowing theory is more common in prog rock than heavy metal.

But it cannot be denied that knowing music theory helps when creating your own music.

Metal music is just like any other genre. It consists of various elements such as melody, harmony, rhythm, chords, etc. Many learners believe it’s all about training your ear at its core.

The truth is there are many musicians who never studied music and went on to play metal.

They proved that while knowing music theory has an added advantage, it doesn’t mean musicians cannot succeed without it. You can still find examples of musicians who rely on building their knowledge on the go.

Let’s gather some more details:

Did Randy Rhoads know music theory?

Randy Rhoads was mainly a self-taught musician. But he took folk and classical guitar lessons at the age of seven. And also learned piano from his mother. 

Rhoads’ family background gave him the initial push to pursue music.

His parents were both music teachers. His brother was also a musician. Randy would often listen to the Beatles and Rolling Stones.

At the age of seven, Rhoads began taking folk and classical guitar lessons at his mother’s music school in North Hollywood. Randy’s biography also mentions that he also took piano lessons from his mother.

In an interview, Randy explains:

“When I was young, I took lessons-basic folk and classical training; then I started playing rock. I’m taking lessons now. I take lessons from anybody, like when I have a day off or something. I’ll find someone in town and pick their brain.” 

For some musicians, perhaps their intent to learn music is far stronger.

And maybe this is the same passion that made them so good at what they do because they had no other way to live their dream.

Take Jimi Hendrix, for example; the guitarist was also a self-taught musician. 

Hendrix also spent his childhood imitating his influencers like Elvis. Despite the lack of formal knowledge, these artists earned themselves top-ranking positions in the musical world.

While you are at it, read my recent article where I have discussed how Jimi became so good at guitar. Just click that link to read it on my site.

Did Eddie Van Halen know music theory?

Eddie Van Halen went to music school at Pasadena City College for a year and learned music theory. He also studied classical piano as a child, participated in various competitions, and grew up in a musical household. 

Eddie’s music-filled childhood largely influenced his career choices and directed him to become a professional musician. As a result, Eddie enrolled at a music college in Pasadena City.

Eddie revealed:

“Our experience at PCC was rather odd in the respect that we would stumble into class very tired from having played clubs the night before. Other students would make fun of us, calling us musical prostitutes because we were not, in their mind, being true to whatever it meanest to be a musician.”

Looking at the above statement, I find the idea that Van Halen didn’t know any music theory a bit suspect. Well, if he went to college, he must have learned something there, right?

But was he more successful with Roth or Hagar? 

Luckily, I discussed it in my recent article. I got into record sales and current streaming volumes. I also uncovered whether or not the band ever toured with both singers before Eddie’s untimely demise.

Just click the link to read it on my site.

Which famous metal guitarists don’t know music theory?

Famous metal or hard rock guitarists who did not know music theory include Jimi Hendrix, Randy Rhoads, James Hetfield of Metallica, and Marty Friedman of Megadeath.

Musicians who lack knowledge of music theory are often compared to painters who don’t know the names of colors.

There are always juxtaposed reactions to the need to learn music theory. On the one hand, many believe that understanding music is beneficial, while some believe it makes your music sound too clinical and boring.

I believe that this idea stems from the fact that the music industry is filled with legendary musicians who never went to music school or obtained any formal training and still influenced millions of music listeners.

The names in the music world I listed above are known as untouchable gods who had the gift of understanding music.

They mostly called themselves self-taught artists. 

Some of these may have had some training at one point but didn’t complete it. They brought the things to the table that anyone could learn.

Did Jimi Hendrix know scales?

It’s not clear if Jimi Hendrix knew scales or not. But he definitely used them. At his core, Hendrix was a blues guitarist. His early music shows he did use a lot of 7th and 9th scales. 

Scales give musicians a basic understanding of theory. Experts claim one should not think scales to be a separate entity.

A music enthusiast explains,

“In the western hemisphere, your perception of music is based on how notes jibe against the diatonic scale. It’s wired into you and every sane person who has grown up listening to music based on it. It’s inescapable, even if you prefer to play the music that works against it.”

In this context, one could argue if Jimi didn’t learn music theory, why should I?

And many guitar players tend to shy away from music theory, especially for self-taught musicians like Jimi, who were significantly better guitarists than his contemporaries. Jimi raised the bar for the electric guitar, which many find daunting.

This makes me wonder why most beginners start with learning bass.

Luckily, I discussed it in a recent article. I have mentioned five reasons bass is considered easier for beginners. And I mentioned the 1 virtuoso guitarist who started on bass.

Just click that link to read it on my site.

Can you be a musician without knowing music theory?

It is entirely possible to be a musician and not know music theory. Many successful and well-regarded musicians in all genres do not know music theory whatsoever.

Being a musician, I have met a good share of musicians in my life, and many of them never had any formal training. Many professed that music production is all about the feel, and theory might get in the way.

The more I learned about music, I believe that this sentiment depends from person to person. Some people may find the idea of beginning from scratch a bit daunting, while others don’t get put off by the idea.

There is also a notion that creative artists who made most of the most significant breakthroughs in music didn’t know any theory. However, this notion may not ultimately be true.

Additionally, music is about connecting. 

If you know the right words and your music speaks to your audience, you can be a great musician without knowing music theory. There are enough examples to prove that.

Since I grew up in Austin, I’ll explore 2 Austin legends; the late Stevie Ray Vaughn and Eric Johnson. Both are undeniably gifted and talented guitarists.

But Stevie Ray gained international acclaim before his untimely death in 1990. Eric Johnson, arguably a far better guitarist from a technical standpoint, never really got above cult status.

Why? Because Johnson focused on the theory and Vaughn focused on the emotion behind the playing.

So, unless you are a music nerd like me, you might find Eric’s playing too technical and unfeeling, whereas Stevie’s was much more soulful. Less perfect, but he put his heart into every note.

Stevie might have known theory, but I kind of doubt it.

Metallica vs Music Theory


There is a tremendous amount of resistance to the notion of learning music theory as it is considered to limit musicians. But some say that in the metal genre, it is a must-have.

And some people are often confused about whether all metal musicians know music theory.

Some metal musicians know music theory, not all of them. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t produce good music. Fans believe music is all about feeling, not theory.

For example, you can still learn to speak English without explicitly studying grammar. You would lack the knowledge of articulation. But in a formal sense, you would still be able to convey your ideas.

Similarly, music theory in metal does help in building a solid base. But not all musicians prefer to learn it.

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay and Image by Ri Butov from Pixabay

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