Guest Post: Why Learning Piano Can Help You Advance As a Guitarist by Joseph Primavera
First order of business, just wanted to wish all the mothers, HAPPY MOTHER'S DAY! Our family is meeting up with my brother and his wife near where they live to eat dinner together and celebrate :)
So in a previous post, I've written about why piano is the best instrument to begin music studies and private lessons with.
You can learn about the different reasons here: Best First Instrument.
Here's a different perspective! A guest post from Joseph Primavera, a guitar teacher and performer in Philadelphia. He brings insight and expertise on the guitar that I don't have and make comparisons between piano and guitar that I've never even thought of; he also points out things about the piano that I've just taken for granted.
Why Learning Piano Can Help you Advance as a Guitarist
So you’ve been playing guitar for a couple years now, and you’ve got all the basic techniques down. Bar chords are no problem, you can solo with the major and minor pentatonic and blues scales, and maybe you’ve even gotten into learning some 7th chords or rootless voicings.
Now the question becomes: do you know what you’re playing and why you’re playing it?
This is where music theory comes into the equation. If you want to better understand chord makeups, chord progressions, and what scales and melodies can work over them, then you have to start to understand at least the basics of music theory.
Applying what you learn from theory can open up new worlds of possibility in your playing and composing, and can really help spur on some periods of creativity and inventiveness. However, tackling these concepts immediately on the guitar can prove a daunting task because of how string instruments are constructed, so I recommend learning some basic piano.
Learning the Basics of Music Theory
But I’m a guitar player you say! Why should I learn piano?
Well, piano really is the ultimate theory and composition instrument because of how logically it’s laid out for you. (Disclaimer: If you haven’t done so already, you’re going to want to learn how to read notes on the guitar so that translating what you learn on the piano to the guitar won’t be so difficult. I personally recommend starting with Mel Bay’s Modern Guitar Method: Grade 1, and then moving onto Berklee Press: A Modern Method for Guitar, Volume 1.) Even getting through just the first half of one of these books with a good teacher should at least give you the foundation to figure out how to translate notes from the piano to the guitar.
For example, you might see something as follows when you first begin learning theory, and if you don’t know the notes on the treble clef it’s almost impossible to understand. It explains the order of half steps and whole steps which constitutes the major scale in any key.
Why is it Easier to Learn on the Piano?
Now the reason that piano works so much better as an avenue for learning music theory is because there is only one key for each note. On Piano the C above middle C is always a single key. On guitar you can play the C above middle C as, 1st fret-B string, 5th fret-G string, 10th fret-D string, 15th fret-A string, and 20th fret-Low E string.
These are all literally the same note; not octaves of each other!
Understanding how to play in all of these positions on guitar becomes easier as time goes on, but you can see how it may be a little confusing in the beginning.
Because each note is only one key on the piano, you can physically see the distance of all of the intervals. Learning intervals is the foundation for all of the music theory to come, so this is a huge advantage in the beginning. Now, intervals will be easy enough to see on guitar if you stick to one string, because each fret you move up or down represents a half step. This is the same as moving from one key to the key directly next to it, whether black or white, on the piano. However, it is moving across strings which becomes difficult in learning theory on the guitar.
How is the Guitar Different?
Guitar’s main limitation in playing chords is that only one note can be sounded per string, so it’s a little harder to come up with workable voicings. Each string is like a keyboard in and of itself on guitar. As you move to higher strings, it’s like changing to a keyboard which starts at a higher note than the one before. So once you understand your intervals on piano, you can then translate that knowledge to how the strings relate to each other on guitar.
Here are the notes of each open string on the guitar laid out on treble clef with TAB (Note: Guitar music is written an octave higher so that all the notes fit on treble clef. What is written as middle C in guitar music is actually the C below middle C).
You can see that the space between each note is the same except between the G and B strings. The guitar is arranged in perfect 4ths, except between the G and B strings, which is a major 3rd. This is another aspect of guitar that makes sense from a functionality standpoint (open chords and barre chords would be almost impossible to play if it were the same interval), but it complicates things when trying to understand the guitar theoretically.
How Piano Helps When Writing Music
The final reason for learning piano is from a composer’s perspective. The piano spans the entire range of an orchestra or band, and then some. On piano you can play 8-10 notes at one time whereas guitar is limited to 6 at the maximum. You can play supporting chords and melody to hear the complete picture of a song much easier than if you were to try to arrange a chord melody on guitar.
Now all this talk about piano is not to say that it is somehow a superior instrument; just that its functionality lends itself better towards a complete understanding of music theory and composition. We obviously still love our 6-string for it’s expressiveness and ability to bend and slide notes. Hope this gets you on your way to becoming a more well-rounded musician, and has maybe inspired you to start learning some piano and theory as a guitar player.
What do YOU think?
Share what you think with us in the comments below. I'm always looking to learn and share more information with others and would love to hear from you!
Also, if you found this information come join us and like our studio's facebook page!
Joseph Primavera is a music educator, performer, composer and producer. He is the founder of Philly Music Lessons. When he’s not teaching he is recording and performing with his two bands The Looks of It and Grubby Little Hands.
6/3/2014 06:50:06 am
This is a Awesome guide
This is a great article. I learned the piano as a kid (before switching to the saxophone) and I've always visualised the piano when thinking about any theory concepts. When I was studying at university I started to realise just how differently guitarists think about and visualise some of these concepts, and how much easier it is when you can see it on a piano keyboard. Thanks!
Wow! This is a great post. I teach multiple instruments but I always recommend piano as the first. I had a student a couple years ago who grudgingly agreed to start with piano because I (and her Mom) insisted. After a semester of piano she told her younger sister that the piano was awesome and "why did she (the younger sister) want to learn guitar?".
4/12/2015 12:33:40 am
Thank you for writing this. Actually came across it in an Internet search for this very topic. The basic reasons for piano knowledge as a guitarist that you put forth here are the same ones I am discovering as I grow as a teacher for my students. I'm starting to incorporate it from day one with kids, and find it an excellent bridhe between the head and hands for us traditionally pattern/technique-oriented guitarists. :-) Do you actively incorporate piano into your guitar lessons?
6/9/2015 08:40:31 am
This blog post is spot on! I've been playing guitar since I was a kid but just commited myself to learning jazz guitar a few years ago. I've also recently started to teach myself piano. Indeed, the visual layout of the piano lends itself to a more complete understanding of intervals, chords & harmonic progressions. Creatively, piano has also opened up new paths of exploration. There is also something extremely satisfying about being able to play ostinato with the left hand and riff with the right. This is difficult to do on guitar unless you have a near-virtuosic skill level (e.g. Joe Pass). Every day I become more and more thankful that I finally befriended this wonderful instrument. -Eric
7/1/2015 12:47:41 pm
My 11 year old son began taking guitar lessons in October. He is picking it up at an amazing speed. He blew through his first teacher in three months and we found a really gifted jazz guitarist who is now teaching him. His current guitar teacher has been pretty blown away by him and really wants him to learn piano. This article really sold me. Thanks.
7/9/2015 02:33:27 pm
I am 1.5 years into guitar as a 47 year old. I practice daily and have started to learn theory. I LOVE what I have learned so far and really want to get into writing (I have books of words waiting for a melody). I have finally,truly NOTICED the piano that had been in my parent's house all my life. Looking forward to expanding my musical knowledge and appreciation.
3/21/2016 08:26:33 am
Piano is a great way to learn music theory. It is important to be able to learn music theory when it comes to harder musical pieces.
Your comment will be posted after it is approved.
Leave a Reply.
FreshStart Piano Studio in Irvine offers piano lessons for beginners between the ages of 4-adults and a fresh start for intermediate & advanced students. Enroll in piano lessons now!