Learning Theory: Recommendations for Resources and Steps to Making it Happen

Q: What would you recommend as great resources for learning theory? I’m not someone who lacks in imagination or creative drive or even feel. I’m more of a groove player, and I’ve never stopped to get any formal grounding with modes, harmonizations, relationships of scales and arpeggios and putting that together for a given tonality. I’d appreciate any recommendations for books – including the ones you’ve written, exercises, websites you think might help.

A: I know exactly what you mean, and there are any number of places to get the information. I’ll list a few of the books I used when I first started working through this stuff.

But first, I want to make sure to impart the reality that much of this information is assimilated a little bit at a time and takes years to really grasp in the way I think you intend. It’s both simple to understand in many ways, but it can be confusing to employ and explore too. I just want to make sure that you take your time with it and continue to search, beyond what I recommend.

This is also stuff that is very helpful to work with an instructor or peer. I would actually suggest taking harmony/theory lessons from a good pianist or guitarist, if you can.

As you mentioned in your question, I do cover some of this stuff in my book, Right Hand Drive, which includes basic modes, what they are and how they relate to each other).

My favorite book growing up was Rufus Reid’s The Evolving Bassist.

I’ve also dug many of the books that Berklee Press puts out (from the Berklee College of Music). Much of their curriculum can be explored through their publicly available books online.

National Guitar Workshop also has a number of good books covering the basics of jazz theory. [Editor’s note: NGW has ceased operations, but their books are available online through major retailers.]

Mark Levine’s The Jazz Theory Book is a fantastic and comprehensive study of the evolution of jazz theory.

There are literally hundreds of quality books on the subject and easily as many websites and Youtube videos.

The key is getting someone to sit with you and give you ideas as to how you might make use of the knowledge. A teacher can really help to speed up the process.

Understanding modes is a fantastic way to discover the fretboard and learn to “see” chords from somewhere other than the root. I would also get a Real Book and practice playing scales and arpeggios through chord changes, as I’ve said in countless columns.

The knowledge is very much out there, it’s what to do with it that’s the hard part.

Best of luck and enjoy the journey!

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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  1. John Brimhall’s Complete Theory Notebook was one that I used years ago and still highly recommend it for anyone wanting to learn basic theory.

  2. The Ray Brown book is great. It was also my fave growing up. I discovered the Mark Levine several years ago and use that a lot with students. One of things that hinders being able to get all the data is the somewhat lack of consistency in how theory is presented. Jamey Abersold’s Improv method is also good as he has tried to standardize theory – it is better now but still inconsistent, especially when it comes to chord symbols.