Many years ago, at school some friends and I played versions of instrumental guitar pieces by the Shadows and other bands.

Our method was to slow down the vinyl record and listen to what was played and try to emulate it purely by ear. We had no idea of music theory.

It is only now when, at an advanced age, I have decided to take up electric guitar again that I discover the importance of, for example, the minor pentatonic scale. It's only from modern online resources that I know how useful it is.

Notable examples from back then are the main melody of FBI - written by the Shadows 1961 (A minor pentatonic) and the guitar introduction of Shakin' All Over by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates 1960 (E minor pentatonic).**

Does anyone here know how well known such matters were back in the 60s amongst the average band member - particularly but not exclusively in the UK?


** The original versions are available online. I chose tutorial versions so that the pentatonic fingering is clearly visible.

. I swapped to classical guitar and lost track of how to improvise or play with a pick. The only scales I learned were standard major and minor.

. Paul McCartney tells the story of how, in the early days, he and John Lennon cycled across Liverpool to meet a man who said he knew how to play B7. This shows that theory wasn't exactly widely known in Britain.

  • Can't answer for the masses, but from a personal point of view - being one of the players you ask about - the pattern of pentatonic notes was (and is) fundamental on guitar - a very easy pattern to learn, remember and play. And still the mainstay of many guitarists 60 yrs on. Funny, but as a piano player at that same time, I never translated pents from guitar to piano, so probably didn't understand the theory - and back then, formal theory was still based in the classical. So, right or wrong, I agree! Slow down lps from 33 to 16rpm, and the pitch dropped an octave, so still in tune!
    – Tim
    Jan 11, 2021 at 9:39
  • The story of the Beatles I don't believe, I think they are fakes: in another video Paul says that George was the smartest among them because he knew a certain chord pattern. This might have been possible in a group of 13 years old kids like us l but not in a band that was playing in clubs.;) Jan 11, 2021 at 15:12
  • @Tim - so which of the guitar players mentioned above are you? Obviously not John Lennon - maybe Sir Paul? :)
    – JK.
    Jan 13, 2021 at 3:11
  • @JK. - I was the one who knew B7...
    – Tim
    Jan 13, 2021 at 8:09
  • 1
    @Albrecht Hügli - Lennon and McCartney were teenagers at this point. Here is the story from McCartneys own mouth youtube.com/watch?v=XQfwW-oeh80 Jan 13, 2021 at 10:05

3 Answers 3


In the sixties spirituals have been very popular and other afro american songs. (cotton needs a-picking, Tom Dooley, nobody knows).

Sheet music was hardly available, but in the schools there was very popular a little songbook:LOOK AWAY (world around songs) containing 56 Negro Folk Songs.

American Folk Songs and Pop Hits have been sung and played by ear, chord shapes were learnt by peers (in every school class was at least someone who played had a guitar, so chord shapes have been going viral. New riffs and chords (blues and boogey, rock riffs) have been exchanged in the classroom, in the break areas, in youth groups, at the church, at fireside, on open airs and folk festivals, in parks etc.


To specifically answer the question, one could say that the average musician statistically didn't know theory very well, if not at all.

Probably, considering the access to knowledge we have today, we can assume that the median knowledge was usually much worse, but it's just an assumption that is hard to evaluate: while it's true that today we can potentially study music theory almost for free and whenever we want, there's also to consider that we now have a huge amount of sources, many of which are absolutely not valid.

I cannot personally speak for that period of time, but I can recall the situation in the 90s and reference reports from colleagues, friends and family members that actually lived in the 60s. And I'd say that it was almost the same: yes, less was known, there were less sources, teachers or books, it was normally more expansive to get an instrument and have (good) lessons, but that also implies that there were way less people actually playing back then. By reading and watching forums, videos, groups and posts, what the average "musician" now knows is almost the same, they are just much more.

Actually, if we try to create a parallelism with todays popular musicians, they possibly know much less. If McCartney and Lennon didn't know how to play a B7 chord, there are lots of widely known (on social networks) musicians that don't even have a clue about what "B7" is, and that's because new electronic instruments make music production far more easy (maybe too much, I'd say).

This doesn't mean a lot in terms of music "capabilities", as two important aspects should be kept in mind:

  1. pentatonic scales are common in many music styles and ages, all around the world; you don't need to "know them";
  2. using a specific music theory "rule" doesn't mean that the user knows the theory behind it; consider spoken language: you can fluently (and correctly) speak a language even if you are not aware of the theory (grammar) behind it;

The following (rather extended, I admit) was to clarify the reasons for which the awareness of theory aspects isn't that important, especially for popular music; while it might seem a bit off-topic, I'll leave it anyway.

Pentatonic scales all around the world (and history)

First of all, while two "main" scales are normally considered the pentatonic scales (I'm obviously ignoring other pentatonic scales), it's common to actually consider the minor as the relative minor pentatonic.
Those intervals (no matter the root of the scale) are well known and used as they are simple and both easy to hear and play/sing. Many child tunes and nursery rhymes use those intervals, with the significant role of the minor third interval between the third and fifth (or the first and third for minor) which is very common even in the spoken language.

In the Kodály method, which uses those scales a lot in the ear and singing development, the music learning begins with the minor third (mi-so), then gradually adds the sixth (la), the first and, finally, the second. This pattern is easy to learn, both in recognition and reproduction, as is very close to the intervals used in the spoken language and introduces intervals based on their difficulty.

Obviously, there are many theories that try to explain the origins and spread of those intervals and scales (some may argue that they are easy and common because we're used to them), but, while those researches are indeed very interesting, I'd also say that it's more a matter of "the chicken and the egg".

Consider the blues scale, which is an expanded pentatonic scale, derived from "African scales" with the conjunction of western's music diatonic and chromatic principles. Or many of the eastern music (if you play around a pentatonic scale, many children would say that you're playing a chinese/japanese tune). Even music from the Middle Age through Rennaisance is reminiscent of pentatonic scales, with the proper importance of certain degrees in some modes (most importantly, the Dorian mode).

Using is not (always) knowing

Does anyone here know how well known such matters were back in the 60s amongst the average band member

Many popular musicians don't know a thing about theory (that doesn't make them less valid than others), and not only today musicians.
One of the main principles of popular music is that it is easy to listen and possibly sing (or play): it's easier to remember a tune that you can hum, sing or whistle, and this makes that tune more recognizable and easy to be shared and better know among people (hence, popular).

Popular music becomes such when it can easily "travel". This includes the music and the instrument.
I'm making a big oversimplification here, but consider that instruments that are easy to play and carry around (a guitar, a recorder, your voice), contribute more on the spreading of the music they can play.

For example, the learning curve for a guitar is, at the beginning, very steep (in the meaning of "it's easy to begin with"): it might take you less than a week to play some well known songs. And on a guitar, a pentonic scale is both actually very easy, and is also one of the first things you may begin to learn.

This doesn't mean that you know the theory behind the pentatonic scales (nor that you need to). All you need to know is how it works when you have to play it.

All this is valid today as it was in the 60s or even in the last centuries (and millennia, I think), and goes for almost any basic music principle.

Of course, knowing the theory behind what you're using dramatically increases the possibilities of what you can do, but that happens for almost anything: you don't need to know how the engine of your car works in order to drive it, but if you know it you might improve the efficiency of your fuel consumption, avoid damage to the engine, increase the life span of the vehicle, etc.

  • This goes a long way to avoid actually answering the meat of the question!
    – Judy N.
    Jan 11, 2021 at 17:53
  • @JudyN. can you please clarify? The question was: "did the average "pop" musician consciously know the theory behind what he was playing?", and, summarizing in "probably not, or not necessarily", I believe I answered that, also explaining why. Jan 11, 2021 at 17:57
  • I don't really know how to clarify. You have written a lot which is largely orthogonal to the thrust of the question, which you only address in one place by saying "Many popular musicians don't know a thing about theory". Whilst that may very well be the case, for me it doesn't answer the question "how well known was theory amongst pop musicians" (which you will notice is somewhat slightly different to your paraphrase above). Is your answer "not very well, on average"? If so, what is your justification for that?
    – Judy N.
    Jan 11, 2021 at 18:09
  • @JudyN. Well, I can agree with your objection. But then the question becomes somehow too generic and, in my opinion, almost impossible to answer: "how well known such matters were back in the 60s amongst the average band member" -> can we define what was the "average band member"? We can agree that access to knowledge in general was more difficult than it is today, and try to assume that average knowledge of music theory was probably (statistically) much lower than today, but that's just an assumption we can hardly demonstrate in a balanced fashion. For instance, today there is absolutely -> Jan 11, 2021 at 18:21
  • -> much more people that has easier access to music performing, many instruments are much cheaper than they were, there's plenty of physical books and even free tutorials online, but we also know that lots of those books and tutorials are also absolute crp, and learning to play through youtube video is rarely efficient. Lots of people nowadays play instruments without absolutely *no knowledge whatsoever (exactly like in the 60s), also due to the spread of easy-to-play electronic devices. Yes, you're right, I didn't specifically answer to the question, I'll try to edit and clarify. Jan 11, 2021 at 18:28

I think that question is putting the cart before the horse. The pentatonic scale is an underlying pattern for much of the development of popular Western (though not only) as well as classic music. If you are growing up in a musical context, your own development of music will be in the context of such patterns. As such, the theory is principally a tool for analyzing music. Where it is used for concocting music, we are largely talking about avantgarde music, music for which the theoretical aim behind the construction of the music rather than the music itself appeals to the educated listener.

If you are overly focused on satisfying theories, your music will tend to be one-dimensional, namely minimally meet its constructed purpose but not much else. For popular music, that tends to be a bad sell.

So the question does not really make for much more than curiosity, and the answer tends to be of rather little relevance for the actual output of successful bands dealing in popular music. The band member's knowledge of music theory will tend to be as seminal for their success as their knowledge of formal logic.

  • I think the question is fine in its own right. I'm certainly interested in it, independent of my interest in the matters you discuss.
    – Judy N.
    Jan 11, 2021 at 17:51
  • Nowadays the pentatonic scales are used for creating music. They are an easy way to produce guitar solos. There are many videos available online. Example: How to Solo over ANY CHORD Using the Pentatonic Scale youtube.com/watch?v=Xs2umOucpSM - When I was learning I had no idea that such a scale existed. It would have made guitar improvisation over rock songs incredibly easy. That is why I'm wondering when it became common knowledge amongst guitar players. Jan 13, 2021 at 10:14

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