Most of the great rock guitarists played by ear. They didn't read music, and they didn't know much about scales or traditional music theory. So how did they know where to put their fingers?

The visual nature of the guitar might help explain it. Strings and frets form a grid on the neck. Common shapes and patterns like chords, scales and licks can be easily moved along this grid, and unlike most other instruments, the shapes will remain the same as they're moved.

Quotes from the legends

"Most rock musicians play by ear -- if it sounds good we do it."

Adrian Smith (Iron Maiden)
Guitar Legends magazine, 2008

"I can't read or write music...I visualize things."

Stevie Ray Vaughan
Guitar Legends magazine, 2008

"Because he was unable to read or write music..."

Jimi Hendrix
memorial project website

Q: "Did the piano training transfer itself to the guitar?"
A: "Oh, definitely, but in a very subliminal way. Because I never learned how to read, really; I used to fool the teacher. I did it all by ear."

Eddie Van Halen
Guitar World magazine, 7/85

"I felt so nervous, because I couldn't read music, and they were all playing from music sheets on stands."

Eric Clapton
on guest session with Aretha Franklin
from his autobiography "Slowhand"

"...I'm searching for new chords and shapes and things. I don't just sit down and play scales...I can't play a scale. You think I'm kidding but I'm not. I can't. Well I can, I can play the notes but it's true though."

Jimmy Page
Modern Guitars magazine, 1986

"The foundation of (my teaching approach) is the way I view the fretboard -- which is the way a lot of people view it -- and that's in shapes. You end up learning the same stuff you'd learn from notation or tablature, but it's a much easier way to understand it."

George Lynch
Guitar Player magazine, 10/07

Q: "Do you think in terms of scales and conventional harmony, or are you playing more intuitively?"
A: "I have no idea about scales.... I'm not trying to sound like an idiot savant -- I know my stuff -- but I don't know all the names of the different scales."

David Gilmour
Guitar Player magazine, 1/09

"I try to keep it simple, because I'm not the world's fastest or anything, and I've never practiced scales in my life."

Paul McCartney
Guitar Player magazine, 7/90

"I'm not heavy on theory or reading music books... (and) I only know two or three scales."

"Dimebag" Darrell
from his book "Riffer Madness"

Q: "Do you know what you're doing in musical terms?"
A: "I haven't a clue."

Angus Young
Guitar Player magazine, 2/84