Guitar methods are out there. But how can I tell whether they’ll fit my teaching style and my students’ needs? Will I end up reinventing the wheel anyway? What will work best for me and my students?
The guitar teaching method question is, to my mind, a tougher and more complex one.
Asking some questions might help zero in on who you are as a teacher of guitar students.
Questions to Ask
- What age range am I interested in teaching?
- Finger dexterity comes into play with young hands and with older or arthritic hands.
- Song choice: some lyrics are not appropriate for younger students.
- Often, students over a certain age appreciate songs of their generation.
- Motivation for learning the instrument might be drastically different depending on age.
- Do my students have goals in mind? Why do they want to play guitar?
- Do they have strong preference for a particular musical style?
- How much do I want to accommodate students’ genre preferences?
- Example: if they love country music or a certain country artist, am I willing to find, learn and arrange these pieces for them? Or will I teach guitar techniques through a variety of musical styles and allow students to apply them to their desired genre on their own?
- Will I begin with note reading, chords or both?
- How will I teach theory, rhythm and technique?
- How much time do I want to spend searching for repertoire each week to reinforce the rest?
- Will I teach folk-style, finger-style, classical, blues, country, rock or a smattering of styles?
- Will I teach acoustic, electric or both? Does my studio have space for amps? Will the higher volume of an amp disturb other teachers in the studio, or family members if I teach from home?
- Should my students learn scales?
- Will I teach pick technique? When?
- Will a particular method series move too slowly or quickly?
- Is it geared for the student’s age?
- Are the graphics clear and easy to take in, without clutter?
- Is there enough white space on each page?
- Is there enough review/repetition of concepts, or will I have to supplement?
- Will I teach strictly from a method book, or use it as a springboard?
- Would this student have better motivation in a group class? (Join me next month for an article about teaching group guitar classes.)
After considering all these questions, I hope you have a better idea of how you want to go about teaching guitar. Before we explore available method books, I have a few observations from over thirty years of experience.
Observations about Guitar Students
These may seem like unfair blanket statements, but they are things I’ve noticed in general from teaching guitar, piano, voice and some woodwinds for over thirty years. They are tendencies. Not absolutes!
Guitar Students Seem Less Serious about Musicianship
I’m sorry to have to say it, but it’s so often true. More interested in fun. More interested in playing particular songs than in learning the instrument.
I’ve heard some teachers speculate that it could be because of a smaller investment of money in an instrument. In other words, someone who invests thousands of dollars in a piano is going to be more serious about learning it than someone who received (shudder) a $50 beginner guitar kit from the local box store. Or worse, the latest pink guitar with decals, working amp and microphone. Yikes, they have a point. Hear me after every Christmas, praying when the phone rings that it’s not another parent or grandparent wanting lessons for their darling who just received a toy guitar!
Some guitar students have stars in their eyes about being a pop or rock star. Often these students fall away as soon as they realize they need to trim their nails, or that it is (“ow!”) painful at first to form a chord and press the strings hard enough to create a clear sound. I’m reminded of the eight-year-old girl who, after I showed her a D chord, said, “What are you trying to do to me, woman?”
Even the ones who hang in there past the callous-forming stage might stubbornly refuse to learn music—as opposed to the particular songs they want to play. And it seems not to matter to them whether they strum in three, four, or more time!
While I admit there is generally a different mindset for guitar students than piano or certain other instruments, I’ve often been able to feed them musical main courses while still having fun. And guitar students, perhaps more than any others, want to have fun! Over time and with patience, many of these one-time-funsters have grown into fine, well-rounded musicians.
Unfortunate Terminology Disconnect among Guitarists
A lack of continuity exists among guitarists that doesn’t normally happen with pianists, for example.
- One refers to the first three strings as “down” or “lower,” meaning directionally. But another will refer to those strings as “up” or “top,” meaning musically, or pitch-wise.
- One will tell you to play “down the neck” toward the higher frets, while another says to go “up the neck” toward those same frets.
- If you find tablature online, you can’t play it unless you have first learned the song from hearing it, because rhythms aren’t indicated.
- Different players use opposing—even incorrect—terminology. Especially on Youtube. Guitarists there might call an E minor chord “E em.” They are unaware of what the m stands for. Or they might cause confusion by capitalizing the m for minor. If the chord is major, they ought not to use an m at all. It is assumed to be major simply by the capital letter alone. Sigh.
All this brings me to something I suggest to most younger guitar students:
Take a Couple of Years of Piano Lessons
Does this sound like strange advice? Yet it may be the best thing for very young beginners who have never had music lessons. Seriously. The piano is laid out logically, in linear fashion. The guitar’s notes jump all over the place by comparison. On piano the student will learn basic note reading skills, music terminology, what scales look and sound like, which notes to tune the guitar to, scale tones to build chords, etc. I give this opinion after teaching guitar for over thirty years. Let them learn the language of music through piano lessons.
At least spend a few minutes of each lesson, if possible, teaching basic piano skills. It will give them a concrete, visual basis for all their music. It might open up whole new worlds of musical possibilities, too.
Guitar method books? There are more than ever before. But I find many either so basic they waste time and money, or they move ahead too quickly and don’t give near enough repetition for mastery. Others, though they meet needs, are too genre-specific for most beginners—such as blues, hard rock, or the recognizable riffs from pop songs. More and more often I don’t find complete songs in the method books. Not unless they are public domain. It may be because of costly copyright fees, but who wants to play only a line or two of a song?
I tend to use methods as a springboard. I don’t go straight through them page by page.
One of my favorite series is the Hal Leonard Guitar Methods, books 1, 2 and 3 by Will Schmid and Greg Koch. They teach note reading on each string, with a handful of songs. There is basic strumming with chord charts, plus a few extra songs. Basic theory, basic tablature. Several genres. But you will still have to search out materials yourself for students to practice until they reach mastery.
For younger students, I like Alfred’s Kids’ Guitar Course. Pat Shelby has a good review of this method in Music Teachers Helper. I still supplement with my own materials.
Mel Bay’s Guitar Method goes from level 1 to level 7. For many teachers, this is the definitive course.
Guitar Lessons by Brian Turner blog reviews a number of specific genre methods, plus a few general ones.
Ultimate Guitar.com has a November 2017 post on The Top 10 Best Guitar Method Books.
My Own Method
I created, for my private studio, note-reading books that give plenty of songs in which to practice each string. I include songs that build on the strings/notes they’ve already learned. This gives lots of review in a more interesting way than simple exercises. I use my own compositions and public domain songs. My students will encounter a variety of genres, including classical. When appropriate, I add composer information and music history. There’s plenty of theory and some technique. Appropriate music terminology. If a student is moving quickly, I can easily bypass a number of songs. If they’re going slowly, the extra repetition gives them mastery.
I want my students to learn to sing while strumming or fingerpicking. But that can only happen if songs are in appropriate keys for the student’s vocal range. I create chord charts for them. I teach them to transpose. I also teach them to use a capo. At least until they’ve learned to play in more keys!
I want to move them toward being able to play complete solos. There aren’t many finger-style solos for beginner or advanced beginner students. Most are for intermediate or advanced. So again, I create my own. And then I teach them how to create their own.
I have found that guitar students lose motivation more easily than students of piano or voice. Thankfully, performing opportunities are great motivators.
- Ask public school music teachers—they will sometimes pull out songs for their choir or class that your student can accompany. Or they’ll invite them to play something for the class.
- Nursing homes/assisted living homes are always delighted to have young musicians in to entertain.
- Our local winery has a Vintage Christmas day when they invite church choirs and others to carol. This is a chance for my guitar students to accompany a song or two. Check around for similar festivities in your area. You might even suggest this sort of live entertainment if they aren’t already supplying it.
- Malls often invite groups to entertain during the holidays. Perhaps this could be the setting for your Christmas recital one year.
- Libraries sometimes welcome musicians to perform.
- How about playing and singing carols to invite donations for the Salvation Army or perhaps to raise money for a local humane society or food pantry?
Performance opportunities abound. Give it some thought, because a deadline is motivating!
What methods do you use for teaching guitar?
Do you have observations to share? I’m sure readers would be interested to read your responses.
Join me next month here at Music Teachers Helper. I’ll explore how new private guitar teachers might approach group classes. Others of my upcoming articles will include voice teaching methods/books. Also supplementary materials new private music teachers might want to learn about and put on their wish lists. And business aspects of running a private studio. See you then!