Music Teacher's Helper Blog

What You Need To Know To Teach Guitar Lessons

Guest Blog by Tom Hess

When thinking about getting started teaching guitar, do you feel any of these things?

  • You want to start teaching guitar lessons but aren’t sure exactly what to do or how to do things.
  • You aren’t always sure how to teach, demonstrate or explain things in ways that all guitar students will understand and be able to learn from.
  • You get nervous when thinking about what will happen if your guitar students simply won’t ‘get it’ no matter how many times you try to show them how to play or understand something on the guitar.
  • You aren’t sure how to determine if you are doing a good job as a guitar teacher or not.

If you can identify with the points above, you are not alone. It is very common for almost all beginning guitar teachers to have the same concerns as you. In fact, even long time guitar teachers will run into these problems if they have not made the effort to locate someone who has already been highly successful as a guitar teacher (and can show them what they are doing wrong). In most cases, these people will teach guitar for years without ever truly making significant improvement in their guitar teaching skills.

Here are 11 common guitar teaching mistakes that less experienced teachers make. If you can stay away from these, you will be well on your way to becoming a highly successful guitar teacher.

Guitar Teacher Mistake Number One: Not focusing on the student’s goals for guitar.

Many guitar teachers merely ‘react’ whenever a student poses a question or expresses interest in learning something new. This means that the guitar teacher does not have any plan for what is to be taught until the day of the lesson (when the student arrives). The mistake here is that the teacher is focusing too much on solving the student’s problem in the present, and in the process the student’s longer term goals and desires become ignored.

Some guitar teachers try doing the opposite. This means that they plan out everything from the start. This is a problem, because if you plan everything out before getting actual experience with teaching guitar, you will be more likely to miss out on subtle problems that arise from the unique needs of your guitar students.

The most effective guitar teaching approach will use a balance of both of these extremes, and as a result will help your guitar students progress much faster.

Guitar Teacher Mistake Number Two: Misunderstanding how to teach what a student ‘wants’ versus what he/she ‘needs’.

The misunderstanding that most guitar instructors have is thinking that that they must either teach ‘only’ the things their students ‘want’ to learn OR force their students to practice only what they ‘need’ to know. By teaching guitar students only what they ‘want’ in the moment, you can expect very little success in your guitar teaching business. Teaching guitar students what they really ‘need’ is a much better approach. However, in order to be an effective guitar teacher, you will need to balance out both approaches. This will help your students to not only enjoy playing guitar in the moment, but also continue to make progress toward reaching their musical goals.

It is important to understand that what a student wants should be the same as what he needs. Take the time to fully understand your guitar students’ goals so that you know exactly what needs to get done in order to reach them (do this consistently). When you have done this, you can then communicate to your students directly why the things they ‘need’ to know are the SAME as what they ultimately ‘want’ to know. (This is critically important!) Once your students understand how what you are teaching them will ultimately help them become better musicians, they will feel much more motivated to practice and overcome the challenges they encounter in their guitar playing.

Guitar Teacher Mistake Number Three: Not helping your guitar students apply new guitar ideas.

It is easy to tell which guitar teachers are highly successful, and which are not highly successful. How? By looking at the students they teach. For many guitar teachers, it is common that their students have learned a lot of information, but can’t actually play guitar well, create nice guitar solos, make songs, or express themselves with music. One of the biggest errors that guitar teachers commit is not showing their students how to APPLY the things they learn.

Most guitar teachers put an unnecessary amount of energy into showing their students new things to play on guitar. It is much more important that your guitar students understand the ways to apply what they know. This prevents a situation where your students, having already learned a lot about music and guitar, struggle to use their skills in actual music.

Sometimes you will get students who ask you to show them new things on guitar. However, do not feel rushed to be continuously providing new information for them. It is best to make sure that they know how to apply what they have already learned, so that they can use it in real music.

Guitar Teacher Mistake Number Four: Not understanding how to work around or fix a guitar student’s playing mistakes.

If teaching guitar to students were as easy as plugging in the right answer to an equation, there would be little work for guitar teachers to do. In reality, your guitar students are ‘human’ and cannot be programmed so easily. While teaching guitar lessons, you will encounter times when your guitar students are distracted, disinterested, or are simply in the mood to play something different. In addition, some students don’t always want to play everything to perfection. The mistake that teachers make is to “let it slide” too much. In other words, they allow bad habits to build up for the sake of not being too strict. Many times this results not only in sloppy guitar playing, but could also possibly lead to injury!

On the other hand, some teachers are overly strict with their guitar students while fixing bad habits. Unfortunately, this can be a problem as well because most guitar players are not willing to take constant corrections on every little detail. As a result, such guitar teachers cause their students to feel discouraged or unmotivated since they are not getting the chance to enjoy playing and learning guitar.

The most successful guitar teachers have the ability to merge ideas together. It should be your goal to fix all of your students’ bad habits as time goes on. To do this you must prioritize the more urgent ones that need to be taken care of first. The most important problems to fix are the ones that can lead to any kind of physical injury. After this, focus on your guitar student’s picking hand (Often guitar players zone out on their picking hand in everyday playing situations, and will be oblivious to any bad habits).

Guitar Teacher Mistake Number Five: Not clearly communicating to your guitar students what you expect in terms of practice and effort on their part.

You will have some guitar students who will give you 110% when it comes to practicing at home and putting out consistent effort to become a better guitarist. However, the majority of your guitar students will not give you nearly as much effort. The reason this happens so often with most guitar teachers is because the teacher does not set any kind of standard for effort on the student’s part. Because of this, the student does not have a clear idea of how much practice and effort is required in order to be able to play guitar how they want.

The greatest guitar instructors will let their students know that they expect a certain amount of effort, and will help the student to understand why this works to benefit them. In addition, it is important not to have the same expectations for every one of your students. Remember that each student has his or her own unique needs as a guitar player.

Guitar Teacher Mistake Number Six: Teaching too many new ideas in each guitar lesson.

It is very common for guitar teachers to feel as if they must always be ‘teaching new things’. In reality, this causes your students to feel overwhelmed. The reason for this is that they are taking in a bunch of new material, but not actually learning how to APPLY it! So what are the main reasons that guitar teachers feel they must constantly teach new things to their students?

Reason 1 – They feel uncomfortable giving guitar instruction and focuses on demonstrating new ideas each lesson in order to compensate for their lack of teaching skills.

Reason 2 – They have seen other guitar teachers who use this approach and think: “If it works for them, it can work for me.”

Reason 3 – The teacher wants to please students who express that they are ready to ‘move on’. Truth is, even when a student says this, nine times out of ten…they are not ready!

The greatest teaching approach is one that helps your guitar students to effectively learn how to apply what you show them. The key is to train your new students to use what they learn, so that they do not become overwhelmed with excess ‘facts’ that they can’t really use.

Guitar Teacher Mistake Number Seven: Not understanding how to approach teaching guitar when a student ‘doesn’t get it’.

Less experienced guitar teachers typically do not know how to explain new concepts to students in more than one way. These teachers will run into additional problems as well because they are more prone to using their own style of learning to teach their students. This only leads to more problems in communication.

In order to best help your guitar students, it is necessary to understand if each person learns best by watching you play, by listening to you talk, or by spending more time playing guitar on their own. Once you know this, you can more effectively teach them. The best guitar teachers will create a specific strategy based around each student’s learning style in order to help the student get the most out of each lesson.

After you have taught many guitar students you will get better at identifying individual learning styles. However, if you’d like to quickly learn how to do this, you should seek out the advice of an expert guitar teacher who has already shown many other teachers how to become highly successful.

Guitar Teacher Mistake Number Eight: Not knowing how to ‘train’ your guitar students.

The majority of guitar teachers out there only think of themselves as teachers. This means that they are locked in a mindset of merely explaining and reviewing materials with their students (much like a school teacher). Although you are thought of by prospective students as a guitar teacher, you will need to do more than simply ‘teach’ your students.

If you want to truly help your guitar students, you must be able to both ‘teach’ and ‘train’ them. In most cases, they will require more actual training than teaching. This means that you need to put less emphasis on showing them new things to play, and focus more on walking them through the learning process. Make sure to guide them along with encouragement to motivate them as they continue to make progress. Some of your students will feel as if they are ready to move on at times. However, don’t let them move on until YOU know they are ready. If you approach your guitar teaching like this with every student, you will save MASSIVE amounts of time and energy compared to the alternative of merely ‘teaching’ students new things.

Guitar Teacher Mistake Number Nine: Not keeping track of how long people remain as your guitar students.

Many guitar instructors figure that the amount of students they are currently teaching is equal to the amount of success in their guitar teaching business. The truth is, the amount of students you teach does not directly relate to your level of success as a guitar teacher (I currently teach 100+ guitar students, but on its own, this fact does not mean that I am a great teacher). In order to properly gauge your success teaching guitar, you must take various other things into account. One of these things is observing how long each of your students stays with you (this is called your ‘retention rate’). If your guitar students only stay with you for a few months, there is a lot of room for improvement. Essentially, your goal should be to keep your guitar students coming back for years.

That being said, you will not keep every single guitar student for years at a time. This is because different students may have different goals that can be reached in a shorter amount of time. You must always work hard to help your students achieve their goals as quickly, and effectively as possible. However, some goals may be more vague and require more time for the student to find out what he or she really wants. In order to keep more of your students for a longer period of time, seek to understand the reasons why past students have stopped taking lessons with you. Additionally, ask your current long time guitar students why they enjoy taking lessons with you. Monitor these statistics on a consistent basis so that you can continually improve your guitar teaching methods.

Guitar Teacher Mistake Number Ten: Not knowing a good way to judge how well you are doing as a guitar teacher.

Many new guitar teachers are unsure of whether or not they are actually any good at teaching guitar. These people typically do not have any dependable way of measuring their teaching skills or success. Here are the 3 main causes of this:

  1. Less experienced guitar teachers often make comparisons with themselves to other local guitar teachers (who likely aren’t very successful either). They are judging their own skills as a teacher based on the merely mediocre teaching of the other guitar instructors who surround them.
  2. Generally speaking, electric guitar lessons are not thought of as highly as other music lessons such as piano or voice training. This is why you see (for example) piano instructors who keep their students for several years while guitar teachers have a hard time keeping them for months at a time.
  3. Most guitar teachers never actually make the effort to find training to improve their guitar teaching skills. In general, they will ask other (amateur) teachers what to do, or will simply attempt to emulate the actions of others. If these things do not work, they will resort to giving guitar lessons to their students in a ‘hit or miss’ manner. Unfortunately, this tends to make guitar lessons like an ‘experiment’ for your guitar students. There are always times when you will be learning from your mistakes; however it is best to understand how to avoid them from the beginning.

Guitar Teacher Mistake Number Eleven: Not taking full responsibility for the quality of your guitar instruction.

When you teach guitar, your students are paying you with their money, time, and effort. It is important to work as hard as you can to reward them with the best guitar instruction possible. Fact is, most guitar teachers DO NOT put much effort at all to improve the quality of their guitar lessons, or work to help their guitar students achieve their goals faster. These types of teachers merely teach guitar to ‘get by’. Why should a guitar student ever spend their hard earned money for guitar lessons when their teacher isn’t actively working to bring them the best instruction possible? You don’t have to be an incredible guitar teacher before you ever get started teaching (of course); however, if you want to be able to provide the very best guitar teaching for your students, you will benefit immensely by getting trained, coached, and mentored to become the best guitar teacher you can be.

Remember, although there are many great guitar teachers out there, each and every one of those teachers were likely at the same point you are at right now. The vast majority of these teachers made it by finding a mentor who could show them what it takes to overcome any obstacles in their way. These types of teachers are the ones who take consistent action to help their students achieve their goals. These teachers mostly have filled schedules (and waiting lists) full of guitar students, a big name in their city, and live a great life doing what they love every day… You have the EXACT same potential to make choices that will greatly benefit you in your business! Take action right now to take your guitar teaching to the next level with this 7 day free mini course on increasing guitar teaching skills.

About the Author:
Tom Hess is a successful professional guitar teacher, composer and the guitarist of the band Rhapsody Of Fire. He also trains guitar teachers how to improve their guitar teaching methods. Visit his website, tomhess.net to read more articles about guitar teaching, get free guitar teacher skill assessments and guitar teaching tips.

About the Author

4 Comments

  1. Amanda Gilliam

    I believe that you can focus on considering all these mistakes when teaching one to one classes or a class with lesser number of students. Thje problem with most teachers is that they try to do everything at once which leads to lesser supervision of students.

  2. Ashley

    I disagree. A bad teacher follows the same pace week in, week out. A good teach will pace so some lessons, theres lots to learn. maybe a whole new scale across the guitar. Then in the next lesson will deal with the detail of each shape, etc. This detail will take a long time, but if the student has been working with you long enough then they’ll know what you expect from them. Or maybe one week, spend the whole lesson learning 10 new chord, so in the next lesson a whole song can be learnt, simply and without having to worry if the chords are right nor not.

  3. Biplab Poddar

    Thanks for sharing this.I’m currently working on the f# minor nocturne! they’re beautiful pieces.Don’t get me wrong, you have to be strong and confident to be successful in just about anything you do – but with music, there’s a deeper emotional component to your failures and successes. If you fail a chemistry test, it’s because you either didn’t study enough, or just aren’t that good at chemistry (the latter of which is totally understandable). But if you fail at music, it can say something about your character. It could be because you didn’t practice enough – but, more terrifyingly, it could be because you aren’t resilient enough. Mastering chemistry requires diligence and smarts, but mastering a piano piece requires diligence and smarts, plus creativity, plus the immense capacity to both overcome emotional hurdles, and, simultaneously, to use that emotional component to bring the music alive.
    Before I started taking piano, I had always imagined the Conservatory students to have it so good – I mean, for their homework, they get to play guitar, or jam on their saxophone, or sing songs! What fun! Compared to sitting in lab for four hours studying the optical properties of minerals, or discussing Lucretian theories of democracy and politics, I would play piano any day.

    But after almost three years of piano at Orpheus Academy, I understand just how naïve this is. Playing music for credit is not “easy” or “fun” or “magical” or “lucky.” Mostly, it’s really freakin’ hard. It requires you to pick apart your piece, play every little segment over and over, dissect it, tinker with it, cry over it, feel completely lame about it, then get over yourself and start practicing again. You have to be precise and diligent, creative and robotic. And then – after all of this – you have to re-discover the emotional beauty in the piece, and use it in your performance.

  4. Vicki Bliss

    I opened this sight because I have and continue to try to learn to play the guitar. Next month I will begin again with a new teacher. Here is how it went with me. I told the first teacher I could read music. He put some music on the stand and told me where to place my fingers on the frets and something about how to use the right hand. This was for classical guitar. There were never any warm up exercise, no scales…it was ridiculous. I went somewhere else…up goes the music…same thing. I decided to try Jazz on an electric guitar. First lesson, how to play a CMAJ7 scale. I didn’t even know what he was talking about but I more or less learned the chords and on my own began to learn music theory as it applies to jazz. Next came the GMaj7 scale. Then came II V I patterns. Great! And so what? All chords, no melody…no clue how to apply any of it. After 35 years, I still cannot play a song but I can play an F#-7b5. For piano on the other hand, I had played as a child and returned about six months ago to lessons. I have warm-ups…a book of elementary warm up exercises, scales with progressions, arpeggios, and natural, harmonic, and melodic scales. In addition, I have some easy études by Czerny each not too hard to master but with at least one measure that presents some kind of challenge. In addition, I am learning Mozar’s Fantasy in Dmin…a much more advanced piece but one I am familiar with…I will stay with this teacher forever because she has a method. Guitar teachers need to know how to evaluate the studen’ts level and certainly teach how to apply what is learned. I haven’t given up but I have been through the gamut of what does NOT work as far as teaching guitar goes! Here is the formula: warm up/stretching exercises, scales, arpeggios, picking, chords (and how to apply them) and some achievable songs…please…all this!

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