LEARNING TO PLAY GUITAR:
Choosing a Teacher for Your Child or Yourself

GETTING STARTED THE RIGHT WAY

While there are multiple options for learning to play an instrument these days, including free online lessons on YouTube and other sites, and membership sites that can take you from beginner to professional level, to get started properly you should take lessons live and in person with an instructor in your area. The reason is that, at least initially, you need someone to interact with to tell you how to hold the instrument properly, tune it, and to check your hand placement on the instrument. You may only need a few lessons or you may find you need a few months of lessons to get you started. But after some 30 years of teaching guitar and banjo students I can tell you that beginners NEED that kind of feedback and instruction. Unlearning a bad habit is much harder, and ultimately more costly, that learning to play the correct way.
 
This is not to imply that online lessons, whether free or paid, are not of benefit. The fact is that once you have acquired some skill with your instrument and familiarity with general musical concepts, these other sources of instruction can be of great benefit. But you will actually be teaching yourself, since interaction with the instructors is very limited and certainly not the immediate feedback you will get from a live instructor sitting three feet away from you. The instructor can also inspect your instrument for proper setup and tuning to make sure your practice is as comfortable and pleasurable as possible. There’s nothing worse than trying to practice with sore fingers because the setup (action) of the instrument is improper, or the strings are too heavy or worn out. (see Choosing a guitar for your child or yourself)

CHOOSING A SUITABLE TEACHER

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that just because someone is a great player and has years of experience as a performer that they will make a good teacher. If you peruse the ads in your local paper or online sources such as Craigslist you’ll find numerous instructional offers touting the years of performance experience or educational experience that an instructor may have. Generally it means nothing. What you want is someone who is experienced at TEACHING the instrument. The best way to find a suitable teacher is to visit your local music stores and ask them about lessons in your area. It’s very beneficial to the music store owner that you succeed in your musical endeavors since they will usually get a new customer out of the deal. Check out several stores in person and talk to the owner about your interest in learning to play. If possible speak to a few current students and ask them if they’re satisfied with their progress.

Another option is a local private teacher or music school. A number of professional instructors teach out of their home studios or other small storefront. It’s usually easier for these instructors to provide their services to more students and maintain a steady income from teaching if they’re not traveling around to numerous music stores to teach. The atmosphere at private studios is also usually much quieter and more conducive to learning than the busy atmosphere of a big music store. Many music stores keep a list of private teachers with whom they work. So ask about this resource when you visit your local music dealer.

WHAT SHOULD YOU EXPECT TO LEARN?

What exactly will you learn from a local instructor? Most instructors have their own method for working with students. Some follow their lesson schedule very strictly while others will modify it to suit the needs and wants of the student. Here are some considerations when interviewing a prospective teacher:
  1. COST – Ask about lesson fees, make-up lessons, cancellation policy, etc and compare this information with other instructors in your area. Most teachers have done their homework and know what the local market is for their services. You need to know this also.
  2. EXPERIENCE – Your concern about a prospective instructor’s experience should be related to their TEACHING experience not necessarily their PERFORMING experience, unless you are more geared toward mixing learning to play an instrument with learning to entertain or perform with your new skills.
  3. FIRST LESSON FREE - Most teachers in my area offer a free lesson to get you started and to help you evaluate the teacher's relative suitability to your learning needs. This is a good time to discuss the teacher’s lesson schedule and methods, and what specifically you will be learning.
  4. EFFECTIVENESS – A good instructor will give you regular work to do relative to your skill level to keep you moving forward. Since lessons are usually only 30 minutes long, it’s important that your instructor spend that time evaluating your progress since the last lesson and reviewing new skills for you to work on. If your instructor seems more interested in burning up your lesson time by displaying their playing skills for you, rather than teaching you the nuts and bolts of learning to play, find another teacher.
  5. SPECIFIC TUTORING - When you first begin learning to play an instrument you may not know what it is that you want or need to learn. In such cases you are at the mercy of the instructor. As you progress with your instrument you will become more aware of areas of your playing that need targeting. At this point, you should inform your instructor of the direction you’d like to take your lessons. If the instructor insists on following their own lesson schedule, you may need to find another instructor who is more flexible.

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Many instructors will begin by teaching you how to read music along with learning to actually play the instrument. Trust me when I tell you that these are TWO DISTINCT SKILLS and do not necessarily need to be learned concurrently. Reading music is a desirable skill but unless you plan to play with an orchestra or some other structured group, your time would be better spent, at least initially, in developing some dexterity with your instrument. You can always learn to read music at a later time. My purpose for discussing this subject is that learning to read music is a tedious process initially and has discouraged many a beginner who just wanted to learn a few chords so they could have a sing-along at the next family reunion. Learning to read music can also burn up a lot of your lesson time; good for the teacher, not so good for your budget. Some music THEORY is necessary to teach you how to count and achieve stable timing in your playing. In this case your instructor may provide you with a CHORD CHART to help you count and change chords, which is fine. Actually, in my twenty-five years of working in the recording studio, I can tell you that chord charts are about as close as professional musicians get to standard music notation unless we’re recording a string section or an orchestra. These statements are not meant to discourage you from learning to read music, but to get you going more quickly in learning to actually play your instrument.

Generally speaking, I think it’s much more fun and productive to find an instructor who will teach you to play whole songs and not just bits and pieces of unrelated musical phrases. Learn some chords, learn to count and solidify your timing, and maybe even try to sing a little bit ( hideout and practice in a locked room if you’re too shy to perform in front of anyone ), and learn to play songs that YOU like, not necessarily what the instructor likes.

Learning to play an instrument can be an incredibly fun as well as therapeutic activity. If you’re not enjoying your lessons and your practice, or if you’re getting bored with it, something’s wrong. Talk to your instructor and make some adjustments in your musical direction. You’re more likely to continue studying and to progress steadily if you’re enjoying what you’re doing. Above all, your learning experience should be fun and a wonderful musical adventure. Go for it!

 


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Bob Buford, Instructor
Summertown Music

EMAIL: Producer@SummertownStudios.com