Learning to play guitar can be incredibly challenging, and one of the best ways to level up your playing is through one on one guitar lessons. But what if you’re not learning anything? What if you’re not getting any better? What should your guitar teacher be teaching you?
Guitar lessons are meant to increase your knowledge of music, technical skills, and the ability to bring these elements together to make music. There are a number of reasons why that may not be happening because of either a poorly designed curriculum, a teacher unwilling to bend from the lesson plan, or a teacher who struggles with connecting with a student at the right level.
What’s the Point of Guitar Lessons?
There are 4 main areas that guitar teachers focus on when designing a curriculum or teaching lessons. These areas are technical skills, music theory, ear training, and repertoire.
Technical Skills: These are the mechanics of playing the guitar. How to physically get your hands to do what you want them to. These skills include things like fingerpicking, sweep picking, bending, vibrato, double stops, and other dexterity based skills.
Music Theory: Even during the early stages of guitar lessons, the student should be exposed to some introductory music theory. One of the most basic examples of this is teaching why certain chords go together. Why does Am, D and G sound good when played back to back? These are simple building blocks which open up worlds of possibility later.
Ear Training: This is music we’re learning to play, and for the guitar player that encompasses both the tactile experience of the instrument and the musical sound element as well. But for the listener, it is all sound. It’s all about the music.
The most valuable and important skill that we can build as guitar players is our ear. What do I mean by that? Ear training involves hearing when things are in or out of tune, understanding a notes’ relationship to another note or group of notes, and being able to learn songs just by listening to them.
Repertoire: A guitar player isn’t a guitar player unless they can play songs. No matter how you slice it, a good guitar player knows a lot of songs. Guitar lessons aren’t necessarily for learning songs, that should be done during your practicing hours. However, the other pieces (ear training, theory, and technical skill) should be taught in the context of new songs.
What Should a Guitar Teacher be Teaching a Beginner?
Guitar lessons for a beginner guitar player are going to focus heavily on the mechanics and basic technical skills needed to learn chords, play notes, and string them together into songs.
These skills initially will be tuning the guitar, how to hold the guitar, holding the pick, how to strum chords, how to fret chords, and how to not want to cry because your hands aren’t doing what your brain wants them to do.
This is where progress can seem slow and these first couple hurdles will weed out the people who really aren’t interested in putting in the effort to learn how to play guitar. Yes, your fingertips will hurt badly until your calluses form, but don’t let that be the nail in the coffin, you just have to fight through the pain.
Yes, your fretting hand will also start to cramp up and look like a crumpled piece of paper. Initially your fingers won’t go where you want them to and it may be very frustrating. Keep soldiering on and you will get the hang of it.
A good guitar teacher will be teaching these basics to a beginner and encouraging them along. They should be helping the student see that these hurdles can be overcome with the right technique and discipline, which they should be teaching them.
Discipline can’t be the only thing keeping a student coming back, which means excitement and motivation are valuable keys to ensuring a beginner guitar player turns into a guitar player. This typically comes in the form of instructors teaching students songs that they would like to learn.
A good instructor should be flexible enough that they’ll take a song that you like and teach it to you, incorporating technical skills, ear training, and music theory along the way. If done right, the student doesn’t even know they’re learning all of this extra stuff. They learn how to play a song they like and they’re stoked!
While focus during beginner guitar lessons will be spent on the building blocks and guitar fundamentals, lessons should be fun, and make you want to practice and come back the next week.
What Should a Guitar Teacher be Teaching an Intermediate Player?
Intermediate guitar lessons will be focused on specific exercises to build on the player’s established technical skills. This is often in the form of warm up finger exercises, advanced picking and fretting techniques, and advanced familiarity with the fretboard.
In this phase of learning, a teacher will be prodding the student for areas in which their fundamentals are lacking. While not always fun, this building up of foundational elements will produce a truly great player who will be able to adapt to any style of music easily and will gain valuable skills necessary for playing with other people and in live settings.
This is typically the time when serious and specific effort is spent towards music theory. If the beginner student’s guitar teacher was doing things correctly, lightbulb moments with theory won’t be far away.
For example, in the beginner phase diatonic chords should be offhandedly mentioned as part of a key. When keys and how chords are built is covered, the student has already been exposed to the idea that certain notes belong to a key and when building chords, we can grab notes from that key. If prepared correctly, there are many topics which will begin to click in the student’s mind.
Topics covered for an intermediate player are: music theory, complex chords, inversions, advanced chord shapes, chord shape frameworks (like CAGED system), advanced right hand picking techniques, speed, time and unconventional time signatures, and many other topics related to theory and application of scales and improvisation.
This is the only guitar book that I recommend. It’s so important to learn how to read music notation early on, and will put you lightyears ahead of most guitar players.
What Should a Guitar Teacher be Teaching an Advanced Player?
Advanced guitar players are just as likely to take lessons, and truly great musicians are always looking for others who they can learn from.
An advanced student is typically learning from a teacher who specializes in a specific genre or style of playing. For instance, a jazz student will take lessons from a jazz player with more experience or a high degree of skills in a certain department in which the student is trying to get better.
One thing we discuss below is the high degree of self direction, ownership, and honest assessment that a guitar player must achieve in order to be a good musician. All advanced guitar players have these qualities and learn these critical skills. A guitar player may be good, but without this level of self analysis they will always be intermediate and never become great. More on what it takes to learn these skills of self assessment later.
A Guitar Teach is Working For You
While most guitar teachers have a general curriculum that guides lessons with a student, it’s incredibly important for that teacher to be flexible in their lessons and willing to make changes when necessary.
If you get the feeling like you’re just being pushed through a mill of standardized material, then this next tip is for you.
Don’t forget that you’re paying them, and they’re working for you. If at any point you feel like you’re not getting the amount of attention, preparation, or service for the money the lessons cost, let the teacher know. Don’t waste time and money if you feel like you’re not learning consistently from a guitar teacher.
When just starting to learn guitar, you should feel like you’re trying to drink from a fire hose. There’s so much to learn that you shouldn’t ever feel like you’ve stalled out, or you’re not making any progress. If this is the case, the teacher is either not paying enough attention to the speed at which you learn, or there is a misalignment between teaching styles and learning styles.
I know it can be scary, but this is important. Have a frank conversation with your teacher and explain your frustrations. Don’t let emotion get in the way, this is objective. If you’re unhappy with the instruction you’re getting it’s important to have that conversation early. This gives the instructor plenty of time to make adjustments, or set expectations. If an instructor is not willing to change their style to fit your needs, look for someone else. Again, there’s no point in wasting your time or money if you’re not learning.
The Teacher to Student Connection
While it’s important to be challenged and pushed forward by your instructor, it’s also important to have a good teacher student connection. This doesn’t have to be overly friendly, but it does need to be built on mutual respect and solid communication.
If your instructor is pushing you through a pre-baked curriculum that doesn’t meet your needs or interests, that shows a lack of respect for your time and money. If they are unwilling to change once you’ve expressed concerns this is a double red flag which shouldn’t be ignored.
Lessons should have a relaxed feel. If you’re feeling overly stressed or under pressure during a lesson something needs to change. Learning can be difficult if not impossible when the student isn’t relaxed.
Communication is the only way to ensure an environment in which your concerns are heard. If you feel like you can’t communicate openly and honestly with your instructor, move on to the next one. Don’t waste any more time or money with someone who won’t listen to you.
While most guitar instructors are not taught basic principles of teaching, it helps you as a student if you know some of the fundamentals. One of these is that Praise stimulates remembering.
According to the FAA’s Aviation Instructor Manual, “Responses that give a pleasurable return tend to be repeated. Absence of praise or recognition tends to discourage, and any form of negativism in the acceptance of a response tends to make its recall less likely.” [FAA-H-8083-9a]
Teaching students to become pilots, and good guitar players share quite a bit in common. This is one of those fundamentals of teaching that is incredibly important. If your instructor is not praising or noting the times when you excel, you’re more likely to shy away from the correct action.
A note to guitar teachers, it will do wonders for your teaching career if you take a bit of time to study the methodologies in which students learn the best. Check out the FAA’s Aviation Instructor Manual. It’s free to download as a PDF and has some great info on how students of different ages learn, and it’s very applicable to teaching guitar and music.
Take Your Learning Into Your Own Hands
This might be the most important lesson that you will have to learn as a student. Your success as a guitar player is not defined by your instructor, nor is it your instructor’s job to ensure you’re learning and progressing as a player. “But that’s quite literally their job!” You say shaking your fists in the air.
Here’s the deal. There are some bad teachers out there, probably just as many as there are good teachers. You don’t want to leave your guitar playing up to chance do you? You have to be willing to communicate when you feel like something is amiss. You also need to be willing to pull the plug and start learning from someone else if things aren’t getting better.
It’s up to you if you want to become a kick ass guitar player or not. Take that responsibility into your own hands and you’ll do awesome. Now stop reading this and pick up that guitar, it’s not going to play itself!