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Guitar Playing: Formally Taught vs Self-Taught

Updated on August 10, 2011

There are some key differences between being formally taught and being self-taught on the guitar. Now this really isn't a great debate of any sorts. Any Which Way You Can pretty much sums up the the general route aspiring guitarists take to become well-respected axe-slingers. However, it is well worth it to compare both roads--formal instruction and self-instruction--in order to gain a clear perspective on the general topic of guitar instruction and clear up old myths.

Let's Look at the Myths First

Myth 1. Formally-taught guitarists are better.

Not true. The quality of the guitarist--or any artist--depends on a variety of factors, type of education being toward the bottom of the pile. Self-motivation, dedication, consistency, humility, etc., these are the things that make great guitarists great. You might be saying "humility...Huh?" but lack of humility will keep any great guitarist in a deep, long-term / permanent rut.

Good formal instruction for any guitarist will present that musician with many of the tools necessary for continued growth, especially musical literacy. However, the guitarist needs to understand, grab, and use those tools himself. No instructor can do that for anyone.

Myth 2. Self-taught guitarists don't know music theory or how to read music.

Not true. Many self-taught guitarists know the ins and outs of music theory. Admittedly, less know how to read and write music well. In general, however, it depends on the genre. Classical guitarists depend on music literature more than jazz guitarists, and much more than rock guitarists (an exception will be made for progressive rock). So, a self-taught classical guitarist, for example, should be expected to be able to read and write music at least fairly well.

Myth 3. Being formally-taught steers the guitarist away from bad habits.

Wish this was so, but it just aint. I've heard of the following boo-boos (to put it nicely) from well-respected instructors: begin all phrases with a down-stroke; never use the fret-hand thumb; never pick every note, do a 2-4 fingering consecutively, etc., etc. The above are examples of mis-information.

Myth 4. Self-taught guitarists (bassists, drummers, etc.) are completely self-taught.

Not true. Everyone learns something from someone else, regardless of the field. Music is no magical exception. The duration and circumstances vary greatly, of course, but the influence counts nonetheless. For example, one month of lessons with a good instructor will have an impact on the development of any dedicated student [author's note: I'm not surprised if you've asked "Why stop lessons with a good instructor after one month?" Well, in my case it was because the instructor passed away. It happens].

Well, Those are all the Myths I can Think of.

Now Let's List the Facts.

1. Formal education for a guitarist is like a chord: it takes different shapes.

For a guitarist, having a formal education obviously does not mean playing air-guitar to YouTube videos (even though plenty of serious guitarists get good with help from the vast assortment of guitar-related videos there). So what does formal instruction mean?

It could mean taking lessons with the same guitar teacher--a good one--all through elementary school. It could mean going to a four-year music college, such as Oberlin, Curtis, or Berkelee (Ma.). Or it could mean studying under a great player / teacher such Emmanuel Barreuco, Kurt Rosenwinkel, or Chris Broderick [author's note: I don't know if these awesome players are currently accepting students. I'm simply using them as examples].

2. Self-instruction is a wide road

Self-instruction will cause the guitarist to research and explore out of necessity. Because of this the self-taught guitarist can stand to be as educated as a good instructor (in time, of course!). But it all depends on the guitarist.

  • Videos - today, there are many good players offering good advice and great demonstrations on Web channels such as YouTube. The market is simply saturated, so great free video lessons are not hard to find. However, the guitarist has to watch a lot of them (and read the comments) to learn which teachers / what lessons are good. Just watching one and being impressed is not going to do much good.

  • The Library - this is a great resource for both audio and written music, as well as video (performance and instruction). If you are teaching yourself the guitar you should get to know not only your local library but surrounding ones as well.

  • Join or start a group - do this, and fast. There is no better (and more honest) teacher's aide. And remember, you're the teacher and the student rolled up in one. Not like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde...but more like Janus. Google it. You'll see what I mean.

  • Join a couple of good online guitar forums. The education is immense, fast, and ongoing (hmm, wish other things were like that). I suggest a composition forum, a technique forum, and a gear forum. And if you'd like a fourth, a repairs forum.

3. All good formally-taught guitarists are self-taught to different degrees.

Why? Because a good instructor won't hog the goods. It's a principle. He or she will inspire the student to learn on his or her own by encouraging them to do some of the things mentioned just previously (with the exception of looking for additional teachers on YouTube).

And that's where this circle meets: all good guitarists need to have good self-teaching habits. Ultimately, a guitarist wont (or shouldn't) end up like their instructor, no matter how good that teacher is. So when the time comes for the student to go full speed ahead in their own direction, it's mandatory he or she have the confidence and skills to educate themselves.



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    • 6 String Veteran profile image

      6 String Veteran 6 years ago

      Flagostomos, thanks for your comment.

      --I play with a feller that absolutely refuses to use his thumb over the top of his neck because his teacher told him to never ever never wrap his hand around the neck.--

      Wow. If Jimi were around we could consult him on that LOL.

    • flagostomos profile image

      flagostomos 6 years ago from Washington, United States

      Yes! This hub is so correct! My first experience with learning guitar wasn't even with a flesh and blood instructor. It was an Esteban CD and gave lots of bad advice. In fact, picking up bad habits is worse with an instructor because not only do you pick up THEIR bad habits, but they drill it into you. I play with a feller that absolutely refuses to use his thumb over the top of his neck because his teacher told him to never ever never wrap his hand around the neck.

    • 6 String Veteran profile image

      6 String Veteran 6 years ago

      LOL Thanks SCJ.

    • stclairjack profile image

      stclairjack 6 years ago from middle of freekin nowhere,... the sticks

      you've obviousy given this far more thought than i would have,... ever,...;-) but it was a great read.