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Learning the Guitar: Choosing a Teacher, Class, or DIY

Updated on November 14, 2011

Playing the guitar is a whole lot of fun but it's not easy. That's the first thing an aspiring guitar player needs to accept. The second thing hard fact that requires full digestion is that non-Classical guitar does not have a standard methodology. By saying non-Classical I am excluding the folks who sit with the guitar on the left leg while the left foot is suspended inches off the ground via footstool. These are Classical guitarists.

Some big names in this genre (classical guitar) are: Andres Segovia. Liona Boyd. Manuel Barrueco. Eliot Fisk, etc. Tried and true learning systems for Classical guitarists are Noad and Shearer, as well as newer ones such as Pumping Nylon.

So, unless you are planning to be a Classical guitarist--and there's certainly no eyebrow-raising about that here--you can look forward to having no standard methods from which to choose. Generally speaking, this goes for Blues, Jazz, and Rock styles of guitar playing. The exceptions are Flamenco and Country styles, as there are more developed learning systems within those genres (the first more than the latter). Country players have the Travis system, for example.

For other instrumentalists, such is not the case. For example, violinists depend on the Kodaly and Suzuki methods, among others. Two time-tested methods for pianists are Czerny and Hanon. But non-classical guitar? Nope. We have books numbering in the tens of thousands, perhaps (not counting e-books), but not unified methods.

Why am I bringing this point home? Because it colors the whole learning landscape regarding non-Classical guitar. And when you have decided to learn this instrument and are considering how, this fact will play a major part in your decision-making process, whether you know it or not.

Is she the teacher?
Is she the teacher?

Choosing a Guitar Teacher

With the above considerations in mind, choosing a guitar instructor is a more complex task, yet one that is done with much more wisdom. Case in point: my wife took guitar lessons some years ago from a teacher with a major drawback--she had her own notation system which she imposed on her students. "Mrs. 6SV" no longer remembers this system, and--even if she did--would be hardly any better off since that 'method' went no further than the teacher's apartment and her circle of apprentices.

Here is a list of important considerations / questions regarding a new guitar teacher:

  • Nevermind where the teacher went to school--that doesn't make them a good teacher. However, if the instructor-to-be attended Boston's Berkelee College of Music ask him his opinion of William Leavitt's publications. William Leavitt, a prolific author and Berkelee staff member, did have a method--albeit one with some faults--on which guitarists can build. If the instructor is in favor of them ask how strictly he follows them and if he (or she) promotes those concepts.

  • If you are considering an older instructor, ask his or her opinion of Mel Bay. Mr. Bay developed somewhat of a method in his day (he's now deceased) and any older teacher should have an opinion on his body of instructional work (now being carried on by his son, Bill). The big downside of Mel's work is, unlike Leavitt, he was not too concerned with fingerings--a big NO-NO for guitar players, musicians who are constantly presented with multiple fingering options due to the nature of our instrument.

  • Ask the teacher to play something for you, either a cover (someone else's composition) or an original. IT'S BEST IF THE SONG PLAYED IS INSTRUMENTAL.This way you won't be distracted with vocals. How well someone plays will have a huge impact on their teachmanship IF they teach with their students' best interests in the foreground.

  • Do a little research before your trial lesson so that you can quiz your teacher-to-be (respectfully, of course). Ask him or her how many full-neck open G chords are there. If he shows you just one, run. If he can only come up with two, I'd tell 'im to "shoo!" but it's up to you. Three, well, let's see...but if he can quickly think of four or more I wouldn't even think of walking out that door. Test his or her music theory knowledge (again, respectfully) by asking what are the notes in these chords: C Major (he should immediately say C, E, and G), E minor (E, G, B), F Major (F, A, C), and A minor seven (A, C, E, G). Then ask about scales: "What scale degree is B in the A minor scale?" Or, "What scale degree is G sharp in the same?" (first answer: 2. Second answer: sharp 7). If you want to get sophisticated ask what are the notes in an "A 13 flat 9" (A13b9) chord (answer: A, C#, E, G, Bb, D, F#...ok if D is excluded). If the instructor-to-be gets these questions right without consulting YouTube or Wikipedia--congrats!--you might have found your teacher.

  • In general, be sure to ask what method(s) will be used. You DON'T want a teacher who is going to simply show you their versions of other people's songs.

Of course, there are more considerations and questions to ask when evaluating a possible guitar instructor-to-be such as rates, lesson-duration (45 min. to one hour is best if you can afford it), and cancellation policy. The above information, however, will filter out the quacks.

Choosing a Guitar Class

If one-on-one guitar lessons are beyond the parameters of your wallet, consider taking a quality guitar course. Your local Community College is a good place to look. This time, however, some of your questions should be directed toward some of the students. As well as posing the questions in the above paragraph to the course's instructor, a couple of the students should be gently solicited to verbally evaluate the teacher as far as class structure is concerned.

Some questions might be:

  • Does he or she balance class-time fairly, regarding student's inquiries? For example, are more knowledgeable students favored? This wouldn't be good if it were the case.

  • How accessible is the instructor outside of class? Do they respond promptly to e-mails?

  • What's their pace? Are they patient or are they a full-speed-ahead-only-the-swift-will-survive kind of instructor?

The obvious downside to group settings is the lack of one-on-one attention. However, a good instructor can turn a group into fertile ground for learning and inspiration by stimulating students and maintaining that fresh sense of excitement throughout the course.

Choosing to DIY

If you are an aspiring guitarist who is self-motivated and frugal, DIY might be the best route for you. Just keep in mind that this route will take the most out of you. What you'll need: a guitar (duh) with necessary accessories such as an electronictuner and a metronome (gives a steady click for you to practice scales and chord progressions to, etc. I recommend electronic over non), an amplifier if your guitar is electric, and a well-working computer (Mac or PC ok...I'm not going to say Macs are better for music like some Jobs-ites LOL).

You will, if you DIY, need to get intimately familiar with YouTube (no, I don't work for Google) as that site is the best free resource available to guitarists, and is--for some reason--a haven for 6-stringers and beyond (7, 8, 9 stringers, etc.). There are literally millions of videos there, many of which are by and for guitarists.

So, don't be quick to subscribe to the first 'virtuoso teacher' you encounter. Check out at least four guitar teachers and ask a knowledgeable friend, such as yours truly, to help you evaluate who is best. Then, subscribe and PRACTICE. Watching someone--especially someone who plays well--is very enjoyable, but is no sub for hard practice. So, watch you will but practice you must.

Since they are simply too numerous to mention (and I'd like to finish this Hub) please contact me here for a list of good YT guitar teachers. True Fire TV and Justin Sandercoe are two good places to start. I personally don't like the Rockongoodpeople channel though they have many subscribers. Theodore Ziras is ok for heavy metal lead guitar but watch him--he plays faster than he should and hides the missed / flubbed notes with plenty of distortion (not setting a good example, Theo). Better off checking out any Paul Gilbert video for speedy Rock guitar (No, not Yngwie as he has no patience).

There are also good Hub guitar teachers, some of whom have YouTube accounts. A good place to start is Hubber Jon Green (not sure if he has a YT page) who has many, many informative articles on different aspects of the guitar. Hub Pages' own Music Lady has many articles as well. And, of course, there's me (modest, I know). And yes, I have a YT channel (see my profile).

So, when you DIY you will have to make your own 'Frankenstien' method using method books (yes, more than one is best--it evens out the faults of one book) and book-based research as well as the Internet, video, and willpower. It's more of an investment, time- and will-wise, but the payoff is huge. You might end up knowing enough to teach others, in a shorter amount of time than with any other knowledge route.

Of course, every good guitarist does DIY to a certain degree, some more than others. So DIY is always hovering in the background, waiting to be utilized at some point or other. I know this is a well-worn closing phrase, but...I hope this helps.



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    • 6 String Veteran profile image

      6 String Veteran 7 years ago

      Thanks for the Qs.

      As far as sloppiness goes you might take a look at a vid I did called ~So You Learned a Guitar Scale, Now What?~ on my YT page (see my profile for the link). It'll give you 4 or 5 simple melodic sequences to memorize and use while practicing. They will help to condition your fret-hand but are also good for composing and improvising.

      Regarding ear training, I started writing you a response here but it was getting too involved so it's a Hub now: Looking fwd to any Qs you might have on it.

    • profile image

      Erik S. 7 years ago

      I love Paul Gilbert.

      Anywho, I've been playing guitar for about 5 or so years now, and I'm still pretty sloppy at it. I don't take the time to learn things perfectly, but instead try to jump right into them. I'm not so sure DIY is for me, lol. It's a fault of mine I'm working on, but I do have a question that perhaps you could help me with...

      Any tips on how to train your ear?

    • 6 String Veteran profile image

      6 String Veteran 7 years ago

      Glad to hear that. Look fwd to more guitar-related posts. I'm also open to topic-suggestions.

    • lorddraven2000 profile image

      Sam Little 7 years ago from Wheelwright KY

      Good job. I found this rather useful