How To Teach Guitar: Giving A First Guitar Lesson

date: 08/24/2009 category: features
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This column follows on from my previous article on Ultimate Guitar entitled How good do you need to be to teach guitar? That piece dealt with stuff like the caged system of open chords and it would be a good idea to take a look at that one first so that you could get an idea of where this one sets off from.

First Guitar Lessons: Teaching Absolute Beginners

The following material looks at developing a (flexible) programme of guitar lessons geared towards the complete novice (perhaps the single most common type of student faced by guitar teachers?). It is important to realise that students vary quite considerably in terms of how quickly (or indeed slowly) they are able to develop skills or take on board information. It is quite possible (even desirable!) that as a teacher you may feel that during the course of a lesson a particular student might benefit from being introduced to some of the material from what would normally be the next session. It is equally likely (and desirable) that you might spend more than one lesson dealing with a particular chord sequence or fingering exercise. Please bear this in mind and regard the following material as being guidelines rather than a rigid structure. Objective no 1: To make the student aware of the existence of a bunch of chords that will best allow him or her to make rapid progress Objective no 2: To make the student familiar with (as opposed to merely aware of) four of those chords.

Lesson # 1: The First Four Chords

By the end of the lesson the student will be able to 1. Understand the two areas involved in the mastery of any musical instrument (theory and technique) 2. Learn the shapes of four of the chords (G, Em, C and D) most suitable for a novice guitar player 3. Play those chords (once) in time along with a backing track if possible 4. Become aware of some more chords to take a look at before the next session You can either make your own sheets to distribute to your customers or you could download a free student handout entitled First Guitar Chords from the guitar and bass teachers website that I am part of at Either way it is important that you are prepared for a guitar lesson and that you have access to resources that will allow you to get your message across. Before You Start To Teach Take a little time at the start of a first lesson to find out about the student. It seems obvious but many would be educators just set off at the start teaching whatever it is that they were going to teach come hell or high water and miss out on the chance to connect with a novice player. A few questions like... What sort of stuff are you into? Do you have an electric guitar at home (if they brought an acoustic)? Do you have an acoustic guitar at home (if they pitched up with a strat)? Apart from the fact that this kind of thing breaks the ice the answers provided means that you get to build up a profile of the individual which means that you can throw things in that are directly related to their situation as the lessons develop. Asking new people what sort of stuff they are into usually produces one of two responses. anything really or at the other extreme some of them will bang on wild eyed and spittle mouthed like founder members of a Death Metal Taliban about how there is only one kind of music with any integrity and it is played only by a narrowly defined tribe (sometimes a single band!) of leather clad, heavily tattooed, goaty bearded barbarians with unpronounceable names and pointy guitars who exist on a diet of human offal and who sip pints of maidens blood with that nice Mr Satan (on nights when they don't have any homework). It is important to bear in mind that both students are lying to you. The first student (the anything really person) is just scared of having his or her guitar teacher think that they like uncool music (as if there is any such thing) and the second wishes to convince you that even though he (and it is usually a he) thinks that a power chord is something that you attach to a toaster it is only a matter of time (and maybe a few guitar lessons) before the world wises up and worships him for the god of rock that he undoubtedly is. Be understanding of both of these people (after all they're paying you). The anything really student will quite often turn out to have a quite well defined idea of where they want to go on the guitar when you can coax it out of them and the boggle eyed fanatic regularly turns out to be a committed and enthusiastic student when the fanaticism is channelled in the right way. I usually prefix the question What sort of stuff are you into? with something along the lines of bearing in mind I'm unshakeable (no matter how fierce and sweary your favourite bands are) and I'm also unimpressable (by the obscurity or fashionability of your reference points). What we are looking out for here are just a few bands, artists or genres that you don't mind listening to that I may be familiar with? It's just so we can get a handle on where the lessons might be usefully heading. Having a basic idea of the kind of thing that floats a students boat often allows you to twist (at least some of) the material covered in lessons towards the stated preferences of your customers, which when you think about it can't be a bad thing? The elements of learning guitar Take time near the start of the session to tell the student that to play any musical instrument (not just the guitar) properly involves a mastery of two important elements.These two elements are the Theoretical and the Technical aspects of musicianship (Again this concept- along with the development of repertoire- was covered in some depth in the previous article and it might be a good idea to have a look at it now if you didn't already?) Anyway... Element 1: Music Theory (and why we won't worry about it during early sessions) The first of those elements mentioned above (Music Theory) covers some of the following questions Which notes do I play? Which scale will fit over a particular chord sequence? Which chords sound good together and why? Element 2: Developing Technical Ability (and why we concentrate on it at first) Explain that theory is very important to a musician and let them know that these sort of questions will be discussed during future lessons but that at the moment there is very little point in knowing which notes and chords you would like to play if you can't physically play them! For that reason it's a good idea to let them know that the first lessons tend to be taken up with developing a physical capability on the instrument (getting their hands to change chords). First up give the student a handout featuring a G Em C and D chord progression the teachwombat guitar teachers toolkit features just such a handout but you don't really need it for this lesson. As I said in the last article guitar teachers have gotten along fine without teachwombat for years. All that you need is a sheet of manuscript paper with the following progression (neatly written?) on it
G/// //// Em/// //// C/// //// D/// ////
You should maybe also put yourself a simple bass and drums backing track together (a medium paced rock type of thing?). Again there is a backing track featured as part of our stuff but this is an article and not an advert and if you are a musician seriously thinking of teaching guitar for a living you probably have the technology to do something similar pretty effectively yourself? Explain how the chord diagrams work (we take it for granted but you would be surprised how many people just don't get it at first) and make sure that they know that the numbers inside the black dots (if you are using the free handout?) refer to the left (or fretting) hand fingers used to hold down the strings. Ask them to study the handout, slowly form each chord in turn and strum it once in their own time. Depending upon the individual this may take a little while and you should spend this time looking at what they are doing and encouraging them to form the chords correctly. The main problem that tends to show up at this stage are that some of the fretting hand fingers will inadvertently kill strings that they are not supposed to be touching. By pointing this out and encouraging the student to use fingertips (rather than finger pads) you are really at the heart of what one-on-one instrumental lessons are all about. There are so many resources available to would be musicians that in some ways it is a surprise that anyone is prepared to do something as low tech as drag themselves along to another person's house and pay them to give a guitar lesson but the truth is (and it is perhaps the only reason that we have a job) that a student can't ask a DVD or a youtube video a question. Perhaps the single biggest reason that we are there is because we are able to instantly tell a student where they are going wrong and then come up with a strategy that will help them to put the problem right. Work toward a situation where your student can (very slowly) change between one chord and the next one. This is really the whole point of the lesson and be prepared for it to take a little time. Another commonly encountered problem at this stage is that students sometimes either do not strum all of the required strings for a particular chord (they will often miss the low E string from the Em Chord) or that they play strings that are not part of the chord (such as the open A and E strings when playing the D chord) Encourage them to play the chords first in the sequence presented on the handout (G Em C and D) and when they can do that mix the chords up a little (eg request that they play an D chord followed by a Em chord etc) The idea is that during the lesson the pupil develops an ability to remember the fingerings and play them without continued reference to the handout. Handouts are great but it's no good if the knowledge stays on the paper! Let the student know that what we are looking for is a situation where the chord names and the fingerings are available for instant recall. We are talking about something very important here. You might like to explain to your student (and it does not only apply to beginners or to this lesson) the difference between awareness of something and familiarity with it. When these changes are reasonably secure allow the student hear the backing track for the G Em C and D chord sequence. Now ask the student to strum a single chord as each change comes around. The idea behind this is that having played a single chord the novice player has time (almost two bars) to get ready to fret the next one. Some students will adapt to this fairly quickly whilst others will take a little time to get to grips with the fingerings involved. If they are having trouble putting the chord in the right place you can help them by counting to four over the backing track as the change comes up. After working on this material for a little while it might be a good idea to talk to your pupil about the following notion. You don't learn to play guitar "during" guitar lessons-you learn to play "between" guitar lessons If an individual was able to play everything presented to them perfectly by the end of the lesson then it can be argued that the material was pitched way too low (tell them this!). The object of a good lesson is to give the student a desirable (and achievable) outcome that they can work towards between sessions. If you explain this to them and have them understand it then they tend to feel a little less frustrated that they don't play everything perfectly during the lesson. The objective here is to get them to go away with a clear idea of what they need to do in order to get better before the next lesson. For the students who pick up the changes early it is possible to introduce more involved strumming patterns. It is a good idea at this stage to be careful to restrict the strums to the early part of the first bar of each chord so that the learner will continue to have as much time as possible to move between the chord shapes. Towards the end of the session give the student a copy of the backing track on CD or dump it onto a memory stick or even email it to them for private study (this usually goes down very well!) and ask them if there is anything that they do not understand about the material studied. Before the lesson ends refer the student back to the handout entitled First Guitar Chords (which you can download free now from and tell them that it may be worth looking at the sheet before the next session as the chords introduced in the next lesson (Am Dm and E) are on it. You could use a pencil to indicate which chords from the sheet are to be studied. If you like you can also let your student have printed A4 sheets containing the relevant BIG GRIDS (the giant letter sized chord sheets that you can also download free from the site). Alternatively after downloading them yourself you could just email the relevant chords to your students as attachments and they can print them off and stick them on their own walls at home (saves ink?). Either way your customer will be able to access the material that they need to practice whilst sitting on their bed rather than having to refer to bits of paper lying all over the place. Recap the lesson and then maybe let the student know about some of the songs (or fragments of songs) that can be played using only the four chords studied during this session. You could maybe make use of the information given at the start of the lesson with regard to the types of music etc that they said that they were into? These songs (or fragments) include: His latest Flame G to Em Itchycoo Park G to Em (Chorus) The Locomotion G to Em (verse:1 bar each chord) Shout G to Em Hallelujah (G to Em ok I know its Em7 but it still works?) You Really Got A Hold On Me (G to Em) Stand By Me (All four chords in the order presented) Every Breath You Take (All four chords in order) Simply The Best (All for chords in order) Blue Moon (All four chords in order) Crocodile Rock (All four chords in order) Hungry Heart (All four chords in order) The above list is just intended to get the student to realise that they are capable of making rapid progress. Some of the songs detailed above are not in the original keys of the recorded versions and there are some simplifications going on there. Finally: before winding up the session check that your student knows what to work towards before the next meeting That was a reasonably in depth look at a first lesson. The next article will look at the bigger picture with relation to setting out a plan for the next few lessons and introducing some single note (as opposed to chord) work. Rob Hylton is part of guitar and bass teacher's resources website. You can download a free student handout First Guitar Chords featuring the chords used in this lesson from 2009 Rob Hylton. All Rights Reserved
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