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Improve Your Guitar Teaching - Part 1
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Tom Hess

Improve Your Guitar Teaching
Part 1
by Tom Hess

Although there are many different ways you can help your students become better guitar players and musicians, we can group almost everything you do into 3 main categories:

1. Inspiring and motivating your students – teaching guitar well is often more about inspiring your students than teaching a new scale, chord or song.

2. Teaching them ‘new things’ to play/practice – Most guitar teachers understand this basic concept, but often struggle to know exactly how much ‘new content’ is too little or too much for each student. Most teachers ‘overwhelm’ their students with simply too much material in a short amount of time.

3. Helping them to solve their playing/musical problems – The best way to improve your guitar teaching is to understand exactly how to help any student overcome any problem.

Each of these areas has its own challenges, but for most teachers it is the last category (helping students solve guitar playing/musical problems) that can be the most difficult to ‘consistently’ do well.

When teaching guitar to solve problems and bad habits, the first thing to do is get clear on the process:

  1. Identify the true cause of the problem. Remember that ‘symptoms' of problems and 'causes' of problems are often totally different things. A misdiagnosed problem (just like a misdiagnosed medical problem) can make things worse than doing nothing at all.

  2. Find proven solutions to overcome this problem. Yes, this seems like an obvious point, but often teachers ‘guess’ or use the trial and error approach to teaching guitar. Surround yourself with other experienced guitar teachers. Ask them for their advice on your specific challenge, doing so may save you and your student a lot of time and frustration.

  3. Communicate the causes and your solution to your student’s problem. Again, this may seem like common sense, but fact is, most teachers do not fully explain the cause and solutions to the problems students have, they sort of skip this part and move directly into implementing the solution. The reason why communicating the cause and solution to your student is so important is that, without the student truly knowing what these things are, they often won’t truly practice your solution diligently at home.

  4. Implement the solution (training). To be the most effective, you need to do more than ‘teach what to do’, you need to ‘train' them to do it. The ‘teaching part’ can usually be done quickly, but it is the ‘training’ that takes the time. Think more like a sports trainer and less like a school teacher as you implement solutions while teaching guitar (more on this below).

  5. Hold their hand – You do not need to treat all your students like children (unless they are children), but when teaching guitar, it is important that you monitor your students' motivation level and help them to keep it high. A mediocre guitar teacher who keeps his/her students highly motivated will almost always get much bigger results than a great ‘technical’ teacher who does little or nothing to keep students inspired and motivated – yet this is an area most teachers don’t do consistently well in – because they underestimate its importance.

Because students typically have multiple problems in their playing (inconsistent articulation, weak sense of timing, excess body tension, inefficient hand movement, excess string noise, just to name a few common ones), and because there are typically multiple causes to each of those problems, the hardest part about teaching guitar (as it relates to solving students’ playing problems and breaking bad habits) is knowing the best ‘order’ to deal with the causes of a student’s problems. Timing is critical and so is the order.

Many (well intentioned) teachers make the mistake of trying to use ‘linear logic’ to help students break bad habits and overcome challenges. There are many problems with this, the main one is we don’t teach machines, we are teaching ‘people’. Everything we do, and ‘when’ we do it, has a positive or negative impact in the mind of our students. In theory it might make perfect sense for a teacher to make the student deal with the most basic problems first. That seems logical right? Well, those that follow this all the time will have a hard time keeping students long enough to help them become the guitar players they wish to be.

Contrary to what many guitar teachers believe, fixing the most fundamental problems your students have in the beginning (or trying to break too many bad habits at once) does more harm than good for most students. Yes, problems and bad habits must be dealt with in order for your students to reach their maximum potential, but too much of this at the same time may kill the will for your students to endure the natural frustration that comes with learning to play guitar. 

Each student is different and you need to get a sense of how much tolerance the student sitting in front of you can handle in the present moment. If you overestimate this, the result is likely going to lead to massive amounts of frustration for your student and he/she may give up lessons and playing guitar completely.

How long does it usually take your beginning guitar students (as an example) to sit or stand with ‘perfectly correct’ posture, use perfect left and right hand positions, use the correct picking motions and articulation etc. etc. when playing and practicing? Sure you can teach this in a minute or two, but how long will it take that student to instinctively do this ALL THE TIME on his/her own without you reminding them? (for most students, it takes a long time).

Is it ‘ok’ to let your students continue to play and practice guitar when you KNOW many basic things are wrong and that they WILL form bad habits by allowing them to go on in this way?

Most guitar teachers would say, ‘no, it’s not ok’ and then proceed to immediately try to correct all of them as soon as possible… other guitar teachers simply don’t notice or don’t care enough to address these things. They figure as long as students keep coming back to lessons, everything is good.

The best approach for teaching guitar is neither. To be clear, your top priority should be to keep your student coming back for as many lessons as possible - not simply because you make more money that way, but because, if a student gives up lessons, you can do nothing to help him/her. Obviously, you must deal with problems and bad habits though (to not do this would be the same as only feeding kids candy and never real food).

When teaching guitar to solve a problem, avoid dealing with the ‘entire’ problem and all its causes at once. Begin with the one thing you can do for your student that will be easiest for him/her to correct. This will help to build confidence that he/she can begin to overcome the problem and that doing so wasn’t extremely hard to start with. Pay attention to how much of this you think they can handle right now. If it looks good, then give them the next thing to fix.

Although some guitar playing problems and bad habits can be really big issues to deal with, try not to make the entire lesson only about solving problems. Most students need to get a sense of forward progress and even though solving problems is forward progress, they can’t always see that themselves even after you explain it to them, so give them something else that is fulfilling for them to play and practice. (a little sugar with the medicine helps it go down easier) ☺

Test your guitar teaching skills.

About the author: Tom Hess is a highly successful guitar teacher, professional touring guitarist and recording artist. He coaches other guitar teachers on how to teach guitar.

About Tom Hess

Tom HessTom Hess is a touring musician, composer and the guitar player for the metal band Rhapsody Of Fire. He also teaches guitar players from around the world via online correspondence guitar lessons. Visit were you can find free video guitar lessons, free guitar playing resources and more guitar articles.

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