Much of how we learn and teach music has moved online. If you just take the topic of guitar, there's a ton of information available to you from your computer or device.
This is because there are people who can teach guitar and are able to build resources online to make their content available to more people. Whether online guitar courses, Skype lessons or some other form of digital information exchange, there are plenty of ways to learn guitar and become an educated musician over the internet.
This has led to some publications and guidance meant to help those who are providing the instruction, or to tell people how to become guitar teachers.
A quoted search of the phrase "how to teach guitar" turns up over 100,000 results, at the time of writing this article (May 2020).
This exact phrase is searched for over 1600 times per month, clearly showing that there are many people seeking information on how to teach guitar. My concern, and the topic of this article, is that the information they're met with is, at best, poor quality and - in some cases - misleading.
I want to present and refute some of the myths about teaching guitar that I've seen crop up in other blogs and websites.
What websites are talking about teaching guitar?
I don't want to name names, nor do I want to disparage or "call out" particular people or publications. Many of these websites vanish just as quickly as they show up, so I don't put a lot of stock in any one particular quote or saying. We have our sources of information that we trust and we love promoting those sources.
However, for every online music resource I trust, there are 50 others that I would avoid.
Often you'll simply have inaccurate information, bad writing, or it's obvious that the writer doesn't have any experience with the guitar or real musicianship. In other words, they aren't a guitar teacher, yet they're trying to advise guitar teachers.
This is all too common.
And what's more strange is that they often do really well in terms of traffic and search ranking, at least for awhile. For example, take a look at this graph from SimilarWeb:
I've redacted the name of the site, but this is one of the places I'm talking about that publishes a ton of really bad information that reads as though the author has never touched an instrument, much less the guitar. And while I don't totally understand how or why these websites have good runs, I do know they reach people and I want to do what I can to counterbalance some of their bad information.
For example, one site might say, "Hey, you don't need to know music theory to teach music!"
- Site 2: No music theory to teach!
- Site 3: Teaching with music theory? NO THANKS
- Site 4: How to learn guitar without any music theory
This continues on until something you saw on LifeHack or BuzzFeed is now common knowledge and unassailable truth. What's weird is that this type of thing, at least around guitar-related topics, always suggests that you can do less work and still accomplish the same goal of becoming a guitar teacher.
I must object.
Teaching Guitar and/or Music is Hard
Here's the thesis I'll use in my debunking of these guitar teaching myths:
Teaching guitar or music, in any capacity, is hard.
And by hard, I don't mean you have to be miserable doing it, or that if you can do it you're some kind of super hero. It's just work. And when I see a bunch of content suggesting (or outright saying) it's not work, I worry that readers are being led astray by people who don't actually teach guitar or music.
With my angle now established, let's get into the myth paraphrasing and the debunking thereof.
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1: You Don't Need to be Qualified to Teach Music
Perhaps what some writers mean by this is that you don't need to have a degree in music or music theory to teach guitar or a musical instrument. I would agree with those writers, albeit to a limited extent.
Unfortunately, what most writers mean - what they communicate - is that you don't need to be a proficient instrumentalist in order to teach.
Instead, they'll use words like "passionate" or "enthusiastic" about the instrument or that it's about "sharing knowledge."
Those things are good, and part of the equation, but they're not the only requirements for teaching. Because, being passionate about something doesn't mean you'll be good at teaching it.
Reality is far more brutal.
You can be really passionate and enthusiastic about something and not only lack the ability to teach it, but lack the skill in and of itself.
Not only does passion not qualify you to teach an instrument, but it doesn't necessarily mean you're good at the instrument itself. You might be really passionate and also have a really low skill level. Holding up passion as the biggest leap to make on your path to becoming a teacher is - on its best day - irresponsible.
Not only that, but it diminishes teaching as a profession and lowers the expectations of the student.
How convenient that this kind of thinking paves the way for low-skilled musicians, who haven't put the time into their own development, to now make money off of people who know even less than they do.
This brings me to myth number two.
2: Guitar Teacher's are Expected to Provide Information that is Mostly Entry Level
Every skill has tiered levels of difficulty that increase as the ability of the learner increases. As the student improves, so must the depth and involvement of the material that is being presented to them. What you'll hear instead, is that guitar lessons are mostly basic and don't need to cover the more in-depth topics. While I've read this a lot, I've yet to read a coherent, well-though out argument that actually defends it as a viable position.
Again, this seems designed to allow low-skilled players to teach. It's saying, "Hey, everyone can teach something about guitar and it's all valuable."
This also suggests that your ability as the teacher does not have to drastically outpace the abilities of your student.
Again, this is simply incorrect.
As the Teacher You Should be Remarkably More Skilled than your Student(s)
In order to teach someone the guitar, you need to have fought those battles ahead of time on your own. You can't do it with the students and you can't "learn with them."
As a guitar teacher, your skill level with the instrument should be advanced. In other words, you shouldn't just know what you're about to teach your student within the next few weeks. You should know far beyond those topics, so that when a student learns the easy stuff, you'll be able to take them into more advanced material.
As with learning a new language or math, the involvement gets deeper and more advanced as you learn and increase in skill.
Guitar and music are the same way, which means teachers need plenty of headroom to work with their students as those students improve.
3: Music Theory is Needlessly Complicating a Student's Path to Playing Songs
This myth almost deserves its own article because it's one of the most popular and common assertions in regards to learning guitar.
It was also a core idea of the new educational platform that Fender put out in early 2017 - Fender Play - to try and get more young players interested in the guitar. The reasoning is that young guitarists are quitting guitar (not true - see myth #7) because the path to playing songs - or application of some kind - is simply too long.
Fender Play's idea is to omit a massive amount of theory and technical information in favor of learning a few chords and basic concepts, then getting right into playing songs.
My Fender Play review digs all that up and expounds in detail.
My main argument against Fender Play is that, while it certainly simplifies the path to application, it's like building an aesthetically-pleasing house without digging any foundation. It might be fun, but there's no real understanding of music after the song is over.
Music Theory Does Not Complicate Learning the Guitar
Ironically, avoiding music theory actually has the opposite effect, in that it drastically complicates the process of learning and applying guitar technique. Because everything you do on a guitar is theoretical. You simply can't avoid that reality, even if you're just trying to play some simple songs.
- Songs are played in a key (music theory)
- Chords are derived from scales which are derived from keys (music theory)
- Frets move in semitones, which group into intervals, forming chords and scales (music theory)
Guitar teachers should know music theory and they should teach it from day one.
Everything that happens on the guitar's fretboard is explained and made possible by music theory. There is no other way to understand it.
Is it complex in some ways? Yes.
Can it be hard to understand? Yes, again.
Yet, that's not sufficient reason to throw out the only mechanism we have by which to truly understand our instrument. Music and the guitar, in and of themselves, are complex things to learn. Music theory is the grid by which we understand those topics, and not an arbitrary list of ideas needlessly complicating an otherwise simple task.
Can you simplify the learning process in the short term? Sure.
But in the long term, you're going to have a hard time making sense of the music you're playing without music theory, even if your "chops" have improved.
Guitar teachers should know music theory and they should teach it from day one.
4: Students are Paying for the Friendship and the Face-to-Face Aspect of Guitar Lessons
While there are elements of truth to this idea, it tends to give the impression that hourly guitar lessons are more about the human interaction and less about the substance of the material being covered. While this is certainly a benefit of teaching as a tutor or in a classroom environment, it's not what's actually being paid for.
As a teacher you are providing a service. You are, in a sense, a consultant being paid an hourly rate for your expertise.
That expertise is the commodity.
The other issue here is that a lot of guitar lessons now happen remotely or digitally, which means there isn't a high degree of friendship or human interaction between the student and teacher. This works because you're paying for expertise, which can be shared through online mediums. Even if you're giving lessons in-person, in your living room, you're still being paid for your skill.
Social interaction should only serve to underscore the instruction you're able to provide.
5: The Linear Method is Bad
I wrote (and continue to update) an article on Guitar Chalk that covers how to teach guitar in a linear topical order. When I hear that it's bad to teach guitar in a linear order, the argument is typically along these lines:
"Music is art, therefore it is not linear like science or math."
First, you could make the case that music is every bit as mathematical as it is artistic, but I'll concede the art argument. Even then, we must assume that a linear method terminates on itself, meaning it's linear for the sake of being linear. The truth is that guitar is taught in a linear, successive manner because it provides the best possible grid for encouraging the most creativity.
If you throw out that grid, you won't learn topics in a linear manner, but you also won't have much of an understanding of how to be creative.
Every Type of Academic Pursuit is Linear
Every academic discipline is linear. You always have to crawl before you can walk and walk before you can run.
Throwing out that structure when you're teaching guitar, just because guitar is artistic, doesn't benefit you or the student. Thinking that it causes some kind of a problem or blocks the creative energy of your student is little more than a convenient excuse to not have a planned out learning path.
As the teacher, it's on you to teach topics in a proper linear order and show your student how to use that information to foster and encourage creative expression.
6: You Can Build a Business Out of Teaching Guitar
I'm not saying that accomplished musicians who have put time and energy into their careers can't then funnel that energy into a successful teaching business. I'm also not trying to say that teaching can't be a lucrative side hustle.
However, out of the online education boom also came this idea that you could make more money as an online guitar teacher than you could in a living room tutoring arrangement. In response, a bunch of websites put together really sales-pitchy promotional material claiming they could teach you "how to make money as a guitar teacher."
I really want to use some examples here, but I'm trying to keep from mentioning names. You probably have a picture in your mind though of what these things look like.
People started to think that because of the internet, they could suddenly make a lot more money just by teaching guitar.
Teaching Guitar with or without the Internet is a Side Hustle
Again, there are people who know how to build teaching and music education businesses, yet those people are doing something different than viewing guitar lessons as a get-rich-quick scheme. Whether you teach online or in person, you should view your guitar teaching as a side job, one that you can and should aspire to grow and do well in.
Just don't buy into the idea that there's some kind of promotional kit out there that's going to help you get a ton of students and turn your guitar lesson venture into a mountain of cash.
If monetary gain is your primary motivator, there are far more effective ways to make money.
7: Young Guitar Students Give Up Because it's too Difficult
Geoff Edgers' Death of the Electric Guitar article in the Washington Post cited the decline in guitar interest among younger generations as part of his supporting argument for a loss of enthusiasm for the guitar in general. And it's true that a lot of younger players don't gravitate towards guitar, namely the electric guitar, in terms of targeting the bigger brands, namely Fender and Gibson (Edgers also cites a decline in sales to those two companies).
It is now widely proposed that learning the guitar is simply too hard and discouraging to younger students who attempt, then abandon it a few months later.
That means our predictable villains are, once again, on the chopping block:
- Music theory
- Complex technique
- A linear learning model
As I eluded to earlier, this is where things like Fender Play have readily picked up the baton, fully bought into the idea that learning guitar is just too hard, therefore people (particularly the youngsters) are giving up. However, the premise of this argument is fairly easy to dispel.
Guitar Is Not Too Difficult for Anyone
Comparatively, learning guitar is far easier and even less theoretical than almost any other popular instrument. If it's difficulty that kids and younger players are trying to avoid, we'd have to assume that they're abandoning an interest in playing music entirely, which is a far more difficult leap to take.
Numerous advocacy groups including the The NAMM Foundation and the National Association for Music Education have thoroughly researched and documented the benefits of involvement in the arts for young kids, both as recreation and as a school-related program.
However, advocating isn't the same as actually playing.
Kids and Young Adults are the Most Likely to Play an Instrument
What about the number of kids that are actually playing an instrument? Take a look at this quote from a research project by ABRSM in the UK:
"An encouraging 85% of children have played a musical instrument compared with 74% of adults. More children have had instrumental lessons too (62%) compared with fewer than half of adults. The proportion of adults who have not played an instrument steadily increases with age, rising from 8% at 18 to 20 years old to 38% at 65 years and over. This suggests that much progress has been made in recent decades in giving people access to instrumental learning opportunities."
In the same study, nearly 70 percent of children surveyed claimed to be currently playing an instrument.
Looking at young adults, a similar survey taken in the United States concluded that of the adults currently playing a musical instrument, over 20 percent of them were in the 18 - 24 year age range. I find it hard to accept the idea that kids are abandoning instruments, guitar or otherwise, at all, much less because it's too hard or too difficult to learn in the early stages.
Of the children surveyed in the ABRSM study, those who were not currently playing, or had never played, a musical instrument cited the following reasons:
- 29 percent: Too expensive
- 28 percent: No opportunity to learn at school
- 26 percent: Not interested
Keep in mind, these are percentages of the remaining percentage after you filter out all the kids that have learned, or were currently learning, an instrument.
The lowest percentage answer was 6 percent of respondents who said they didn't play an instrument because they couldn't find a teacher.
There was no category indicating kids gave up because it was too hard or difficult.
Thus, we can assume that answer was either not given at all, or the amount was statistically insignificant.
Summarizing the Misconceptions
The consistent message seems to be two-fold: First, that teaching guitar isn't difficult and anyone who knows even the basics of the instrument can do it. Second, music students - especially young ones - don't have the stomach or patience for the more advanced and theoretical topics of guitar and music theory in general.
As a result, we have a lot of bad teachers who are getting paid and minimizing the effort of good teachers who know their craft and make an effort to teach in a right and productive manner.
I wouldn't pay an accountant or a lawyer who wasn't qualified or who didn't know the "theory" behind their practice.
Guitar teachers who don't really know their craft shouldn't be paid either.
Some Truthful Conclusions
- Guitar teachers should absolutely be qualified, both in regards to teaching and the guitar itself. As I mentioned, this doesn't have to mean a music degree or some kind of teaching certificate. It just means you really need to know your stuff and have a knack for communicating it and making the complex understandable. You should be distinctly good at what you do.
- Guitar teachers should be able to explain material that spans a broad spectrum of difficulty. Everyone's knowledge has limitations and guitar teachers aren't expected to know everything about music. However, they should be able to move forward with their student into more complex, technical and theoretical topics, as that student progresses.
- Music theory guarantees a path to creativity. Music theory is not an unnecessary component to creative thought. It is the grid and the foundation upon which guitar is played and the fretboard is understood. Omitting it will, in the long run, be restrictive to a student's abilities and creative space.
- Guitar students are paying for consulting and top-tier expertise. Yes, the face-to-face aspect of a living room guitar lesson is worth something and certainly part of the appeal. But a student is paying for your expertise, first and foremost. You're their consultant with an hourly rate that you're claiming to be worth. If you're not worth it, the friendship aspect won't make up for that.
- The linear method is great news for everyone involved. Not only does the linear method present material in its proper and sequential order, but it gives the teacher a way in which to plan and structure their lessons. Plus, the student has come to the teacher with an expectation of topical order being presented. If you don't take the time to establish and present that order, your only alternative is the Montessori Method. Good luck with that.
- Guitar is a bad get-rich-quick scheme, but a great side hustle. You can make money as a guitar teacher, but few are in it for that purpose alone. Moreover, much of the bar lowering I've discussed here has come from sub-par guitar teachers trying to make money. Before you think about money, consider your own qualifications and what you can offer that would warrant an hourly rate.
- Kids and young adults are the most likely demographic to be interested in music and the difficulty of the material seems to have minimal impact on their willingness to stick with it. While it's certainly true that some will give up guitar, or some other instrument, because it's too difficult, that reason is far from being statistically relevant. Don't shy away from difficult topics or music theory in fear of scaring off your student(s).
Questions and Thoughts
You might have a differing opinion on this topic.
I get that.
There are a lot of different ways to approach such a complex topic.
Maybe you teach guitar and have some experience to share or pearls of wisdom to drop. If so, do it in the comments section below and we'll chat about it.
Additional Reading and Works Cited
- Do teachers need to be qualified? Article by Matt Britland at The Guardian
- An Honest and Skeptical Fender Play Review: Our review of the new Fender Play learning platform
- How to Teach Guitar in Order: A linear listing of guitar lesson material in proper order
- The Death of the Electric Guitar, article by Geoff Edgers of the Washington Post
- Advocating for Music Education, web page from the NAMM Foundation
- Music Education Advocacy at the Local Level, article by Andrew Berman at the National Association for Music Education
- Teaching, Learning and Playing in the UK, music student research results by ABRSM
- Share of Adults Playing a Musical Instrument (by age), research from Statista
- Montessori Education, Wikipedia page
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