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Ordering lesson topics is one of the more ambiguous areas of teaching guitar or - for that matter - any instrument.
Part of that ambiguity occurs because every music student is different.
They have distinct goals and abilities bringing a unique set of previously acquired skills (or lack thereof) into every lesson. However, those variables don’t mean that you can’t be linear and orderly in the way you teach.
A well-ordered learning path is extremely important, for both you and your student, in order to promote efficiency and a complete curriculum. That sounds like an overly-fancy word for guitar lessons but, a "curriculum" is essentially what you’re providing even in something as simple as a 30-minute guitar lesson.
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How to Teach Guitar in Order: Your Curriculum
A good guitar teacher needs to know, not only how to teach guitar, but also how to teach it in the correct order with regard to topic.
Is it possible to do that with objectivity?
Yes, it is.
In the world of educational science, this objective approach is called “sequencing.”
If you’re going to sequence topics correctly, you need something to inform that sequencing.
Thus, there are two things that should help govern the order in which you choose to present guitar and/or music-related topics.
#1: Order by Complexity
It sounds obvious but, consider about how often we don’t order by complexity when we’re teaching or playing guitar. For example, if we’re teaching (or learning) a C major chord first, how many simpler topics have we skipped over?
Off the top of my head I can think of single notes, fretboard notation, intervals and playing in a particular key. It could be argued that all of these topics should come before learning any open chords. Thus, you might say that learning fretboard notation before basic open chords would be better and more efficient sequencing.
The other sequencing guide I suggest using is what I like to call “topical buildout.”
#2: Order by incremental, topical build-out.
Think of this as expansion of a topic or allowing a topic to lead into the next level of difficulty until you get to actually applying what you’ve learned.
For example, let’s say you start by teaching a student single notes on the guitar.
Build-out from that particular topic could look something like this:
This process works because each topic leads into the next, leaving in its path a logical structure to follow.
It also answers the following questions:
- What are notes on the guitar?
- How do I know which note(s) I’m playing?
- How do those notes connect together?
- What are the most basic chords you can play?
That’s a lot more useful than, “This is how you play a C chord.”
Because we want to get to the C chord, yes, but we also want the student to understand the purpose and meaning underneath that chord.
Having a correct teaching sequence will help make that happen.
That’s how I’ll build this list, ordering by complexity and incremental, topical expansion. We’ll begin under the assumption that the student knows only the most basic aspects of the guitar: How to hold it properly, the different parts, picking basics, etc.
If a student is more advanced, simply pickup where their skill set leaves off.
1. Single Note Basics
For a true beginner, start with the most basic musical element of the guitar, a single note.
One might be tempted to assume that this is too elementary or that something this simple should be instinctual. In my experience, that is not always the case. Even if it’s a short lesson, the student should still be introduced to the guitar by learning to play single notes.
During this lesson, you can use single notes to also introduce the following concepts:
- Alternate Picking: Picking both upwards and downwards.
- Reading Tabs: How to identify a single note on a tab sheet.
- Note Value: Make mention of the note value (C, G, D, etc.) of whatever note is being played.
Musical topics don’t have to be overly difficult to warrant time and energy. You might have a boring lesson but, you should still cover single notes, since everything else is based off of picking, groups of single notes and reading tabs.
2. Fretboard Notation and Memorization
Again, you’ve got a boring lesson.
There’s no way around memorizing the fretboard at some point and you’re better off doing it sooner than later.
Since you’re likely to touch on it when going over basic single-note practices, fretboard notation is a logical next step.
During this lesson (or group of lessons) you should cover the following:
- The notes of each open string in standard tuning (E, A, D, G, B, E).
- Notes for the first 12 frets of each string, making mention of the fact that they repeat at the 12th fret.
- Memorization tricks, like understanding that the sequence of notes is always the same, but that the starting point changes depending on the string.
What I often do is cover the sixth and fifth strings first (the two thickest ones) since they’re often where chord root notes will be located.
The high and low E will be the same, so just by going over two strings you get half the fretboard committed to memory. Memorizing the other three strings can be up to the student.
3. Basic Intervals and Root Notes
Making mention of root notes can be your bridge into a discussion about intervals, since having an interval requires that you also have a corresponding root note.
When understood, intervals provide structure and simplicity to a concept that is otherwise hard to put into words. Though it does involve some basic music theory.
Don’t be afraid to push your student towards theory, even in the earlier stages.
Because an interval is quite simple.
An interval is the space between two notes, where the lower one is the root note.
You’ll want to limit the beginner to the more basic intervals. Here is a list to consider covering with your student:
- Minor Second (one fret from the root note).
- Major Second (two frets from the root note).
- Minor Third (three frets)
- Major Third (four frets)
- Perfect Fifth (seven frets - power chord shape)
It’s a good idea to get familiar with a complete list of intervals for yourself, though probably not necessary to expose a beginning student to.
The reason we’ve included the perfect fifth, is because it serves as a foundational bit of knowledge for introducing power chords which will be the next topic in our sequenced order of study.
4. Two-Note Power Chords
You might want to wait to discuss the perfect fifth interval in detail until this lesson, simply because it’s the best way to introduce your student to their first chord.
Their first chord (if you follow this plan) will be a basic, two-note power chord that’s moveable across the fretboard. Technically this is a dyad, since there are only two notes involved. Yet, the term “power chord” is going to be more easily digested by the student.
Start out with a basic power chord in a tab sheet, like this one:
You’ll want to point out the following things to your student:
- The root note is a G located at the third fret (or whatever note you start the chord on).
- The perfect fifth is the interval that completes the chord landing at the fifth fret on the fifth string (in this case, a D).
- This shape is movable to any fret and will adopt the note value of the fret to which it is moved.
After you cover these theory aspects, all that you’ll need to do is help the student conquer the physical challenges of fretting the chord and being able to move it from one fret to another. While keeping the root note on the sixth string, work on transitions from fret to fret, just so your student can be comfortable with the physical aspects of the chord.
How long should we work on this?
It’s hard to give a conventional time frame but, when you consider that this shape is a major part of a guitar player’s foundational skill set, it should warrant some extended attention.
Because what we’ll do next, is built on that chord.
If your foundation isn’t strong, building on it is going to have poor results. That means you want to make sure your student is comfortable with that power chord shape before moving onto the next topic.
5. Adding to Your Power Chords
Once that two-note power chord is a cozy spot, it’s time to start adding notes to it and getting your student used to more complex variations of the chord.
The first and simplest thing to do is to add an octave to the root note, like this:
The note at the fifth fret on the fourth string is the octave of the root, meaning both are G notes.
It adds some thickness and resonance to the chord, though it does not change its quality or properties in any way, meaning it’s not an essential interval. This is always the case when two octaves are being played in the same chord.
Once you’ve pointed that out, it’s mostly a matter of helping your student master the physical side of fretting the note, which will likely be handled by the pinky finger.
Here’s how you should teach finger order for this chord shape:
- Root Note (pointer finger)
- Perfect Fifth (ring finger)
- Octave (pinky finger)
Once again, you should address the movement of this chord (fret to fret) even if the student has already demonstrated an ability to move the two-note power chord effectively.
It can be a different feel when you’re involving the pinky finger, which is typically the weakest. Make sure you give your student an opportunity to demonstrate their abilities, even if the chord shape hasn’t drastically changed.
6. Major and Minor Chords (major third and minor third)
Since we’ve already covered the major and minor third intervals, this topic will make more sense to the student and be easier to digest from a theoretical perspective.
We’re going to continue to use the power chord as our example but, have now come to a place where the next note we inject will give the chord a “quality” which simply means we’re making it either a major or minor chord.
It only takes one note and in this case that note will be either a major or minor third interval.
Let’s take a look at our two examples:
G Major Barre Shape
G Minor Barre Shape
You’ve got two notes which are a major third and minor third, respectively, in relation to the root note.
What might be confusing…
At first glance it’s unclear how these notes can be considered major and minor thirds, since they’re 15 and 16 frets away from the root note. However, if you look closely, you’ll notice that they’re simply an octave higher than the major and minor third that are three and four frets away from the root note. Thus you can change the octave and still have the same interval value. The technical term for this is a compound interval.
Despite being separated by only one note, these two chords must be approached differently. The major chord is more straightforward, so we can start there.
The Major Version
Again it’s movable, and the only finger left is your middle finger which the student will use to fret the note on the fourth fret. You’ll also want to point out the “happy” or more upbeat feel that’s produced by a major chord’s sound.
The Minor Version
The minor chord will be trickier because the student will have to barre the chord in order to grab that last minor interval at the third fret. It might seem a bit early for barre chords but, this is something that you can at least start to work on even if it isn’t mastered right away. You should point out the darker and more somber tone of the minor chord, as well.
You’ll likely find that these chords are coming out sloppy and inconsistent with buzzing notes, half-muted sounds or even parts of the chord that aren’t being played.
The best way to help the student clean up these chords is to arpeggiate them and go through each note one at a time.
You can take this opportunity to introduce the concept of arpeggios.
Here are your two tabs:
When the student hits a note that isn’t ringing correctly, stop and work on that specific note to try and troubleshoot the issue.
Here are a few things that could be causing imperfections in your student's chords:
- Not pressing hard enough.
- Fretting too close to the fret separators.
- Touching strings unknowingly.
- Playing strings that should be muted.
- Muting strings that should be played.
This is a reasonable protocol to use whenever you’re working on any chord but, will be particularly valuable during the early stages of development while working on these major and minor chord shapes.
Start with theory, then cover each chord separately before breaking them into arpeggios to focus on individual parts of the chord.
7. Basic Open Chords
Now that we’ve introduced the student to four-note chords, we can move into basic open guitar chords. It’s common for these chords to be taught first, with little or no foundational theory preceding it, which I believe is a mistake and a disservice to the student.
Because if we cover those foundational aspects first, we’ve created a common thread and grid through which open chords (and most future topics) can be better understood.
In other words, they’ll already understand concepts like root notes, keys and intervals.
That will all make sense to them, which means the open chords will be easier to comprehend.
Which ones do we cover?
Initially, I would focus on the following beginner-friendly open guitar chords:
You've got G, C, D, E major and A minor.
I like to start with these because of how frequently they’re used and because they only require three fingers to play. You’ve also got three root notes that are played with an open string (D, A and E).
This will be easier for the student.
Once you’ve covered these (going through the same cleanup steps from number six) you can move on to the next list of open chords:
We follow up with two different versions of the B chord, an F, the E minor and the more traditional form of the G chord.
The B chords can be tough for beginners but, these are two of the simpler versions you’ll find and you’ve already exposed your students to the barre chord shape that’s used for the first one.
Once you go over the mechanics of fretting the chords you’ll need to work through each individual chord to help the student weed out problem areas and inconsistencies that might be occuring, like I’ve mentioned when I referred to the chord cleaning method in step six.
It’ll take awhile and should be spread across two to three hours of class or lesson time.
8. More Dyads and Triads
I say “more” dyads and triads because we’ve already touched on the idea of a dyad with our two-note power chord. You’ll want to set aside time to formally introduce the topic and help your student get familiar with the terminology, that of which can be a bit confusing.
Start with a simple, informal definition of both:
- Dyad: Any two harmonious notes.
- Triad (non-formal): Any three notes that form a chord.
If you want to throw in a bit of music history, you can note here that two 20th century music theorists, Howard Hanson and Carlton Gamer, are primarily responsible for coming up with the more broad definition of a triad.
However, a triad (or triadic chord) is formally defined this way:
A triad is a chord made up of three notes, stacked in third intervals.
In my opinion, it’s best to handle the formal definition of a triad as bonus material, at least if you’re dealing with a relatively new guitar player who lacks an understanding (or perhaps, interest) of music theory. Even though they’ve already been exposed to intervals, trying to visualize this concept could bog them down and prove to be difficult.
Use your best judgement, because it depends on the student, their experience and their attitude towards the material.
For now, it’s safe to go with the informal definition of a triad while covering these dyadic and triadic shapes:
Common Dyadic Chords
Common Triadic Chords
Make sure you point out that all these shapes are movable and that their note value will depend on where the root of the chord falls. In this case I haven’t deviated from the third fret but, you’re free to present the content on whatever fret you choose.
Other dyads and triads?
While there are certainly plenty of other dyads and triads worth learning, you should be focusing on these for now, simply because they’re more generally useful.
They’re also a lot to remember, so it’s okay idea to hold off on the more detailed chords shapes that don’t get used nearly as often. In the future, those will be learned on an as-needed basis and certainly don’t need to be taught in a beginner lesson.
9. The Major Scale and First Exercises
Like chords, scales are another topic that many seem to default to when talking about how to teach guitar.
While scales are important, I don’t think it’s necessarily helpful for a student to memorize several of them without any real understand of what they mean and how they’re built. In this case, we’ve established plenty of groundwork so that a student who has stuck to this system will already be able to recognize the following concepts:
- Root note of a scale.
- Intervals within a scale.
- Chord shapes within a scale.
The physical movement might be challenging at first but, that’s why we’re starting on a scale with notes that are all within three frets of one another.
Once again, be sure to point out that this shape is movable.
In this instance the key is a G note. You shouldn’t expect your student to know the key of the scale by ear but, once you point it out to them it should make sense.
They should also know that the root or key changes when and if the scale shifts or changes frets.
You’ll notice that this scale gives you the opportunity to highlight three specific finger movements or sequences. The first is the major second interval that begins the scale, jumping from the third to the fifth fret.
But look at these other two tabs:
In the first tab fingers used will be pointer, middle and pinky.
The second tab: Pointer, ring and pinky.
Those two finger patterns are incredibly common movements, which present you with a good opportunity to both teach the scale and help your student get used to these sequences and moving their fingers this way.
I would advise starting them on exercises at this point that are based off of these shapes.
Alternating (between two different strings)
Alternating (on the same string)
Climbing (through different strings - bottom to top)
The extent to which these exercises are drawn out is really up to you. Different students will have varying degrees of difficulty with the movements so you might have to improvise your approach.
Also keep in mind that this will likely be boring to the student, having already covered intervals and the basics of the major scale. The hope is that they’ll get more out of the major scale than just the scale itself.
We want them to remember smaller, more usable pieces of the puzzle.
10. Soloing Patterns and Improvisation
At this point you’ll have a little more freedom to start working with your student’s own interests and stylistic leanings.
This means it becomes more difficult to spell out exactly how to teach someone guitar, especially when it comes to things like improvisation.
Generally, there are three things you need to do for your student while teaching them to improvise:
- Illustrate the pitfalls of improvising and soloing.
- Show them how to use basic triads and arpeggios to create lead melodies.
- Help them understand the link between scale structure and guitar solos.
Once the student begins to understand the link between the intervals, scales and patterns they’ve already seen, a lot of what it means to write guitar solos should start to come more naturally to them. That means static topics are going to get a lot more fluid and specific to a given student.
As this happens, you’ve got to be prepared to continue teaching in a way that accommodates the student’s tendencies but, that also continues to expand their abilities.
How would you follow up something like improvising and soloing?
We said that we wanted to get to application and enable the student to be more creative and musical. After they’ve understood the theoretical and physical aspects of soloing, the next step should be an introduction and explanation of melody.
11. Define and Apply Melody
Start with a simple definition of melody.
Once your student knows how to articulate it, make sure that your student understands that good melody is almost always simple and straightforward.
You might word it differently and want to present the material in the context of your student’s interests (different genres, bands, etc.) but teaching them how to build melody is one of the most valuable things you can do.
Because in most cases, that will be their job as a guitar player.
Sure, you’ve got rhythm guitarists. But, even they are, at times, responsible for melodic layering, whether it’s coming from a vocalist or another instrument.
In any case, melody should be addressed and taught.
12. Introduce Timing, Rhythm and a Metronome
I’ve flipped a few times on when I believe rhythm and timing should be taught to a student.
In the past I’ve thought that an earlier exposure was better but, the problem with that is the student can’t really apply the knowledge because they don’t know enough of the fretboard. It also doesn’t take into consideration that some guitar players are naturally gifted in rhythm and timing.
Others are not.
Either way, I think this spot is a good place to introduce it, since we’ve got plenty of fretboard under our belt.
While there are only a few set ways to teach rhythm, you’ll want a syllabus that looks somewhat like this:
- Counting (1 and 2 and 3 and…etc.)
- Palm muting
- Keeping time (time signatures and theory - 2/4, 3/4, 4/4)
- Genre-specific strumming technique
As you can see with number four, you’ve got to continue leaving room for variety and the interests of the student. It’ll require you to be flexible but, you don’t want to get too specific about rhythm without giving them information on the style of music they’re trying to play.
Start with basic counting and the stuff that’s easy to grasp with a verbal explanation. Palm muting should be somewhat instinctual at this point, though it’s still good to teach some palm technique.
Before you get into specific stuff, try and get your student through the theoretical aspects of keeping time. They don’t have to delve too deep, rather stick to the basic time signature theory and show them how to count through the most common ones (3/4, 4/4, etc.).
13. Songs and Cover Projects
One thing that can really help to anchor a young guitar player’s timing is to play along with MP3s of their favorite songs.
Because songs from bands that you like are far more interesting than a metronome.
Plus, you’ve gotten to the point where your student will have enough knowledge and abilities to start tackling some basic songs or perhaps those that are more complex, depending on their progress and natural abilities.
I’d recommend starting with an easier list of songs.
This will help build confidence in your pupil and allow him or her to really start enjoying their instrument.
What next? Ask them…
You’ve covered most (not all) of the introductory topics.
This knowledge is largely static and doesn’t change from player to player.
Now that it has been applied you can begin to have a dialogue with your student about which direction they want to go in and what they want to study. If you’re not sure where to go from here, the best thing you can do is just ask them.
Hear what they’re excited about and help them walk in that direction with their instrument.
If they made it this far, they’ll have answers for you, even if you have to prod a little.
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