Do You Really Need a Guitar Teacher?

by Tom Hess


If you really want to learn music well, you will do so much faster with a good guitar teacher. Imagine an 8th grader saying he doesn't need to go to school anymore because he thinks he has already learned what one needs to know in life. Sounds ridiculous right? Well it is, but that is the exact same attitude that many guitar players have about music. Before I go on any further, let me clarify to you that if your goal is to play a few simple songs around the campfire your need for a teacher is not really needed. For those of you who want to reach a higher level of guitar playing than where you currently are, this article is for you.

Most of us can think of some good guitar players out there who never had a formal music lesson in their life, and yet they still seem to have done quite well for themselves. Many people look at a guitar player like this and think "Hey if that person can succeed on his/her own, why can't I?" It is a valid question, and sure you can learn some things on your own without a guitar teacher. But why take the risk of doing it on your own when it usually doesn't work, when you could find a guitar teacher that can make things work for you? Most people who choose not to work with a teacher either:

  1. Have significant financial problems (that make paying for guitar lessons impossible).
  2. Don't care enough about one's own musical progress to invest the time and money in himself/herself.
  3. Just doesn't understand how much a great teacher can help a student in more ways than one may have realized.

Most people who don't take guitar lessons fall into the last category. So it is to these people specifically that this article is written for. Let's go over the obvious. Without a good guitar teacher, you may spend hours, days, weeks, months and even years trying to learn things with limited results, when a teacher might be able to show you in as little as a few minutes. Your progress is going to move much more rapidly (and correctly) with a teacher than without one.

Let's think about other types of people (non musicians) who try hard to make extensive progress in their area of interest. Even the greatest athletes in the world still NEED coaches and trainers so they are able to do their best and improve. I know that some of you are thinking "Hey this is music, not the Olympics or some other type of competition." Of course music shouldn't be about competition against others, but it IS a competition (at least with yourself) if you want to improve your skills and reach your true potential. If you want to reach your musical goals and those goals are at a higher level than where you are right now, it's a competition, a challenge, a quest, a journey, or whatever else you want to call it. Think about this, the head coach of a professional football team is not the athlete (in most cases) the players are, but yet, the coaches are more than capable of teaching and coaching the athletes to be the best they can be. Think about the Olympics and the coaches that teach and train the athletes in gymnastics. Those coaches can't do (with their own bodies) half of the things the gymnasts can do with their bodies, and still they are extremely successful in training athletes to compete in the Olympics. It's clear to see the athletes depend on their coaches and trainers heavily. Now you may be thinking that my analogy of athletes and coaches is not applicable to music students and teachers. Music teachers are like conventional teachers in that, they pass along information, knowledge of music theory, aural skills, composition, improvisation, chords, scales, the elements of music, etc. It is somewhat true that you can find some of this information on the internet, but you can also find a lot of wrong and incomplete information there as well! But what about performance practice, work ethics of practicing, physical techniques, finger independence, economy of motion and tension control. These are all things that are almost impossible to learn on your own via the internet.  A trainer/coach/teacher can help you not only learn them, but master them.

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Many self taught guitar players just don't know WHAT they SHOULD be learning. Some do have well defined goals and that is great, but too often guitar players don't understand the best strategies for achieving musical goals. It can be extremely frustrating to practice aimlessly and never truly reach those goals, or if they are reached, it may have taken 10 times longer than it should have. Good guitar teachers can spot weaknesses that need improving and bad habits that must be corrected. Many guitar players may be totally unaware of these habits or their very negative affects. More importantly, the guitar players may not know how to correct them. This is exactly what coaches and trainers do for their athletes and that is why these people (trainers and coaches) are so valuable to the sport and are made huge sums of money.

In addition to the obvious musical benefits that are gained when taking lessons with a teacher (such as learning techniques, theory, songs, etc.), there are even more nonmusical benefits. Many of these nonmusical benefits are worth their weight in gold! When I was a music student taking private lessons in guitar and music composition, there were times when I wasn't able to practice the current lesson materials as much as I needed to for the next lesson. But I knew I had to face my teacher at the next lesson, which gave me more incentive to practice harder and longer to master the previous lesson. Even if I felt like I wasn't learning as much from a specific guitar teacher as I would have liked to, the subliminal pressure of having to practice each lesson was worth the cost of the lessons because it made me a better player by forcing me to strengthen my work ethic. Had I not had a teacher during these times, I probably wouldn't have reached the level I have, at the rate that I did.

When Mike Walsh and I were music students, he was taking guitar lessons from a jazz guy in college (because shred guitar was not offered at the college) in Chicago and he said to me, "I don't need this guy, I could really do all the things that he has me practice on my own." But we both knew that even though Mike could do these things on his own, he probably wouldn't spend time on that (because he had other musical things to do). Because of his lessons, he had to study these things and it forced him to master those things sooner rather than later.

Guitar teachers can give you many good opportunities that you might not be able to obtain so easily on your own. Experienced guitar teachers have so many more music industry connections, because they are already in the music business (some more than others) and that can make a big difference in your musical life. Whether you want a successful career in music as a guitar player, guitar teacher, songwriter, studio musician, etc. or just want to do it for fun. I had two guitar teachers in particular whom I had established a very good relationship with over time and that paid off for me in my music career. I can't begin to explain to you here how much I owe much of my own success to them! Much of what I have now would not have been so easily obtainable had I not taken lessons from them for a long time, and developed a very good relationship them.

After becoming a guitar teacher myself and getting into the music industry, I have been able to give many opportunities to my students, many of whom are now professional or at least semi professional musicians. In many cases I was able to help them get their first teaching gig, recording work, music business internships, record, release and sell their own CDs, get better paying gigs, etc. Some of the other guitar teachers who I know personally also have done similar things for some of their students.

Do you really have to study with a guitar teacher? Well, I'll just add this, there was a period of time when I didn't have a teacher (for about 18 months) in the 1990s and I can tell you that I was just aimlessly drifting along not getting the same results I was when I had a teacher. So I went to college to study music and it changed my musical (and personal) life forever! It was worth everything to me in terms of getting me where I wanted to be musically.

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