Choosing A Good Guitar Teacher

by Tom Hess


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The electric guitar has advanced far beyond the time when someone could teach himself (or herself) to become a world class guitar player. If your ambition is to become a competent guitar player and a good musician, you need a good guitar teacher.

Even if your goals are more modest, you can reach those goals far more quickly, easily and efficiently with the guidance of a good guitar teacher. Much of the information that is needed to learn about guitar playing (and music in general) is available from many different sources. There are hundreds of books, instructional videos, CD-ROMs and, of course, the internet.

Even though a lot of information is readily available, there exists a lot of incorrect, incomplete and otherwise bad information. You will need the aid of an excellent guitar teacher to teach you how to fully understand and apply the correct information. You can save yourself a lot of unnecessary musical frustration and disappointment by studying with the good guitar teacher. Remember that text books, CD-ROMs, instructional videos and the internet cannot answer your specific questions. They cannot offer you advice on your guitar playing, song writing, ear training, etc. They cannot listen to your playing and point out any mistakes or flaws that may be present. Some text books are great and I have seen some pretty good CD-ROMs out there too, but you still need the aid of a good guitar teacher to guide you through everything and to help you to develop your abilities and musicianship correctly and efficiently.

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Great guitar teachers manage and schedule new materials and effectively explain its importance and meaning. A good guitar teacher should encourage you when you are doing well and correct you where you may have gone wrong. A good guitar teacher will show you how to better organize your practice materials and show you how to effectively manage your practice time (this is crucial to your progress!). They help you to build up your confidence level. Great guitar teachers help you to become secure with your technical skills so that you can execute difficult techniques on your guitar comfortably. These guitar teachers emphasize creativity (songwriting & improvising) and performing. Great guitar teachers want to make sure that you fully understand what you are learning and, most importantly, teach you how to apply it by giving you detailed explanations and encouraging you to ask questions when something is unclear. A good guitar teacher sincerely cares about your musical growth and development. An experienced and good guitar teacher will take you far beyond what you could learn on your own.

Unfortunately, guitar teachers are not licensed and there is no organization that oversees or regulates them. Anyone can claim to be a good guitar teacher and there are lots of people who make this claim. The number of great guitar teachers, however, is limited. This brings us to this crucial question; How can a student find, choose, and then accurately evaluate a good guitar teacher?

Here are some questions that you should ask any guitar teachers that you are considering to study with. I have also included my own comments for each question:

  1. Can you please tell me about your teaching experience, such as: How long have you been teaching guitar and approximately how many students have you taught during that time? At least 3-5 years of teaching experience would be preferred. Certainly no less than 1 year of experience. It is good if the guitar teacher has taught a moderate to large number of students. It takes time for a good guitar teacher to really learn how to teach well and the main way that someone learns to teach is by teaching for a while. So a young guitar teacher treats their initial students like experiments. The guitar teacher learns how to teach on-the-job by trial and error. The guitar teacher learns how to teach over time and will make some mistakes in the beginning of his or her career. You don't want to be one of those first 30-50 students. Let that guitar teacher gain his or her experience by making mistakes on someone else.
  2. What styles of music do you teach best? Make sure that you ask this question before telling the prospective guitar teacher what style of music you want to learn. A lot of guitar teachers claim to teach all styles of music well, beware of this. Do not be impressed by someone who tells you that he or she can teach every style of music well. If you really want to be a great rock guitarist, you want to take lessons from a rock guitar teacher, not a blues or country player who claims to teach all styles well. Find yourself a good guitar teacher teaching rock. If you want to learn multiple styles of music that are not similar take lessons from more than one guitar teacher for each of those styles. Unless you are a total beginner, you are better off with an expert guitar teacher in your style of music, not a jack-of-all-trades guitar teacher.
  3. What is the cost of lessons? Excellent guitar teachers are in demand and usually already have a lot of students. These guitar teachers often are not cheap. I can tell you that the going rates for a good guitar teacher in the Midwestern United States (where I live) is between $16-$24 per 1/2 hour private lesson. There are a handful of guitar teachers that offer correspondence guitar lessons for students who do not live in the same state or country as the guitar teacher. Usually these lessons are less expensive in the long run. In general, don't look for the guitar teacher with the lowest rates, you usually get what you pay for. If you can't afford to pay the higher rates for a really good guitar teacher, ask the teacher if you can take lessons on a bi-monthly basis instead of taking weekly lessons.
  4. Can you tell me how you teach the lessons? This is probably the most important question that you can ask a guitar teacher. The answer to this question helps determine if a someone is a good guitar teacher because this is actually a trick question. Anyone can tell you that they have been teaching for 100 years and that they have had 10,000 students and the cost is $1,000 per lesson because they are the greatest guitar teacher of all time, but an inexperienced teacher cannot trick you with his or her answer to this question. If a prospective guitar teacher who does not know you, your musical knowledge, your guitar technique, your musical tastes, and your musical goals tries to explain how he or she will teach you, then this is not a good
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    guitar teacher. Not even the best guitar teacher on Earth could answer this question if that guitar teacher knows nothing about you, your goals, your playing level, your knowledge of music theory, etc. So what would an experienced and competent teacher say to you when you ask the question? Well, I can tell you what I do when a new prospective student asks me this. I explain to him or her that I can't formulate a lesson plan for anyone until I learn a lot more about that student's playing, goals, musical tastes, knowledge of theory, etc. For my correspondence students, I send them a long list of questions about everything that I need to know about their music background in order for me to know what is the best way for us to begin. I also encourage the student to send me a tape or CD of his or her playing with a variety of his or her playing on it so that I have a clearer picture of what areas need improvement. Obviously, for my private students, I can simply ask the questions that I need answers to and I can hear the student play in front of me. Only after all of this, I (or any other good guitar teacher) can really know how to teach that individual student. It seems obvious that you shouldn't teach a 13-year-old-boy who has never played guitar before and wants to learn to play alternative rock the same way that you would teach a 27-year-old-man who has been playing for 16 years and wants to become a virtuoso in the style of Steve Vai or Yngwie Malmsteen.

In addition to asking the questions above, here are some other things to watch out for:

  • When students ask how to approach a certain technique or how to hold the pick correctly or how to most effectively mute guitar strings that are not supposed to be sounding, the advice of some guitar teachers is to do whatever feels natural to you. Sometimes what you may think is the natural way to hold your left hand may not be the correct way at all. It is the job of the guitar teacher to know those types of things - the good guitar teacher should be teaching, not letting you do whatever you feel like. For most things, there is a right and wrong way and you will better off learning it the right way from the beginning. 
  • Just because a guitar teacher may have some talented students, does not mean that they aren't a good guitar teacher. This might seem like a good criteria for evaluating a good guitar teacher, but the fact is that sometimes advanced students were already good players before taking lessons from this new teacher. The only time that judging a teacher's guitar teaching skills, based on his or her student's playing skills, is really a reliable criteria is when those advanced students started taking lessons from the same teacher since they were beginners.
  • Some guitar teachers tell their students to try to learn from as many sources as possible and then leave it up to you to sort through it all and decide what works best for you. How are you supposed to decide that? How is a student to know what the best fingering is for a particular scale? Students typically won't know how to determine what the right way is. This is one of the reasons why you have a teacher, it is his or her job to teach you these things, this is why you are giving the guitar teacher your money!
  • Do not assume that someone is a good guitar teacher just because he or she may be an excellent player or has good credentials. I know plenty of competent players with advanced music degrees that I don't believe are a good guitar teacher. I was fortunate to have some truly great guitar teachers, but I had some incompetent ones too, along the way. Whenever I realized that a guitar teacher wasn't good, I looked for someone new who was a good guitar teacher.

The following things are not required for someone to be a good guitar teacher, but it certainly is to your advantage to have a guitar teacher who, in addition to teaching you about guitar and music, can help you in some of these other ways:

  1. Guitar Pedagogy. This is learning how to teach guitar. If one of your goals is to be a good guitar teacher / music teacher then you would benefit greatly from a teacher who can teach you how to teach a variety of techniques, music theory, ear training, song writing, improvisation, etc. You will also need to learn about how to deal with a wide variety of personality types. Every student is different and each of those students may learn and comprehend information in different ways. It is important for any teacher to understand this. You need to know how to explain the same information in several different ways so that you will be better able to teach all of your students well.
  2. Recording advice. The better you become as a musician, the more likely it will be that you will want to record your guitar playing. If you have little or no experience in this area, then having someone who can help you is especially helpful.
  3. Music business. For example: some guitar teachers who have released their own CDs, and are promoting it themselves, can be the best source of help for selling your CD. You can also learn other things like how to set up gigs for your band and how to get the press to write about you.

So now that you have a better idea about what to look for in a good guitar teacher, the next question is, Where do you look for a really good guitar teacher? This depends on if you are looking for a guitar teacher to teach you privately (face to face) or if you are looking for a guitar teacher to teach you through correspondence. Both are good and there are advantages to both ways.

If you are looking for a good guitar teacher to teach you face to face, check out these places first: Contact the music department at universities and colleges near you. Even if they can't help you directly, they can usually refer you to someone who can help. Next, you can try your local music shops (where guitars are sold). Most music shops offer lessons, most of the guitar teachers found here are not of the highest quality, but sometimes there are some really great guitar teachers that you can find at these shops. When you call one of these shops, ask to speak to the manager or owner. Ask him or her, who are the most qualified guitar teachers for you. After you get the names of the guitar teachers, make arrangements to speak to each of these guitar teachers privately. Ask those guitar teachers all of the questions that are written above. If you are not satisfied with any of those guitar teachers, keep looking.

If you are looking for online correspondence guitar lessons, your search will be a little different (and these lessons are usually a little cheaper in the long run.) You can look on the internet for these types of guitar teachers and you can also contact universities. The best thing about correspondence guitar lessons is that you can take lessons from any guitar teacher in the world! What I would look for in a correspondence guitar teacher is someone who has been doing this type of teaching for a while. Even though correspondence guitar lessons are not face to face, the lessons should be personalized for you, your skill level, your musical knowledge, your style of music and your musical goals. Stay away from guitar teachers using a one-size-fits-all method. Everyone is different and is at a different level, has different musical goals, likes different music, so the lessons (whether face to face or correspondence) should be tailored specifically to your needs.

After teaching guitar / training guitar teachers for a long time, I can tell you that using the information above can really make a huge difference in finding an experienced high quality guitar teacher. An incompetent guitar teacher can severely hinder you ability to fully develop your guitar and music skills. If you are not progressing well, but you are spending a lot of time practicing, find another guitar teacher. Dwnload this free guide for finding great guitar teachers called "How To Choose A Guitar Teacher."



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