There are things that every guitar player goes through in his playing career. As within any of the arts, the road to musical proficiency is as littered with triumph as it is with self doubt. Between great gigs and productive lessons, there are plateaus where guitar players feel like they've stopped growing or even gotten worse. Here's some assurance and motivation to help you get through the things that every guitarist goes through.
Playing Every Day Doesn't Mean You'll Play Well Every Day
Writer's block exists for musicians too! Some days you feel like the music you want to create floats out of your fingers; other's you'll question whether you've gone tone deaf. There are times when it seems that the guitar creates for you, and other times that everything about the instrument seems foreign. I've experienced each of these twice in the same week before. The only way out of this conundrum is to pour yourself into learning even more. Putting more into practicing, preparing for your guitar lessons, band practices, and jam nights helps you experience these less frequently.
Improvement is REALLY Inconsistent, For Everyone
Plateaus Can Feel Eternal
As I just said, intermediate players really get the short end of the stick in terms of plateaus. The longest one I can remember lasted nearly a year, and what I came to realize nearing its end is that I had been improving consistently the whole time. Over the course of that year, it wasn't rapid leaps in my playing ability that made me better, it was slow, steady practice. Focus on technique, focus on new things, and learn some basic theory during this period. Keep your head up. You aren't doing nearly as little as you think you are.
Talent Isn't Real
Here's a trade secret for you, there is no such thing as talent. My students who do well are the ones that put the most into their guitar lessons. I have students who immediately fall madly in love with the instrument, and ten times out of ten they're the ones that improve the most quickly. It's not because they have naturally good rhythm, long fingers, or musical ideas from the heavens. It's because they love what they're doing and it compels them to play a lot. It's your motivation and your love for playing guitar that'll push you forward. If you're playing every day, you're getting better, whether you believe it or not.
That's a promise.
Congratulations! You've made the decision to begin learning guitar and you're ready to start your journey. Maybe you've got some musical experience already; you've self taught for a little while and feel lost taking your playing to the next level, or maybe you've played piano or spent your middle school or high school days in band or orchestra. Maybe not, maybe this is your very first experience playing an instrument and you want someone with experience walking you through the process. In any case, you've likely realized that not all music teachers are created equal and you've come here for pointers on what to look for. Here's a few pointers that should help you in your search for a music teacher.
Shop for Personality, Not Paper Qualifications
In my early days of studenthood, I hopped between different teachers looking for a fit. By far the worst guitar teacher I had was a graduate of a major music school with a huge resume. Now this isn't to disqualify the value of educated or experienced teachers, but simply to say that it doesn't take a masters degree to show a G chord to a ten-year old. Paper credentials within the private lesson industry should be seen as a plus, but not a requirement. What really matters is a teacher's ability to keep you or your child engaged, excited to practice, and working at a pace which is both comfortable for you and keeps you moving forward.
Try to Find a Professional Musician, Not a Side Hustle
There's a number of reasons a professional musician makes for a better teacher than someone who teaches as a side gig. While of course there are exceptions to this rule, and those who live in a rural area may be forced to skip this step, teaching is the bread and butter of most pro musicians. This means that those who teach and perform for a living not only have had more time working with students and learning how to teach, but their living depends on their ability to retain students by teaching engaging, effective guitar lessons. For students who eventually want to take to the stage, these teachers also know all about getting gigs, rehearsal etiquette, and putting on a show. While they're often slightly more expensive than a teacher who works another day job, teaching is the bread and butter of most pro guitar players and that typically shows pretty clearly in the way they teach.
Guitar Teachers Specialize; Look for One That Fits Your Level
Guitar teachers, and even music schools specialize in not only what levels of experience they teach, but even what age groups they market to. Chain programs, such as School of Rock, Kindermusik, and Bach to Rock tend to reach out to beginning kids and teenagers, whereas many music instrument stores tend to attract older and more experienced musicians. Naturally, they both teach all age groups, but a guitar teacher who specializes in your experience level can be very beneficial. If you're just starting out, one of those chain schools or a local independent teacher who specializes in beginners will suit you perfectly. If you're more experienced, it may even be wise to find a music professor from a local college or orchestra, as these teachers often also teach private lessons. I tend to specialize in beginning to intermediate players, since I love working with kids and there's high demand for beginning guitar teachers in my area.
Shop For Value, Not Price
We've all heard of "buyer's remorse," and that definitely exists within the realm of guitar lessons. I chose this phrase to quote because it doesn't just apply to cheap products. While there are a large number of teachers, notably those teaching as a side gig to a non-musical day job, who offer low-price, low-quality lessons, there's also a plethora of those overcharging for their teaching ability. Avoid craigslist teachers offering $15 lessons, but make sure you're comfortable with any teacher demanding semester-length contracts.
Choose a Teacher by Genre
Classical guitarists aren't the best at teaching metal technique, jazz guys often don't like teaching pop, you get the idea. This tip is more important for students trying to learn classical music and jazz, but if you aren't going into those genres, try to find someone who advertises proficiency in different styles. Even students who start learning pop music usually eventually want to diversify, and classical teachers in particular are famous for not adapting well. Likewise if you want to dive into classical music, the guy who teaches primarily Black Sabbath or BB King at Guitar Center may not be for you.
Find Someone Who Doesn't Teach by the Book
Thankfully, this has become much easier since my childhood. Guitar teachers are finally largely coming to the realization that you can not retain students and inspire a passion for art by teaching nothing but public-domain nursery rhyme songs from a method book that came out in 1970. You want to learn a Taylor Swift song? Classic rock song? Basic jazz standard? Ask a teacher on your initial phone call when you can learn it. Naturally, there are certain fundamentals and bits of technique that come with learning guitar initially, but there's absolutely no reason that you need an extensive knowledge of music theory or reading ability to start learning what you want to learn, and progressive teachers know this. Avoid teachers that put off learning what you want to learn and insist on sticking with the book. A good guitar teacher will help you learn what you want to learn and craft lessons around helping you set and reach your musical goals.
I hope these tips helped you! These are some of the things that I use as my own standards in my guitar lesson business, which I based off of my experiences with the private teachers I had as a kid. If you live in New Orleans or surrounding areas, you're welcome to use the information on this website to set up lessons, or just give me a call and inquire about how I teach and why I teach guitar that way.
There's a particular expression I've heard from music teachers around my metro that saddens me each time I hear it:
"Kids these days don't care about learning instruments."
When I'd first heard it, I may have been inclined to believe it. After all, music is changing, and there's a growing number of popular artists who don't sing or play "old timey" physical instruments at all. Guitar and piano just aren't as prevalent as they were in radio music ten or twenty years ago. The question is whether the decline of live instruments in radio music will deflect kids who would otherwise be interested, and that's not likely to happen.
Guitar Isn't Dying Just Because It's Not On The Radio
The music market is drastically different than it was between 1950 and 2000. The jazz generation was the first to create a musical culture that was centered around the radio. Prior to the popularity of radio, musical preference was largely dependent on the region the listener lived in, but the advent of radio allowed artists backed by labels to have national reach. The label and musicians would profit off of both licenses paid for by radio stations, and record and ticket sales that those stations helped promote by providing publicity to those musicians on a massive scale. Because of this, the music industry was "make it or break it." If an artist could land a record deal with radio syndication, they were all set. When satellite radio and streaming became more popular, the masses had new options for discovering music. I spent most of 2016 and 2017 playing local shows in the Virginia Beach metro (not an area famous for its music scene.) The primary act I played for was an alternative rock/ post hardcore band, not exactly radio pop, but we still had show turnout well into the hundreds pretty regularly. About half the people at the shows were in high school. That's right. The kids. One of my more interesting discoveries was that these teenagers were some of the most engaged people in the scene. You would see some of the same ones turn up regularly, and they were the most likely to be singing along with the local bands.
Radio pop stations pay more exorbitant fees for song licenses than they ever have, so they play less songs. If you had the opportunity to chose specific styles of music you enjoy, where you can have a wider variety of listening, why would you listen to the radio exclusively? Now, most artists don't build the massive followings that they used to, but the middle class of musicians who build their followings as independent artists through streaming are big enough to have an impact on kids. The death of the guitar hero doesn't equate to the death of the guitar.
The Kids Aren't The Problem, The Teachers Are
Like most disciplines, music evolves faster than music educators do, and I mean much faster. Even in the 80s, radio rockers were largely self-taught musicians who might have had a book or two for help. Many of them didn't pick up music theory until after they were big. While this is no means taking a blow at music theory, the reason guitar teachers complain about disinterested students isn't because students don't want to put in the effort to learn their favorite songs. They do. As a matter of fact, "song-first" teaching was School of Rock's claim to fame, and they've become an Entrepreneur 500 franchise within their first 15 years, and are frequently listed as a top education franchise. I make it a goal to have students learn a famous song within their first month. As a result? Low turnover, happy and driven students, and proud parents. Don't make your kids learn key signatures before they're learning songs, and don't make students crank out the entire Faber method of public domain nursery rhymes before they're allowed to learn "Thinking Out Loud." I'm not saying don't make them learn scales. I'm saying show them scales later down the line, and show them how to write and improvise with them. I'm not saying don't include sheet music in your guitar lessons. Just make sure your kids fall in love with music before they're reading it.
Musicians can still make a fantastic living working professionally, and have a lot of fun doing it, even if not living in New York or LA. This is a week-long vlog of my life as a professional teaching, composing, and performing musician living and working in Norfolk and Virginia Beach.
The quality and editing in this video is not the best, as it was mostly recorded on an iPhone and several takes went missing during production.
All music in the video is written and recorded by Find Me Alive.
I find that my beginning students on guitar and ukulele sometimes have trouble getting their chords to sound clearly. Luckily, most beginners tend to share the same common mistakes, so you may be able to walk away from this article with all problems solved. If that's not the case, don't be discouraged! Becoming a good guitarist takes practice, and almost equally as important, time.
Lastly, before we start, the fastest progress comes with a patient and experienced teacher who is easy to work with. I reccomend myself for students in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, or for those willing to schedule Skype lessons!
Trim Your Nails Properly
As innocent and benign as it seems, nails that are too long, notably on the left hand can cause some real problems with your chords! Because you need to stay on the tips of your fingers to get your chords to sound clear, nails must be kept trimmed as short as possible whenever you're going to be playing. Lazy nail hygiene can prevent the proper calluses from forming on your fingertips, making chords not only difficult, but painful to play. Long nails can keep your fingers away from the fretboard that strings must be pinned to while playing, so it's really important to keep them as short as possible. I reccomend that students clip their nails once a week, and always make sure they're short before lessons.
Play With The Very Tips of Your Fingers
Very often, beginning guitar students will flatten out their fingers while they try to play chords. This causes a number of problems, for one, while the fleshy part of your upper finger may initially feel more comfortable than playing on the tip, it takes significantly more for this part of the finger to callus, so you will end up with more discomfort in the long run, and when your chords do not sound clear, you will have to callus your fingertips anyways. I say that because playing on the inside of your finger rather than the tip causes your finger to mute the strings under the one you are trying to play. This makes chords sound "choked" and "muddy" and may cause you to lose a major chord's brightness or a minor chord's sophistication.
Place Your Thumb Properly Along the Back of the Guitar Neck
The aim of putting your finger atop the string at a certain fret is to play the pitch assigned to that place on the neck. Often, beginner guitarists will have their fingers placed for the right pitches, but can't hold the string down hard enough to make it sound clearly. This is because the pinch on the neck that holds down the strings must be dominated by the thumb. Students will try to compensate for the lack of this pinch by pulling their fretting fingers using their arm, rather than by pinching the back of the neck. Luckily, this is an easy fix. Around the back of the guitar, place the pad of your thumb against the center of the neck. You also want it placed towards the middle of your fretting fingers. This will evenly distribute the weight, and make your fingertips much more comfortable and your chord sound clearly. This also helps relieves stress on the joints in your fingertips, giving you a more sustainable way to play guitar in the years to come.
I hope you all enjoyed this article and I hope its helping some improve their playing! You can contact me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions. If you have tips for clearer chords, comment them below! Also, consider lessons in person or via Skype if you're having trouble!
Brandon Giltz is a Bassist, Guitarist, Flutist, Composer, and music teacher operating in New Orleans. He works with students of all ages, plays in a number of classical and contemporary ensembles, and has scored music for trailers and games.