The full transcript of Guitarist Article
I have been playing guitar for over 33 years, played 3500+ gigs including Wembley Arena. Member of the Registry of Guitar Tutors, 25+ years teaching experience. I attended GIT back in the 90’s and have recently finished another degree in Guitar with DIME Online and Falmouth University. Mainly teach pop/rock music with forays into jazz and blues as required. My typical student is anyone from 6 to 60+, with a guitar and a desire to learn and an abnormal number of other guitar teachers. I teach both in person and online via Skype. A large majority of the students take guitar grades with me and so far I have a 100% pass rate. The ambitions of the students range from just wanting to play for fun through to those playing with signed bands and wanting to expand their knowledge to be more creative. The emphasis is always on the verb play; we have fun doing it.
I think it is essential in the 1-2-1 teaching scenario, that I as a teacher maintain a flexible approach to teaching. It’s quite common for students to arrive at a lesson with a new muse and enthusiasm for something they have just discovered and want to know all about it and learn about it. I love harnessing that enthusiasm and never want to deter a student from learning something. They may require tempering on occasion. You can have a relative beginner who suddenly loves Yngwie and wants to sweep pick 4 weeks into owning a guitar. The trick here is to bring in simple exercises in order to give them something that they can manage and maybe a simple section from an Yngwie tune. You can almost guarantee that a student will eagerly practice something they are enthused about. The trick is to try to make everything they learn have a relevance that they can see why they would be enthused about it. For this reason, I have a huge library of music both recorded and print and can show them the relationship between what they might initially feel is a boring exercise and how it is used in something they possibly feel is much cooler. There are essentials all students need to be taught as their bed rock of knowledge, the fun as a teacher is finding ways of feeding them the info without making it feel stuffy and boring. The musical equivalent of getting kids to eat veg by making it look fun.
The common pitfalls with students learning guitar today are the student’s expectations. Example, there was an explosion a while back with the Guitar hero game. No problem at all with the game, but there were cheat codes and ways of getting high scores as there are with all computer games. Alas there is no cheating on guitar. I remember hearing a quote years ago, where someone said, you can take up golf, stand on the first tee and whack the ball and you may just hit a hole in one. You reached the pinnacle of golf first go. You are not going to pick up a guitar for the first time and whip out Hotel California. Students need to understand that practice is required, there are no short cuts. I wish there were. If sitting in a room with me was merely enough I’d charge more for the osmosis of my knowledge. Other pitfalls include just not being able to focus on specifics. There is so much info out there. Websites, magazines, blogs, books, apps, YouTube, you name it. Where do they start and what is they need to do in what order? The way social media devours material, people are publishing exercises, and “10 things you need to learn right now” articles at almost an hourly rate. Even for someone like me with decades of playing and teaching experience it is overwhelming. I studied NLP a while back and it allows me to make mental plans and visualisations of what I wish to achieve and that focus keeps me on the track I think I should be on without the continual distractions. I sneak some of this into lessons to keep students focussed on their aims, which all vary. Students can also fall into the trap that they believe gear will solve all ills. There is nothing wrong with wanting new equipment, I’d be a hypocrite if I said there was given the number of guitars I own, however, there isn’t a pedal that increases ability, volume yes, talent no. The proliferation of clip on tuners, apps to tune are all fantastic as convenience for players, HOWEVER, they aren’t to replace the ability to tune your guitar by ear. There becomes an over reliance upon the technology to do the simple things. Whilst the self-tuning guitar is a fantastic feat of human engineering, it is awful for getting people to use their ears. Trying to explain to a 13-year-old that they need to practice tuning by ear and their comeback being, “Why? Gibson make a self-tuning guitar; I don’t need to worry about that” is quite demoralising. The best answer being well, it’s cheaper to use your ears.
If you want to build a house, you need to have strong foundations a little pig once told me. The single biggest issue I get with people coming to me to help them along. Is that they have not learnt all the notes on the neck. It is the least glamourous of things to learn. However, it makes all the cool stuff much easier to learn in the long run. It’s a very simple process to learn the notes but so overlooked. Make yourself 12 flashcards with the notes on it. Set aside a few minutes a day and just spot test yourself on one string. Pull out a flash card and find that note on the string of the day. 6 strings. 5 different ones. You can do a string a day and have weekends off if you want and all up it may come to no more than 15 minutes a week. What excuse can you have not to do it? The next step is just to apply this when you are playing other things. Stop in the middle of a section you may be playing and identify the notes by name. Just this knowledge alone will make, chords, scales, arpeggios so much easier in the long run. Next you need to know chords. Even if you want to be the shreddiest of shredders you need to know and understand chords. You can’t play songs without chords. With all my wannabe Vai’s I always ask a simple question, when you are doing all these flash licks, what is it you are playing over? Chords, or more correctly some kind of harmony. If you don’t know what that is how can you pick the right notes to play? I assume you want to play the right notes? Some have fantastic ears and that, I think, is the first place to go, but surely a safety net is a good idea? And if they don’t have the ears yet, then the knowledge of what notes go with which harmony can allow them to develop their ears. It’s win-win as far as I am concerned. So I’m firmly in the camp of getting students to go through the CAGED chords and seeing how easy it is for them to learn a lot of chord shapes in little time. The other thing is how do they think they get to the solo of a song without playing the rest of it? Chords, they are the way forward. This leads on to my other bit of core knowledge. Learn songs. Learn lots of songs. I’ve done thousands of gigs and at no point has anyone ever asked me to demonstrate a particular exercise or explain the harmony of something. People want songs. They will judge you on whether or not you can play the tune they requested. The end product we are all working for is performance and that is nothing without repertoire. So I recommend learning lots of songs, standards and the stuff that really floats the students boat. Find a nice balance between the two. The songs will have elements of all the things they would practice in isolation, might as well have an end goal to the whole thing.
4. Case Study
A recent issue in a lesson was a young student learning Should I Stay or Should I go by The Clash. The issue was the chord change from D to G down to the F and back to the G. Up to the point the tune was great then the wheels would fall off. In order to fix the issue, we did a couple of things. Firstly, there was problem changing from the open D to a G as a barre shape. The thumb was in all the wrong place, so let’s get that sorted first. I got the student to close their eyes and see if they could see their hand forming the chord shape for G as an E shape in their head. If your head doesn’t know what to do, your hands aren’t going to miraculously know. Next was just concentrating on changing cleanly and precisely between the two chords. I got the student to do just that continually for 3 minutes. They didn’t need to do it fast, I am only interested in correctly. If that means, we only get 2 or 3 changes in 3 minutes then so be it. Correct and clean is the aim not speed. Speed will come when they are accurate. In this instance the student got 15 odd changes in. The chords seemed clearer and the changes were smoother. The next step was to the take the song and slow it down. I use Anytune Pro. At about 80% of the normal speed I got them to play along to see if the chord changes were now as coordinated and smooth as they need to be. From there we gradually up the speed of the tune until we are at target pace. The idea for me is to isolate just the problem and work on that. We could have fixed the issue by keep playing the song from the beginning over and over, but that takes much longer and chances are the wheels will fall off at the same point every time so let’s streamline and identify the problem and work solely upon that. It is my job after all to be able to spot these things and come up with solutions.
Getting students to practice the holy grail. There are so many ways to attempt to motivate students to practice, threats, of violence, humiliation, torture. However, I found the most effective method is to make the material fun. That way it doesn’t feel like practice. Give a student something they are enthused about and can see a reason for, and they will practice it 99 times out of 100. There will always be occasions where life just gets in the way, but if they love it and they want to master it, they will do it. For the really studious I often set out a method of how I practice and they might like to use the template in their own practice. As with anything the idea is fluid and should be adapted to what they are doing as opposed to trying to emulate what I am doing. I divide my allotted time between as many different areas as I need to cover in my practice routine. Typically, this will be
In this example I work over a 60-minute period. Each section would be an 8-minute section apart from the warm up which I generally keep to 2-3 mins. Between each section I take a 2-minute break to prepare for the next section. This method ensures that I work on all the material I need to. It is structured so I end each practice session on something I enjoy. This way it doesn’t feel like work. This is important. End on an up. If the student has less time to practice, for example 30 mins all up, then they just work in 4 minute groups. The idea is that little and often will get you progressing quicker than sitting on one topic for 30 mins. I find on the whole this method works. Ultimately the motivation to practice will come from the student.
Students come with varying degrees of ear. It’s all horses for courses really. The ear is vitally important, although these days you’d not think so. The number of players who spend all day on YouTube and treat music visually is quite alarming. But I digress. Some students just need to have their ears opened to different styles and tones long before they head into recognising intervals and scales. I have had students who have told me they don’t listen to music. There is a challenge. Not quite sure why they wanted to play the guitar, but there you go.
With regards to those that are a bit further along, I do teach the “song” method of learning intervals. Just getting students to recognise intervals according to which songs they are reminded of by that interval. That is always a good way in. I don’t make it formalised. I will just subtly play something and then isolate 2 notes and see if they can guess the interval and work through the song system with it until they understand that it can just be fun. This can then be extended on to chords. Every time I introduce a new type of chord, say Major7, then we listen and try to discover what it sounds like? Can they get a filing system in their heads for chords that sound like that? A favourite for that chord is its use in Under the Bridge or Wake up by RATM. Grade students have to do a section on Aural testing, we run through those sections and get them used to it. It’s a fine line between what is required to pass the exam and still keeping it fun so they don’t realise they are learning.
Students feeling that they haven’t or aren’t progressing fast enough is a weekly occurrence with virtually every student.The main issue is that a large number spend their time comparing themselves to either friends, peers, online players and occasionally me.All of which is daft, but they need to understand why it is daft.First thing I’ll do is remind them just how far they have come.Be it a few weeks or years, they all started knowing nothing and now they can do XYZ. It’s good that they are constantly looking forward at the new goal, that isn’t to be discouraged, however now and again it is worth having a little look backwards to realise how much you have already achieved and then you can rationalise that it will come eventually.I am a trained NLP practitioner and Stress Counsellor, so I am equipped to deal with students stressing themselves out and feeling demoralised.
A simple trick is to always finish a lesson/ practice session on a positive. For instance, they may be learning something at Grade 5 and struggling, as we get to the end of the session I will just get them to play something they know inside out and can absolutely nail.They play that and restore a bit of confidence in themselves.It can be just as simple as that in most cases.It can be just a conversation explaining that, for example, Grade 5 carries the same status as a GCSE pass, and you get 2 years to do that at school, expecting to nail the same level in 6 weeks is asking too much of yourself.Understand that everyone works at their own pace and there is no pressure from me, it will take as long as it takes. Most students seem to progress in stages.You get a burst at the beginning then they plateau out for a while and feel like they stagnate, then something clicks again and they shoot up again, and so it goes on.I do it as well.Once you come to this realisation and just keep working at it, the stress can just dissipate.
The vast majority of students I teach end up taking grades of some description. I tend to work with the Registry of Guitar Tutors mostly although I do some of the Rockschool stuff as well.One of the continual questions I used to get, especially with teenage boys, was “what grade am I?I can play Enter Sandman and my mate can’t and he’s a grade 3, I must be a grade 4 mustn’t I?”Oh how I loved those questions.Since the Rock grading has come into being, it’s very easy to answer.I whip out the books and we work through them. No more speculation on what level they might be at.I find them very useful for focussing students on a goal, if they haven’t got one already.They all love getting certificates, the vast majority of my students get Distinctions (big head) and now they all compete on what percentage they got compared to their mate.None of that really matters, but if it acts as motivation then great.What is good, is that the syllabus is great and they gain confidence that they can play things.From early on they are trying to play over backing tracks and play pieces in their entirety.It seems to be a trait that guitarists learn bits of songs, this riff and that lick and not the whole thing.They avoid the transitions from verses into chorus, or leave out a middle 8 completely.The fact they have to play over a backing track and there is nowhere to hide for them gets a focus on learning ALL the parts of the song.As I mentioned previously, repertoire is king for me, songs contain all the elements that you could separate into exercises, and on occasions with sections that may be difficult, they need to be exercises, but why sit doing stale exercises when you can learn a tune and impress friends with it.The only people who ever get excited about guitar exercises are other guitarists. The other advantage with the performance award side of the RGT system is that students can be videoed in a lesson performing the pieces and have themselves submitted that way. In all honesty no one looks forward to an exam. Getting to a designated exam centre at a specific time, then sit in a room with someone you don’t know who will judge you, isn’t the ideal way to get your best performance. Sitting in with your teacher in a familiar environment playing something you’ve practiced over and over is less fraught. This might explain my high marks.Prior to the video submission method, I would be continually regaled with stories from students of how terrible the journey to the exam centre was, how they couldn’t get parked, they just made it on time, they had to hurry, then this that and the other wasn’t right, maybe an amp was not something they were used to.These stories have all but dried up in my world.
Playing live. Whilst I don’t teach ensemble lessons any more, I used to at colleges, my tutoring of students for playing live tends to involve a great deal of backing tracks in lessons. My rationale is that backing tracks are constant. They do not play wrong notes or go out of time. Practice over these and you will know if you are the issue.Other than that, I concentrate on trying to put them off when they are playing over it. Introducing all possible scenarios where things can go wrong whilst performing. Once a student realises that the world will not end if there is a problem, they can feel more at home.It’s a rule in my lessons that if we have started playing over a track we play to the end; you don’t stop when you fluff something. You can’t stop live; you have to look at the bass player accusingly and carry on. It’s just good practice to realise that live if you make a mistake, it’s over and done, you can’t pull it back, it’s happened, just makes sure you stay focussed and finish the piece. Dwelling on an error will just put you off.It’s a very different scenario from recording. Other elements we work on is can they perform a piece whilst maintaining eye contact with me as much as possible.I have never been a big fan of shoegazing musicians. I’d rather a bit of entertainment than they just stood there being boring. Of course there are times where you may be playing something incredibly difficult and you need to concentrate on the guitar, but for the most part, if you are whacking out an A power chord you can look up, smile and engage. These are all tips, but the most important thing is that they enjoy it as best they can and catch the same bug I had for playing live. There will be issues, things won’t be as wonderful as they imagined, but as with everything you have to get the first one out of the way to know what needs attention.
Modern technology is what it is, friend and foe maybe, I think of it more as there is some really useful stuff and I try to ignore the unhelpful.Being able to teach online is a great avenue to reach people who want lessons but just aren’t able to get to me, either geography, mobility issues or just time factors.They are no longer issues for either the teacher or student.For the most part I love technology, it is convenient and widely available. I am wary of over reliance upon it for both myself and students. YouTube for the most part is great for popping up small lesson ideas for students to recap with later.The downside is, as most people know, the trolling in the comments. I have a thick skin and basically subscribe to the school of, if you are going to criticise what I did, then do it better yourself. I know that most students spend a long time on YouTube and the likes and regularly come to me with questions about techniques and the likes, due to things they’ve seen online.It can open up good questions and enquiry. It can also give students unrealistic ideas about what is expected of them. If you’ve been playing for 6 weeks, no one is expecting you to know what sweep picking is or be able to do it.
Certainly the access to free TAB’s and online lessons has to a certain degree caused some to devalue the knowledge a teacher has. When it’s free online, why would they want to pay someone for it?Understandable.I have found that if you can’t beat them join them, so I have lessons available free online, maybe from a taster people might be supportive in the long run.
Students and gear.
It’s important that students understand their gear and what is for what. When I worked at Guitar Village I used to make sure every beginner understood what all parts on the guitar were for. How else could they make an informed decision? My beginners these days often arrive having no idea what a pickup is or what its purpose is and it goes on from there.Part of the grades is talking about the parts of the guitar and explaining about them. So just for that they need to know about the gear.
I use quite a bit of up to date gear, so that often raises questions. For example, most of the time in the classroom I use plugins, such as POD farm or Scuffham to get the best tones for the tunes we are learning. This kind of technology raises all kinds of questions, with regard to interfaces and then on to the different effects types you can add to amps to create whatever you like.I do find it necessary to demonstrate that I can still sound good without all the toys. I don’t want any of them thinking that you need all the bells and whistles before you can play anything. I firmly believe the majority of tone is in the hands, and if it’s not right there, then all the gear in the world won’t correct it.Usually letting the student loose on my stuff for a while and having them come to that conclusion for themselves. despite playing through my setup, it just didn’t quite sound the same.
The advantage of it all is I can demonstrate all kinds things, such as phaser, flanger, delays, reverbs, overdrives, distortions, etc so they can make informed decisions as to what they a) like the sound of and b) what they may have heard on records and can now identify later.
My advice has always been to buy the best you can afford and the instrument you WANT. That way when it doesn’t do exactly what you thought it would, you know it’s user error not equipment.If you own the instrument you desired you can’t then sit there thinking, if only I bought the one I really wanted then I’d be able to do this.
It’s quite natural that most players are gear nuts, it’s the same with anyone else with a passion.My other half is avid purchaser of things for her sports car. It’s what people do.
I would always advocate students play with others. Music is a language; it is for communicating. It’s more fun when there is a conversation than just one person sat talking to themselves.I like to make sure they are well equipped for when they go off to play with others. I’ve just had one of my 11-year-old students attend a week long band camp near his home and he seemed to have a great time and found most of what was asked of him easy to do.I’d like to think that was down to a good grounding in lessons with me. He is fearless of taking on new material.
Ensemble playing, be it with a group of guitarists or a band is another plateau for musicians. Learning how to interact with other instruments.I love jamming and improvising, that really only comes from having done it for decades and gaining the experience. I’d love for all my students to be able to have as much fun as I’ve had with the instrument so far. Then they’d understand my enthusiasm.
This exercise works on several levels.
Firstly, you are learning the Blues scale. The scale that all the cool riffs ever were born from.
Secondly it is an alternate picking exercise including string skipping.
Thirdly, it is an ear training exercise.Play the exercise then trying singing the ascending notes before playing them.
Fourthly, experiment moving the ascending notes into different orders and see if you come up with any cool riffs yourself.