What follows is certainly not essential reading. I have put it here to give some simple tips and provide a little more insight into how I approach teaching. Feel free to read as much or little as you want.
Frequently Asked Questions
“Can I learn to play the guitar? I don’t think I have any talent”
I would suggest almost anyone can learn guitar unless there are obvious barriers eg. major physical problems with the hands. Like anything in life, some people will take to it easier than others, but the term talent is really just a very loose over-generalisation. I prefer to think in terms of a range of aptitudes that people draw upon when learning; sense of rhythm, ‘ear’ for music, physical co-ordination, strength and dexterity of the fingers, memory, intelligence and many more. Usually someone will be blessed more in some areas than others, but few people are lucky enough to be great in every respect or equally so unlucky to have nothing going for them. Everyone will progress at different speeds (something one-one tuition is perfectly suited to), some things will come easier and other aspects will require more work. But guess what? I think that conviction, drive, passion, determination and patience are all aptitudes that are just as important as the more obvious aspects of 'talent' above, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a truly good guitarist that didn't have to sometimes fall back on these to push through and improve.
“How long does it take to learn to play the guitar?"
This is the question I dread answering as it is so variable. It is very dependant on the student’s natural aptitude for it, the amount of practice they do and the manner in which they do it. Also, people have very different perceptions of what ‘being able to play the guitar’ is. If you want to ‘busk’ your way through some simple songs then this is will happen much sooner than if you want to play complex fast heavy metal songs and solos. In fact, most guitarists feel that they are constantly learning and improving, and there is no magic point where you think “ah, now I can play”, but you are aware of what you can do and can’t.
To try and answer though; for a beginner we’ll be playing along to songs from the first lesson or two, but this will be very simplified. There’ll be a point where we move on to more faithful versions of selected songs - this might happen anywhere from a few months in to a year. There’ll be a point where you’ll be a pretty rounded rhythm guitar player - this might happen in a year, in 3 - 4 years or anywhere in between. At this point we might get stuck into soloing or take things in whichever direction you want. But it ultimately is very dependent on the student.
"Am I too old to start learning the guitar?"
"How often are lessons?"
I find students tend to make the best progress having regular weekly lessons of one hour (adults/teens) or 30/45 mins (younger children) as it maintains a focus and they have something to work towards every week. However I appreciate this isn't always possible for financial or convenience reasons and I am quite flexible. I have students who have lessons at the same time every week, others that have fortnightly lessons and others that just ring me every few weeks to arrange something.
How would playing the guitar benefit my child?
There are many positives for a child learning any musical instrument. It encourages patience and discipline and working towards long term goals. If a child sees an exciting guitarist that they want to emulate it is important for them to know it is possible for them to play to that level too, but it takes a lot of work over a long period of time - however there are many points in-between for them to feel proud of what they have achieved. It can encourage problem solving - "if I play something and it doesn't sound like it should, what do I need to change to make this right?" It of course encourages creativity, especially in the areas of songwriting and improvisation. If they move on to start playing in a band/ensemble there are many things that can come into play here too - listening, teamwork, compromise, leadership, being inspired by those that are better than you and being helpful to those that are not as advanced.
"At what age should my son/daughter start to learn the guitar?"
Again a very difficult question as it depends so much on the individual. From the age of around ten years I approach teaching 'children' using the same techniques, songs etc I would adults - from this age they pick things up in roughly the same way. As it is one-to-one everyone moves at their own speed anyway and the way in which I communicate and explain things is obviously tailored to the individual and their age. It's sometimes nice to start before the teenage years - when kids get to 13/14 they tend to get more particular about what music they do and don't like. If they've already played a few years when they get to this point it is a lot easier to incororporate the music of any artists they like into the lessons. That said, if they are already 13/14 there is no issue in starting now.
Below the age of ten I tend to start off with a somewhat different approach. I use tuition books designed for kids that introduce things at a slower pace using simple tunes rather than chords, within a small and slowly expanding range of notes. The most important factors here are the strength of the fingers, coordination and the temperament and concentration of the child. There is an inherent difficulty in the guitar compared to the keyboard. On a keyboard you can use one finger to press a key and instantly get rewarded with a note. Put a few together and you can quickly have a tune. On a guitar, to play one note you have to press down on a string into the neck of the guitar - if you don't press firmly enough or not in the right place it won't work properly. You then have to coordinate the other hand to go to the same string and strike it - if you miss or get the wrong string, again it won't be correct. All this to get just one note!
Typically down to about the age of seven kids are okay to start. However, some seven year olds might be 'too young', Alternatively someone else at five or six might be fine. Crucially, in the early lessons if a child does not immediately get something right and the note they tried to play doesn't happen, they need to have the temperament to allow the teacher to explain how to change what the did to get the right result, and then try again. If they do this they will see the positives results and as you get into playing a few tunes it becomes rewarding. If a child gets frustrated or bored if they don't get something right immediately then they might have difficulty and it may be worth waiting 6 months or a year and then thinking again.
One crucial factor, it is important that the child themselves wants to learn the guitar. If your son/daughter keeps coming up to you nagging about wanting to start playing then chances are their desire and enthusiasm will get them over any initial hurdles and they'll practice, see the results and they'll really enjoy learning. If it is more the parent 'encouraging' the child into it, the child will obviously be less motivated. That said, I can fully appreciate that in some circumstances parents of children that are perhaps having issues with concentration and maybe not thriving in school might want their child to learn an instrument like the guitar to be a positive influence and help their patience. I am happy to take on these lessons too and will of course try my best to make as much progress with any child as possible.
"Do you teach children with additional needs?"
If your child has additional needs and wants to learn the guitar, please contact me to discuss their requirements - I am very keen to facilitate lessons to the best of my capabilities. Over my years of teaching privately and in schools I have experience of working with a number of children with additional needs, including several on the Autistic spectrum.
"Are you CRB checked?"
As I work in two schools, it is a requirement that I have a clean CRB record. I do not have a seperate CRB for teaching privately simply because it is not possible for an individual to do a CRB check on themselves - they must be done by a third party. However I can show evidence of the most recent CRB check performed by the schools I teach in should you wish to see it, or would provide contact details for the schools should you wish to check with them directly.
Practice is important. Really! Nobody ever became good at the guitar by not playing it. Good tuition is about steering development, explaining, helping and inspiring but no teacher can give you the ability to play the guitar. There are no ‘secrets’ that once revealed allow you to unlock the spirit of Jimi Hendrix lying dormant inside you. Just as in martial arts - training to kick or punch - once you have done something repeatedly it becomes unconscious and easy and there is no substitute for that.
A common idea is that a bit of practice each day is more fruitful than a bigger chunk once a week and about 20 minutes a day is a nice amount to do. However you get what you put in. If someone is playing for a bit of fun, this is great. But, if you want to be an accomplished guitarist who solos and plays in bands etc then you would want to be doing more like an hour or so (I’ve read interviews with top guitarists where they talked about having practiced 6-8 hours a day but don’t worry, I won’t be forcing you to do that!)
I am realistic and I appreciate people have other priorities and I certainly won’t start telling people off or refusing lessons if practice isn’t done. However if a student hasn’t practiced inevitably the lesson ends up becoming a supervised practice session as we have to run through what hasn’t been practiced until you can do it and this is where things can get a bit boring as we end up stuck at the same place for a while. If a student returns to me having practiced we can review what they’ve done, make tweaks, then move on and things are much more rewarding and enjoyable.
Not only is practice important, but equally GOOD practice is too. It is possible to achieve something in ten minutes by approaching it in a methodical way that could take weeks otherwise. This is something I like to cover in lessons.
Keep your fingers close to the fret
This is something I find myself saying all the time, it is such a simple thing that can make a massive difference. When you press a string down with your (usually left-hand) fingers, you press it in the fret-space between two metal fret-lines. If you press it close to the fret-line nearest you, you will get the best possible execution of that note. If you slowly slide your finger away from you towards the other side of the fret-space you will find you need to exert more and more pressure to get any kind of note and eventually it will become just a rattly noise as the strings ricochets against the fret you moved away from. Alternatively, if you move not only back up to but ONTO the fret, you will hear that the note starts to sound muffled.
Therefore the optimum place to play for any fret is always close to, but not on, the metal fret-line closest to you. It's good to get in the habit of doing this all the time. If you fall slightly short of that then its fine, but if you aim for the middle and fall short chances are you'll end up with a rattly-sounding note. Multiply this by three or four fingers in a chord and literally a few millimetres can make the difference between a lovely, musical chord and a scratchy noise.
Understanding a little about muscle memory is incredibly helpful to improving. Muscle Memory (MM) is the way in which we can subconsciously remember physical movements. When you walk, run, ride a bike, swim, clean your teeth, your body has to perform a multitude of small movements yet you are able to do so without consciously thinking about them, but this wasn't always the case. If you drive you may remember the confusion you probably felt doing all the things needed to change gear, yet eventually it came completely naturally. The same applies to sports, martial arts, crafts and playing an instrument at every level.
MM kicks in when we start to do something too fast to be able to consciously think about every aspect of it, or if we have to think about a different part of the task we are doing. MM can be our greatest ally, but also our worst enemy. It is something of a blunt instrument. It simply remembers how to do something in the way it has done most times before, or in a way that seems to be the easiest way at the time. If you play something right enough times, MM takes over and you start to do it like that without thinking. If you play something wrong a number of times the same thing happens - MM remembers it and you keep playing it wrong!
So, how does this help us beyond the obvious "don't ever play it wrong!"? The key to working with MM rather than against it is to ensure that we first do something in a way that we CAN consciously think about it and be in control off, before the MM kicks in. We can do this by slowing it down, breaking it up into sections, and also building along...
Slow it Down
There's many a music student that when asked to play something more slowly they slow it down by a minuscule amount, then proceed to speed back up as they're playing! Try really slowing it down. Try something like half-speed.
If MM kicks in when something is too fast to think about it, the obvious way to use it to our advantage is to start by playing something so slowly that we can think about every bit of it. Just imagine, if you played one note an hour how easy it would be to get that note right! That's obviously an exaggeration but it stands that if you do something slowly enough you can deliberately instruct your fingers and hands to do the right thing with complete control. Do it right a bunch of times and guess what? MM kicks in and you can start speeding it up. Speed it up steadily enough and you can quickly get it up to speed. The alternative is to start off by playing it at full speed and making mistakes. As you make those mistakes a few times MM 'learns' them and keeps repeating them. You then play it over-and-over again getting more frustrated because you want to get it right, yet every time you make the same mistake you just confirm to MM that that is what it should be doing!
Break it up into Sections
If slowing things down gives us more time to think, breaking up into sections gives us less to think about. Rather than playing through a whole song, concentrate on one section. Within that section you can break it into blocks of four bars. If you're having problems within that try two bars, one bar, even a couple of beats. Identify where the problem is, concentrate on that little bit alone and you can quite quickly tidy it up, repeat it till it's easy and then include it back into the a bigger section and then the whole song.
..... Building Along
An alternative way of giving you less to think about is to build along. Imagine you're learning a two-bar riff and you keep making mistakes at three different points. You might sometimes get each bit right, but you can never seem to consistently get each point right on the same play through. Spot where the first point is and make this the last thing you play. Keep repeating with the problem note the last note (you can carry on tapping out the remaining 'empty' beats so you still get a feel for the length of the riff). If the previous notes truly aren't a problem then you won't need to think too much about them, therefore the problem note becomes the focus of your attention and is easier to correct. Play it right, keep repeating, and then add another note. If there's no problems, repeat a few times then add the next. If the next note is causing a problem, keep repeating only up to here until it gets easier. After a little while you'll be repeating the full riff again with no issues.
It's Not Just About Playing the Right Notes in the Right Order.....
It's quite common for learner guitarists to find out that on this wonderful thing called the internet you can find these things called 'tabs' for almost any song which tell you where to put your finger for each of the notes in the song. Great! You can now play all the songs you want and be just like your favourite guitarists! Well, it's not quite that simple and this frequently doesn't get the desired result. Two of the most common things that get overlooked here are rhythm/timing and quality...
..... Rhythm & Timing
Rhythm and timing are immensely important in music. It is often considered that the two most fundamental aspects of music are changes of pitch and their place in time. Now with pitch, it is often fairly obvious when we are playing the wrong note. And unlike vocals or the violin where you have to concentrate on making sure the note is in tune, we get helped out on guitar as the frets make sure we play definite notes - you can't be a 'out of tune' if the guitar is in tune (well, ok pedants, there's a couple of ways if you try, but not generally).
With rhythm and timing on the other hand, you can be anywhere from slightly to completely out of time. But just as a song needs the correct note to sound right, that note also needs to be the correct length as written, moving onto the next note at the right time. It is common for some novices to play notes when it suits them to play them, rather than how they need to be for the song. Typically more difficult bits get slowed down, easy bits sped up, longer notes get shortened, gaps are sometimes completely ignored and there are hesitations when the player thinks about what comes next.
Integral to getting rhythm and timing right is working from the beat. The beat or pulse of the music is where all rhythms are built from. Notes can be played in time to the beat, longer notes last a certain number of beats long and beats can be subdivided into faster notes such as half or quarter-beats. Put several notes together of the same or differing lengths and you get a rhythm.
I like to make sure that all my students have an understanding of rhythm, knowing about beats, half-beats etc. This is essential to working on our timing. However, it is only the start. Just as I can't read a book on running technique and match Mo Farah, understanding about timing won't make you play in time, it is something you have to feel. It's like an instinct that knows and hears exactly when the next note should be played. Ok then, so someone may ask, "if I don't feel it, whatever that means, and I play out of time, can I learn to feel it and get to the point where my timing is good?" The answer is absolutely "Yes". Instincts, just like skills, can be improved. But they have to be shown the respect they need and approached in the right way, and I've demonstrated this numerous times with people I've taught.
Furthermore, it is my opinion that the importance of rhythm goes beyond getting the timing of notes right. I think that it is a driver for other aspects of playing, and with good rhythm it is easier to develop speed, coordinate smooth chord changes, and relax whilst playing.
It's worth asking, "Why do I want to play the guitar?" The first reason is probably for your own enjoyment and that is great. Second though will probably be the desire to at some point play music to someone else. Now your ambitions may vary greatly, it could be simply playing to a close family member or being able to pick up a guitar at a party and play to mates. At the other end it could be to play live, be in a band, maybe achieve world domination and go down in legend as one of the greatest guitarists ever. Whatever your aim, If you are playing music to others you want them to enjoy your playing in some way, to be moved or energised, to appreciate it as a piece of music and not just tolerate it. For this to happen it can't just be played correctly, it has to sound good, and it is the responsibility of a decent musician to ensure they play in such a way that other people will want to listen to them, or else, quite simply, nobody will want to listen to them!
Quality comes from having a degree of care and attention to your playing, you have to be approaching it with the aim to make it sound good. Technique is incredibly important here. The whole point of good technique is to make you play more efficiently, this allows you to be smoother, more in control and consistent. It also helps with the ability to alter the sound of your playing at will, being able to play delicately or forcefully and channel the emotional meaning of the song through your playing with less hindrance.
It is good get in the habit of recording your playing. A simple Dictaphone or voice recorder app is sufficient. None of us hear how we sound objectively when we are playing. It is common to some extent to hear it how you want to, and hearing something played back that sounds nothing like we imagined can be a very disheartening experience. However the truth is that that is how you sound, and by confronting it something can be done about it. A word of caution here though. A certain amount of improvement in quality has to happen overtime. Even if you play a simple song and play it quite well, a pro session guitarist with decades of experience would make it sound better. When I teach, at every level I'm looking for a certain quality of playing to be hit, but I'm not looking for absolute perfection. A certain amount of judgement is of course required to make sure the player is improving and sounding good for their own level but not being unfairly compared to that pro session player.
When playing and practicing, it is good to 'hear' in your head what you should be playing. Music is sound. We hear it, and we remember what it sounds like. This is obvious. Yet one thing that often happens when people are learning is they devote all this attention to what their hands are doing and completely forget that they are playing music. Even with the greatest physical technique in the world , if someone isn't thinking about what they are doing from a musical perspective, what comes out will sound clumsy and lack drive and conviction. It's like reading a speech from sheet of paper you've never seen before about a subject you know nothing about. I am convinced that one of the main differences between 'talented' people that pick up instruments quickly and the less 'talented' is the ability to easily access an auditory 'recording' in the memory and imagination and use this to 'drive' what they are doing with their hands. Of course, it cannot replace physical ability, you cannot simply imagine an amazing guitar solo and play it, but it is the thing that pulls together all the aspect of physical ability and makes them work together for a positive musical outcome. I find this to be most apparent when it comes to rhythm, but it also applies across the board.
Style, expression, dynamics, artistry and beyond
These are all the things that start to make musical performances more exciting, colourful and engaging. For those unfamiliar with the term, dynamics refers to playing at different volumes. This can be big dynamics such as having a quiet section of a song and then contrasting with a loud one. There are also micro-dynamics, the subtle ways in which a good player may keep their playing ebbing and flowing in volume from note to note to make it more expressive. Dynamics are a major factor in channelling expression into playing, but certainly not the only one.
If you are able to incorporate things like dynamics and give consideration to what the piece is about and strive to communicate this through your playing, you start to create the kind of performance that draws people in. It starts to make things sounds more textured, interesting and human, a bit like the differences between high quality pictures or graphics where you can see lots of depth and shading verses something that looks flat like an old computer game.
The style of a player is a massive mix of things that they 'tend' to do, or ways in which they tend to do things. It can include everything from the type of note choices they gravitate towards, how hard/soft they play, their general technique, specific techniques they employ, the way they hold their pick to their own personal philosophy and approach to music. Obviously there are also styles of guitar playing linked to styles of music, eg Blues, Folk, Rock etc which again will tend to incorporate a mixed bag of particular instrument techniques and lean towards certain ways of communicating through the instrument.
As important as these things are to making engaging music (and they are), I do personally approach things with an 'everything at the right time' approach. If someone is a beginner or if a learner is struggling with fundamental aspects of their playing then things like expression are not only low priority but actually confuse and muddy the water. Also, as much as people like to hear an engageing performance, they tend to be turned off if it just sounds bad. If the chords and notes aren't coming through clearly and it's out of time it will loose most listeners very quickly.
For me the best approach is to first of all play to a standard where the basics sound good, there is a consistent quality of playing and the player actually feels confident and relaxed about what they are doing. From this point, focusing on things like dynamics and style can be a very rewarding and fulfilling experience. Certain aspects can actually be very easy to incorporate into your playing, and other things will gradually develop and mature over many years of playing.