Lending a Hand to New Musicians

I’m possibly going to put my Guitar Instructor hat on again here in the near future. I was reflecting on how I got into this irregular, part time teaching gig. I reckon that it wouldn’t hurt to write about it as I figure that there are some folks reading this that are looking to learn to play guitar/bass or know someone who is wanting to learn to play, such as their child. This abbreviated history will hopefully be a useful guide in some of the things that should be considered and the basics of what every guitar player learns in one form or another.

Over the years I’ve given guitar and bass guitar lessons to a few adults and a bunch of kids, middle schoolers and teenagers primarily, who wanted to learn how to play. Most of these kids were the offspring of friends and acquaintances that I’ve known over the years. Basically, mom or dad would approach me and inquire about what guitar or bass that I thought would be a good starter instrument for their middle schooler or teenager.

Getting Started - Proper Gear and Technique

The first thing I’d ask was if the idea to learn to play was from the kid or the parent. If it was the kid, then I’d happily engage in the scenario and offer far more than just a bit of purchasing advice. If it was solely the parent’s idea, I knew that the chances that the kid too was interested, or would become so, was slim. Once I had assessed the genesis of the desire, then I’d assess electric or acoustic and the parent’s budget. I’d then make a handful of suggestions, including a suitable budget amp for the electric suggestions. If the overall budget was on the low side, I’d push the parent to spend a little more because if the kid had to fight the shortcomings of a low quality instrument, then the interest would quickly wane and the purchase-on-the-cheap would be a waste.

Once the instrument was acquired, I’d offer to do a proper set-up before it was gifted and also offer to give the kid a handful of lessons to teach the basics of tuning, holding the instrument and some sort of “appropriate” hand position for the left and right hands. I never was a stickler for the “proper academy technique” of where and how to hold the instrument and how to position the hands. So long as the student could comfortably reach the strings and frets required for the fretting hand and the picking/strumming hand was in the vicinity of the halfway point between the bridge and the neck, favoring bridge as the base point, then it was all good. So longs as a reasonable amount of comfort was retained, then I could teach them the required basics.

I made it clear to the student and the parent that if the student got bored with what I was teaching or just didn’t connect with me that was ok. There were people in town that were pro’s at teaching and I would not be the least bit put out if the student wanted another teacher. Since I was doing this for free, there was no money lost by the parent and that would get the student set with at least the basics if they then wanted a “pro” teacher. If the kid stuck with me, then I’d go into the three basic components that, along with timing and some basic theory, define what a guitar player utilizes in leaning to be a proficient player.

I’m purposely taking a simplistic approach here because I’m really reaching out to the beginner, either the adult or the child wishing to learn to play. I have a standard write-up that I created to define what I would be teaching after the basics that I already described and I’m more or less describing an abbreviated version of my teaching manual. The manual would also include definitions of the terms, explanations of relationships and examples of what I was teaching. I even bought one of those ink stamp sets for the guitar neck and the six lined staff used in tablature or tab notation.

Since I don’t sight read conventional music notation well enough to play in real time, I didn’t use the old-school notation much in my teaching. I simply taught using mostly tab. I did teach the circle of fifths along with how to interpret the key signature for the purpose of determining the key that a song is written in. I explained how to read the time signature, discern the note values and how to interpret the meter, if the meter was noted. More on how I used that is coming up.

What to Teach at the Beginning

So what did I teach? Well, the three components used in playing guitar are the scales (aka the modes), the chords and the arpeggios. I realize that these components are part of most any instrument, but because of the way that the guitar and bass were configured and as we have them today, the fact that these three may be taught as a series of patterns that are movable when it’s time to play in a different key really makes this approach pretty clever.

I cannot begin to take credit for this approach that I’m describing. I learned it from one of the three instructors that I intermittently took lessons from in the first ten years that I played. The amount of music theory needed is negligible and in fact is not really needed as the memorization of the patterns will get the ball rolling. Still in my home brewed manual, I gave some basic theory as I think it’s important that a student had a rudimentary understanding of the “why” behind how a scale is spelled, major, minor, harmonic minor, melodic minor, etc. The same applied to how a chord is spelled, regardless of the flavor. That chordal knowledge would lend itself to the construction of the arpeggio, i.e., a chord that is played one distinct note at a time.

I always taught the scales as three notes to a string and both the scales and arpeggios over two octaves moving from the low E to the high E string on the guitar and an octave and a half for scales on the bass and, depending on the pattern used, up to two octaves for arpeggios on the bass. In all cases, I would require that they be learned going up and back down to help develop dexterity and a more fluid motion regardless of direction.

Alternate picking was also part of my how I taught. I first taught the five patterns for the five noted pentatonic scales. Once mastered, I’d show that by adding the ߕ5 to the patterns in each octave how the blues scale was derived. After that, I would teach the seven patterns of the major scale and in addition to simply naming them by numbers, I’d teach the names of each pattern, e.g., Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian and Locrian. What they then had was an introduction to the modes. We would eventually look at other common flavors of modes and I’d show them how they could be used over certain chordal progressions in order to make their own playing interesting as they learned to improvise and write their own music.

I taught what I called Strumming 101 based on the regiment of using the standard notation of the notes: half, quarter, eighth, dotted eighth, sixteenth, etc., much in the same way that a drummer’s charts are laid out. That was the main reason I taught time signature and note time values, i.e., beats, from the standard notation.

A metronome was the only piece of additional equipment that I required be purchased. I would generally suggest to the responsible party that one of the metronome/electronic tuner combos be the one to look for. Both Korg and Boss offered those in the 90’s and if money was tight (and in the time before these relatively inexpensive combo units became available), then a modest, wind up mechanical metronome and a set of pitch pipes or even a Concert A (440 Hz) tuning fork should be procured. I taught how to tune either by the mostly 5th fret or the mostly 5th-7th fret harmonic, by-ear methods as part of the learning to tune method. Experienced guitar players will understand what I mean by “mostly” in the preceding sentence. The bass is a bit simpler and there is no “mostly”.

As with everything that I taught, I expected them to go slow and develop good articulation and then start speeding up their playing using the metronome to help reinforce a good sense of time and maintain clean articulation. “The speed will come”, I told them. I had a maxim. “With good technique, practice makes perfect. With bad technique, practice makes permanent.” Playing single note lines, strumming, arpeggiating, all had to be practiced to be as smooth and articulate as possible at a given speed. If the student started to get sloppy, I’d make them back off 10 beats per minute (bpm) until the technique they were demonstrating to me became ordered and clean.

As a reward for practicing the material assigned and gaining a reasonable mastery of the assignment, a week in advance I would ask the student to tell me the title of a song that they wanted to learn and I’d learn the song and tab out a suitable arrangement that was playable to their current level of proficiency. The next lesson, upon demonstrating that they did their homework, I’d teach them the song that they wanted to learn and send them home with the tabbed out arrangement to practice from. In this way, they learned the ability to read the ubiquitous tabs out there for most popular songs.

Don't Assign Too Much, Too Fast

I always kept an eye on how much material that they could assimilate and not give them too much and if they seemed to be mastering what I gave too easily and were getting bored, I’d increase the quantity of material that I gave them. I am not a master player. I’m a journeyman at best and eventually, if a student stayed with me long enough, they’d tap out what I could show them. I only had that happen twice and I encouraged them to find an instructor that could take them farther. One of these now young men is a successful session player on the west coast.

So if one is looking to learn to play guitar or bass or know someone who is interested, this is a basic overview of the kinds of things that will be addressed by most instructors. Many of the instructional books out there also utilize this approach. There are other ways to skin this cat, but this is the way I learned and an approach that I’ve seen widely used by some of the other musicians in my local community who teach. The cool thing is that most students will start to see the relationships between the scales and the chords if they put the time in and think a little about what they are doing.

One thing that I noticed was that they became aware, almost as a second nature kind of quality, where all the E notes on the neck were or C# notes on the neck or whatever note name that I called off. In terms of the less obvious relationships, they don’t need a Bachelor’s Degree in Music or Music Theory to have little epiphanies. It was always pretty rewarding to have them come back the next week, after they had been at it for a few months, and report the little epiphanies that they had as they were practicing. That was the sign I was looking for that they had been bit by the bug, a bug called Music.

There is no cure but fortunately, this bug, this disease, adds to one’s substance, to one’s life force, as opposed to depleting it. There are spouses out there now, married to some of the teen boys I taught, that curse the name of the unknown instructor/mentor that gave them the Music bug inflicted husband. This husband is the one whose mantra is, “Really, honey…this is the last guitar that I’ll need to buy…or amp…or bass…or multi-processor, etc. I promise. Scouts honor.”

-Kirk Bolas - MU Columnist
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