From the August 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY JEFF GUNN
As an 11-year-old wannabe guitarist in Canada in the 1990s, I was thrilled to take my first lessons. But I remember the disillusionment of being forced by the teacher to read the most rudimentary single-note lines, when I just wanted to know how to strum some pop songs. Not once was I asked what I wanted to learn, so I quit after just a few sessions.
It took me several years to shake off the disappointment and give it another go. This time, though, I found a new teacher who was able to teach me my favorite songs while also encouraging me to learn the fundamentals of music. This was so inspiring that I learned to read and write notation and play in a range of styles, from rock to jazz to bossa nova. My love of music and the guitar grew exponentially, and I took the first steps toward becoming a professional musician.
The good news is that for those interested in taking guitar lessons today, there has never been a greater range of available options. However, while having options is a good thing, it’s still important to take your time selecting a teacher. Be sure to consider a range of factors, from costs to lesson platforms to musical styles. Because finding the right teacher for you can take your playing to exciting new heights.
When seeking a teacher, begin by asking yourself some key questions: What type of learner am I? Do I learn best through watching exercises, reading about them, listening to examples, or physically exploring exercises through trial and error? Do I work best in a one-on-one or group setting—or a combination of both?
Be sure to question why you want to take lessons: Is it to learn your favorite songs? To understand how to read and write music or delve into improvisation? To dive deeply into a particular style? Are you doing this as a hobby or in pursuit of an eventual career in music? The answers will help you communicate to a potential teacher what you’re after, so that you can learn based on your own desires and not be forced down a path that doesn’t interest you.
‘A teacher should understand you and provide a space where you feel comfortable taking risks . . .’
Sniffing Things Out
As with many things in life, word-of-mouth is an excellent way to learn about good teachers and classes in your area. Chances are, more than a few people in your community are taking guitar lessons. Ask around to find students who are really enjoying their lessons, and compile a list of their teachers. Then, do some online research. These days, personal websites, as well as social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, reveal a lot about teachers’ musical styles and backgrounds.
Another great option is to simply pick up the phone and call the teachers on your list. Inquire about their approaches and share your own interests, so they can explain what they can offer you. Also, you might learn that a given teacher specializes in a particular genre, such as folk, blues, or jazz, that matches your musical interests—that’s obviously a big plus.
Depending on your level of proficiency on the guitar, it might be important to study with a teacher who is engaged in the local music community and who gigs regularly. If you’re an intermediate-to-advanced guitarist, you might have the opportunity to sit in with your teacher, or potentially even become a sub for him or her. And it’s often the case that gigs come from teachers’ recommendations.
Throughout your selection process, remember that great players do not necessarily make great educators. Teaching is a fine craft that—just like playing an instrument—can take years to perfect. But you can at least narrow down the possibilities by doing some research on a potential guitar teacher.
Private vs. Group Lessons
Should you take private or group lessons? One of the obvious advantages of the former is that you get one-on-one attention and all of your questions can immediately be addressed. The lessons are often conducted in the comfort of an informal setting, like a home studio. Cost is a factor to consider. Private lessons are typically priced at $25/30 minutes or $40/hour; lessons with a master guitarist could be $100 or more per hour, depending on the teacher’s reputation and demand.
It’s just as important to find a private teacher who is musically skilled as it is to find one you connect with. A teacher should understand you and provide a space where you feel comfortable taking risks without fear of criticism; a teacher should encourage and inspire you. One of my greatest guitar instructors, for instance, always encouraged me to say yes to gigs, even if I thought I wasn’t ready. I’ll never forget his empowering words, “Just dive in!”
Private lessons come with plenty of pros. You can usually select a teacher close to where you live, so you won’t have to schlep to your lessons. It’s often easier to schedule lessons with a private instructor than with a formal school with set hours of operation. And in the event that you have to do a makeup lesson, a private teacher might be flexible and even willing to come to you. But most important, a private teacher will give you the sort of direct attention that’s not possible in a group setting, and you can tailor the instruction to meet your own goals.
Group guitar lessons, usually held at a music stores or schools, come with their own advantages. They typically offer an inviting space for learning the basics while meeting new friends; you can even bond with a friend or family member by taking a course together. In terms of cost, group lessons tend to be less expensive than private lessons, the exception being classes taught by high-profile guitarists.
‘Regardless of how long you have played, lessons can ignite a new passion for the instrument, reaffirm what you already know, and, in many cases, reveal how much more there is to learn.’
Guitar classes are often more structured than private lessons, with some instructors using method books. When I recently taught a course to 30 students, we worked through William Leavitt’s A Modern Method for Guitar and The Royal Conservatory of Music’s Guitar Series, with their graduated levels and systematic testing. Depending on your teacher, your class might include instruction on music theory, ear training, and sight-reading, all of which will enhance your overall musicality and guitar performance. If you thrive on structure, this could be the right place for you.
While group guitar lessons often focus on general instruction, some music stores cater to specific genres and offer specialized instruction. For instance, Gryphon Stringed Instruments, in Palo Alto, California, hosts group bluegrass lessons, among other styles; McCabe’s Guitar Shop, in Santa Monica, has a range of group lessons in country and blues styles and even a class called “Beatles and Stones Jam.”
A potential pitfall to group lessons is that the students might be in different places in terms of their proficiency on the instrument and their commitment to practicing. As a result, the instructor might spend time with other students and not be able to immediately meet your needs. However, if you feel like you work well in a group environment, it’s definitely worth sampling a class nearby.
Get stories like this in your inbox
Another great option is taking guitar lessons remotely, via an app like Skype, FaceTime, or WhatsApp. This route is obviously good for students who live in communities with few teachers. Also, prominent acoustic guitarists like Mike Dawes and Don Ross offer Skype lessons, so you can potentially take private lessons with one of your favorite players—from the comfort of your own home, or even while you’re traveling.
Skype lessons are to guitar what Uber is to the taxi industry: more convenient and often cheaper for the consumer. Expect to pay around $70 per hour—or $300 to $400 for a prepaid package of five lessons—for lessons from a top-shelf guitarist. The duration of remote lessons tends to be more flexible, generally lasting from 40 minutes up to two hours.
It’s fairly easy to find guitar teachers who give Skype lessons online, as many use Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook to recruit new students. Once you’ve made contact with a potential teacher, there will typically be an initial evaluation via email or Skype. That way, the teacher can assess your playing and you can see if you think he or she will be a good fit.
In considering Skype lessons, remember that technical difficulties—like a lag in the audio or video, or even an outage—can arise due to internet or wi-fi issues. Also, remote lessons might be more ideal for the learner who can watch and listen, as opposed to the learner who likes the teacher to be physically present and even move his or her fingers if needed. Most of the guitarists I know who take Skype lessons are intermediate to advanced, but beginners can also get great results from this convenient learning platform.
Like in-person lessons, those by Skype can be done in individual or group contexts—it’s not uncommon for one teacher to instruct simultaneous subscribers. The same pros and cons of private lessons and group lessons apply, so consider the environment in which you learn best and what you would ultimately like to get out of the teacher.
Whatever you decide on—private, group, or Skype lessons (or a combination of the three)—remember, learning never ends. You are never too old or too good to take a lesson or learn something fresh on the guitar. Regardless of how long you have played, lessons can ignite a new passion for the instrument, reaffirm what you already know, and, in many cases, reveal how much more there is to learn. So take your time figuring out where you want to be as a guitarist— and who can best help you get there.
Jeff Gunn (jeffgunn.ca), guitarist/musical director for Emmanuel Jal, is the author of Hidden Sounds: Discover Your Own Method on Guitar. Gunn has taught music in elementary through college classrooms and in private settings. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @jeffgunn1.
This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.