If your child (or grandchild or other kid in your life) has expressed an interest in playing guitar, you may be wondering if they’re too young to begin lessons. Drawing on his decades of experience at Acoustic Guitar magazine and extensive interviews with fellow teachers and experts, Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers answers your frequently asked questions about getting young people started with guitar.
(And if you’re an adult thinking about beginning your own guitar learning journey, be sure to check out his answer to the question “Am I too old to learn guitar?”)
What are some of the signs that a child is ready to learn guitar?
In a way, the signs are the same as they are at any other age – enthusiasm, desire, and the attention span to follow through. But kids, especially those under the age of eight or so, are in a different position from teenagers and older beginners, both because of their still-developing dexterity and the very close involvement that their parents will have with any sort of music education.
“If adults set their expectations to a child’s developmental stage, any child can play guitar at some level,” posits Jessica Baron, the founder of nonprofit Guitars in the Classroom and author of Your Musical Child. “Babies can make sounds,” she says. “Toddlers can play a steady beat. Preschoolers can strum a rhythm and sing over an open chord. Kindergartners can learn simple songs and strums, and they can begin to play notes or a one-finger chord. Kids six and up are ready for lessons if they can follow directions, can focus, and are motivated.”
Those sentiments are echoed by Los Angeles–based teacher Sonia Michelson, who has developed a method of introducing classical guitar to very young children through a progression of movement games, singing, and ear training, along with more formal technical exercises. “I believe a child is ready to learn to play guitar when he or she shows interest and enthusiasm,” says Michelson. “However, a very young child—and I do start children as young as three years old with my book New Dimensions in Classical Guitar for Children—also needs a supportive parent who will attend each lesson, take notes, and be the home teacher.”
Getting an early start on an instrument can be a fantastic thing, as long as the child is having fun and is not being pushed too far and too fast by the parents’ desire to give him or her a head start. A kid who feels forced to sit and practice, who sees playing music as more a parental obligation than a personal pleasure, may actually be worse off in the long run. (Generations of kids who endured joyless piano lessons can attest to this.) By contrast, a child who starts guitar lessons years later but in the meantime soaks up all sorts of music while singing, dancing, and banging sticks on the sidewalk may be more likely to become a lifelong musician. Without the love for it, the learning just won’t happen.
Should a child start with nylon or steel strings? How can you tell if a guitar is the right size?
Nylon-string classical guitars are widely recommended for young kids, mostly because they are so much softer on the fingertips than steel strings. “With kids, the nylon strings make the guitar a little more accessible,” says Cathy Fink, a Grammy-winning roots musician and instructor. “Making it easier on their fingers is going to make it more fun for them, and most of them are not even at a place where they have a goal of, I want to play this kind of music, and I want to play that kind of guitar. With adults, if they know they want a steel-string instrument, then they may as well start on one.”
After the age of seven or eight, a child may be able to handle steel strings – especially on a well-made guitar, with light-gauge strings, that has been professionally adjusted for playability. In general, today’s entry-level steel-strings are much easier to play than the typical budget model from a few decades ago, which had, as the singer-songwriter Emmylou Harris once described her first guitar, “a neck like a baseball bat and strings that were about six inches off the neck.”
No matter what type of strings you choose, finding the right size guitar is critical. Some kids manage to learn by heroically reaching over a full-size instrument, but young ones will be much more comfortable with a half- or three-quarter-size or otherwise downscaled model. There are a number of good-quality instruments available in these fractional sizes; these little guitars, like a Taylor GS Mini or Baby or Little Martin, often double as travel instruments for grown-ups.
Sonia Michelson says, “It is very important that the child can easily put their arm on the upper bout of the guitar and at the same time find it comfortable to reach and play the strings near the soundhole. It goes without saying that it should be easy to tune the guitar and that the sound produced is a good one.”
Cathy Fink’s duo partner, Marcy Marxer, offers another size guideline that worked well in her very musical family. “When I was a kid, the rule was you had to be as tall as the guitar before you were allowed to get one. I think part of the reason is that when the guitar sits on your lap, if you’re not that long and you haven’t grown quite that much, you’re not going to be able to comfortably reach the fingerboard. You’re going to be stretching too much.”
To find the right fit, have your child hold guitars of various sizes and see if she can put her hands into playing position without straining. Her left arm should bend comfortably when she reaches all the way down to the first fret; if the arm is fully extended and straight, the neck is too long. One good temporary solution to this problem is attaching a capo, which shortens the neck and can be moved or removed as the child grows.
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As you shop for kids’ guitars, you are likely to encounter guitars for prices that seem too good to believe, especially in toy stores and other outlets that don’t ordinarily carry musical instruments. Resist the temptation to buy one of these ultra-cheapos if you want your kid to actually learn to play rather than treat the guitar as another toy that will be gathering dust in the bottom of the closet within a few weeks or months. “I’m sure there’s a correlation between kids who wash out of playing and the quality of their instruments,” says Margie Mirken of Shade Tree Stringed Instruments, in Nevada City, California. “There’s a difference between functional but not exciting and a piece of junk that will not tune or play.” A modest investment of another $50 or $100 for a real instrument might make all the difference for your young player.
How do I make sure my child (or preeteen or teenager) has a good experience?
Often the intimidation factor sets in even before a young person gets their hands on a guitar, right when they come to the door of your average music store. Mirken, who has taught and sold guitars to many teenagers over the years (and raised a couple of her own), has seen it happen over and over again. She says, “Walking into a bleak rock ’n’ roll shop with guys shucking and jiving behind the counter, other customers ronka-ronka-ing on loud electrics, and salesmen ignoring them because they’re little is not the most positive experience. I hear people complain about it all the time.”
Not all music stores are like this, and it is amazing how much difference a good, supportive guitar shop can make in the life of any beginner – not just for buying and repairing your instrument, but often for lessons and workshops and finding new friends with similar musical interests. So scour your local area, ask around, enlist the help of a more experienced friend, and do your homework before you shop.
The same thing is true of a sympathetic teacher – he or she can make all the difference. Meet or take trial lessons with several candidates to see who your teen feels most comfortable with. There are many advantages to learning alongside other beginners, so consider taking lessons along with a friend, or look into a group class, which creates a kind of club to which they’ll automatically belong.
“Nobody is born with a guitar in the hand and the golden voice,” says Carol McComb, a singer-songwriter and educator in the San Francisco Bay Area. “Even after people have become fairly accomplished musicians, they still have bad days, and they are still capable of missing even the simplest chord.” So don’t underestimate yourself and make sure you don’t lose sight of the music that originally lit a fire under you to play guitar.