Choosing A Teacher

The electric guitar has advanced far beyond the time when someone could
teach himself (or herself) to become a world class player. If your ambition
is to become a competent player and a competent musician, you need a
competent teacher. Even if your goals are more modest, you can reach those
goals far more quickly, easily and efficiently with the guidance of the
right teacher. Much of the information that is needed to learn about guitar
playing (and music in general) is available from many different sources.
There are hundreds of books, instructional videos, CD-ROMs and, of course,
the internet. Even though a lot of information is readily available, there
exists a lot of incorrect, incomplete and otherwise bad information (this is
especially true for a lot of information found on the internet!). You will
need the aid of an excellent teacher to teach you how to fully understand
and apply the correct information. You can save yourself a lot of
unnecessary frustration and disappointment by studying with the good
teacher. Remember that text books, CD-ROMs, instructional videos and the
internet cannot answer your specific questions. They cannot offer you
advice on your playing, song writing, ear training, etc. They cannot listen
to your playing and point out any mistakes or flaws that may be present.
Some text books are great and I have seen some pretty good CD-ROMs out there
too, but you still need the aid of an excellent teacher to guide you through
everything and to help you to develop your abilities and musicianship
correctly and efficiently.

Great teachers manage and schedule new materials and effectively explain
its importance and meaning. A teacher should encourage you when you are
doing well and correct you where you may have gone wrong. Good teachers
will show you how to better organize your practice materials and show you
how to effectively manage your practice time (this is crucial to your
progress!). They help you to build up your confidence level (even if you
are not consciously aware that this is happening). A great teacher will
help you to become secure with your technical skills so that you can execute
difficult techniques on your guitar comfortably. These teachers emphasize
creativity (song writing & improvising) and performing. Great teachers want
to make sure that you fully understand what you are learning and, most
importantly, teach you how to apply it by giving you detailed explanations
and encouraging you to ask questions when something is unclear. A good
teacher sincerely cares about your musical growth and development. An
experienced and competent teacher will take you far beyond what you could
learn on your own.

Unfortunately, guitar teachers are not licensed and there is no
organization that oversees or regulates them. Anyone can claim to be a good
teacher and there are lots of people who make this claim. The number of
competent teachers, however, is limited. This brings us to this crucial
question; How can a student find, choose, and then accurately evaluate a
guitar teacher?

Here are some questions that you should ask any teachers that you are
considering to study with. I have also included my own comments for each

  1. Can you please tell me about your teaching experience, such as: How
    long have you been teaching and approximately how many students have you
    taught during that time? At least 3-5 years of teaching experience would be
    preferred. Certainly no less than 1 year of experience. It is good if the
    teacher has taught a moderate to large number of students. It takes time
    for a teacher to really learn how to teach well and the main way that
    someone learns to teach is by teaching for a while. So a young teacher's
    first students are like experiments. The teacher learns how to teach
    on-the-job by trial and error. The teacher learns how to teach over time
    and will make some mistakes in the beginning of his or her career. You
    don't want to be one of those first 30-50 students. Let that teacher gain
    his or her experience by making mistakes on someone else.
  2. Do you teach private lessons or group lessons? You definitely want
    private lessons, unless you are a total beginner or are enrolled in a
    college music course. You will learn a lot more about playing guitar in a
    one-on-one private lesson or in a correspondence lesson program.
  3. What styles of music do you teach best? Make sure that you ask this
    question before telling the prospective teacher what style of music you want
    to learn. A lot of teachers claim to teach all styles of music well, beware
    of this. Do not be impressed by someone who tells you that he or she can
    teach every style of music well. If you really want to be a great rock
    guitarist, you want to take lessons from a rock teacher, not a blues or
    country player who claims to teach all styles well. Find yourself a good
    rock teacher. If you want to learn multiple styles of music that are not
    similar (like country, classical guitar and heavy metal) take lessons from
    more than one teacher for each of those styles. Unless you are a total
    beginner, you are better of with an expert teacher in your style of music,
    not a jack-of-all-trades teacher.
  4. What is the cost of lessons? Excellent teachers are in demand and
    usually already have a lot of students. These teachers often are not cheap.
    I can tell you that the going rates for good teachers in the midwestern
    United States (where I live) is between $16-$24 per 1/2 hour private lesson
    (rates may be different in your state or country). There are a handful of
    teachers that offer correspondence lessons for students who do not live in
    the same state or country as the teacher. Usually these lessons are less
    expensive in the long run (more about correspondence lesson programs later.)
    In general, don't look for the teacher with the lowest rates, you usually
    get what you pay for. If you can't afford to pay the higher rates for a
    really good teacher, ask the teacher if you can take lessons on a bi-monthly
    basis instead of taking weekly lessons.
  5. Can you tell me how you teach the lessons? This is probably the most
    important question that you can ask a teacher. The answer to this question
    can really help you to determine if a teacher is competent because this is
    actually a trick question. Anyone can tell you that they have been teaching
    for 100 years and that they have had 10,000 students and the cost is $1,000
    per lesson because they are the greatest teacher of all time, but an
    inexperienced teacher cannot trick you with his or her answer to this
    question (unless he or she is reading this article.) If a prospective
    teacher who does not know you, your musical knowledge, your guitar
    technique, your musical tastes, and your musical goals tries to explain how
    he or she will teach you, then this is not a competent teacher. Not even
    the best teacher on Earth could answer this question if that teacher knows
    nothing about you, your goals, your playing level, your knowledge of music
    theory, etc. So what would an experienced and competent teacher say to you
    when you ask the question? Well, I can tell you what I do when a new
    prospective student asks me this. I explain to him or her that I can't
    formulate a lesson plan for anyone until I learn a lot more about that
    student's playing, goals, musical tastes, knowledge of theory, etc. For my
    correspondence students (who I don't see face to face), I send them a long
    list of questions about everything that I need to know about their music
    background in order for me to know what is the best way for us to begin. I
    also encourage the student to send me a tape or CD of his or her playing
    with a variety of his or her playing on it so that I have a clearer picture
    of what areas need improvement. Obviously, for my private students (whom I
    do see face to face), I can simply ask the questions that I need answers to
    and I can hear the student play in front of me. Only after all of this can
    I (or any other teacher) really know how to teach that individual student.
    It seems obvious that you shouldn't teach a 13-year-old-boy who has never
    played guitar before and wants to learn to play alternative rock the same
    way that you would teach a 27-year-old-man who has been playing for 16 years
    and wants to become a virtuoso in the style of Steve Vai or Yngwie

In addition to asking the questions above, here are some other things to watch
out for:

  • When students ask how to approach a certain technique or how to hold
    the pick correctly or how to most effectively mute strings that are not
    supposed to be sounding, the advice of some teachers is to do whatever feels
    natural to you. Sometimes what you may think is the natural way to hold
    your left hand may not be the correct way at all. It is the teacher's job
    to know those types of things, the teacher should be teaching, not letting
    you do whatever you feel like. For most things, there is a right and wrong
    way and you will better off learning it the right way from the beginning.
  • Just because a teacher may have some talented students, does not mean
    that the teacher is good. This might seem like a good criteria for
    evaluating a teacher, but the fact is that sometimes advanced students were
    already good players before taking lessons from this new teacher. The only
    time that judging a teacher's teaching skills, based on his or her student's
    playing skills, is really a reliable criteria is when those advanced
    students started taking lessons from the same teacher since they were
  • Some teachers tell their students to try to learn from as many sources
    as possible and then leave it up to you to sort through it all and decide
    what works best for you. How are you supposed to decide that? How is a
    student to know what the best fingering is for a particular scale? Students
    typically won't know how to determine what the right way is. This is one of
    the reasons why you have a teacher, it is his or her job to teach you these
    things, this is why you are giving the teacher your money!
  • Do not assume that a someone is a good teacher just because he or she
    may be an excellent player or has good credentials. I know plenty of
    competent players with advanced music degrees that I don't believe are good
    teachers. I was fortunate to have some truly great teachers, but I had some
    incompetent ones too, along the way. Whenever I realized that a teacher
    wasn't good, I looked for a new teacher.

The following things are not required for someone to be a good teacher,
but it certainly is to your advantage to have a teacher who, in addition to
teaching you about guitar and music, can help you in some of these other

  1. Guitar Pedagogy. This is learning how to teach guitar. If one of
    your goals is to be a guitar / music teacher then you would benefit greatly
    from a teacher who can teach you how to teach a variety of techniques, music
    theory, ear training, song writing, improvisation, etc. You will also need
    to learn about how to deal with a wide variety of personality types. Every
    student is different and each of those students may learn and comprehend
    information in different ways. It is important for any teacher to
    understand this. You need to know how to explain the same information in
    several different ways so that you will be better able to teach all of your
    students well.
  2. Recording advice. The better you become as a musician, the more
    likely it will be that you will want to record your guitar playing. If you
    have little or no experience in this area, then having someone who can help
    you is especially helpful.
  3. Music business. If you plan to record, release and sell your own CD,
    now or in the future, there is a huge amount of music business information
    that you will need to learn if you want to make any money. Some teachers
    who have released their own CDs, and are promoting it themselves, can be the
    best source of help for selling your CD. You can also learn other things
    like how to set up gigs for your band and how to get the press to write
    about you.

So now that you have a better idea about what to look for in a teacher,
the next question is, Where do you look for a really good teacher? This
depends on if you are looking for a teacher to teach you privately (face to
face) or if you are looking for a teacher to teach you through
correspondence. Both are good and there are advantages to both ways.

If you are looking for a private teacher to teach you face to face, check
out these places first: Contact the music department at universities and
colleges near you. Even if they can't help you directly, they can usually
refer you to someone who can help. Next, you can try your local music shops
(where guitars are sold). Most music shops offer lessons, most of the
teachers found here are not of the highest quality, but sometimes there are
some really great teachers that you can find at these shops. When you call
one of these shops, ask to speak to the manager or owner. Ask him or her,
who are the most qualified teachers for you (your style of music and skill
level). After you get the teachers names, make arrangements to speak to each
of the teachers privately. Ask those teachers all of the questions that are
written above. If you are not satisfied with any of those teachers, keep

If you are looking for correspondence lessons, your search will be a
little different (and these lessons are usually a little cheaper in the long
run.) You can look on the internet for these types of teachers and you can
also contact universities (in any part of the world.) The best thing about
correspondence lessons is that you can take lessons from any teacher in the
world (that teachers via correspondence)! What I would look for in a
correspondence teacher is someone who has been doing this type of teaching
for a while. Someone who always allows you to ask questions about your
lesson via e-mail or telephone (for no additional charge!). I personally
don't think that courses (like CD-ROM courses) are a good idea because then
you really are not getting the private and individual instruction that is
needed to learn in the most efficient way. Even though correspondence
lessons are not face to face, the lessons should be personalized for you,
your skill level, your musical knowledge, your style of music and your
musical goals. Stay away from a one-size-fits-all method or the
cookie-cutter style courses. Everyone is different and is at a different
level, has different musical goals, likes different music, so the lessons
(whether face to face or correspondence) should be tailored specifically to
your needs.

After teaching guitar / music for over 11 years now, I can tell you that
using the information above can really make a huge difference in finding an
experienced high quality teacher. An incompetent teacher can severely
hinder you ability to fully develop your guitar and music skills. If you
are not progressing well, but you are spending a lot of time practicing,
find another teacher.

Tom Hess is a professional touring guitarist and recording artist. He teaches, trains and mentors musicians from around the world.

Visit his site to discover highly effective music learning resources, guitar lessons, music career mentoring and tools including free online assessments, surveys, mini courses and more.

Tom Hess Opus 2