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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 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 a good teacher. Remember that textbooks, 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 textbooks 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 develop your abilities and musicianship correctly and efficiently.

Great teachers manage and schedule new materials and effectively explain their importance and meaning. A teacher should encourage you when you are doing well and correct you when you make mistakes. 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 build up your confidence level (even if you are not consciously aware that this is happening). A great teacher will help you become secure with your technical skills so that you can execute difficult techniques on your guitar comfortably. These teachers emphasize creativity (songwriting and 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 you are considering studying with. I have also included my own comments for each question:

1) Can you please tell me about your teaching experience? May I see your resume or credentials? How long have you been teaching and approximately how many students have you taught during that time?

At least three to five years of teaching experience is preferred - certainly no less than one year of experience. Prefer a teacher who has taught a moderate to large number of students. It takes time for a teacher to truly learn how to teach well, and the main way that someone learns to teach is by teaching for a while.

The students of a new teacher are like experiments. These teachers are learning how to teach on the job by trial and error. They need time to learn how to teach, and will make some mistakes in the beginning of their careers. You don't want to be one of those first thirty to fifty students. Let a new teacher gain his or her experience by making mistakes with 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 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 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, 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 and heavy metal) take lessons from more than one teacher for each of those styles. Unless you are a total beginner, you are better off 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 offering 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 (read more about correspondence lessons 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 you can ask a teacher. The answer to this question can help you determine if a teacher is competent, because this is actually a trick question. Anyone can tell you they have been teaching for 100 years, 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, 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.

To my correspondence students (whom I don't see face to face), I send a long list of questions about everything I need to know about their music background. This helps me determine 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 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) truly 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 Malmsteen.

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