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I am thinking of starting guitar teaching and, of course, I am aiming to become a good guitar teacher. I don't think it will happen in the near future, because I don't have enough skill level yet, but since this is my plan, I think it's a good time to start thinking about it.

So, I would like experienced players to answer two questions:

  1. What personal and professional qualities a guitar teacher must have and how to acquire them? And why?
  2. What personal and professional qualities a guitar teacher must not have and how to avoid them? And why?
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There's a course now on how to be a guitar teacher. I haven't tried it myself but it looks pretty thorough. – user15360 Nov 15 '14 at 15:25

8 Answers 8

up vote 22 down vote accepted

Qualities a guitar teacher needs to have:

Patience. You need patience to sit through lessons with struggling students while keeping a positive attitude.

Motivation. You really need to be motivated about teaching. A lot of guitar teachers aren't motivated about teaching but see it as a way to earn money with their guitar skills.

Communication. This is a skill every teacher should possess regardless of what he is teaching.

Teaching ability. Not everyone makes a good teacher. Some people are skilled in their profession but make bad teachers for whatever reasons. Teaching is after all a skill in itself.

Playing ability. You need a certain level of mastery with the instrument.

As for things a guitar teacher should not have, I would say the exact opposite. This would be a teacher who is bored during the lesson. Isn't motivated to get his student to learn, cannot communication whit his student properly, etc.

These insights were given to me by a former guitar teacher of mine, Micheal Murray.

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+1. Although, I'm not sure playing ability is actually that important. What is important is that you are better than your students and that your technique is correct. As long as you are better than your student, you'll be fine, but it's important that you teach the right form. – yossarian Mar 28 '11 at 19:45
@yossarian: Altough you don't need to be a master I beleive you still have to be very talented. More than just a step ahead. I have had two guitar teachers and the facts that their playing ability impressed me, made me more receptive to their teachings. – Anonymous Mar 31 '11 at 12:08
I think that depends greatly on the age of the student. Once they're older than 15, you are absolutely right. Also, to have good technique requires a reasonable degree of proficiency. But my wife teaches 60 students a week on three instruments. On her primary instrument she's very, very good, but on her 2nd and 3rd instrument she teaches some kids that are technically better than her. She can do that because she's got all the other aspects you mention in spades and has been teaching for 14 years. – yossarian Mar 31 '11 at 12:39

Elements of Guitar Teaching:

Timing: Timing is the name of the game. You have to schedule students at intervals. It is the worst part of the job (besides trying to get paid) @Pam is wrong but it is proof of how important timing is. Some times you want the student to go home early, and with others you may want them to stay another hour, and yet you are often stuck with a fixed time period regardless. You develop an internal clock and learn how long a half hour feels like. Maybe you need to set a timer to keep you straight. I am not saying you need to be stingy with your time, but I am saying that you don't always get a choice. You learn that some students like to talk and take up too much time and others just sit and listen and never seem engaged. You get saddled with a schedule, either that or you aren't making money. You cope with time. Time is your enemy. A lot of students think they are paying for time, but they are wrong. They are paying for coaching and knowledge. Still time rules everything you do as a teacher. It is your only tangible commodity.

Observe: Students are not just paying for a teacher. They are paying for a coach. Look for the week spots in your students musical abilities and find ways to get the student to work on them and improve them. Each student will have a different problem that they need to solve to get to the next level. It is your job to find that part, and find multiple ways to get the student to work on them. Sometimes you can find a way to make working on that problem fun. Other times you can trick the student into working on that problem by switching gears and working on a new piece or exercise. Sometimes you need to be direct. Use your cleverness to inspire and motivate your students to work on the things that they would otherwise ignore.

Your skills: I say that you need the following guitar skills in order to be effective. These should be skills that you want to impart to your students:

  • Rhythm guitar: You must know around 30 different chords in the open position. You must know the basic strumming pattern(s) (I assert there are not very many, and one will do if it is the right one.). Consider learning Travis Picking (a popular finger picking style). You should also be able to handle almost any bar chord. You should also know how to play power chords with ease. Consider learning jazz chords, they are really cool. Freddy Green is the man.
  • Scales: You must know the pentatonics. You must know your major scales, and the natural minor ones. You should consider knowing all the modes, harmonic and melodic minor, whole tone scales, exotic scales, and arpeggios.
  • Reading Music Many guitar teachers teach guitar without teaching reading music. I say it is a must. Parents are paying you to teach their children the serious stuff, not just the fun stuff. If you are skipping the reading music there are some parents that will feel cheated if they ever find out. Just like reading text, reading music opens up worlds of musical knowledge and should not be avoided.
  • Tablature Just because you teach sight reading, doesn't mean you should avoid tablature. Tablature is the lifeblood of the internet connected guitarist. Teach your students how to handle tablature, or your students will miss a world of knowledge just as vast and varied and rich as reading music.
  • Guitar maintenance and care This can easily be filled in. If you don't know enough, go guitar shopping at 5 different shops and ask the sales man about guitar care and maintenance. 4 of them will mostly have good ideas about it.
  • Optional specializations consider knowing the basics of major specializations: Jazz, Classical, Rock, Country, Blues, Slide, Finger Style, Folk, alternate tunings (Finger style, slide, folk, rock)

Standardize some lessons: Consider developing a list of songs that you can use to teach even to a beginner to sound cool. Have standard lessons memorized that teach songs that are easy but recognizable such as smoke on the water. I have met many kids who say they know guitar, but can only play that song. You student should be able to play some easy tunes like that as a beginner or playing guitar runs the risk of not being fun. Sometimes these are the songs that you pull out when you are facing a student who needs to be inspired and turned on.

Neat Penmanship, or printed handouts: If your hand writing sucks, and you are constantly writing your ideas down to your students it is like entering a beauty contest after rubbing a balloon on your head so your hair sticks up the worst way possible. Find some way to combat your bad handwriting, if you have bad handwriting.

Put your best foot forward: Develop a clear explanation of your teaching much in the same way that teachers in college hand out a syllabus on the first day. Explain your policies on the first lesson and reinforce it with a hand out. It will save you arguments later. Better to be clear and honest from the beginning. The students who will balk at reasonable lesson policies are the same students that are not committed.

Kindness and responsibility: I do strongly support @bleakcabal's answer. I would add to that: Try to find ways to complement your students, especially when you can tell they do good work. Find ways to make it easy for them to practice and know what you want them to practice. Sometimes I found that having a simple form to fill in with practice assignments and the date was effective in helping me in a number of ways: It helped me remember what they were doing. It helped me remember their name (write their name on it). It helped the students know what was expected from them each practice that week.

Transcribe: While I would not require the skill of listening to music with the ability to quickly figure out the music and write it down, many students expect it, and it is a valuable skill. Don't take music home and transcribe it, do it in front of them. Let them see that it is a skill that can be learned. Show them how to play the piece as you figure it out. Encourage your students to figure out parts of the song that you didn't get to and bring it back with them the next week. Give them some guidance (hints) that will help them narrow the scope of possibilities and figure it out.

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You also absolutely never can loose your temper. If you are quick to anger or have a temper this is absolutely not the job for you. If you can manage to teach the instrument in an intellectually engaging manner than that will also be a big feather in your cap.

There is somethings you should realise that will inevitably happen.

Parents will try and duke you out of your money. Be firm.

Not every child you teach will be motivated. Some may even just be plain lazy.

You may come across people who are not willing to accept your tutelage. There is very little you can do for these people.

If you want to set yourself apart from other teacher I would advise you to do the jobs that very few other teachers are willing to do ie sight reading, aural skills and theory.

I have actually gotten some work from other teachers who are not willing or able to prepare there candidates for the aural skills part of exams.

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From the view point of the student:

  • as much as this depends on you, plan the lesson carefully enough do not break it abruptly and demonstratively because the time has ran out.

  • know the goals of the student. If the student is not sure about goals, help to choose, listing the possible options.

  • a student may actually not know how to talk with the teacher, what to ask for and what to say. Help him with conversation.

  • summarize the achievements and state the now following immediate goals. This does not take long and can be done during the lesson time.

  • be very polite in suggesting to train more, do not overpressure and in general avoid raising this concern unless you see further progress is difficult to not possible without more practicing. The student may be busy earning money to pay for your lessons or maybe there is a session in the university.

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I've had two guitar teachers. One of them was a solid, competent musician and an incredible teacher. I learned more in the year-plus I studied with him than I've ever learned about any subject from anyone over any two year period. The other teacher was a brilliant musician, highly regarded and successful, played with some of the biggest names in the industry---but I hardly learned anything from him.

What was the difference between them? Simply put: the quality of the homework assignments. Keep in mind the most important rule of teaching: you're job isn't actually to dispense knowledge and expertise. Your job is to be a guide for the student's own path to learning how to play.

Understand: your students won't actually learn much during their lesson with you. They will do the vast bulk of their learning during their own practice time. The best thing you can do for them is to make sure they know how to spend that time in the best, most efficient way possible. With that in mind, my advice is to:

Assign Specific, Clear, and Level-Appropriate Homework

The great teacher had an ability to discern where I was as a guitarist and devise homework for the week that challenged me and pushed my limits without overwhelming me. The assignments were very specific and clear. A typical weekly assignment might be:

  • Practice the mixolydian mode using these six different fingerings. Each fingering is associated with a specific dominant 7th chord voicing. Play the chord, then play the scale, then play the chord. Move one fret up and repeat. (He had about eight different exercises per scale: chord-scale-chord, three-note-groups, four-note-groups, in thirds, etc. A different exercise each week).
  • Practice the dominant 7th arpeggios the same way as the scales.
  • Play page 15 from your sight reading book (which he provided, at my cost).
  • Play this tune from the Real Book, in the following way:
    • Play the melody in 7th position.
    • Play each chord in the following positions (then he would go through the entire tune and write fretboard positions for each chord). Play the chords in the Freddie Green comping style.
    • Play through the changes using arpeggios. In other words, if the changes are BbM7-Gm7-Cm7-F7, play a BbM7 arpeggion, then a Gm7 arpeggio, a Cm7 arpeggio, and an F7 arpeggio.
  • Learn this Joe Pass chord-melody.
  • Write your own chord-melody for X tune.

Obviously, I was learning jazz, and this lesson might not be appropriate for a different student. But the point is that it was specific, clear, and appropriate for my ability at the time. When I went home, I knew exactly what to do and how to do it, and when I came back the next week, I could show him what I was able to learn and what I wasn't, and he adjusted accordingly. Each week, he laid down the tracks in the direction he felt I needed to go, and I simply followed them.

The not-so-great teacher was much more vague. He'd say things like, "Play that solo the way Miles would play it." That's not helpful. He'd give me homework like, "Go home and think about all the different ways you can play a chord," instead of, "Play this chord here, here, and here." I'd leave the lesson not knowing how I should spend my practice time, and so I wouldn't actually learn anything. Of my two teachers, he may have been the better musician, but I didn't get all that much out of our time together.

Know your students' current level and assign them homework that pushes them just enough. Make sure it's challenging so that they don't get bored, but make sure it isn't overwhelming so they don't get frustrated. This is easier said than done, but if you strike that balance just right, your students will have an amazing learning experience with you.

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Sounds like the second guy was more trying to help you develop your own style as opposed to dotting all the I's and crossing all the T's for you. I also think that both of the above styles of teaching can work for different people, many students are put off by too much exercise building and so don't benefit greatly from it (on account of them not ending up doing the exercises choosing instead to do their own thing), with these types of students its better to give them pointers to 'shore up' their technique and knowledge, while still allowing them to be creative in their own way. – DRL Apr 7 '11 at 17:01
The trick is i think, correctly identifying the different types of students. – DRL Apr 7 '11 at 17:10

At its simplest level, to teach any musical instrument, you need to be able to play the instrument yourself and you need the communication skills to show others how to do it. Beyond that, and what I think will answer your question more helpfully, is if I say what I think are the qualities needed, not just to be guitar teacher, but to be a successful guitar teacher. I think it boils down to three key qualities - versatility, knowledge and reliability.

1) Versatility. It's not enough to just be a "good guitar player". Unless you are a famous recording/performing artist, travelling around giving master classes in your particular playing speciality, you will not earn a living as a guitar teacher by just teaching one or two styles e.g. rock and blues. Nor do students want you thrusting your narrow tastes or repertoire onto them. You have to cater for a very wide range of tastes and aspirations - acoustic, electric, finger picking, plectrum, jazz, metal, blues country, folk etc and be competent in all those areas. And unless you are appropriately qualified, this should specifically exclude intermediate and advanced level classical guitar, which should be left to classical guitar teachers.

2) Knowledge. Being a teacher is ultimately about imparting knowledge. Of course you need the skills to play the things you teach, but you need to teach the theory behind it, plus be prepared to answer questions that arise along the way. It also helps to have a broad and eclectic knowledge of guitar music, plus a reasonable knowledge of guitars, amps and accessories.

3) Reliability. Whether you teach one person or forty people a week, you need to be reliable and self motivated enough to make each student feel as if he/she is your only customer. That way they are much more likely to stick around. To that end you must do all of these things 100% of the time: follow up promised actions, be contactable between lessons to respond to questions e.g. about lesson material, be quick with your resonses eg within 24 hours, write up notes after lessons and thoroughly plan prior to lessons. You must also present yourself in a way that instills confidence in students and particularly parents of students that you are someone they can do business with.

Hope this helps!

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As a former guitar teacher, I would agree with bleak's answer. Being able to play well is very important, but if you do not have the ability to communicate the knowledge to the student, you will not be a good teacher. In that sense, it is like teaching any subject.

Unfortunately, many music stores hire the local rock star to teach, knowing they will draw a crowd. It becomes painfully obvious over time that this person cannot actually teach.

Ultimately, I believe teaching is a gift. There is an internal desire to impart knowledge and a willingness to creatively adapt the teaching to the individual student. While teaching skills can certainly be polished, one who is not a natural teacher will only be so effective.

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As a person who is a fourth generation teacher I agree. – Neil Meyer Apr 10 '14 at 12:11

As a teacher, one should not be strictly restricting the timings of teaching. By strictly, I mean, I have seen cases, where teachers have a funda like 45 minutes of teaching and 15 minutes of doubt clearing. After exactly 45 mins, the teacher will stop teaching in whatever case and exactly after 15 minutes the tution will end.
Being professional is okay, but somewhere, one should be flexible enough to give more time to students whenever required.

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What is "doubt clearing"? I assume you mean off-time between students? – neilfein Mar 28 '11 at 12:54
I think, what I want to say is not clear. I meant that having a stringent timeline bounds won't be good. "45 minutes of teaching and 15 minutes of doubt clearing" was is a scenario, which I have faced and which I am against of. – Anonymous Mar 30 '11 at 8:53
Unfortunately, the problem isn't teachers who stick to their schedules, it's teachers who aren't good at pacing the lesson so it ends at an appropriate time. – neilfein Mar 30 '11 at 21:33

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