Quiet Position

Teaching guitar can be noisy! Unlike wind instruments, it takes very little to make sounds on a guitar. Let’s face it, holding and stroking the guitar can be therapeutic for many but, doing so can cause a lot of extra noise in a classroom, especially when you’re trying to give directions. Having a posture that silences the noise and focuses attention will save your nerves.

There are several ways you can create a “quiet position”. One is to have students place their guitar, strings down on their lap. This position will need to come with the directions to not tap on the instrument. In this position, you can use the back to practice tapping rhythms when needed. Another quiet position is to have students lace fingers together and place their ands on the shoulder of the guitar. This way, there is no extra noise. When your principal comes in to tell you that you’ve won the front parking spot, you wont miss a thing!


Quality Sound Production

Both left and right hands are responsible for producing quality sound on the guitar. One of the most common culprits of dead and buzzing strings is placement of the left hand. Poor posture can lead to improper left hand placement. Teach students to play with the head of the guitar up with neck in a diagonal position. (see picture) The elbow should be free from the body so that adjustments can be made. Students who slump and plant their elbow on their leg will eventually run into problems. Be on the look out for this and be firm that students maintain proper posture.

Start by placing the guitar in one of the following positions: (pictures)

Note that each of these positions has the neck in a diagonal position. Now the left hand should come from below, with a relaxed, straight wrist, fingers supported by thumb on the back of neck. When fretting, students should try to have their fingers remain perpendicular to the fingerboard and close to the fret, without touching. Often times, students will collapse the tip joint, causing the pad of the finger to touch a string intended to ring. Touching a string with the pad will deaden the sound. Adjustments to the elbow may help fix this problem and prevent the pad from touching a ringing string. Something else that can cause a dead sound is if students are not pressing the string hard enough. To combat this, students should try and press the string closer to the fret. Too far back and the string will buzz, too far forward and the string will thud. When students are not producing quality sounds, first check the left hand.

Right hands can cause problems too! Students sometimes pluck the strings away from the guitar, causing a slapping sound. To combat this be sure to teach rest stroke first. When plucking the string, think of pushing the string downward and ensuring the plucking finger or pick rest on the next adjacent string. The angle of the finger or pick should be diagonal so as to only pluck with one side of the pick or finger surface. Some times clothes or jewelry can get in the way of allowing the string to ring properly.

Fingernails. On the left hand, fingernails can impede the guitarists ability to push the string into the fingerboard. While classical guitarists use fingernails on the right hand, they should be shaped to properly. Playing finger-style on a steel string will wreak havoc on right hand nails and often acoustic players simply use flesh.

While there are a lot of details that go into producing quality sound on the guitar, taking the time to teach these concepts early in your instruction will benefit your students.


Strategies for Teaching Chords

There are hundreds of chords that can be played on the guitar. Consider introducing chords in relation to progressions. For the younger students, consider teaching simple C and G7 first. These chords can be combined to accompany many simple folk and children’s songs. If students are new to music theory, now is an excellent time to explain that G7 is often followed by C – these two chords will be seen together often. Some songs that can be accompanied by these two chords are, Skip to My Lou, Hokey Pokey, He’s Got the Whole World In his Hands, London Bridge, and any other I-V7 piece. While you can write out these as lead sheets, why not have students help you discover the chord changes?

Next introduce E and A and repeat the concept of I-V. You can use the same songs or find new ones that go with your programmed curriculum. Teach D and G or simple G next. Once these chords can be played by memory students can combine three chords to make I-IV-V progressions in the key of G, A and D. So many songs can be played with this progression. Em can also be included as the vi of the G progression. A few children’s songs to consider are Happy Birthday, Jingle Bells, Amazing Grace, Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, and many more.

For secondary students, begin with full chords like A and E or Am and E7. Next introduce D and the I-IV-V progression in A. The D progression should follow with D, G and A. Each time you introduce a new progression, try and use chords from previous progression so some of them are familiar. This will help students to be successful when learning new progressions. The G progression would introduce the C chord next. From here you can teach minor progressions, Am and Dm. This would allow you to include a vi chord to the G progression, expanding possible repertoire. The E and C progressions are usually introduced a little later since they include difficult chords of B7 and F. Students need to know the chords CAGED in the first year of playing.

Changing chords in the left hand can cause quite a bit of frustration for students. Tell students to use the shortest path to get from one chord to the next – to utilize economy of movement. Some fingers will stay on a string in the exact same place from chord to chord. These are called anchor fingers. See gif below going from Am to C. The Guide finger stays on the same string but moves to a different fret. For example when going from D to G, the third finger simply slides from the second to the third fret. Tell students to keep contact with the string to help the guide the rest of their fingers. Often a finger will simply move to the next string but stay on the same fret. These relative fingers are shown between C and G7.

To help students use the economy of movement, have them practice going from one chord to another. There are several methods to do this. The first is to play each chord as a whole note, repeat a few times. Next play the first two beats of each chord followed by two beats of rest. Next play three beats and rest one. Finally have students play all four beats. Most importantly, students should play the chord on the first beat it is written in the music. Another method is to have students play whole notes for each chord, then two half notes, then four quarter notes. While drilling can be effective, playing the chords in a popular song can be much more fun. Try and find songs that have chord progressions your students are working on in class and have students play along to the recording. This is the authentic way popular musicians learn new songs.

Teaching chord progressions will give students the tools they need to accompany others. Remember that playing chords is what guitar players do most. Knowing these chords is also important to building a foundation for more advanced playing.


Thumb or Pick

Let’s face it, 90% of what guitarists do is play chords. It might seem logical to start beginning players with a pick. Think again! It is best to separate left and right hand techniques to allow students to focus on skills independently before trying to put them together – especially when teaching chords. Teach one chord and have students strum down using their thumb. When adding a second chord, give students time to practice slowly moving the fingers of their left hand from the old chord to the new chord. See the section on teaching chords for more information. In these beginning stages, students can use the right hand thumb to strum the down beat. A few students may develop a blister on the thumb, even when strumming lightly. Using the back of the index finger is another option. This video shows different ways to strum without a pick. Using both thumb and finger can help set students up for holding a pick.

In this video you will see how to use the thumb to strum downbeats. More interesting rhythms can be played by using the back of the index finger to strum down and the thumb to strum up. Using both thumb and finger can help set students up for holding a pick.

Be prepared for some issues when passing out picks in your class. Playing with a pick increases the volume so you will need to teach them to control the volume at which they play. A softer grip will equate to a softer sound, a harder grip will produce a louder sound. Another problem is what to do when students drop a pick into the sound hole – all guitarists do this from time to time. What you don’t want is a student holding the guitar over their head trying to shake the pick out. Also, you don’t want them sticking their hand through the strings into the body. If you’ve taught them to use their thumb, they should do that until a time you’ve established to help them to get out the pick. To do this, start by giving yourself plenty of room. Next, try and shake the pick to be directly on the label. Quickly flip the guitar upside down using centrifugal force to keep the pick on the label until the guitar is upside down. It should fall out of the sound hole. (“May the odds be ever in your favor!” -Effie Trinket) Finally, picks are small and tend to get lost between classes. Establish who will be responsible for picks. You could give them the first one and they could be responsible for any others. There are several companies that will print your logo onto a pick and these can be sold or used as incentives. Consider picks as a responsibility similar to the requirement for reed players. Does the school provide them or does the student provide them?

Lastly, consider the difference in timbre of the thumb and fingers vs. pick playing when creating an ensemble sound. To create an ensemble sound that is uniform, all players should play with either pick or fingers and not a mixture with some on picks and others on fingers. However, you may wish to use this effect. If your ensemble has one player with the melody and the others as accompaniment, you may wish to highlight the melody by having that player use a pick. This artistic choice should be explained to students. No matter what you choose, remember to teach the right and left hand separately to help strengthen skills required for quality sound production.


Basics to Improvisation

Many music teachers are not comfortable improvising or teaching improvisation. Teaching improvisation on the guitar doesn’t have to be intimidating or scary! One of the simplest ways to teach improvisation is through the 12 bar blues.

Introduce your students to the 12 bar blues in the key of A. Use power chords and create a shuffle. Next, have students echo you playing A and C on the first string in fifth position. After you’ve given them some examples, have them make up some 4 beat patters to copy. They can play one or two note rhythm patters, whatever they are comfortable doing. Once everyone has had a turn, have them improvise patterns over you playing the 12 bar blues shuffle pattern. It will be noisy but, the point is that students can experiment without having to have others listen. Once you have done this a few times, have students work with a seat partner. One person will play the 12 bar blues shuffle and the other will improvise. Switch after one or two times through. Teach the pattern on the second string next and have students try to include notes of the pattern from both strings.

Guitar improvisations are usually only a few notes at a time. Teaching the entire pentatonic pattern to start is not necessary. Try teaching the top three strings one day and the bottom three strings another day. Direct students to listen to their partner and try to imitate some of their favorite patterns. Some students will not be able to contain their excitement for learning to improvise. If you have an electric guitar, this is the perfect time to showcase students. Who knows, you might have discovered the next Jimi Hendrix!


Differentiation – Skills

When you start a guitar class at your school you should expect students to have a variety of experience. A fifth grade class will have some students who own guitars and take private lessons and some who have never touched an instrument. Teaching a variety of experience levels can be challenging unless you are prepared. The following suggestions are things to help challenge your more advanced students.

  1. Reading notes – If students already know all of the notes in first position, challenge them to try and read the notes in a different position on the neck. After first position, try fifth or seventh positions. Position playing is when the first finger is “locked” in a fret other than the first fret. Fifth position indicates that the first finger is in fret five, the second finger is in fret six, the third finger is in fret seven and the fourth finger is in fret eight. Since the guitar has multiple places to play the same note, there are many possibilities.
  2. Chords – For students who have all of their chords in first position, it is time for them to learn the barre chord shapes. Start with the E and A shapes. These are based on the chords E and A. A barre is created with the first finger and moved up the neck to change the root of the chord.
  3. Rhythm playing – Instead of simple strumming, challenge students to learn an arpeggio pattern to accompany the strumming pattern. This can be either with fingers or a pick.
  4. Picking – Have advanced students practice alternate picking.
  5. Finger style – Have students learn to use the classical fingerings with PIMA.
  6. Be the Teacher – If your method book has a teacher part, have the advanced student try and play with you or for you.

There are so many possibilities for expanding skills on the guitar. Do not let students get too comfortable, challenge them to learn more.

Differentiation – Ability

Everyone should be allowed to study music! There are many ways we can make accommodations for other-abled learners in our guitar classrooms. Here are a few suggestions to support common differences that arise in the classroom.

English Language Learners – Music is mostly a universal language. Even if your student is an experienced musician, they may have learned notes with a different system. Students from many other countries, including Spain, Italy, Belgium, learn notes by their solfege name and not by a letter. Try and make the connection between solfege syllables and notes on the staff – you may see a lightbulb go on! Remember that guitar is an instrument played in nearly all cultures around the world. You have an excellent opportunity to support students by teaching music from their culture and in their language.

Special Education Students – Often times, students who are in special education programs flourish in music programs. Be aware of what the specific issues are for students, the same issues are likely to show up in your class. If a student has reading differences or attention deficiencies, they will likely have issues in music as well. Since music classes do not necessarily depend on reading or being organized, students may find more success in your class. These mild cases are most easy to accommodate.

Students with more sever learning and physical differences need a little extra support. Here are some ideas for helping support these students and have them be a meaningful part of your class.

  • Have students play bass notes
  • Tune the guitar to open chord
  • Write the notes on the staff – have students write them if they can
  • Capo at fret 5 and have them play ukulele chords instead
  • Play melodies on one string only – give fret positions for the string instead of note names
  • Give extra practice time
  • Partner students to provide help
  • Give them the drum part – use the back of the guitar or an actual drum
  • Use the Chord Buddy a devise that attaches to the guitar and is color coded with chord buttons
  • Have them sing the vocal part when its time to perform
  • Place color coded strings on the instrument – Aurora
  • Provide a chord chart or fingering chart

The guitar has physical feedback when it is strummed – you can feel the vibrations in the fingers and body. Even students who require the most support will benefit from this feedback.