"TOM GUITAR!" - Taking on my first guitar student

Hello Everybody,

As I mentioned in my other thread today, I’ve been reflecting on my relationship with the guitar recently, and I’ve been feeling some dissatisfaction in that relationship. However, I mentioned that something very positive has also happened recently, and I’d also like to share that story.

I have a lot of very positive memories of the guitar. I vividly remember being about twelve years old, climbing onto a wobbly step ladder to pull down the Stratocaster my father owned (but rarely played) from the highest shelf in our garage. The case was falling apart, and as it slid from the shelf and I felt it’s weight I nearly lost my grip on the handle. I took that case up to my bedroom, started practicing open chord shapes and refused to ever give the guitar back. More than 20 years later, that guitar is now within arms reach.

I remember a time in my early 20s when my father told me he had a friend with a young son who was starting guitar. My father asked if I would set up his guitar (a used Squier Affinity Strat, IIRC) and then play it in front of him. So I did the set up (adjusted the action, intonation, relief) and polished up the frets a little. When my friends fathers son came to collect the guitar, I plugged it into on of my Cornfords and I played. I think it made an impression.

My favourite memory though, is from about that same time. My aunt was visiting my mother with her son Dónal, who was still a toddler. While I was playing guitar, Dónal wouldn’t leave my side. He insisted on being near the guitar and the sounds it was making. I played a little game with him where I drew his attention to the pick, and strummed a few chords over the bridge pickup. I then handed him the pick, and motioned for him to strum in the same place. He did, and the chord rang out. I then pointed the the neck pickup to make him change where he was strumming. When he strummed over the neck pickup, I changed the chord. For the next few minutes, Dónal strummed the strings in various spots along the lengths of the strings, as I changed the chords.

According to my aunt and her husband, “TOM GUITAR!” was all Dónal would say as they drove back home. Not long after, Dónal was in a toy shop with his parents and saw a toy guitar (the kind that has buttons that play some recorded music, etc, not real strings). It was red and looked a little bit like the Charvel I had been playing. “TOM GUITAR!” His parents got him the toy guitar and he carried it around with him for a while. When my mother and I visited my aunt later that year, Dónal wanted to show me his guitar. “TOM GUITAR!”

I was busy with university, and I moved around for work a few times after graduating. I didn’t see my aunt or Dónal much for the next few years. As he got older he became more interested in sports, mostly rugby. As things would happen, I now live only about 20 minutes from my aunt and her family. Dónal is now about the age I was when I started guitar.

I got a call from my aunt last week. Dónal wants to start playing guitar and has asked for a guitar for Christmas. Apparantly, it was important that I approve the choice. I asked my aunt for an approximate budget, and I picked out a few different options. Dónal made his choice and I’ve offered to set the guitar up when it arrives.

As I was talking with my aunt, and I was recalling the memories of when Dónal was a toddler, I was a little overwhelmed. I offered to so something I’ve never done before. I offered to teach Dónal how to play. I’ve heard that this has resulted in Dónal being even more excited to play, he can’t wait to get started.

I know he’s young and that he might not decide to stick with it, but I’m honestly excited too. Even if he doesn’t stay with the guitar, this was postive experience for me at a time when I’ve been feeling some dissatisfaction in my relationship with the instrument.

The guitar hasn’t arrived yet and Dónal won’t be getting it until Christmas morning. I’ll probably start giving him lessons in early January. Would anybody have any general advice regarding teaching guitar to a total beginner that they’d be willing to share? I want to give him the best start he could have on the instrument.


I taught guitar for a living for a little over a decade. I had the best experience with children that were pre-teen or teen age. They were generally very interested in music and had enough dexterity (young children ages 5 - 10 often lack this) where they can handle the complexities of arching the fingers enough to not dampen other strings, apply enough pressure etc.

After several years of seeing how most people responded to various aspects. I came up with a ‘system’. This was that I taught each student in a completely custom manner that made the most sense given their tastes, ability and drive.

What I ended up doing from the very first lesson was ask these students for a list of bands they enjoyed. It could have been that I lucked out due to what was popular at the time (lots of green day, three days grace and nickelback as well as the popularity of the video games Rock Band and Guitar Hero) but nearly every time I’d be able to find them a song that was easy enough to tab out the intro (or some recognizable section) and teach them how to play it. Even if I couldn’t identify something within their favorites, I could sell them on Crazy Train, Hell’s Bells, or Smoke on the Water or some other easy classic rock riff. The important thing was to get them hooked and this was almost always a success. Most could play these riffs pretty decently for me either immediately, or after just a few weeks. They felt pretty empowered!

Just getting them to the point that while they are in the acclimation stage, they are playing things they ENJOY (rather than learning to read sheet music and playing Hot Cross Buns) puts the guitar in a unique territory most other instruments can’t touch. The drudgery associated with being a beginner on almost any other instrument can be bypassed, at least temporarily.

Of course, we want to impart good taste to our students. It always became obvious that certain students had more aptitude, curiosity, or just a general inclination towards the more technical aspects. Those, I would spend more time on with theory, learning the names of the notes on the fingerboard, reading standard notation etc. They are also the ones I’d expose to the “virtuoso” players many of us enjoy. Plus in your case, since Dónal looks up to you, I’m sure he’ll hang on your every word. He should be pretty easy to motivate and get hooked on Holdsworth, if he isn’t already :slight_smile:

Conversely, there were many where it would have been a waste of my time, their time (and their parents tuition $) for me to teach them in what I consider is more of a ‘traditional’ guitar lesson curriculum. Some just wanted to learn how to play some songs (or even parts of songs) that they enjoy. And these could have been very simple (power chords, not solos or riffs) songs. People like that will get very little benefit of learning all the scales and modes.


Great reply from Joe!

I can only add that the “Johnyy B Goode” style of riffing is a pretty fun intro to the world of guitar, and I suspect easier than campfire chords:

You know, stuff like:

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Right. Why on earth is that what everyone thinks beginners should learn??? Maybe it goes back to the huge folk rock popularity in the 1960’s. If you wanted to play Bob Dylan or Peter Paul & Mary, you’d sure have to know your open chords. And I guess that’s why plenty of people wanted to learn guitar back then. I feel like it’s dogma that’s sort of crept into the standard “Guitar store music lessons” pedagogy.

I can’t tell you how many parents brought me their 8 year olds and thought that’s what they should be learning. Want to ruin the stage where callouses are developing for an 8 year old? Make him play a D major chord lol! Sure there’s a time for all that stuff. But things like your Chuck Berry riff, or this old classic


get them playing something that actually sounds like something. Even if they can get that D major chord sounding beautiful…then what? Unless they can strum it and switch directly to/from some other chord and get their fingers to land on just the right spot at just the right second, it’s quite a while before anything ‘musical’ sounding emerges. That’s asking a lot of a young child, even a teenager. Certainly it was ages ago when we were all teenagers. But those young kids today with their flashy iPad’s and Smartphones and Disney+…sheesh. They expect EVERYTHING to be immediate. We can be like this:


Or we can accept it as a way of life and help the youngsters have fun along the way.

We’ve all been playing forever and may or not forget how we started or what a pain it was to learn all the open chords and switch between them. It was actually how I learned haha My dad showed me all the chords he knew. There’s a better way :slight_smile:


Very cool, Tom! It’s surprising to me that you haven’t already been teaching (but I know you’ve said as much before.) From seeing your videos and posts I think you would/will be great at it.

I’ve been teaching guitar as my only employment for my whole adult life, and of course the majority of students over time were absolute beginners, and also children.

I was interviewed for this podcast recently called Beyond the Frets, and was asked about my approach to teaching beginners, somewhere around the 34/35m mark. We dig into some big picture stuff about the topic.


Yes sir.
I try to stick to a rule that I don’t teach anybody something that I don’t think they can play in time.

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Make some time each lesson for listening to music, both to introduce him to new things and to find out what he likes.


Truth. Thank you @joebegly , very much appreciated.

I’m definitely aware that I’ll need to tailor my teaching to his interests and abilities. I wont be trying to teach a “curriculum” or enforce my “ideal methods” upon him.

This is actually pretty similar to what my own guitar teacher did when I first started taking lessons from him aged 12. It also occurs to me that I can get a headstart on this, I could ask my aunt to send me a list of the bands and songs he likes ahead of time.

I think this is huge for starting students.

Absolutely. I believe the guitar is probably the easiest instrument to learn to play at a basic level. I can’t think of many other instruments that somebody can play recognizable songs/pieces on to a decent standard within such a short time frame. I remember trying to play trumpet once, I couldn’t make a single note happen.

It would be very interesting if things go in that direction. However, I won’t push him down that path if it’s not what interests him.

If he asks who my favourite players are, or who I feel are the “best” players, Holdsworth will definitely be mentioned, but I know Holdsworth isn’t for everybody.

For sure. Both of my sisters took guitar lessons from my guitar teacher for several years too. Both of them were much less interested in the guitar than I was and were mostly concerned with learning songs. I know they both learned some basic fingerstyle, but I don’t think ether of them ever learned a guitar solo.

I remember the open position F chord being very difficult when I started. I hated it. Even now I’d default to the full barre most of the time.

I think students who start on an electric guitar want to play something that sounds like an electric guitar as soon as possible. The open position chords don’t really have that effect.

Absolutely. Obviously I’ll be teaching open position chords eventually, but I totally agree that it’s not the right place for most beginners to start.

I genuinely considered naming my other thread this.

I learned from my father for a few months before he decided he didn’t have the knowledge or temperament for the job.

I’ve always been fortunate to have other sources of income (summer and part time jobs as a teenager, tutoring as an undergraduate, tutoring and my grant money as a postgrad, etc). Teaching is part of my job, so I’ve a lot of experience in teaching generally, but I’ve never felt that I wanted to do more of it outside of my full-time job.

Thank you.

Great, I’ll make a point of listening to this ASAP. Thank you for sharing.

I think this is huge. I think time is the most important thing.

Thanks for commenting. I’ll make sure to do this.

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