Do You Need a Teacher to Learn Guitar?
Should You Take Guitar Lessons?
You’ve finally decided to take the plunge and learn to play guitar. Now what? The traditional path is to sign up with a guitar teacher and start taking lessons, but is that the right decision for everyone? Many guitar players, including some pretty famous ones, are completely self-taught. So why bother taking lessons to learn guitar when you can apparently become a rock star without ever visiting a teacher?
The truth is, lessons are right for some new players, and not for others. I started playing guitar when I was twelve. One requirement that came along with getting the instrument, as dictated by my parents, was that I must take lessons. So I dutifully lugged my guitar and little amp to a guitar instructor once a week for months before packing it in and finally convincing my parents that I was better off on my own. Why did I quit?
Even back then, I loved playing guitar. I was getting better every day and practicing music by my favorite bands. I read magazines and books I had purchased, learned chords and songs, and listened to albums to try to figure out what the guitarist was doing. With all this going on, I spent pretty much zero time working on the basic stuff the teacher wanted me to learn. When I got to my lessons he’d chew me out for not practicing, when in reality I had practiced for hours and hours.
It’s kind of funny now, but back then I’m sure it was very frustrating for him, and it certainly was for me. The problem was that this teacher spent no time trying to find out what motivated me to want to learn guitar. He put me on a path of his choosing, and it seemed more like schoolwork. I dreaded the weekly lessons, and didn’t like him very much either.
That’s my story. But I also know many guitar players who got lined up with very good instructors from the beginning, and it was tremendously helpful. Some even went on to prestigious music schools, and they have their guitar teachers to thank for that.
In this article we’ll look at the pros and cons of each approach so you can decide if signing up with a guitar instructor is the right decision for you.
Learning Guitar on Your Own
The idea of the totally self-taught guitarist is somewhat of a myth. We all learn from somebody, even if just by listening to the music of guitarists who came before us. I think the words self-directed are a little more appropriate, because unless you are stranded on a deserted island with no contact with the outside world you are going to learn from other people.
This might take the form of books or videos, or simply listening to other guitar players and trying to figure out their technique. Even if you are learning on your own, you are going to have help figuring it all out.
I relied on books and tapes to learn to play, but that was over thirty years ago. Today, you can learn a whole lot just using the internet. YouTube is a solid resource, and there are many great websites to check out.
Some of the first things you should work on when you are learning on your own are:
- Holding the guitar correctly
- Fretting and picking technique
- Tuning the guitar correctly and accurately
- Basic guitar terminology
- Basic chords
- Notes of the fretboard
- Proper guitar care
- Playing songs
That last one might be a little jarring. Can you really play songs when you are a beginner? You betcha. If you get a few basics down, such as those listed above, there is no reason you can’t learn some easy songs and start calling yourself a guitar player. You’d be surprised how many popular songs are based on a just a few simple chords
That, to me, is the best reasons to consider learning on your own. You dictate your pace, and you decide when you move on to something new.
The idea of the totally self-taught guitarist is somewhat of a myth. We all learn from somebody, even if just by listening to the music of guitarists who came before us.
The Value of a Guitar Teacher
Even though my experience taking lessons when I was a kid wasn’t the greatest, I do see the value in a good guitar teacher. A teacher who makes the effort to understand you and where you are coming from will help you tremendously, and can serve as a massive reservoir of knowledge. If you are stumped about something, you'll have someone to turn to who can help you sort it out.
Your instructor will be able to tell you how to learn all of those things listed above. He’ll have a method mapped out for you, and be able to walk you along the path to your goals. But a good teacher should also be flexible, and understand that people learn differently, and at different paces.
You should look forward to your lessons. Guitar is supposed to be fun and exciting, and if your instructor makes it a chore you probably aren’t going to stick with it. That doesn’t mean you won’t have to work hard and study. Whether you learn on your own or with a teacher, getting good at guitar is a whole lot of hard work. But it should be work you want to do, and not work you dread.
If you have several guitar instructors in your area, I’d suggest scheduling a lesson with each of them to try them out. When you meet with them, talk about your goals and what gets you excited about the guitar. Let them know how much time you expect to spend on it each week, and what you want to get out of it. Then, make your decision based on whoever seems like they’ll be the best fit for you.
There may be some excellent instructors who simply aren’t right for you. Looking back, that was probably the case with my teacher, years ago. If it isn’t working with one, you can always try someone new.
After I had been playing for almost a decade, I ended up taking a semester of classical guitar in college. This time I enjoyed the lessons much more, but by then I had an interest in classical music and was motivated to learn. The 12 or 13-year-old me would have died of boredom with the same instructor.
You should look forward to your lessons. Guitar is supposed to be fun and exciting, and if your instructor makes it a chore you probably aren’t going to stick with it.
When You Should Definitely Take Lessons
While I think many guitarists can get along just fine without ever taking lessons, there are some players for whom instruction is mandatory. If you intend to become an elite classical or jazz guitarist, you need an instructor. In fact, you’ll probably have a string of instructors throughout your career. If you intend to make a living at it, you’ll want to consider studying music in college and getting a degree.
Classical and jazz guitar both require a very deep knowledge of music theory. They call for discipline and a serious approach. You’ll need to learn to read music, by sight in many cases, and you’ll need the ability to pick up new music quickly. When you play in a group you are expected to be a professional, and have all of the skills necessary to seamlessly blend into a new situation.
Can you play classical or jazz guitar if you are self taught? Of course you can, and you may even get pretty good. However, while you can reach the pinnacle of your profession as a rock, metal or country guitarist without ever taking a lesson, it is almost impossible in classical or jazz player without a proper education.
One more type of guitar player I’ll throw in there is the metal virtuoso. The right teacher can help you tremendously if you want to become the next Yngwie, Satch or Vai. Again, you’ll need a solid background in music theory, and a guide to keep you on track with the intense practice that’s required. You’ll have to be disciplined and work very hard to get to that level. Yes, you can do it on your own, but an instructor can help you.
Classical and jazz guitar both require a very deep knowledge of music theory. They call for discipline and a serious approach.
Your Path as a Musician
Whether or not you choose to take guitar lessons is highly dependent on your goals as a musician, and the path you intend to follow. If you only want to learn to play a few chords and strum an acoustic guitar you can certainly do that on your own. If you want to become a good rock, metal, blues or country player you can do that on your own as well, but you’d better be ready to put in the work.
If you want to become an elite-level jazz or classical player, you may as well start with a teacher from the beginning. These fields require a great deal of knowledge and tremendous discipline, and education is really the best way to succeed here.
Remember, too, that there is no reason you can’t start taking lessons, or quit them and come back to them, as you see fit. You may learn some basics on your own and then decide to progress further you need a little direction. Or, you may take lessons for a while and figure you’re better off going it alone.
Whatever path you choose, stick with the guitar. Learning to play an instrument is a skill that will reward you for your entire life. When I quit lessons, so many years ago, my parents were sure I was done with guitar as well. Quitting the instrument never even occurred to me, and every day I’m glad I stuck with it.
Good luck on your journey, and remember that, whatever else happens, at least you’re a guitar player.
© 2017 Michael James