Thursday, 23 August 2007

Exploring Chords:

The chordal side of the guitar is a relatively uncharted area; students spend hours whizzing through solos at intergalactic speeds but some may have difficulty explaining what, for example, an A minor 6th is, or demonstrating more than one voicing of it. One reason is that chordal playing means holding down several notes at once, and placing our fingers in unfamiliar patterns; everyone remembers the pain and frustration of learning to play barre chords or their first open G major! Mainstream electric guitar often focuses on being able to play chords well enough to play songs and builds up to taking solos with the scales learnt. Contrast this with Brazilian styles or Jazz guitar where harmony is a flexible tool used for backing a singer or soloist and for solo sections in its own right; it is clear that an understanding of a harmonic approach to the guitar is a valuable asset for any student. Experimenting with cadences and unusual shapes can be helpful to anyone who enjoys writing their own music and wants to forge their own sound.

As with many areas of education, there can be a tendency among guitar students to view what is written in a book or on a tutor’s worksheet as gospel, a box they are not permitted to move out of. The purpose of these exercises is to illustrate that chord shapes and voicings are not set in stone; they are, especially in the arena of improvised music, simply a suggestion of what we could play, and a starting point for chord substitution.

To illustrate this, we could break a chord into bits and then reassemble it, modifying it as we go along. Students expand on the basic shapes by playing a little game based around one simple chord: I ask them to play an open C major and then get them to either add or remove one note to/from the chord - in other words they are either lifting away or pressing down an extra finger. A common response to this is to lift away the first finger, resulting in an open C major 7th chord. We then continue from there through the scale (and outside it!) by adding another note, or moving a note up or down by a semitone or whole tone. If pursued, this will eventually take us through many types of C chord. That is, unless we change the bass note to an A! Now all the shapes we have just tried will have a completely different sound. This provides the tutor with an opportunity to explain that a root note is the foundation of a key centre, and that by changing it we can alter the sound of a chord shape we already know, turning it into something new. The activity also gives us the chance to explain scale tones - what a 9th, 7th or 13th actually means. If we are teaching chords from an electric guitar exam syllabus, we could use it to highlight the similarities between, for example, a C major and an A minor, or how a D major becomes a D major 7th, then a D dominant 7th, with a demonstration of the different scales from which these chords are drawn.

Another approach is to use pedal tones – we pick a drone note – say, an open A, and, starting on A major, explore what happens when we move the shape up the neck one fret at a time, with the bass note left as open A – it gives us eight or nine new chords. Now repeat with an A major 7th, and A minor, an A minor 7th, A minor 6th, and so on. Once you’ve tried it with all the A chords you can think of, try it with the Es and Ds! Then introduce any of the three treble strings as pedal tones too – with just a few basic shapes we have quickly built up dozens of new voicings, any one of which might inspire a new chord sequence, composition or song.

In his book ‘the Advancing Guitarist’ Mick Goodrick recommends trying to play a solo on just one string, to help break out of the box of a scale shape: we can use this strategy to expand our knowledge of chords. We move up a scale along one of the bass strings, staying on the same string and try to ‘pin’ a chord on each root note using scale tones from the other strings. A Fretlight guitar, which lights up all the notes of a selected scale on its fretboard is an absolutely brilliant tool for illustrating this, but we could get a similar effect with a few well-placed stickers. Perhaps we could take the same one string scale and try to harmonise it with the adjacent strings – first in thirds, then thirds and fifths, then thirds and sevenths and so on, asking the student if it sounds right. We could use these patterns as a way to spice up solos or to build harmonised lines; this is commonplace in certain styles of African guitar, particularly where bands have more than one guitarist: they each take a different bit of a chord and work it into a line together, like a brass or string section.

Pianists are familiar with the concept of inversions - stacking the notes of a chord in a different order to obtain a different effect. We can get students to try this on guitar; take a simple E minor barre chord at the seventh fret. Find the minor 3rd. If we take this note down an octave, we free up the B string for other purposes; for example we could flatten the minor 3rd (G) by a semitone, turning it into a 9th; this gives us a nice minor 9th chord. A piano player might refer to this as ‘inner movement’ - the concept that we shuffle the heart of the harmony around to give us different textures.

In bossa nova guitar, the bass note mimics not only bass guitar or double bass but also the deep drum in samba. As such, players tend to stick to playing bass notes mainly on the sixth string as this gives the deepest sound; this type of voicing is also common in gypsy jazz guitar. It means that many of the chords played will have the 5th rather than the root as their bass note, which is why learning Brazilian songs by ear can be so confusing! For example the E minor 9th chord mentioned earlier might well have a B natural bass note, or a bass line that alternates between E and B, dancing across the bottom two strings. A more basic example would be the ‘folk’ voicing of open C major, which has a G on the bottom. It’s worth trying all the chords rooted on the A string and switching the bass note over the E string to see what it sounds like.

To me, this experimentation is the key. We can expand it to all chord playing - try anything, and if it sounds nice, do it again! If it doesn’t, don’t!

Group Teaching in Primary Schools:

My introduction to teaching guitar was probably no different to any other tutor’s: basic riffs, chords and songs for beginners, most often teenagers, in my local music shop. As things have progressed however, I find myself more and more in demand as a tutor of primary school children. When I started working for my local music service, it became apparent that the lion’s share of teaching hours available would be in primary schools, given that every secondary school has several “feeder” primaries. However, communicating the skills necessary for playing a musical instrument to a 6 year old is a hugely different and at times complex job; especially if you are teaching a group of them! It’s been probably the biggest challenge in my career. How might we best approach a task that is sometimes closer to the role of a primary classroom teacher than of a guitarist?

Communication and Praise:

When working with an individual student, it is almost a given that they will try to follow instructions, behave well and work hard. Perhaps these lessons take place in a shop, at your home, or in a specialist music school. It’s your teaching space, your turf. In a school, all this changes: you’re entering a small community that you need to connect with.

You may have noticed in the process of teaching that your movements are more animated and your voice changes: perhaps you speak more clearly or slowly, and use a very positive and enthusiastic tone of voice (“dotted quaver! Yeah!”).

Teaching groups of young kids is not hugely different in this sense. I think of my home and school teaching personas as being in the former case a television actor, shot close up so the camera and microphone catch every nuance of voice and facial expression and in the latter the equivalent of an actor onstage in front of a large and sometimes restless audience. This second persona has to be larger than life: I need the student sat furthest from me to be able to hear me clearly, observe my body language, and remain engaged: I speak loudly and fairly slowly, varying the intonation used, employ expressive hand gestures, and raise my eyebrows or widen my eyes to highlight particularly important points: typical mannerisms become exaggerated.

I smile a lot and praise the kids to the skies for the smallest achievement or effort. Stars are handed out in a system which encourages further progress within the lesson; for example a colleague of mine tells her students that four gold stars earned at various points in a lesson merits a red star, with which the students can claim a house point from their class teacher. This is a reward for consistency as the students must be on task throughout the lesson in order to fully benefit. The stars are also like staging posts or ad breaks that divide the lesson into sections.

Another reward I like to use is a 3 minute “free play” session at the end of the lesson; the students are allowed to play whatever they want, including strumming open strings as loud as they like, or tapping percussively on the guitar. Primary teachers often use “golden time” at the end of the week as an incentive for students to work hard; this is my version!

Creating Focus:

I have a few techniques for when I want a group to be ready to learn. The old trick of counting down from 5 to 1 always seems to work, perhaps because many classroom teachers also employ it. We could have a signature rhythm to clap which the students repeat, and know that it means silence. Lining the group up outside the room to create a sense of there being a clear difference between being in guitar lessons and out of them could also help. Praising the students who are sat quietly encourages others to follow suit. This is a nice approach as we are reinforcing good behaviour and rewarding it, rather than punishing bad behaviour.

When directing a group, I use the present participle a lot; i.e. I say “listening, sitting, ready, well done” or “we’re listening” rather than the bossier imperative “listen”, “sit down” and so on. The former implies that the instruction I have given is already taking place, we’re already all moving in the same direction. It’s interesting too, how the word “please” can transform a group’s response. Perhaps children associate the word with being co-operative, or they simply like to be spoken to politely. After all, most adults crave respect and status – why would children be any different?

When teaching a new group my priority is to instruct them on their conduct in lessons through a question and answer session along the lines of “when the teacher is talking, what should we do?” The answers will hopefully include things like sit still, don’t talk or play the guitar, look at the teacher, put your hand up if you have a question and so on.

In this way the students contribute to the rules we follow in lessons, and have made a personal investment. Implementing this system from the very beginning saves a lot of time and stress later on! Good behaviour is a result of consistent reiteration of the rules, just as we practise our instrument regularly in order to improve. If we keep repeating our expectations, they will eventually be met.

Sometimes if a point needs explaining I will ask another student to explain it rather than doing it myself; in this way I get to see what kind of language children use when speaking to each other: also by explaining it themselves they understand the process on a deeper level: it’s often said that the best way to learn how to do something well is to teach it to somebody else.

Solo or together?

For performance, several students playing a piece together sounds great; however if all you’re doing is playing tunes together in lessons then there isn’t as much opportunity for individual progress or expression. The advantage of playing tunes in a group is that students develop a good sense of rhythm and work on sight reading.
This is a hot topic, and some teachers argue vehemently against a “series of concurrent individual lessons” where students work independently, and that we should all be playing together. I am still unsure of my standpoint on this issue, other than to say that it really depends on the context. Certainly working in this way reminds me of spinning plates in that you have to be constantly moving around the room checking on each person’s progress. Is it wrong simply to set a student a task and then leave them to get on with it, uninterrupted? Some would strongly oppose this kind of approach, whereas others would argue that it encourages independent learning and develops that person’s initiative, and not just in a musical context. When I look back on my own study of the guitar, some of my biggest breakthroughs were made with no-one else’s help. I am also wary encouraging too much of a “chick in the nest” mentality among students, where the bird sits with its mouth open, waiting for the next meal to be dropped in; it’s nice if they can develop the ability to learn without being constantly prompted. One of the hardest things to avoid for me as a teacher is the tendency to interrupt, and sometimes the best learning happens when I am not directly involved with the student at all, when I give them space to concentrate.

A common complaint from teachers and parents alike is that when students are all playing the same pieces together in lessons, the group moves only as fast as the slowest student. Said student may feel embarrassed or upset that they are “holding the others back”. On the other hand, individual work limits the amount of time the teacher can spend with each pupil, and can lead to more able students feeling marginalised should the teacher not divide that time evenly. Pairing students of similar ability can be one solution to this problem, and in particular the creation of pieces with a simple melody that the whole group can play but also include more complex parts for the more able members. Improvisation tasks can be very successful; five or six notes from a scale can be stickered onto the fretboard for the students to use in whichever combination for solos while the teacher strums a chord sequence and the group repeat a simple “head” motif, taking it in turns to solo. One of the attractions of this task is that provided the soloist stays within the scale, there are no wrong notes. It is also more personal; with improvisation, the students are playing “their” notes, rather than simply. Improvisation can also be a very personal activity, whereas when playing from the page, we are reproducing someone else’s music. Simple chordal accompaniment could be provided with open A5, D5 and E5 power chords; in this way the children only have to memorise one shape and move it around. It is accessible to everyone. The next step could be to use E minor to Asus2, which is again an identical shape.

Visual and Imaginary Aids:

Teaching someone one to one, it’s easy to point things out on the page: you just lean over! With a large group, to go around to each person and do this is time consuming and boring for the people who are waiting to have it explained. Rather than saying “play the middle section” or “play from bar 16” I will pencil in a symbol at the point in their pieces where I would like the group or person to start; a triangle, a square, a circle, a star and so on. This means that everybody knows where they are straight away and saves a lot of time and distraction. “Play from the triangle to the square” is a simpler direction than “play from bar 32 to bar 38”.
Guitarists play two distinct types of written note: open string and fretted. I colour in the fretted note with a highlighter and refer to it as, for example, a “pressing C”, whereas an open B is a “lifting B”. A colleague of mine uses different highlighters to colour in repeated bars in a tune: for example where the final four bars in “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” are identical to the first four: this breaks the tune down and shows the student that it is not as difficult as they thought.

I prefer to limit my use of guitar jargon: very often I’ll refer to a fret simply as a box: i.e. “second string, first finger, first box.” A rest stroke is simply “walking resting fingers” whereas the free stroke would be “walking fingers, lifting away.” I illustrate the actual action of the rest stroke by talking about a monkey at the zoo swinging from a higher branch down onto a lower branch and hanging there.

A common problem when students first begin to fret notes is their tendency to place their fingers at the headstock end of the fret, producing a lot of fretbuzz in exchange for a lot of physical effort. In order to get them fretting correctly, we can put two stickers on the neck; a green one in line with the body end of a fret and a red one in line with the headstock end. Using traffic lights as an analogy (go or, danger! don’t go) we can illustrate to students that by using “green fingers” they can produce “clear notes” rather than buzzy ones. In terms of finger angle, I use the example of a table leg to illustrate that our finger should be pretty much at a right angle to the fretboard if we are to avoid blocking off other strings.

If a student has trouble fretting, for example, a 5th fret high A, due to remembering where it is (as a Spanish guitar has no markings) then a sticker placed in the correct spot usually puts them on track. Similarly, thumb positioning problems are swiftly resolved with a “Thumb Target” sticker on the back of the guitar neck. In terms of other aids, the old classic of the imaginary “piece of holly” stuck on the soundboard of the guitar is a favourite: if we flatten our wrist to rest it on the soundboard (impeding free movement) then we might get prickled!


At such an early age some students have a great fear of “getting it wrong” and especially in the initial stages of learning can get very nervous about making mistakes. Some children can become very upset if asked to repeat tricky passages too many times, so one of the first things I discuss with a group of new students is whether it is a big deal if we make a mistake – does it matter? I use various analogies to make sure they feel comfortable enough to ignore any slip ups: A favourite is to show them a picture of a mountain and talk about climbing it wearing a safety harness and hat – if we slip and fall off, we just swing back on and keep climbing – and we can have as many goes as we like!


I think of myself simply as a “guitar teacher” rather than a classical guitar/electric guitar teacher. In the early years students seem to make the best progress using classical themed books and guitars (nylon strings being easier to press down on) – in my case I use the Guitarist’s Way series. The ability to read music gives our students a lot more variety in their lessons, and group performance is much easier to arrange, as is explaining rhythm values. However I also teach basic tab and simple riffs – many of the students are desperate to learn to do this, and it can be another useful bargaining tool.


In my schools, guitarists get a chance to perform to the school and their parents, usually at an end of term concert or talent show. This gives us something to work towards, as well as giving the kids considerable kudos among their peers, many of whom then take an interest in having lessons too; a very useful advertisement!

Views on teaching gifted and talented students:

My last lesson of the week on a sunny summer Friday afternoon; half an hour more of teaching before the weekend starts! It’s the lesson I look forward to most, not only of because when it is, but also because of who it is. My Friday 7pm student is a joy to teach, because he appears immune to all the usual problems guitar students have and understands everything I say. I would without hesitation classify him as gifted and talented because of his ability to learn so fast. Our lesson seems to fly by, and, what’s more, it’s so much fun! Every teacher encounters this type of student; the one worry we might have in the back of our minds is how to keep up….what sort of things can we do to keep the ball rolling?

As an electric guitar tutor, the majority of people asking for lessons will be beginners, with little knowledge of chords, scales, improvisation, music notation/tab, different musical styles and music theory. However, we are occasionally faced with people who fit in the “gifted and talented” bracket. Perhaps we should consider what this means; the government’s Department For Education and Skills definition is that:

“The gifted are those with high ability in one or more academic subject, and the talented are those with high ability in sport, music, visual arts and/or performing arts. Children may also have abilities, such as advanced social skills and leadership qualities that fall outside the given definitions. These should also be recognised and provided for. Gifted and talented pupils need to be given opportunities to study some, or all, subjects to a greater depth and breadth and, sometimes, at a faster pace.”

A G&T pupil often has extensive musical input; perhaps they’re from a musical family, or have studied with another tutor and become dissatisfied with their progress. They can exhibit confidence, determination, learn very fast and practise regularly. A model student! I have one such protégé, age 16, already a grade 5 pianist who also plays trombone in a school ensemble. He is a rock music fan, but open minded and keen to learn about jazz, blues, classical and “world” music styles. Very often I do not even need to demonstrate scales or chords; he can pick them up by ear, or he has already worked them out for himself. My initial feeling on seeing this ability was excitement, but trepidation. The main question is how to keep up! What can a teacher do to ensure that fast learners stay challenged and entertained by their relationship with the instrument?

To teach this type of person, effective lesson planning is crucial. I need to make sure my lessons are well paced, varied, and at least sometimes relevant to the areas they want to study – If I display a willingness to discuss the pupil’s interests, they will reciprocate and listen to my views. Striking “deals” gives the student the feeling that their own aims are important to the teacher.
I often base electric lessons for fast learners around guitar parts by the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ John Frusciante, who has a very sophisticated approach to rock guitar. He includes elements of Jazzy chord melody and chord fragmentation, arpeggios, “drone” open string chords, use of other unusual voicings such as major 7ths, dominant 7ths, 9ths and 13ths #9ths, Diminished chords, II-V-I progressions, complex funk rhythms and diverse scales in solos; e.g. the Natural Minor, modes (most notably the Mixolydian, Dorian and Phrygian), Indian-style “Ragas” and the Chromatic scale, as well as the standard blues/minor pentatonic approach. This provides plenty of material to explore, but maybe not all at once! If they concur, we might also look at learning notation and studying for grade exams.

Comparing my approach with the government’s Qualifications and Curriculum Authority recommends for gifted and talented students was interesting: its suggestions include: “setting more challenging tasks and expecting a higher-quality response”, “accumulative quick-fire recall work, in which the pupils echo increasingly complex patterns given by the teacher” (basically call and response), “enabling pupils to improvise within given structures. Improvisation is an effective way to allow pupils to demonstrate and develop talent”, “asking pupils to analyse and evaluate music in relation to how it is constructed, produced and influenced”, “giving them opportunities to practise and develop higher-level individual technical skills” and “letting pupils set their own tasks and see them through.”

I decided to pester a few instrumental teacher colleagues of mine with a questionnaire about their experience of working with fast learners. The feedback proved fascinating; some tutors had decades of teaching experience and everyone had plenty of ideas as to what we might do to keep G&T students happy. Once the initial excitement of discovering a student with great potential subsided, tutors became cautious about how best to handle the situation. There could be problems in group lessons; as one explained: “The main difficulty is that in group teaching situations if one student pushes quickly ahead it's difficult to keep track of what they are doing. They also feel held back by their slower peers. Sometimes it's not possible to shuffle them into a better group.”

As well as the boffin who hangs on your every word and practises diligently, there are other types of fast learning student. The DFES definition depicts G&T students as one big happy family of Harry Potters, but one guitar teacher made the very valid point that not every student displays such confidence – some fast learners can be very shy and self-effacing; music for them can be an important means of communication and expression, and someone who reads poorly may be a sensational improviser, or vice-versa. Some might find it embarrassing to be singled out for their talents, and downplay them in order to avoid the limelight, to better ‘fit in’ with average achievers. There may well be a few rough diamonds skulking around at the back of the classroom!

It was noted that, at the opposite extreme, some students can become lazy or complacent. One teacher said the situation was like “the tortoise and the hare”, in that slower learners often practised more regularly and realised their potential. Another said that G&Ts could even become arrogant: “I had to convince them that they didn’t know it all yet, and that maybe I knew a thing or two as well.”

There was, however, a consensus that the more able type of student in particular tends to learn in fast bursts, and that therefore it was permissible to “let them off” if they did not always progress quickly.

Guitar tutor Joseph O’Connor concurs in his book “Not Pulling Strings” when he states: “The shape of the ‘performance curve’ is worth remembering when students do not seem to make any evident progress for some time. They will be on a plateau and will improve, if they wish to, given time, but it is impossible to predict when.”

There is a danger that the teacher might also become complacent, and hold the student in such high regard that they assume that everything they have said has sunk in straight away; this can pose real problems in exam situations, as the student might think they will breeze through, only to find that they didn’t understand or remember things as well as their teacher thought they had. A poor exam result when they had expected to do well could be a real knock to confidence, and put the student off further examinations. They may feel they have “let the teacher down” or, just as bad, that their teacher let them down, and take a negative view of the lessons that had previously been so much fun.

It was noted that persuading fast learners to follow a coherent structure could be difficult – such students want to pursue the things that they are most interested in; they feel reined in by less enjoyable tasks. One teacher observed: “It’s hard to get them to accept that they need to learn ‘boring’ things like scales, and not just go their own way making it up as they bumble along.”
Many commented that there is a temptation to inundate the student with material; tutors warned of the dangers of overloading a student with technical exercises or pushing them through grade exams too quickly. It might be better to use their ability to delve into a piece in depth; one teacher noted: “You feel an urge to move them along quickly; rather, I try to really explore how to play a piece, in terms of technique, expression and dynamics.” O’Connor again agrees: “One of the secrets of good teaching is the ability to organise and sequence chunks for each individual learner; this makes the progress smooth and easy. Overload in either number or complexity of the chunks results in difficulty and frustration. However naturally a student takes to the instrument at the beginning, it is worth resisting the temptation to add new topics.”

English teacher Anthony Haynes uses the following analogy to explain pupils’ attitudes to tasks that are pitched too low or high:

“In trying to set the level of expectation at the optimal level for your pupils, think of them as people who see a bus coming. If they’re already waiting at the bus stop, or very near, they won’t do much running – they know they’ll catch the bus anyway. They won’t bother running either if they’re a long way from the stop – they know they won’t catch it. They need to be fairly near to really stretch themselves.”

Another important point made is that students risk injury from over-practising – particularly if their posture or technique is poor. The principal at Bristol Spanish Guitar Centre cited a case where a classical guitarist who religiously followed the instructions from a practice DVD for many hours a day began to suffer from severe Repetitive Strain Injury. This is why better technique is so important. As chiropractor and Alexander Technique teacher Don Weed points out “if you practise something the wrong way for eight hours a day, all that will happen is that you will get extremely good at doing it the wrong way.”

Once the dangers had been considered, we discussed what activities a tutor could provide for a fast learner; forming a solid technique was considered important, as was developing reading skills. It was unsurprising, if sad, that improvisation was rarely mentioned. It seems like the last frontier of music tuition!

One teacher provided many ideas: “Technical exercises are good but don’t do too much! Grades are good, but I don’t force anyone. They enjoy duets and are an absolute asset for an ensemble. Get them to perform somewhere. They will learn a lot from a concert situation and it gives them a target to work towards.”

In terms of how to treat such people, one tutor said that in his experience praise was less important than with less able students, counterproductive even: “Be economical with your praise – they know when you’re exaggerating anyway.” Another noted that such students might feel pressured by high expectations, and that we shouldn’t forget that “they are just human after all! They will respond very positively - if you get to know them.”

I try to incorporate some of these ideas into my lessons and to focus on improvisation. Given that, as jazz guitarist Jim Hall says; “listening is still the key”, I try to include activities which encourage it, even if it is simply playing an interesting piece of music on the hi-fi for discussion it as the student unpacks their instrument. One interviewee echoed this idea, saying that we should “get them to listen to lots of music other than guitar, especially taking note of phrasing and form.” This applies to both classical playing and electric styles; transcribing solos or chord sequences is a common task given to jazz students at university level and worth incorporating into lesson plans. If we learn a few phrases this develops a vocabulary for improvising.

I think that reactive teaching can work well with advanced students; there are often specific types of guitar playing that they want to know about, and draw inspiration from learning their choice of music. The advantage of this is that once one student has asked how to play, for example, the solo from a song, it can be duplicated and integrated into a lesson plan and scheme of work. I can consider what scales and techniques it uses and whether I can tie it into something that relates to the grade we are working on. It is probably better not to leap into the activity straight away, but rather to file the idea for the near future. Very often a teacher can learn from students’ specialist interests. Someone who brings in a song featuring, for example, slide guitar, may inspire me to find out more about this particular style.

Looking at questionnaire responses and my own teaching past, I can see that tutors often needed to heavily customise their standard lesson plans, and be very aware of potential problems. G&T students need a tutor who can help them explore their limits without pushing them over the edge. Just like everyone else!