STG 108: How NOT To Teach Guitar Lessons


complete guitar player

I’ve done lots of podcast episodes about how to become a better guitar teacher; today I want to take a look at this from a different angle and talk about how NOT to teach guitar lessons. There are tons of teachers out there doing it WRONG! Hopefully you aren’t one of them, but regardless, it’s good to hear some examples of common guitar teacher “bad behavior” so you can be aware of the shocking behavior some teachers exhibit in their lessons and make sure you avoid it in the future.

In this episode I’ll give you several examples of how NOT to teach guitar lessons from my own experience, from the stories of other STG members and from other places on the web. Bad teachers reflect poorly on all of us. Hopefully tons of people will listen to this free episode and the end result will be a better music education experience for guitar students all over the world. Please share it with everyone you know and join me on this mission to raise the bar for teaching guitar!

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Items Mentioned In This Episode

Article – Stupid Things Guitar Teachers Do To Waste Your Time

Podcast Transcript

I’ve done a lot of episodes about how to teach guitar lessons, dozens and dozens of them. I’m on Episode 108 now by the time you’re listening to this, so there have literally been dozens and dozens of episodes about how to teach guitar lessons more effectively. Today I’m going to shift gears a little bit and we’re going to talk about how not to teach guitar lessons. This is going to be interesting and hopefully a little bit entertaining, but it’s probably going to be a little bit painful too because I think everybody is going to be able to relate to some of the stories I’m going to tell today.

But to just start things off, this topic was suggested by an STG All-Access member named Richard Sweeny, and Richard told me in an email: “I think you could do an entire lesson on what not to do. One of my favorite sayings is if you are going to tap dance in a minefield, it helps to know where the mines are.” That’s a great quote. “Knowing what not to do is sometimes more important than knowing what to do or how to do it,” and that’s an excellent point, Richard, so I took your advice and I’m dedicating this episode to you.

My Own Childhood Horror Story – A Bad Group Guitar Class

So, let me start off with my story. Everybody probably has one or two – I’ll call them – horror stories from when you took guitar lessons yourself at some point. And if you didn’t experience anything like this yourself, you’ve probably heard something from someone else. So, my story is: when I was eight years old, growing up in South Louisiana, absolutely was crazy about the band Kiss. Now, I realize I’m dating myself. This is the 1970s. My musical tastes have evolved quite a bit since then, but you know, when I was a kid, I used to sit on floor in my room and I used to play Kiss records nonstop. Kiss Alive. Kiss Alive II. And those are my favorite albums, the Live ones, but I had several of their other ones. And I would sit on the floor, looking at the album covers, listening to the music, playing air guitar. You know, I was just crazy about Kiss.

So, the following Christmas, my dad bought me my first guitar. It was a knock-off of a Gibson SG that I believe we got from the Sears catalogue or from the J. C. Penney catalogue, or one of those places. But it was like an Angus Young-style Gibson SG guitar with a little amp. And when I got that, my dad found the best thing he could find as far as guitar lessons for me. Like I said, I was eight, maybe nine years old at the time. So, he searched around and asked people, and he found a small group guitar class, meeting in a nearby country town at their school. So, he enrolled me in the class and I was all excited about it. I was looking forward to learning how to play this new guitar that I had. It turns out it was a disaster, mostly because it was a bad teacher that was teaching that class and he was really only interested in taking our money.

He did not make any kind of effort at all to connect with me as a student. I was just another face in the class, and I had to jump in and learn what everybody else was learning. I didn’t get hardly any individual attention. It was a really, really tough situation for me. You know, being a pre-teen kid, eight, nine years old, it was just totally the wrong situation for me. So, I quit after a couple of lessons and the sad thing is I didn’t pick the guitar up again until I was 18 years old, about ten years later. And I don’t remember that teacher’s name. I’ve tried to think back and see if I can remember who this guy was. He’s probably dead by now, honestly, but I definitely remember how that teacher did not seem to care about me, or any of the other students in class. He wasn’t interested in me. He wasn’t interested in what I wanted to learn. He certainly wasn’t interested in teaching me Kiss songs, which is what I was crazy about at the time, but you know, I learned a valuable lesson from that later on, when I started teaching guitar, and that was don’t do it the way this guy did.

So, that’s kind of my horror story. You know, I had a few other teachers that were great players and not good teachers. They used to just open the fire hose in my face in their lessons and just blast me with so much information that I couldn’t process it, couldn’t go back and really integrate what they taught me, and also had some teachers that were really good. That knew exactly how to teach, how to pace their lessons, and how to give me what I was looking for. You know? So, I don’t want to make all of the teachers that I worked with sound bad, but that was my horror story. I had this one guy that basically almost ruined the guitar for me for life, just because he didn’t give a crap about me as a student.

Horror Stories From Other Teachers

So, that’s my personal example of how not to teach guitar, and that’s really inspired me over the years, but I found some other ones. And actually, Richard Sweeny who recommended this topic, gave me one of his own. And this is what he had to say. In an email, he said, “Today I snagged a student from another teacher without doing anything. It seems the mother of the student caught the guitar teacher smoking during the session and fired him on the spot.” Okay, now I realize that that’s not funny. If I was that parent, I would really be pissed off and I would not be happy with that guitar teacher, and I would’ve done the same thing, maybe even worse if it was me. But I just can’t imagine why someone that was in business that was teaching for money would think that it’s okay to smoke cigarettes in the middle of a guitar lesson. I’m just trying to imagine a scenario or the kind of person that would think that that’s okay. That just blows my mind.

You know, most places of business, you can’t smoke inside anyway. It’s against the law. But you know, this is crazy. Right? Another story I found. Actually, I posed this to social media and I got a few replies from members of the STG community. This one’s from Josh Liston in Australia. And he replied to my post on LinkedIn, and he said, “As I’m now 30 years old, I have a fair amount of industry experience, yet I’m not too old to be involved with guitar players that are just starting out teaching 18 to 22 years old.” So, this is people about ten years younger than Josh. And he says, “I hear them ragging on each other’s tastes, technique, gear, and even students. It’s pretty disappointing in particular when many of those same young teachers work for the same music store in town.” So, Josh, I’ve experienced this too.

I’ve known a lot of, especially music store teachers. There seems to be some kind of vibe in a lot of music stores, and no offense if you work in a music store. I know that there are some stores that are run by really positive people, but a lot of the ones that I’ve been in that had music teachers that and even people that work behind the counter, you know, it’s just the attitude wasn’t good. It was just overly negative and critical. And I remember going into music stores back in Louisiana when I was younger, and they would be bad-mouthing all of these pro-level guitar players. Like I remember one guy talking about George Lynch. How he did something that got somebody else mad. He did this other person wrong, and the other guy goes: “Oh, that’s just another reason not to like him,” and stuff like that.

And I just remember thinking to myself. You know, I didn’t say this out loud, but I just remember thinking: “Dude, George Lynch is a rich and famous guitar player. Has more talent in his one pinky finger than you have in your entire body. And he’s touring and playing in arenas, and here you are, working behind the counter at a music store.” So, I think a lot of that is just because, you know, everybody wants to be successful with music. They want to do more than what they’re doing. And some people, I guess, if they feel like they’re stuck in a dead-end situation, that talking bad about other people, trying to make themselves look and feel better is kind of a way to escape that, I guess, in a small degree. But I think it’s unprofessional and I would never do business with someone that had that kind of attitude, no matter what they were selling. I don’t care if they’re a plumber or a used car salesman, but especially somebody I was going to have to sit in a teaching studio with week after week and learn from. That is one thing I do not want to learn from anybody; is how to have a crappy attitude.

So, I can relate to you there, Josh. I’ve seen that one before myself too. This one comes from John Miller on Facebook. John said, “I had a teacher answer a call on his cellphone while he was taking a lesson. I didn’t like that the conversation was about making plans to do something that night with he and his buddies. He also didn’t extend the lesson a few minutes to make up for the lost time. It was the first and last lesson I took from him.” Well, kudos to you, John, because yeah, that’s very unprofessional behavior. I mean you’re going to see a lot of these examples I’m going to give are just flat unprofessional.

You know, if you’re in a lesson with someone who is paying you to teach them how to play guitar, and you answer the phone and start talking to one of your friends, you’re basically stealing money from that student. You know? I mean at least, like John said, go a little bit over and make it up to them, or give them some of their money or something back, man. Honestly, just turn off your stupid cellphone whenever you’re teaching guitar lessons, right? It’s totally unprofessional for you to be distracted and be messing with personal stuff when someone is paying you for your undivided attention.

So, I also did some searching and I found some other examples in some of the forums online about horror stories with guitar teachers. Here’s one. I’m not going to name the people because I don’t really know them. I’m just going to kind of quote what they said online. But one guy said, “What is it about music teachers? What is about guitar teachers? All mine needs is a monocle, a baton, and a pair of jackboots. He seems to live in the 19th century where a maestro can browbeat his students. Just play the notes! Read the notes! You’re busy? I don’t care! You’re going to learn these three pieces by next week! He teaches at several colleges in the area. I normally like him for his dedication to music and his strictness about proper technique, but sometimes he just goes too far. I’m just a guy learning how to play the guitar. I have a full-time job and I’m not a music major. Just need to vent a little.”

So, I loved the way he describes this guy, and there are a lot of music teachers out there and these are people that take themselves a little bit too seriously, I think. But you could just picture him, you know, dressed up as a Nazi, you know, with the monocle and the baton and the jackboots. And you know, I can just hear him. “Just play the notes! Read the notes! You’re busy? I don’t care. Too busy to practice? That’s not my problem. You’re going to learn these three pieces by next week.” So, I had some teachers like that. Not guitar teachers, but I was a music major for a while and teachers like that were the reason that I ended up dropping out of music school when I was 17 years old, because they didn’t care about me. They were just kind of trying to ramrod me through their program, and I had a lot of fears and a lot of insecurity. And when I was in music school, honestly the pressure was so strong on me that I think I almost ended up having a nervous breakdown at one point, because there were all of these proficient musicians that I looked up to and I was trying to impress them, and I was so far behind everybody else. I just didn’t feel like I could live up to their expectations.

So, whenever they would fuss at me like that and kind of browbeat me, to use the words that this guy used, I mean, in their minds, they were probably trying to motivate me the best way that they knew how, but instead it was damaging to me and it was hurting my level of confidence and stuff like that. So, it eventually got to be so painful for me that I dropped out and I didn’t go back to music school. I did something else. So, this is just a note to you teachers out there that, you know, carry an iron stick and stuff. Just be careful how you relate to your students, because a lot of people do not respond well to that kind of stuff. So, put yourselves in their shoes. That’s my advice to you because a lot of times people are not looking to become the next virtuoso guitarist, you know, that plays classical guitar or whatever. They just want to learn how to play. They just want to do something that they enjoy.

Another person online goes like this. He said, “I have a neighbor friend who did some sign work for a local music teacher in exchange for free guitar lessons.” So, he did a barter situation there. He said, “The guy was so impatient and rude. He never bothered going back after the second lesson, even though he had more lessons coming. Now, I’ve been informally giving him lessons.” This is the guy writing this. “More like just showing him songs and riffs, and explaining a little theory too. I’m not a qualified teacher and would not try to pass myself off as one, but he claims to learn more from me in ten minutes than in whole lessons with that other “teacher.”

Wow. Yeah. How many of you guys have known guitar teachers that were impatient with their students or rude to them? Yeah, if you want people to keep giving you money, let me give you a tip. Don’t be rude to them! Treat them like you actually want their business. Treat them like you want them to come back. Gosh, man, I get kind of fired up when I hear stuff like this sometimes. But yeah, there’s the stereotypical impatient and rude guitar teacher that you should do everything you can to not be like.

So, here’s another one from this online forum. “When I first picked up the guitar, around eight years old I think, I went for a time to this horrid, little house with this horrid, fat lady as a teacher. I’d now kill for her guitar. It was archtop Gibson from the 1950s with one or two P90s in it. Little aside. She had me sight-reading and picking one-note songs from a book. My Dog Has Fleas, La Cucaracha, and songs like that. Might have been the May Bel Method, I don’t recall, but progress was painfully slow and, oh, so boring. I wanted to learn chords. She insisted that was coming later. I wanted to play popular, current music. She insisted, once I learned, I could play whatever I like. While her method would probably have gotten me there, if I didn’t die from boredom, it was far, far too slow and not forthcoming with what I wanted out of it. I gave up in a matter of months.”

Man, that is an all too common tale. I talk about this all the time, but there are students all over the world that end up hooking up with a teacher that has a mindset like this. It’s like: “Yeah, let’s just go through the Mel Bay Method book. Page one. This is what you’re going to learn today. This is a half note. This is quarter note. These are the lines and spaces on the staff.” And you know, here’s this kid, sitting there with a guitar in his hands and he’s like: “When do I get to play? How about what I want to learn?” I mean I’m not saying that reading music is not important. It is. It’s a very important skill, but not first. People aren’t paying you to come and take lessons with you on how to read music. They’re coming to learn how to play the guitar. So, if you’re a smart teacher, you’re going to get them playing the guitar as quickly as you can. And once they’re hooked on it, they love the guitar. They’re passionate about it. Then you can start working in sight-reading. Then you can start working in music theory. If you try to do that stuff first, you’re just going to drive people right out of your studio. Death by guitar method book, right? Like the blog post. I wrote about that a long time ago.

So, there are a lot of teachers that do that, man. It’s sad and it’s aggravating, and it’s tragic for the students because a lot of people, once they quit like that, they never pick it back up again. They just think it’s too hard and life gets busy, and they never find someone that can actually help them. Okay, so don’t make that mistake.

Simon Cowell’s Bad Guitar Lesson Experience

And then, another interesting story that I found online was Simon Cowell from American Idol fame. Simon Cowell said, “I was bought an electric guitar when I was 12, but my guitar teacher beat me up. I didn’t like guitar lessons and I got quite bored. My teacher was obviously bored giving me lessons and one day, I offered him a licorice toffee, but he didn’t answer me. So, I threw it at him and it hit him in the face, and he sort of beat me up. And that was the last guitar lesson I had. That was the turning point when I decided I need to be behind the scenes and not a musician.”

I can just picture that. Man, to be a fly on the wall in that situation right there. 12-year-old Simon Cowell hitting his music teacher in the face with a piece of licorice. I bet that was crazy. But you know, he was bored and he said the teacher was bored too. So, you know, he was just trying to lighten things up, but the teacher didn’t answer him. You know, turned into an ugly situation. But you know, if you’re bored with teaching your students, then you might be in the wrong line of work. I’m just saying. It’s better to try to find ways to keep teaching free and to communicate things that you’re passionate about so that you can actually be a good teacher and a good communicator. If you are bored, then your students are going to be twice as bored, right? So, I thought that was an interesting story.

Stupid Things Guitar Teachers Do To Waste Your Time

And then I found this article. I’m going to put a link to it in the show notes for this episode so you can check it out and read more about it, but it’s called Stupid Things Guitar Teachers Do to Waste Your Time. The author mentioned four different things that guitar teachers should not be doing, and I agree with every single one of them.

So, the first one is: “They spend inordinate amounts of time showing off, playing guitar for you and putting on a show while you watch, wondering when the lesson will start. My very first teacher was guilty of this offense,” the author says. “The really frightening thing is he wore spandex, and played along to Dio records while doing so.” Ronnie James Dio record while wearing spandex when he was supposed to be teaching. “I have to admit, at the time I thought he was pretty cool. Only now, looking back, do I wish I could revise my memory and run from the room with dignity intact. It’s a fact; some teachers are downright embarrassing. It’s a wonder to me that I’m still playing guitar after the 1980s.”

So, that’s another kind of teacher. I mean I could almost do caricatures of each of these kinds of guitar teachers. This one is the guy that just wants attention and kudos and props, and respect and stuff from a student, so he just sits there and just noodles around on the guitar and shows off his chops the whole time, when he’s supposed to be teaching the student how to play. Instead, he’s showing how well he can play. Okay, that’s stupid. Don’t do that. That is so ridiculous. I mean you might impress some kid with how good of a guitar player you are and stuff, but if you want to have a thriving and successful teaching studio, you’ve got to take your ego and you’ve got to leave it outside, man. You can get paid and be successful as a guitar teacher, or you can get your ego stroked, but you can’t have both at the same time. You can’t have both at all.

If you’re ego-driven, you’re going to have terrible student retention, because people can see through bull crap and they could smell it a mile away. And if all you care about is getting your ego stroked, you might find a few students that’ll do that for you, but anybody with any common sense is going to stay far away from you and your teaching studio. I’m just saying. This is kind of tough love today, but hey, that’s just the way it is. It’s true.

The next example this author gives is: “They’ll say, “Okay, well, here’s a scale. Go ahead and practice this for a few minutes and I’ll be right back.” And then they disappear for 15 or 20 minutes while you sit there, practicing your scale, wondering when they’ll come back. Practicing is something you need to be doing at home. An instructor should never leave the room unless they have a good reason.”

So, okay, I’m going to put myself in this student’s shoes. If it was me and the instructor told me: “Hey man, I’ve really got to go to the bathroom. Can I show you this particular exercise and then you practice it for five minutes, and then I’ll come right back,” I wouldn’t have a problem with that. And I’ve even heard some people that give advice to guitar teachers say that it’s okay to do this and, you know, in a 30-minute lesson, for example, you get one student started on something and then leave the room, and then go teach somebody else and get them started on something. And then leave the room and go teach somebody else and get them started on something, and you’ve got four or five individual lessons going on at one time and you’re just going back and forth between them all.

You know what. That might work for some people, but to me that’s not really a good thing to do in my opinion. It doesn’t communicate value to your students, for one thing, because what they’re paying you for, in a private lesson setting, is they’re paying you for your undivided attention. They’re paying to be interested in what they’re doing and to watch them and to give them feedback, and have a conversation with them, and teach them what it means to be a guitar player. If all they need to do is just learn a few licks or whatever, then they can just do that by watching YouTube. That’s not what a genuine guitar lesson experience should be all about, in my opinion.

So, if you want your students to keep coming back and you want them to value your time and your services, then pull stuff like that. Don’t disappear for half the lesson and go do something else, and then come back. It should just be common sense for a lot of people, but you’d be surprised how often it happens.

And then the next example this person gives is: “Too often guitar teachers simply don’t have a lesson plan. You are paying 15, 20 or 25 dollars an hour, or more.” That’s actually very low. This article might be old. “And you sit down with them and they may not even have an efficient methodology that they can walk you through, or anything they’ve developed that’s effective for teaching you while not wasting your time and money. They are often times teaching whatever comes off the tops of their heads.” And we call this winging it in your guitar lessons. This is what lazy guitar teachers do. They either just pull out a book and teach it from beginning to end because they don’t have to prepare anything, or they don’t prepare anything at all and they just teach whatever comes to the top of their head anytime they sit down with somebody.

Both of those methods honestly just suck. Don’t do that. Prepare ahead of time. Spend at least a little bit of time keeping track of what the person worked on with you the previous week. Keep some lesson notes, and then make sure that you’re always a few weeks ahead and that you know what you’re going to do next so that it seems like you actually – I don’t know – know what you’re doing. I’m just saying, man. I don’t know what some guitar teachers think. They just think that they’re God’s incarnate and they just sit down and people come in and just want to sit at their feet and just listen to whatever words of wisdom drift from their mouths like pearls or something like that. That’s not how it is, man. If you think that, I feel sorry for you. You’re not going to be a successful guitar teacher if you have this kind of attitude. Prepare for your lessons, people. It’s all I’m saying. Okay, I’m ranting a little bit. Sorry.

And then the fourth thing that the author mentions, and kind of last one I’m going to mention today is: “Maybe they chose to teach you from a book.” Here we go again. Death by method book. “Don’t be surprised if you’re a beginning guitarist and you find yourself starting off playing When the Saints Go Marching In from an ancient Mel Bay book.” Everybody is picking on Mel Bay today. “A fine song to be sure, but it can be frustrating if you’re not interested in learning to read standard music notation or you really just want to play the chords and songs that you’re interested in. Quite frankly, I believe you can waste a lot of time with a book like this,” and I agree one hundred percent.

Now, I don’t have any problems at all with the Mel Bay Guitar Method. Actually I think it’s a wise investment if you want to buy that series of books, or the one from Hal Leonard or the one from Alfred Publishing, or one of those formal guitar methods. Not so that you can use it as a step-by-step lesson plan for your students, but so that you have resources that you can draw from anytime you need to teach a particular concept or topic to one of your students. You can grab the book whenever it’s called for, find what you need, and use it in your lessons. But you don’t use it as your lesson plan, because there’s a lot of junk in there that most guitar students don’t want to learn and, honestly, don’t need to learn. It’s way better if you customize your lesson plan to the needs of your students, and then just use method books to supplement that wherever appropriate.

In Conclusion

Okay. So, to wrap up this episode, to sum it all up, you should try to avoid the following negative behaviors if you want to be a successful guitar teacher. And I’m just going to summarize each of these really quick.

Smoking during your guitar lessons – bad. Talking trash about other teachers and other guitar players, especially when they’re better than you – bad. Taking personal calls during your lessons – bad. Disrespectful – bad. Being too much of a dictator with your guitar students – bad. Really bad. Being impatient and rude with your students – obviously bad. Boring your students to death with method books and old, irrelevant music and songs that they could care less about learning – very bad and very dumb if you want to make a lot of money as a guitar teacher. Being bored in the lessons yourself – bad. If you’re bored, go find something else to do, or find a way to make it not boring.

Showing off in your guitar lesson or, even worse, just BS-ing the whole time, talking about stuff that’s not related to learning the guitar – bad. Wasting people’s money – bad. Dumping an assignment on your students and then leaving them alone in the lesson room to work it out on their own – bad. And then not having any kind of organized lesson plan and just winging it – really bad. Unprofessional.

Avoid all of those things and then you’ll be miles ahead of the average guitar teacher that’s working at a music store, in the United States anyway. But like Richard said at the beginning of this episode, if you’re going to tap dance in a minefield, it helps to know where the mines are. So, I’ve just given you several mines that you can watch out for as you tap dance through this minefield of teaching guitar lessons. And hopefully, now you have a good idea of some of the things not to do if you want your teaching studio to be successful.

Thank You For Listening!

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Feel free to use the comments section below to let me know what you think about this episode, to suggest a topic for a future episode or just to join in on the conversation with other guitar teachers.

STG 108: How NOT To Teach Guitar Lessons was last modified: May 12th, 2014 by Donnie Schexnayder