Guitar Technique Tips for Young Beginners (with video!)

If you're a parent or teacher working with a guitar student under the age of ten, this video is for you!

Here, I'll demonstrate some things to look out for in order to make sure that young guitarists are building the strongest possible technical foundation for their playing.

Older students can sometimes fudge technique, but getting anywhere on the guitar is pretty much impossible for little kids who don't have solid skills.

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The unexpectedly simple obstacle to tuning your guitar correctly

When you are tuning your guitar with an electronic guitar tuner, guess what? You are still the real guitar tuner. You have to pay attention and do more than just look for the green light. Have you ever spent a painstaking moment making sure each string was in perfect tune, only to strum a chord that sounded a little...unexpected? Here's the problem:
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The secrets of good strumming

Many guitarists can play complex chords and riffs, but they are frustrated with strumming. They just can't seem to put it all together and find the right strumming pattern. First of all, there isn't necessarily only one correct strumming pattern in a song. Believe it or not, you can even figure out a strumming pattern that fits a song if no guitar can be heard on the original recording. Below, I'll give you some tips for finding the strumming pattern of any song.
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Five things guitar teachers do that seem helpful but aren't

I've had a lot of transfer students from other teachers over the years, and I see the results of guitar teacher laziness. There are obvious issues, such as poor documentation and poor organization (a bunch of tabs in a dog-eared stack of paper is all you have to show for two years and $2,000). However, there are some things that actually seem like selling points but are really further indications of a lack of a strong teaching foundation. Here are a few:

1) Your teacher stays up all night creating detailed tabs for you - When a guitar teacher creates a custom, detailed tab for you, that benefits your teacher as much or more than it benefits you. There's nothing wrong with having a "reach" song that you're working on, and it's awesome if your teacher creates a custom tab from time to time. That said, you should also be playing easier songs that you have a shot at figuring out on your own. if all you're doing is learning from tabs, you are learning to play songs, but not necessarily learning how to play the guitar.

2) Your teacher never puts down the guitar - Playing together with your teacher can be very beneficial for students at all levels. However, a teacher who never puts down the guitar to let you play alone may be hampering your ability to play independently, especially at the beginner level.

3) Jaw-dropping displays of guitar prowess are a part of every lesson - Your lessons should be about you, not about your teacher. If you feel intimidated or in awe of your teacher, you might not feel comfortable asking questions or showing that you are having trouble with something. It's great to know that you're studying with a person who has some serious chops, but beware of show-offy noodling or demonstration of skills that supposedly "can't be taught."

4) Your teacher lets you learn whatever you want - It's great for a teacher to help you learn songs that you love - that's the whole point. However, your teacher should also challenge you with material that will develop your ear, encourage your ability to read, or help you learn specific technical skills. Also (especially relevant to younger students) your teacher can help broaden your horizons by sharing music that you might enjoy, based on what you're already expressing interest in.

5) Your teacher keeps you in your comfort zone - There are many guitarists who are stuck. They tend to have students who are stuck. If you have been playing for a year or more and still can't play a song all the way through, have never jammed with anyone but your teacher, and don't feel a sense of identity as a guitarist, it's time to re-evaluate. A good teacher will hold you accountable for not only daily practice but actual mastery, and will help you set and reach appropriate goals.

Have you had any of these experiences in learning guitar or any other instrument?

Guitars are all the same, and all different

Many people have the misconception that it is better to start lessons on an acoustic guitar and then "graduate" to an electric guitar. Or, they assume that playing an acoustic is vastly different from playing an electric. It's not, although there are different techniques involved.

The difference between acoustics and electrics is like the difference between pencils and pens. In a pinch, either will do, but there are distinct advantages to one or the other in certain situations.

For example, you'll do crosswords and calculations in pencil, but sign your name with a pen. Likewise, you'd play "Blackbird" on an acoustic, but "Back in Black" on an electric, although it is physically possible to play each song on any guitar.

Also, when it comes both to musical instruments and writing implements, there are variations in technique that are minor for the beginner, but significant for the expert. A professional illustrator will be a master of certain shading techniques that can only be accomplished with pencil; hand-addressed invitations require specialized skill with a calligraphy pen. An acoustic guitar can be strummed vigorously and percussively in a way that the electric can't. Meanwhile, electric guitar makes use of string bending and lots of sustain (think "Wonderful Tonight" by Eric Clapton) that is virtually impossible to achieve on the acoustic.

As a beginner, a student can explore the guitar starting with whatever instrument is lying around. The fact that there are so many different kinds of guitars (and sounds that can be made on them) is part of the mystique of the instrument.

Guitars are like shoes.

You can get by with just one (or one pair). But once you open the door to having more than one, you can end up with twenty and still find situations for which nothing you have is quite right, and a new purchase is required.

Guitarists with GAS (Guitar Acquisition Syndrome, per my father who’s got it bad) must always strive to make peace with the fact that they will never have enough guitars, and simply enjoy both the process of researching new guitars and the music they make with the ones they’ve got. And if you’re in the unenviable position of being the parent or a spouse of an individual with GAS, just take the same approach that you would buying shoes for a seven-year-old boy: at first just get something that fits the vast majority of situations, knowing that no matter what you get, it will quickly be outgrown, worn out, or otherwise outmoded.

Wearing Nikes in church = playing “Sweet Child o’ Mine” on a $100 Washburn acoustic. Don’t worry, your birthday is coming.

Love Minus Zero/No Limit

My love affair with this song goes back to early 1993. Steve Wiatt got the Bob Dylan tribute video on Pay-Per-View (remember that?) and lent the VHS tape to my dad (I do believe it’s still in his possession after all these years). And then my dad showed me the clip: Ronnie Wood introduces Eric Clapton, and Clapton proceeds to give one of the most spiritually generous performances of his life.

I had never heard Dylan’s own recording of “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” before - later that spring I would buy my first Dylan CD (remember those?) and fall in love with the pencil-sketch charm of the version on Bringing it All Back Home. But Clapton’s rendition is lovingly, reverently, exaggeratedly Dylan-esque: warm, humming organ, those noodley little walkdowns down from the five chord, and, as ever, liberties taken with the vocal melody, rhythms, and even the lyrics themselves. Bob would be proud - of course he is still alive, anyway, so I could ask him what he thought about it, if I knew how to get in touch with him.

But the guitars! Sounding like nothing Dylan ever recorded. The soaring, beautiful, sweet, bluesy guitars - Clapton on his trusty Strat, G.E. Smith (remember him?) chiming away on a Tele. I had been playing for a few weeks the first time I saw this performance, and it made an impression. Clapton takes two solos, and they are stunning in their immediacy and melodicism. Some gorgeous, soul-lifting bends…he makes it look so easy.

Ironically, the ease with which Clapton built his solos was something I could not relate to at the time, much as I loved the sounds I was hearing. My mind, like my father’s, was designed to distill the colorful richness I was hearing back down to the pencil sketch of Dylan’s original: figure out the chords, memorize the lyrics, and be able to play and sing this thing by heart before sundown. This is the song that taught me to transpose before I knew what that was called, taught me to sing in my own style before I knew what that was. I’ve never let go of it, but I’ve never been able to make it feel like that Clapton version.

A few Christmases ago, my brother Tristan converted that VHS tape into a DVD and presented it to me under the tree. We watched it that morning, and I wept. I sobbed in front of my whole family. It was bittersweet to see that the gorgeous lead guitar playing that had so inspired me was still so far out of reach, and worse, that it was so okay with me. It was like I had promised myself, “I will play guitar,” and then went out and bought a french horn, never even noticing or caring that I had broken that contract. And in a way, I still don’t care.

Today one of my students, a delightful sixteen-year-old, was working on “Love Minus Zero.” To explore arrangement possibilities, I went on YouTube. There, in the suggested search field as I typed in the song title, was “clapton.” Could it be? It was - some Japanese guy posted the clip. We watched and listened - and then I shared it with another student later that day. And then I listened to it on my walk home in the dark (YouTube on the iPhone!).

And something interesting is happening - I’m hearing more. I pointed out to my student that while it sounds as though Clapton is playing continuously, he’s really creating separate phrases that overlap. One comes over in an arc and as it ends another comes underneath, like the currents of water in an ocean wave. I noticed that most of the solos are pentatonic. I realized how little he was playing during the verses - laying out and letting the rhythm parts back up the voice, then filling in with meaty licks between the lines of lyric as though it were a blues tune.

So this thing might actually be within reach: to learn one or both of these solos just for fun and education. Maybe the assumptions I’ve always made about myself with respect to my natural abilities as a musician are ready to be overturned. That will mean a lot for the way I teach, but even more for the way I live.

Regardless, “she knows there’s no success like failure, and that failure’s no success at all.” Deep, man. That either means exactly what I’m talking about, or nothing at all.


This week, I’ve been going to my studio first thing in the morning, throwing down my bags, taking off my coat, and hopping onto the piano before other obligations can get to me. I got a few new books on Tuesday - stuff written for children from Gurlitt, Koehler, and Bartok. Besides making excellent material for sight-reading, these are pieces I could potentially teach to my students. I had fun reading through some easier music the way one might read through a novel or an interesting newspaper article.

Today, I decided to start with guitar, since I have burned through all my practice time so far this week playing only piano. Instead of playing through written music, I worked on learning some songs by ear. I don’t feel like I got too far with any one thing, but I’ve been away from it for awhile and I have to build up my finger strength again. Because of this, any playing I do is beneficial - but when I don’t have a lot of structure I don’t feel committed to a piece of music, and don’t really achieve mastery.

I feel as though I’ve gone through a long tunnel with piano - it is finally a joy, after years of self-doubt and confusion. I was full of baggage: I didn’t start until late in childhood, I’ve always practiced inconsistently, I was always a crummy sight-reader, and I never really felt like I had a strong foundation. Through sheer determination, I’ve been able to keep coming back to piano and put in the effort necessary to get to a place I can feel good about.

Now I have to do the same thing with guitar - and after years of self-doubt and confusion, I think I’ve finally figured out what to do. I must follow the exact same path I’ve taken with piano: go back to the basics and build up my skills step-by-step, balancing any serious challenges by playing many songs and pieces that are relatively easy. This is the same program I use for my students.

What makes teaching guitar a little trickier than teaching piano is that I have to do a lot more work to find songs that are both at the right level of difficulty for the student and also will suit her taste in music. I have learned a lot from this process, however, and I need to do the same thing for myself. Maybe I’ll go to the music store and find the equivalent of Kabalevsky and Koehler for my level on the guitar, or maybe I’ll just put together a book for myself: lead breaks from Beatles songs, Carter-style picking, and Chuck Berry riffs.


Silvio Rodriguez - “Ojala”

Radiohead - “High & Dry”

McCartney - “Put it There”

Gurlitt - Opus 187, Nos. 1 - 49

Mozart - Allegro (K. 15a)

Baby Driver

I played very little piano today, focusing more on guitar. It was a relaxed family day, so it would have been weird if I sat in the living room playing piano for hours. Instead, I played a bit with my brother-in-law, Jesse - we did “And Your Bird Can Sing” with me on rhythm and him on lead, a few Paul Simon tunes, and “Gone For Good” by the Shins. Jesse is a terrific singer and guitarist, so we can do some good harmonies and figure out stuff on the fly.

We listened to “Baby Driver” and “Keep the Customer Satisfied,” two fun shuffles off of Bridge Over Troubled Water, thinking about playing them. We discovered that they are both tuned down a half-step to Eb. I used to wonder how you could tell something like that quickly without exhausting all other options first, but I’m getting better at doing it. I think a lot of that has to do with confidence - I assume that if it’s too hard for me to play, I’m probably not playing it correctly. If my voicings have a bunch of awkward stretches or it’s hard to get a good sound from a certain chord, I’m probably playing it in the wrong place or I’ve made a bad assumption. It’s like doing a crossword puzzle: you might make guesses at the ones you don’t know or leave them blank, and as you work your way around you can make corrections or even have something click that didn’t before, just because you’re seeing it in a new way. I love working out songs by ear.

I dug out some old guitar books of my dad’s and played through them. The were busy, crappy arrangements of public domain stuff like “Greensleeves.” Given that my whole philosophy of learning music revolves around songs, I believe that the quality of one’s learning materials is the most important thing in music instruction - more important than the quality of the instrument, or even the skills of the teacher. So this by-the-numbers Mel Bay stuff was not very useful or satisfying to me - it’s really hard to make those pieces sound good, even if (especially if!) you play them exactly the way they are written.

And then…later on in the evening, driving with Jesse, my sister Ashley the birthday girl, and Jonah (my adorable sixteen-month-old nephew), I found a much more important use for my musical skills than hacking through some hacky guitar methods: I sang the baby to sleep. I was sitting next to him in the back seat as the sun was setting, leaning close and going from vigorous play songs like “Bingo” and “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” to lullabies hummed gently in his ear. As I watched his eyelids droop, I felt a grace that served to put all of my musical strivings in their proper context. It is all for this kind of joy and love that I play.