Teaching Guitar in Proper Order via an Essential List of Beginner Topics

Teaching Guitar in Proper Order via an Essential List of Beginner Topics

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Ordering guitar lesson topics is one of the more ambiguous disciplines of teaching the instrument. Part of that ambiguity occurs because every student is unique in their learning approach. They have distinct goals, abilities and bring a unique set of previously acquired skills into every lesson.

However, those variables don?t mean that you can?t be linear and orderly in the way you teach.

A well-ordered learning path is extremely important to you – as the teacher – and your student, in order to promote efficiency and a complete curriculum. That sounds like overly fancy terminology for guitar lessons but, a curriculum is the best way to describe what you?re providing.

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How to Teach Guitar in Order: Your Curriculum

A good guitar teacher needs to know not only how to teach guitar but, also how to teach it in the correct order, with regard to topic.

Is it possible to do that with objectivity?

Yes, it is.

In the world of educational science this is called ?sequencing.?

There are two things that should help you discern the order in which to present topics to your student(s).

#1: Ordering by Complexity

It sounds obvious but, think about how often we don?t do this when we?re teaching or playing guitar. For example, if we?re learning a C major chord, how many simpler topics have we skipped over?

Off the top of my head I can think of single notes, fretboard notation, intervals and playing in a particular key. All of those topics are smaller, easier and should be sequenced prior to teaching any open chords. They are prerequisites to the C major chord lesson.

The other sequencing guide I suggest using is what I like to call ?topical build-out.?

#2: Ordering by Incremental, Topical Build-Out

Think of this as expansion of a topic or allowing a topic to lead into the next level of difficulty via logical progression until you get to actually applying what you?ve learned.

For example, let?s say you start by teaching a student single notes on the guitar.

Topical build-out from that particular discipline could look something like this:

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This process works because each topic leads into the next, leaving in its path a logical structure to follow.

It also answers the following questions:

  • What are notes on the guitar?
  • How do I know which note I?m playing?
  • How do those notes connect together?
  • What are the most basic chords you can play?

That?s far more useful than ?This is how you play a C chord.?

Because we want to get to the C chord, yes, but we also want the student to understand the purpose and meaning underneath that chord.

Having a correct teaching sequence will help make that happen.

And that?s how I?ll build this list, ordering by complexity and incremental, topical expansion. We?ll begin under the assumption that the student knows only the most basic aspects of the guitar (how to hold it properly, the different parts and picking basics, etc.).

If a student is more advanced, simply pickup where their skill set leaves off.

1. Single-Note Basics

For a true beginner, start with the most basic musical element of the guitar: One single note.

You might be tempted to assume that this is too elementary or that something this simple should be instinctual. In my experience, that is not always the case.

Musical topics don?t have to be overly difficult to warrant time and energy.

Even if it?s a short lesson, the student should still be introduced to the guitar by learning to play and understand single notes.

During this lesson, you can use single notes to also introduce the following concepts:

  • Alternate Picking: Picking both upwards and downwards.
  • Reading Tabs: How to identify a single note on a tab sheet.
  • Note Value: Make mention of the note value (C, G, D, etc) of whatever note is being played.

Musical topics don?t have to be overly difficult to warrant time and energy. You might have a boring lesson but, you should still cover single notes since everything else is based off of picking, groups of single notes and reading tabs.

2. Fretboard Notation and Memorization

Again, you?ve got a boring lesson.

There?s no way around memorizing the fretboard at some point, and you?re better off doing it sooner than later. Since you?re likely to touch on this idea when going over basic single-note practices, fretboard notation is a logical next step.

During this lesson (or group of lessons) you should cover the following:

  • The notes of each open string in a standard tuning (E, A, D, G, B, E).
  • Notes for the first 12 frets of each string making mention of the fact that they repeat at the 12th fret.
  • Memorization tricks, like understanding that the sequence of notes is always the same but, that the starting point changes depending on the string.

What I usually do is cover the sixth and fifth strings first (the two thickest ones) since they?re often where chord root notes will be located.

The high and low E will be the same, so just by going over two strings you get half the fretboard committed to memory. Memorizing the other three strings can be up to the student.

3. Basic Intervals and Root Notes

Making mention of root notes can be your bridge into a discussion about intervals, since having an interval requires that you also have a root note.

When understood properly, intervals provide structure and simplicity to a concept that is otherwise hard to put into words. Though it does involve some basic music theory and book knowledge.

Don?t be afraid to push your student towards theory, even in the earlier stages, particularly in regards to interval spacing, which is a surprisingly simple idea.

Consider this definition:

An interval is the space between two notes, where the lower one is the root note.

You?ll want to limit beginners to the more basic intervals. Here is a list to consider covering with your student:

  1. Minor Second (one fret from the root note).
  2. Major Second (two frets from the root note).
  3. Minor Third (three frets)
  4. Major Third (four frets)
  5. Perfect Fifth (seven frets ? power chord shape)

It?s a good idea to get familiar with a complete list of intervals for yourself, though probably not necessary to expose a beginning student to.

The reason we?ve included the perfect fifth in the above list, is because it serves as a foundational bit of knowledge for introducing power chords, which are our next topic.

4. Two-Note Power Chords

You might want to wait to discuss the perfect fifth until this lesson, simply because it?s the best way to introduce your student to their first chord.

Their first chord (if you follow this plan) will be a basic, two note power chord that?s moveable across the fretboard. Technically this is a dyad since there are only two notes involved. However, the term ?power chord? is going to be more easily digested by the student.

Start out with a basic tab sheet, like this:?

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You?ll want to point out the following things to your student:

  1. The root note is a G located at the third fret (or whatever note you start the chord on).
  2. The perfect fifth is the interval that completes the chord, landing at the fifth fret on the fifth string (in this case, a D).
  3. This shape is movable to any fret and will adopt the note value of the root to which it is moved.

After you cover these theory notes, all you?ll need to do is help the student improve the physical aspect of fretting the chord and being able to move it from one fret to another. While keeping the root note on the sixth string, work on transitions from fret to fret, just so your student can be comfortable with the physical disciplines of the chord.

How long should we work on this?

It?s hard to give a conventional time frame but, when you consider that this shape is a major part of the guitar player?s foundational skill set, it should warrant some extended attention.

Because we?ll build on that chord next.

If your foundation isn?t strong, building on it is going to yield poor results. That means you?ll want to make sure your student is as comfortable with that power chord shape as they can be before moving onto the next topic.

5. Adding to Your Power Chords

Once that two-note power chord shape is a cozy spot, it?s time to start adding notes to it and getting your student used to more complex variations.

The first and simplest thing to do is to add an octave to the root note, like this:

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The note at the fifth fret on the fourth string is the octave of the root, meaning both the low ?3? and the high ?5? on the tab sheet are G notes. It adds some thickness and resonance to the chord, though doesn?t change its quality or musical properties in any way, meaning it?s not an essential interval.

Once you?ve pointed that out, it?s mostly a matter of helping your student master the physical side of fretting the extra interval, which will likely be handled by the pinky finger.

Here?s how you should teach finger order for this chord shape:

  1. Root Note (Pointer finger)
  2. Perfect Fifth (Ring finger)
  3. Octave (Pinky finger)

Once again you should address the movement of this chord ? with the additional octave ? even if the student has already demonstrated an ability to move the two-note power chord effectively.

It can be a different feel when you?re involving the pinky finger, which is typically the weakest. Make sure that after introducing a new movable chord shape that you give your student an opportunity to demonstrate their fret-to-fret movement ability, even if the chord hasn?t drastically changed.

6. Major and Minor Chords (Major Third and Minor Third)

Since we?ve already covered the major and minor third intervals, this topic will make more sense to the student and be easier to digest from a theoretical perspective.

We?re going to continue using the power chord as our example but, have now come to a place where the next note we inject will give the chord a ?quality? meaning we?re making it either a major or minor chord.

It only takes one note and in this case that note will be either a major or minor third interval.

Let?s take a look at our two examples:

G Major Barre Shape

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G Minor Barre Shape

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You?ve got two notes which are a major third and minor third respectively, in relation to the root note.

Here?s what might be a bit confusing:

At first glance, it?s unclear how these notes can be considered major and minor thirds, since they?re 15 and 16 frets away from the root note. But if you look closely, you?ll notice that they?re simply an octave higher than the major and minor third intervals that are three and four frets away from the root note. Thus you can change the octave and still have the same interval value. This is called a compound interval.

This means that the interval will still be called a major or minor third, taking into account the fact that fretboard notation repeats itself every 12 semitones.

Despite being separated by only one note, these two chords (G major and G minor) must be approached differently. The major chord is more straightforward, so we can start there.

The Major Version

Again, it?s movable and the only finger left is your middle finger, which the student will use to engage the note on the fourth fret. You?ll also want to point out the ?happy? or more upbeat feel and sound that?s produced by a major chord?s quality.

The Minor Version

The minor chord will be trickier because the student will have to barre the chord in order to grab that last minor interval at the third fret. It might seem a bit early for barre chords but, this is something you can at least start to work on even if it isn?t mastered right away. Be sure to point out the dark or ?somber? tone created by minor chords.

Chord Cleanup

You?ll likely find that these chords are coming out sloppy and inconsistent with buzzing notes, half-muted sounds or even parts of the chord that aren?t being played.

The best way to help the student clean up these chords is to arpeggiate them and go through each note one at a time:

You can take this opportunity to introduce the concept of arpeggios.

Here are your two tabs:

Major Arpeggio

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Minor Arpeggio

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When the student hits a note that isn?t ringing correctly, stop and work on that specific note to try and troubleshoot the issue.

Here are a few things that could be causing imperfections in the chords:

  • Not pressing hard enough.
  • Fretting too close to the fret separators.
  • Touching strings unknowingly.
  • Playing strings that should be muted.
  • Muting string that should be played.

This is a reasonable protocol to use whenever you?re working on any chord but, will be particularly valuable during the early stages of development while working on these major and minor chord shapes.

Start with theory then cover each chord separately before breaking them into arpeggios to focus on individual notes and the final ?polishing.?

7. Basic Open Chords

Now that we?ve introduced the student to four-note chords, we can now introduce basic open guitar chords. It?s common for these chords to be taught first, with little or no foundational theory preceding it, which I believe is a mistake and disservice to the student.

Because if we cover those foundational aspects first, we?ve created a common thread and grid through which open chords (and most future topics) can be understood. In other words, they?ll already understand concepts like root notes, keys and intervals all of which is transferable knowledge.

As a result, open chords will be easier to comprehend.

Which ones do we cover?

Initially, I would focus on the following beginner-friendly guitar chords:

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You?ve got G, C, D, E major and A minor.

I like starting with these because of how frequently they?re used and because they only require three fingers to play. You?ve also got three root notes that are played with an open string (D, A and E) which adds to the beginner friendliness.

Once you?ve covered these (going through the same cleanup steps from number six) you can move on to the next list of open chords:

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We follow up with two different versions of the B chord, an F, the E minor and the more traditional form of the G chord.

The B chords can be difficult for beginners but, these are two of the simpler versions you?ll find. Also, you?ve already covered the barre chord shape that?s used for the first B chord in the above tab.

Once you go over the mechanics of fretting the chords, you?ll need to work through each one to help the student weed out problem areas and inconsistencies in the chords, like I?ve mentioned when I referred to the chord cleaning method in step six.

It?ll take awhile and should be spread across two to three hours of class or lesson time.

8. More Dyads and Triads

I say ?more? dyads and triads because we?ve already touched on the idea of a dyad with our two-note power chord. But, you?ll want to set aside time to formally introduce the topic and help your student get familiar with the terminology, that of which can be a bit confusing.

Start with a simple, informal definition of both:

  • Dyad: Any two harmonious (consonant) notes.
  • Triad (non-formal): Any three notes that form a consonant chord.

If you want to throw in a bit of music history, you can note here that two 20th century music theorists, Howard Hanson and Carlton Gamer, are primarily responsible for coming up with this more broad definition of a triad that includes any three notes that are reasonably consonant. The actual definition isn?t quite so ?loose.?

A triad (or triadic chord) is formally defined this way:

A triad is a chord made up of three notes, stacked in third intervals.

In my opinion, it?s best to handle the formal definition of a triad as bonus material, at least if you?re dealing with a relatively new guitar player who lacks an understanding of music theory. Even though they?ve already been exposed to intervals, trying to visualize this concept could bog them down and prove to be difficult.

Use your best judgement, because it depends on the student, their experience and their attitude towards the material.

For now, it?s safe to go with the informal definition and cover the following dyads and triads:

Common Dyads

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Common Triads

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Make sure you point out that all these shapes are movable and that their note value will depend on where the root of the chord falls. In this case I haven?t deviated from the third fret but, you?re free to present the content on whatever fret you choose.

Other dyads and triads?

While there are certainly plenty of other dyads and triads worth learning, you should be focusing on these for now, simply because they?re more generally useful and easier for beginners to grasp.

Also consider that these will have to be absorbed by the student via raw memorization. Thus, it?s a good idea to hold off on the more detailed chords shapes that don?t get used nearly as often. In the future, those complex shapes will be learned on an as-needed basis and certainly don?t need to be taught in a beginner lesson.

9. The Major Scale and First Exercises

Like chords, scales are another topic that many seem to default to when talking about how to teach guitar.

While they are important, I don?t think it?s necessarily helpful for a student to memorize several of them without any real understand of what they mean and how they?re built. In this case, we?ve established plenty of groundwork so that a student who has stuck to this system will already be able to recognize the following concepts:

  1. Root note of a scale.
  2. Intervals within a scale.
  3. Chord shapes within a scale.

The physical movement might be challenging at first but, that?s why we?re starting on a scale with notes that are all within three frets of one another.

Once again, be sure to point out that this shape is movable.

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In this instance the key is a G note. You shouldn?t expect your student to know the key of the scale by ear but, once you point it out to them, it should make sense based on their memorization of the fretboard notes.

They should also know that the root or key changes, when and if the scale shifts to a different fret.

You?ll notice that this scale gives you the opportunity to highlight three specific finger movements or sequences. The first, is the major second interval that begins the scale, jumping from the third to the fifth fret.

That one is pretty easy.

But look at these other two tabs:

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In the first tab, fingers used will be pointer, middle, pinky.

The second tab: Pointer, ring, pinky.

Those two finger patterns are incredibly common movements which present you with a good opportunity to both teach the scale and help your student get used to the physicality of moving their fingers this way.

I would advise starting them on exercises at this point that are based off of these shapes.

For example:

Alternating Exercises (different strings)

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Alternating Exercises (same string)

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Climbing Sequence Exercises

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The extent to which these exercises are drawn out is really up to you. Different students will have varying degrees of difficulty with the movements so you might have to improvise your approach.

Also keep in mind that this will likely be somewhat boring to the student, having already covered intervals and the basics of the major scale. The hope is that they?ll get more out of the major scale than just the scale itself.

We want them to remember smaller, more usable pieces of the puzzle.

10. Soloing Patterns and Improvisation

At this point you?ll have a little more freedom to start working with your student?s own interests and leanings.

This means it becomes more difficult to spell out exactly how to teach someone, especially when it comes to things like improvisation.

Generally, there are three things you need to do for your student while teaching them to improvise:

  1. Illustrate the pitfalls of improvising and soloing.
  2. Show them how to use basic triads and arpeggios to create lead sequences.
  3. Help them understand the link between scale structure (sequences) and guitar solos.

Once the student begins to understand the link between the intervals, scales and patterns they?re already familiar with, a lot of what it means to write guitar solos should start to come more naturally to them. That means static topics are going to get a lot more fluid and specific to a given student.

As this happens, you?ve got to be prepared to continue teaching in a way that accommodates the student?s tendencies but, also continues to expand their abilities.

After they?ve understood the theoretical and physical aspects of soloing, the next step should be an introduction and explanation of melody.

11. Define and Apply Melody

Start with a simple definition of melody.

Once your student knows how to articulate it, make sure that your student understands that good melody is almost always simple and straightforward.

You might word it differently and want to present the material in the context of your student?s interests (different genres, bands, etc.) but, teaching them how to build engaging and simple melodies is one of the most valuable things you can show them.

Because in most cases, that will be their job as a guitar player.

Sure, you?ve got rhythm guitarists. But, even they are at times responsible for melodic layering, whether to compliment a vocalist or another instrument.

In any case, melody should be addressed and taught.

12. Introduce Timing, Rhythm and a Metronome

I?ve flipped a few times on when I believe rhythm and timing should be taught to a guitar student.

In the past I?ve thought that an earlier exposure was better but, the problem with that is the student can?t really apply the knowledge because they don?t know enough of the fretboard. It also doesn?t take into consideration that some guitar players are naturally gifted in rhythm and timing while others are not.

Either way, I think this spot is a good place to introduce it, since we?ve got plenty of fretboard under our belt.

While there are few set ways to teach rhythm, you?ll want a syllabus that looks somewhat like this:

  1. Counting (1 and 2 and 3 and?etc.)
  2. Palm Muting
  3. Keeping Time (Time Signatures and Theory ? 2/4, 3/4, 4/4)
  4. Genre-Specific Strumming Technique

As you can see with number four, you?ve got to continue leaving room for variety and the interests of the student. For example, some students might be really interested in acoustic finger picking while others gravitate to towards heavier, metal-esque strumming patterns.

Broad rhythm topics (the first three items in the above list), that are stylistically agnostic, should be covered first.

For example:

Try and get your student through the theoretical aspects of keeping time. They don?t have to delve too deep but, just stick to the basic time signature and show them how to count through and recognize it.

This article on setting delay time might be a helpful way to make that discussion more interesting.

From there, you can get into the rhythm topics that are more stylistically-specific.

13. Songs and Cover Projects

One thing that can really help to anchor a young guitar player?s timing is to play along with MP3s of their favorite songs.

Because songs from bands that you like are far more interesting than a metronome.

Plus, you?ve gotten to the point where your student will have enough knowledge and abilities to start to tackle some basic songs or perhaps those that are more complex.

I?d recommend starting with an easier list of songs.

This will help build confidence in your pupil and allow him or her to really start enjoying their instrument.

What next? Ask them?

You?ve covered most (not all) of the introductory guitar lesson topics.

This knowledge is largely static and doesn?t change significantly from player to player.

Now that it has been applied you can begin to have a dialogue with your student about which direction they want to go in and what they want to study. If you?re not sure where to go from here, the best thing you can do is just ask them.

Hear what they?re excited about and help them walk in that direction with their instrument.

If they made it this far, they?ll have answers for you.

Got something to add?

If you have something to add or a question to, the best place to chat is over at Twitter.

You can also just use the comments section here on Medium.

We do appreciate the support.

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