Despite the perceived view that contemporary music is made by renegade guitar-slingers and musical subversives, like any other discipline, you can only follow that path to fruition if you learn how to play guitar properly. After all, even the most non-conformist of guitar players are only able to break the rules because they have learned them in the first place! And learning the rules means finding someone to teach you.

So what do you need to look for in a guitar teacher? You wouldn’t take driving lessons without first finding out a bit about the instructor and similarly anyone who is going to be the formative influence on your guitar playing, should be the right guitar teacher for you, so there is much to consider.

It’s about you.

Before you can decide what to look for in a guitar teacher, you need to know what you want to get out of the experience. What are you aiming for? Do you just wish to be a recreational guitar player for your own enjoyment or are you looking to tread the boards and forge a career? Do your interests lie in pastoral folk tunes or full blown anthemic rock? Whilst it is true that mastering the guitar requires attaining the same set of skills no matter what the intent, knowing where you want to go with it will help you pick the perfect guitar teacher to guide you in the right direction.

It’s about style.

Again, it is about knowing what your preferences are. A guitar teacher may claim to be well versed in all styles, but they are going to have stronger areas of experience in one genre or another. Yes, you have to master the basics but if you have an interest in blues guitar, why not learn from someone with that background who has explored all the nuances, tricks and approaches that make the genre what it is. Learning blues guitar, or any genre for that matter, is more than knowing the preferred keys or the learning the classic songs. 

It’s about time

You are going to be paying good money for guitar lessons so the teacher should be fairly experienced in their role. If you are taking guitar lessons from someone with only a year or so experience, whilst they might offer slightly better value for money, you will be part of their learning curve as a teacher rather than them being part of your learning curve as a guitarist. Find someone with a number of years and a lot of happy students to show for their title as guitar teacher.

It’s about money.

Obviously the bottom line is that you are paying for a service so you need to think about how much you are prepared to part with. Do plenty of research as to the going rate and assume that you will get what you pay for. Someone teaching alongside their day job in the bank might save you some money but ask yourself why they still work in the bank? If you find the right guitar teacher but can’t afford the weekly lessons, try bi-monthly lessons instead. You will learn more from fewer regular lessons with a great guitar teacher than you will spending lots of time with the wannabe teacher/bank teller.

One way of saving on the cost of guitar lessons is to build up the confidence to sit in on a jam session or folk gathering. Most towns will have something and as daunting as they may seem, they are the perfect way of watching, joining in and learning. No one will judge you on your abilities, everyone was a beginner once and you may even find a mentor to help you along with tips and techniques and that boost in confidence will do wonders for your playing.

It’s about the approach.

Guitar lessons are not a “one shoe fits all” situation and a good teacher will have a number of approaches depending on the student. You wouldn’t teach a 12-year-old wannabe rock guitarist just starting out the same way that you would a 30-year-old jazz guitar player with half a lifetime’s experience. Explain your situation and ask them for an idea of the lesson plans.

It’s not always about face to face.

Away from the pictures of cats who look like European dictators and pictures of peoples lunch there is a wealth of information to be accessed on the web. The Internet has meant that your guitar teacher can be anywhere in the world. There are a number of online resources that can be used to aid practicing away from your guitar teacher, the most comprehensive of which is TrueFire’s library of 30,000+ online guitar lessons across all styles and skill levels. Following one of TrueFire’s Learning Paths is a great way to get started on your own.

Guitar chord charts are a good way to get to grips with basic chords and progressions, plus there are thousands of free guitar lessons and other resources available online. And of course there is still the old way of practicing, playing the record and just working things out by ear.

It’s about having fun.

Yes, you may be in a learning environment, it may be hard, but hopefully rewarding, work but it has to be fun too. A guitar teacher needs to be engaging and has to be able to second guess the students needs and preferences. If the guitar lessons become stale, then it is likely you will give up. Remember if things aren’t working out for you, it might not be your fault, the onus lies with the guitar teacher’s ability to keep things fresh and fun.

So there is just a few things to aim for, other ideas will present themselves but that will tick a lot of boxes. You can also go and have a talk to people already playing guitar about their learning experiences, you can talk to people who work in music shops or contact one of TrueFire’s expert guitar educators.

But always remember that this is your story; so make sure that the guitar lessons are taking you along your preferred path. But also never lose sight of the most important factor: have fun and enjoy the experience!

by John Davis, owner of Adirondack Guitar, a small guitar store out of upstate NY specializing in lefty guitars and basses.