Stone Soup, Anyone?

I’ve been teaching guitar now for some 45 odd years,

thanks to a high school choir teacher who put me up to the idea of sharing what I knew with some younger upstarts. Up to then, my understanding of guitar education was just ‘share what you know.’ The thought of getting paid to guide an eager middle-schooler through a method book intrigued me. 



Somehow, word got around and people started contacting me – mostly parents, on their child’s behalf. Early on I started getting a picture of what drove them. One student was keen on learning the guitar lick to “Stayin’ Alive.” Another was fixated on the solo in Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street.” One struggling student who found practicing a chore finally fessed up when I asked him why he was doing this. “My mom wants me to play in chapel.”



I’ve had a lot more students like these over the years. The guitar always seems to be a ticket to some other opportunity. To be cool. To look cool. To appease a parent’s dream. To pursue your own. To imagine you’re someone else. To discover who you are.



I grew up in a family tradition of formal music education. My father earned his PhD in Music with a dissertation titled “The Germ Cell Principle in the Works of Willem Pijper.


While he was doing formal research, I was absorbing popular music with an insatiable appetite. But the difference between me and most of my classmates is that I wanted to understand the science behind the sound. I wanted to know the musical terms for everything and what they meant.


My hometown did a community production of the Lionel Bart musical,“Oliver!” when I was in 8th grade. I played one of the workhouse boys, and my father directed the pit. I confiscated his score to see if I could figure out the chords to “Food, Glorious Food” and unfortunately got stuck in the second bar. But by asking for help I got my first lesson in augmented chords.


Most guitar students aren’t wired that way. Nor are most of their idols. There’s a long list of pop stars who don’t read music, including Clapton, the Beatles, Van Halen, Townsend, Dylan, Hendrix, Page, Marley, King, Cobain, and Swift. 


I’ve always treated a guitar education as a music education, on the guitar. There are plenty of online guitar tutorials that show a student that “the first finger goes on the fourth fret of the second string,” etc. But it’s a tedious way to learn, and a frustrating way to teach.


Thing is, I didn’t really know how to be a guitar teacher because I never had one. And I sure didn’t know what classroom guitar would look like. Can I see your unit plan, Mr. Ritsema? What are the class objectives? Your assessment strategy? Can I see a mark scheme?


Students can’t hit a bullseye if you don’t give them a target.


I think the guitar is still trying to find its proper place in music departments. Let’s face it. The guitar famously attracts the high school rebel, the DIYer, the riff addict, the poser, the steppe wolf. You want them in your classroom, but some of them are skeptical of enlisting in a formal program when they’d rather just shred the hour away, or work things out in their heads or with their mates in the proverbial garage band. An intermediate class I inherited years back always wanted to get through the day’s lesson so they could squeeze in a daily run-through of “Stairway to Heaven.”


But a guitar-based music curriculum isn’t about churning out rock gods and local heroes. The emphasis on concerts, competitions, contests and tours may suit the egos of some, but it’s hardly an inclusive approach. Some guitarists just can’t bear an audience. Nick Drake is a sad case in point. Some are just hoping to find a new friend for life. 


I’ve resisted the idea of establishing my guitar class as “Rock Band” 101. Yes, there are ways of making that a learning experience with student input on goals, reflection, etc. But the rock band model also requires drums, singers, and perhaps someone on keys. All worthwhile, but a distraction from the possibilities of a program where students might learn the rich possibilities of the guitar world – like Travis picking, Carter-style, Ska and Reggae strumming technique, Bossa Nova syncopation, Irish reels, alternate tunings, bar chords, extended and altered chords. 


It can include independent projects on the banjo or mandolin.  


It should include history and cultural literacy. We assume our students may know about Jimi Hendrix, for example. But I still get a glazed look when I mention even this icon to some of my beginners. It’s our duty to make introductions where necessary. 


They should know about Julian Bream and Andre Segovia, Fernando Sor. As well as Liona Boyd and Sharon Isbin. 


They should know the contributions of Charlie Patton, Link Wray, Bob Marley, Wes Montgomery, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Richie Havens, Eddie Van Halen, Chet Atkins, Les Paul, B.B. King, Brian May, and Carlos Santana. 


But also Elizabeth Cotten, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Joni Mitchell, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Bonnie Raitt, Maybelle Carter, Orianthi, Kaki King, Nancy Wilson of Heart.


They need an education that includes the music of the Ramones, Led Zeppelin, Rush, the Dillards, and yes, the Beatles. But also Los Lobos, Redbone, the Bangles, Fanny, and Rodrigo y Gabriela.


There are so many ways to engage a student in a guitar program.  


An assignment requiring creative work is terrifying to some. But think about it. Most of us never get to hear rough drafts of famous pieces of music. We only ever get to see, or hear, the finished product – as if the artist just took dictation from the cloud. The creative process is risky and requires patience. 


And personal reflection on the creative process is essential. The final work may be terrific, or it may be trash. It’s the student’s analysis of what worked and didn’t that really matters. Whether they create, perform and record riffs and put them together over a GarageBand beat loop, improvise a minor pentatonic solo over a 12-bar blues bed, or experiment with chord sequences and strumming patterns, it’s guaranteed to be messy. But they’ll learn what the process is like and decide for themselves if they’re inspired or intimidated by it.


When my high school music teacher put me up to all of this decades ago, I didn’t know where to begin. But then, there was also no one telling me I was doing it wrong. And even now, who’s advice is best? An observing administrator who never learned to play an instrument? A curious colleague who just thinks you’re a star for trying?


Do we just throw a stone in a boiling cauldron, as the fable goes, and wait to see what our partners in crime add to the mix?


Maybe we listen to the reverberations in our classroom – pay attention to how our students are engaging with us. We can then listen to our own gut. And if you listen very hard, the tune will come to you at last.


So how do music education programs at the university level train teachers to develop guitar programs? Or do they? There’s apparently no single road map for this. You could follow a model, or forge your own way. Essentially, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run there’s still time to change the road you’re on.


Dr. Kevin Vigil, Director of Guitar Studies at Heritage High School in Leesburg, VA, offers some valuable perspective on how we got here as classroom guitar teachers, and what’s needed going forward. Find it in Academics.

I first discovered this artist when I was, on a lark, searching for cover versions of George Michael’s “Careless Whisper.” Who can take such an intoxicating tune to new levels? Find out in Artist Features.

If you find yourself teaching an advanced class that allows independent study on a given style, consider motivating your student with focused work that suits them. David Hamburger has a Method Book for you.

A travel size ¾ electro-acoustic? Cort’s got it, and Total Guitar magazine recommends it. Find out more in Product Info

Ensemble work is a challenge right now, but you can get it done with two guitars. Check out the Repertoire menu for a two-part invention.

Lots of worthwhile reading for your acoustic disciples in the latest issue of Total Guitar magazine. For best results, check their online version and get a subscription. Get a sneak peek in Trade Publications.

And the Minnesota Guitar Society comes through again in October with a guitar/cello combo. Find it in the Events tab.