How To Use a Teacher & How To Be a Good Student

In my private teaching I consistently have students who just want to be 'better' and they want me to tell them how to be 'better'. This is like asking someone to make you more clever or like going to a doctor, saying just that you don't feel very well and asking to be made to feel 'better'. In other words it's not specific enough.

You, the student should be on a musical quest. This should be inspired initially by wanting to emulate the sounds of your favourite players. If you don't have any favourite players then what are you doing? This is more important than anything else.

I'll digress slightly here to talk briefly about the importance of listening.

I remember (when I was just starting to get serious about music & practicing) hearing Victor Wooten talk about how listening is more important than practicing. I remember thinking that was nonsense as I'd been listening to music for years and I was still rubbish. So let me qualify what I believe this to mean as basically as possible:

You have a figurative 'bank' of sounds in your head. This bank is full of sounds that you will have logged from the sum of your listening experiences. The more sounds that you have in your head, the bigger the pool of resources you are able to draw from as a musician when creating music yourself. To take this to an extreme, let's say that you learned all of your scales, modes of said scales, arpeggios, triads, music theory, and gained phenomenal technical facility but you had never listened to any music. What would you play? It would be like a painter trying to paint having never looked at anything (a plausible explanation for what passes as modern art these days).

It's worth noting that this listening needs to be 'active' listening and not 'passive' listening in that you are listening to music as your primary activity. Listening, assimilating, learning mentally the form, the melody, the rhythmic characteristics and the sound of the harmony. Not having it on in the background whilst you argue with your girlfriend or search the internet for inspiration for your next stupid haircut.

This should really be a given. Every good musician has a passion for music and listens to it intently but I'm constantly surprised and amazed by how many students don't have a favourite musician, band, album etc. So first thing's first: Listen to a shit load of music. If you don't know the bass line or the drum parts in your favourite songs then you are not 'listening'.

So let's suppose that you have a full quota of sounds in your head that you're waiting to unlock, and that you have a litany of favourite players that you want to emulate and songs that you want to learn. What should you ask your teacher?

Well, you should use your teacher as a resource in your quest to learn the guitar. Guitar lessons aren't like learning how to assemble IKEA furniture. There's not one way to do it. You know what you want to learn (at least you should do). Your guitar teacher shouldn't set the agenda. He/she should advise you on what you need to do to get the specific results that you are aiming for.

As an example, here is a good question one might ask a teacher:

'I've learned how to solo using simple blues scales but I've grown tired of just using this sound and have noticed that players such as Eric Johnson, Robben Ford or Joe Bonamassa seem to use more exotic sounds in their playing that I don't know how to get'.

Your teacher would then go on to explain that those sounds were mixolydian and/or dorian scales, occasional altered scale material and some chromaticism. They would then sytematically show you  where these sounds lived on your guitar and how best to start using them.

Here is another example of a good question:

"I've learned the chords to a song that I'm trying to learn and whilst I believe them to be the correct chords I always find myself ahead or behind the music as I try to play along to the recording'.

Your teacher would then go on to help you with your rhythm playing and your timing. Helping you to get the correct feel/groove etc and giving you timing exercises if necessary.

Bad questions are unspecific, bad students are unfocused. Bad teachers can't help you with your specific questions.

In order for you to get the most out of your teacher then you have to go in with specific aims, specific questions and areas of study that you want to focus on. You must be prepared to practice things that you find difficult in order to improve and you need to have the musical inspiration that informs all of these things.

Don't expect a teacher to set your agenda and do all this for you. You should be in charge of 'Project Guitar' and use your teacher as a resource to help & guide you along the way. Conversely, if you do have good questions and your teacher can't answer them and tries to divert you towards some Rockschool nonsense or their specific teaching repertoire of ACDC and Guns N Roses tunes, then run for the hills, you're being taught by a dud. A good teacher should be diverse, able to gear the lessons towards your specific needs and honest enough to tell you when they can't help you.

Like any relationship, in order for the teacher - student relationship to work it takes effort on both parts.

Please check back regularly or subscribe to our blog for more lessons.