Guitar 101: Teach Your Children Well

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

One of the biggest problems for beginners is staying in tune. There’s more than one way to stay in tune. There are several different types of clip-on guitar tuners available now, but several of them seem to have a hard time reading the 6th (low E) string. That’s the big one. (I hope you’re still not calling that one the “top” string. The words high, low, top, and bottom describe the pitch of the note, not the distance from the floor.) Anyway, there are two things you can do to remedy the tuner’s inability to read the low E string. The first is really easy: Hit the string with the flesh of your thumb, not with a pick. Why this works, I don’t know. Maybe you physics majors can tell me. The other is to use harmonics. I won’t go into a technical description of what a harmonic is now, I’ll just tell you how to make one. It’s easiest at the 12th fret. When you fret a guitar note, you press on the string in the space between the frets. To make a harmonic, you lightly touch the string (with your fretting hand) directly over the fretwire itself. You are not used to doing this, so pay close attention. I emphasize the word lightly. Do not press on the string like you usually do. Try to touch the string without touching the string, if I may be so Zennish. When you hear note, lift finger. Note: bloom like lotus flower. Don’t lift finger too fast. Wait for clear pitch. Then lift finger. Sound like temple bell. I have yet to find a tuner that won’t respond to a harmonic at the 12th fret striking the string with my thumb. Of course, some of the newer ones may not have this problem. I haven’t tried them all. I wish all the companies that make tuners would send me a free one. Then I could tell you for sure.

Another common mistake beginners make is not making sure the tuner is calibrated to 440 hertz, which is called standard pitch. That means that the A note on the fifth fret of the 1st (E) string vibrates 440 times per second. If you see the word “calibrate” on your tuner and you see any number other than 440, then it’s not calibrated to standard pitch. The main reason the “calibrate” option is on the tuner is to be able to tune to a piano that is not in tune, or is not tuned to standard pitch. Here’s another problem beginners have with chromatic tuners: They don’t pay attention to the little markings that indicate sharps (#) and flats (b). Sometimes you’ll see the # or b, but sometimes (like on my BOSS tuner) a sharp is indicated by a small dot to the lower right of the letter – so “G” means G sharp.

On the same thread of beginning techniques, if you have a child between five and eight years old who’s learning how to play guitar, there are a few things to keep in mind. Get your kid a small guitar with really low action. That means the strings are close to the fingerboard. Have someone who plays guitar go with you to help pick it out. I’ve had kids come to a guitar lesson with a guitar that I couldn’t even play. Next, the child needs to put her right foot (if she’s right-handed) on something that’s six or eight inches high, so that the thigh is parallel to the floor. Little ones have a hard enough time holding on to the guitar without having the guitar sliding off their leg. If your child is playing classical guitar, the position is different, and classical teachers are usually stricter about position, which is good, because it’s important. Classical players often use a little folding footstool, which can be very useful for children, whether or not they play classical style guitar. Last, make sure and talk to the teacher about how your child is progressing. If you have specific expectations, let the teacher know. Once I lost one of my favorite students because the parents had expectations that I was completely unaware of. I always try to talk to the parents now, and try to get a good picture of what they want their child to get out of lessons. A few of my guitar students have had absolutely no interest in playing the guitar and never practiced. The parents of these kids were wasting their money. Making a child take guitar lessons when they don’t want to is a bummer for the student and the teacher. The desire to learn is the most important factor by far. I’d love it if all my students continued to play guitar for the rest of their lives, but I know some of them won’t. Make sure the teacher is flexible enough to incorporate music that the child likes into the lessons. If the lessons aren’t fun, the student won’t last long.

I always try to get kids to learn to read music, but I try just as hard to teach them to play by ear as well. Some parents resist spending the “extra” money on capos, tuners, and metronomes. Some will continually ask, “How long before he gets really good?” There is no one answer to that question. Desire and practice are the two important things. If you really want to learn, you’ll practice. If you have to force your kid to practice, you’re wasting your money and your teacher’s time.

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