From 2004-2006, I was the Guitar Curriculum Manager for WorkshopLive. This was the online teaching platform for the National Guitar Workshop, and it was my job to design the curriculum structure for the site. But I needed help to do this job. So, we flew in guitar experts with teaching experience and sat in a conference room with a whiteboard and bottomless coffee pot.
The result was a curriculum structure with 10 levels, 4 learning styles, and over 2000 interactive lessons. The experience was excellent, and I learned a lot. The site should have been a success.
In 2006, I joined the School of Rock as a Music Director and used the curriculum I helped design for WorkshopLive as my blueprint for one-on-one teaching, ensemble coaching, master classes, and week-long workshops.
In a live-teaching environment, it’s always easy to pivot and address unique circumstances, offer personalized advice, or re-explain a concept. It’s easy to shift because the students provide real-time feedback.
It’s this professional experience, in both the virtual and analog worlds, that I’d like to share and help you make the most of your online learning experience.
Ed note: Throughout this article, I’ll share “student stories” that help illustrate the idea or concept I’m trying to explain. You can skip these and return later if you want to peruse through the significant bits first.
Dead Head Steve
In 1988, while in college, I drove a cab and offered guitar lessons to make ends meet. I only had a few students, and one of them was my housemate, Steve. He was ten years older than me, a Dead Head, and a taper.
Ed note: Dead Heads are fans of the Grateful Dead (a music group established in the mid-60s and one of the first jam bands). Also, Dead Heads followed the band from city to city and gig to gig during the summer months. A “taper” records the concert on cassette tapes, and The Grateful Dead allowed this. Part of the culture was to swap cassettes of shows and collect these tapes.
Steve brought an acoustic guitar and The Grateful Dead Songbook. He aimed to learn Dead tunes and strum them in the parking lot before shows.
But, in the middle of our first lesson, he looked at me all frustrated and said, “That’s gonna take me months to learn.” He expected to learn to play a song by the end of the first lesson. He had no experience and then said something that shocked me.
“You mean to tell me that when someone is strumming chords on a beat-up guitar, they’re actually doing something?” I didn’t know how to respond; that was our first and only lesson.
There’s an old expression, “It’s as easy as riding a bike.” Well, I don’t know about you, but I fell off my bike many times and experienced some frustration and scuffed knees before actually getting the hang of it, and riding a bike is a simple skill.
Some simple skills can be learned with little practice, and riding a bike can fall under that category. And there are complex skills that take more time and effort because they involve a series of movements, processing information, and making decisions to perform the skill.
Learning to play the guitar is a complex skill. But anybody can learn how to do it.
Guitar methods have been around since the 16th century. Although they focused on teaching the vihuela (predecessor to the guitar), they formed the blueprint for the first guitar method written by Gaspar Sanz (1674).
I had the privilege of editing and recording a modernization of this method for the Baroque guitar with special arrangements made for the modern guitar by Jerry Willard.
But Ed, what does this have to do with online learning?
Just bear with me for a moment, and you’ll see where I’m going.
Paper was the new form of technology in Europe in the 11th century and gained popularity in the 15th century with the invention of movable-type printing. Since the 17th century, guitar books have existed as a self-teaching method.
Fast forward to the 1950s when NYC session guitarist Mickey Baker wrote the first electric jazz guitar method book. This method became an underground classic with hot players from the NYC rock scene of the 1970s. These young guns were singing the method’s praises. And music publishers took advantage of this sudden interest in electric guitar instruction.
Back then, naysayers said that you couldn’t learn from a book. While today’s “haters” say that you can’t learn from YouTube or a browser-based app.
Well, I say you can learn from any media form, but there are a few things that you should know before embarking on the online guitar-learning journey to make your learning more efficient, worthwhile, and enjoyable.
Bottom Line Up Front
Every medium has strengths and weaknesses, and learning guitar online is no different. The essential things are to understand the benefits and drawbacks of the format. And it’s also important to recognize your learning personality and preferred learning style so that you can make smart choices and avoid unnecessary challenges—and wasting time and money.
The other important suggestion is to use some form of supervised guidance to help keep you accountable, critique your technical skills, answer your questions, and provide personalized advice.
Benefits of Online Guitar Learning
During the 1980s, my formative years, I took personalized lessons and supplemented them with guitar magazines. But, in 1984, Star Licks videos came out, and they featured 45-minute video lessons by professional guitarists.
These came with a small booklet of the music examples in standard notation and tablature. These VHS cassettes included the benefits and drawbacks that online guitar lessons offer today—without going to the guitar shop.
Lessons, when you want, is probably the primary reason that most people will prefer online lessons to driving to the music store for a private lesson. There’s the hassle of getting there on time, fighting traffic, and finding parking, not to mention the cost of gasoline.
I’m also going to include cost under convenience. With so much competition, the price of online lessons has also decreased. But, it does become similar to a gym membership where there is no value if you don’t use the membership. More on this in the next section.
Start Right Away
I remember signing up for lessons and then waiting for the scheduled lesson date and time. It was torture. I can view a lesson video right now if I’m ready, willing, and able.
But it’s also easy to procrastinate because it’s always available. So, you binge-watch your favorite reality series since your online lesson will always be waiting for you.
Little to No Pressure
The lesson day came, and I took my lesson. I ran home with my lesson sheets ready to practice, and my friends would yell up to my window. They needed one more body to play touch football, basketball at the park, or ringalario 1-2-3 (NYC street game). Then I’d avoid my guitar studies until two days before the lesson, and I’d start cramming.
Today, there is no walk of shame to the computer because you didn’t practice enough since your last lesson. But this could also be seen as a drawback.
Choose Your Favorite Teacher
Most guitar learning sites, if not all, offer some form of a free trial. Or, you can visit YouTube and find your prospective teacher by watching a few free videos. But, it would be best to choose a teacher and lesson plan carefully. Many of us will gravitate toward the teachers we like rather than the teachers we need.
Of course, I’ll go into more detail on this topic below.
Learn from Pros
Many professional players had touring schedules postponed, delayed, or canceled during the pandemic. This gave them enough free time to create courses or offer one-on-one video lessons for a reasonable fee.
This provided aspiring learners with the opportunity to learn from a favorite player. But, in many cases, this was a hang-out session. Nonetheless, for those who are serious enough to limit their wonderstruck inner fanboy to the first few minutes, picking the brain of a pro can provide enough insight in one session to keep you busy for many months, years, or a lifetime.
Professional players have a different perspective than experienced guitar teachers, and having the opportunity to tap into that perspective is more than worth the price of admission.
Problems with Online Guitar Learning
Online guitar lessons are only part of the be-all and end-all for learning how to play. There are some drawbacks. Let me briefly share a couple of student stories from my teaching experience.
While teaching at the School of Rock, I would get all of the “hotshot guitar” students. One of them was 15-year-old Jay (not his real name, of course), and he taught himself by watching free YouTube lessons. He was quite a technician and could blaze up and down the fretboard.
But, he couldn’t play chords or chord progressions—and wasn’t interested. He was only interested in playing single-note passages without regard to melody, timing, form, etc. I tried to interest him in scales and techniques, but he wanted nothing to do with that.
He also had yet to learn what he was playing and needed to build a musical foundation. We tried making him a part of an ensemble, but he was also a terrible bandmate (probably because he couldn’t play chords and his insecurity got the better of him). I tried to reach him but couldn’t. He dropped out after a month.
Jay’s friends and family were awed by his technique—as were the students and teachers from the School of Rock. But he had focused all his time and energy on his single-note practice while ignoring the other areas. So, when it came time to learn different “baby stuff” (as Jay put it), he became frustrated and withdrawn.
I also had other students like Jay, but after the initial frustration, they bought into the idea of building a foundation, being a supportive band member, and becoming a musician who happens to play guitar rather than a technician trying to play music.
Daniela the Singer/Songwriter
Daniela came to me as an artist. She was gigging in downtown Manhattan steadily (paying gigs) as the singer for a cover band. But Daniela wanted to learn guitar and had struggled for years. She was also a songwriter that dreamed of accompanying herself as she played her songs.
Daniela had learned from chord charts/lyric sheets. You know, the downloadable lyrics that put the chord symbol over the word or syllable when it’s time to change chords.
But, just like Jay, she had no foundation, and although she could play chords, she didn’t understand that there was an underlying reason why certain chords work together.
She was a professional performer with a good ear and could figure out songs by listening to them while hunting and pecking chords out on the guitar.
But, unlike Jay, she was open to learning and, more importantly, unlearning many bad habits that were a by-product of her self-teaching journey. She eventually played her own songs and showcased her music for a record company. She even hired me as her guitar player.
I share these stories as examples of online guitar lessons’ first and foremost drawbacks and that you need more personal direction and advice. I like to call it supervised guidance. And…
Most Do Not Offer Supervised Guidance
How many times have you watched a video on a subject and thought to yourself, I got it? That may happen to some of you who have experience with the subject matter. But, to those with little to no experience, it rarely happens, and there’s no one to ask. You can rewatch the video, but if you need it explained differently or specific advice, you’re on your own.
You can learn the topic out of context, which can delay your progress, create bad habits, and, at the very least, waste your time until you relearn the concept properly or get some outside help.
But maybe you do understand what the virtual teacher means. How do you apply it to your current skill set?
Let me give you an example:
- The virtual instructor teaches you how to solo and teaches you the pentatonic scale.
- Then, he says, “Now, practice soloing over the backing track.”
How do you add that to your current musical skill set?
- Do you need help with your picking technique?
- How’s your rhythm and timing?
- What about your touch and feel?
- Are you working on specific notes or the entire scale?
- There is too much room for misinterpretation.
As I said in the intro, playing the guitar is a complex skill with many moving parts. With the help of a trained professional, you can understand and apply concepts you’re learning while using the new ideas in your existing music skill set, and you could save time.
Most Do Not Order Lessons Properly
Even the best online teaching platforms offer a generic curriculum structure or a one-size-fits-all lesson platform. And the student’s experience is not optimized, and this is not the virtual teacher’s fault.
Virtual teaching sites need to create a generic curriculum or a what-logically-comes-next approach to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. And you’re stuck if you need additional guidance, have a question, could use a more in-depth explanation, etc.
Lastly, those who have taken lessons know that we teachers bounce from topic to topic. That’s not an ADD issue that we’re having. It’s done unconsciously by design. As I said in the introduction, playing the guitar is a complex skill, and, as a teacher, it’s my job to focus on multiple skills simultaneously.
For example, switching chords takes time, so while we’re working on that, I may jump to another topic, for example:
- Music Theory; understanding the notes that make up the chord and why they work together.
- Rhythm, timing, feel, and strumming technique.
- Ear Training; listening to the difference between the two chords that we’re working on.
I’ll shift into addressing the areas where each student needs particular attention, and most experienced teachers do the same.
Most Online Lessons Are Song-Based
Songs are important and, in many cases, why you picked up the instrument in the first place. But they’re supplemental material. And sometimes, the excitement of playing the song overshadows the concepts and techniques necessary to play the song correctly.
For example: learning “how to play your favorite song” is not going to help you:
- Play in time and accurately
- Play successfully with other musicians
- Help you exercise creativity in your playing
- Help you sound good
Even the most dedicated student needs supervision and direction. You don’t know what you don’t know. Most seasoned teachers will use songs to supplement the lesson and as a vehicle to reinforce concepts that the student is working on.
Track Your Progress Does Not Measure Your Skills
In the intro, I mentioned WorkshopLive and School of Rock. During those few years, I didn’t perform much. I was teaching and moving around quite a bit. I felt my playing was getting stale, so I sought a teacher to help me. I found Chris Crocco.
I went to my first lesson, and we jammed for about an hour. We then chatted for a bit, and as I was leaving, Chris said, “BTW, your eighth notes are uneven, and your timing is a little rushed. See you next week.”
Man, that bothered me the entire train ride home. When I got home, I turned on the metronome and recorded myself, and when I listened back, I realized that Chris was absolutely right.
The point is that had it not been for Chris, that problem may have gone unnoticed for years. It’s a subtle concept that only a professional teacher can identify.
Tracking your progress is a nice feature, but it does not measure your skills and can’t identify bad performance habits. The technology may get there, but it’s not there yet.
I’ve also experienced students that misunderstood a concept and developed bad physical habits in their playing due to that misunderstanding. The ideas were easy to reteach, but the physical habits needed to be unlearned and retaught.
I had an adult student who pressed too hard with his fretting hand, and unlearning that took over a year.
Checking in from time to time with a real teacher is essential and can help avoid these problems before they become habits.
What’s Your Learning Personality Type?
I teach workshops and master classes from time to time, and I often begin with the song riff from The Who’s classic, “Who Are You?” If you don’t know the tune, then look it up. This is the most critical question that we need to ask ourselves. Knowing who we are will help us make better choices for ourselves.
When it comes to learning the guitar, knowing your learning personality can help you choose the way you learn. There are free online personality tests that you can take to find this, and it can be fun. My favorite is from 16 Personalities.
Introvert (Motivated Self-Starter)
- Find a Structured Program Online: Most
beginnerprograms cover the basics and build a solid foundation.
- Setup a Schedule with Milestones: I suggest breaking down goals into smaller steps; e.g., “learning a song” can be broken down into memorizing lyrics and song form, learning the chords, switching chords, strumming chords in time, etc.
- Focus on Learning Songs and a Project: The project could be learning a song or a few songs; e.g., Project 1 is to learn three songs, and Project 2 is to get those songs performance ready for an open mic.
- Check-In with a Real Teacher Once a Month: This will keep you accountable and you’ll gain specific instructions for problem areas.
- Find a Structured Program Online: Most
Extrovert (Social Learner)
- Find a 1-on-1 Teacher or Interactive Program: Some programs provide online communities where students can post videos of their progress, and other students offer encouragement and feedback. Extroverts look forward to this, while introverts cringe at the thought of posting a work in progress.
- Set Up a Practice Routine: Many extroverts like a list of what to do and when to do it. Your online platform may offer some suggestions, but this is where the 1-on-1 real teacher shines. The real teacher knows your skill level and capabilities and can provide the proper guidance to push without overwhelming you while keeping you motivated.
- Create Short-Term Goals: This is similar to the to-do list. My college roommate was an extrovert; e.g., his goals were Week 1, learn the scale; Week 2, apply the scale; Week 3, improvise with the scale, etc. It worked well for him.
These are general guidelines that I use when giving advice. When it comes to learning guitar, many aspiring students have both introvert and extrovert qualities—and I’m one of those people. But I’ve also discovered that some students are clearly one and not the other.
For beginners, learn the basics first before delving into genre-specific lessons. When teachers explain stylistic concepts, we take it for granted that the student already knows certain fundamental concepts and skills.
Keep the basics in mind for more advanced players as you work through genre-specific lessons. And go back to the basics if you need help understanding something.
For all, use a 1-on-1 real teacher from time to time. The more frequent your visits will reflect in your advancement. But if you have limited resources, then you can try this:
- Beginners once per month.
- More advanced players can check in once every two months.
What’s Your Learning Style?
At WorkshopLive and School of Rock, part of my responsibilities was to get the most out of our teachers. I helped the teachers outline and deliver their lessons focusing on the learning styles below.
There are 4 types of learning styles based on the VARK system:
- Visual: Visual learners like to “see” which finger and at what fret the teacher is performing something. They also prefer chord diagrams, chord charts, and tabs.
- Auditory: This is sometimes called “aural.” And aural learners prefer to listen and like to learn from recordings. They’ll also ask questions like, “Why doesn’t that sound right?”
- Reading & Writing: For learning songs, I fall into this category. I like writing chord charts. There’s something about writing it out that helps me retain the song form better.
- Kinesthetic: This is muscle memory. For example, learning how to bend properly requires repeated muscle movement. When you “feel” that you’re doing properly, you can focus on the intonation and expressive aspects of the bend.
Question: Can you learn to play guitar online?
Answer: Absolutely. Most platforms offer video lessons with accompanying media (backing tracks, PDFs, etc.) that allow students to progress at their own pace. But, if you really want to advance quickly, then using a real guitar teacher can help guide you faster by making sure you understand the concept and observe your technique.
Question: Is it better to learn guitar online or in person?
Answer: For beginners, it’s better to learn from a professional guitar teacher. This way, you get personalized attention that will help you understand and apply the concepts and techniques better without misunderstanding the lesson material and developing bad performance habits.
Online instruction is the perfect solution for advanced players or players with a solid understanding of the fundamentals.
Question: Can you teach yourself to play guitar?
Answer: Yes, you can. There are many famous self-taught professional musicians. But there are certain things that you should look for, and I outline them in this article.
Question: Is 40 too old to learn guitar?
Answer: Learning how to play guitar is always possible, provided you don’t suffer from physical ailments, such as arthritis or other injuries that limit hand and finger movements.
It is still possible to learn if you have hand or finger problems. Check with your doctor and make sure that you won’t be doing more damage to your hands, and then sign up with a local teacher for a trial lesson to see if you need a more personalized approach than the online platforms provide.
Question: How long does it really take to learn guitar online?
Answer: Everybody’s different. My friends and I began around the same time, and they could play songs and jam together in a few months. My journey started slower, but I’m the only one who turned it into a profession.
You get out what you put into it. Learning guitar, whether online or in person, takes the time it takes. Getting started is half the battle, and staying the course is the other half. Hopefully, you’ll enjoy yourself so much that you won’t worry about a timeframe.
Thanks for hanging in there. I realize this is a long article, and even if you skimmed it, I hope there are enough nuggets to help you choose an online course and supplement it with supervised guidance from a real teacher.
Supervised guidance can be done virtually, and the benefits can keep you on the right path without developing bad habits and misunderstanding certain concepts.
I learned from magazines, books, cassette tapes, CDs, and DVDs, and I continue to learn from online resources. But nothing can replace the personalized instruction I received from my first teachers, Berklee professors, and private teachers. Not to mention the memories that I reflect on with gratitude.
I encourage you to get started using any means possible. Learning the guitar changed my life; I’m sure that once you start, it will change yours, too.
Thanks for reading. And if you need help, drop me an email or text.
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