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Summary: How do you teach music theory? Golden rule number one when teaching guitar music theory - work from the bottom up

From the bottom up

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Teaching your students a few songs, classic guitar riffs and basic chords and scales is not that difficult. Teaching your students sufficient guitar music theory so that they are able to understand the subject of guitar playing is one of the things that makes the difference between a good teacher and a great teacher.

Here is the first 'Golden Rule' about teaching guitar music theory:

No matter how good a player your student is, nor how intelligent; always, always, always teach theory from the bottom up.

So you get someone comes for their first lesson with you, but they've been playing guitar since long before you were even born:

After a decent amount of time spent assessing what they can and can't do and what they do and don't understand about the subject, you decide to help them put their comprehension of music theory in place.

I start by asking what are the names of the open strings. If they don't rattle them off EADGBE without hesitating, I take that up right there.

Be sensitive to the embarassment this can cause your student and reassure them that a surprising number of people learn to play guitar brillianly without necessarily knowing such details!

I then move on to the notes played on the 6th (Bottom) string one fret at a time: E F F# G G# A A# B C C# D D# E F F# G ....etc If they can rattle them off in that direction I ask them to try it backwards from the 12th fret down using flat names instead of sharp: E Eb D Db C B Bb A Ab G Gb F E - Far fewer guitarists can do that without steam coming out of their ears!

This exercise alone, done thoroughly, allows you the opportunity to clear up a whole load of the most perplexing problems that guitarists have when it comes to theory:

  • The difference between sharps (#) and flats (b)
  • Enharmonic equivalence (A# = Bb, C# = Db etc..)
  • Significance of the 12th (Octave) fret
  • Why does an octave have 12 notes (when 'oct' usually means 8)
  • Hhow to work out the name of any note on the guitar
  • Why E and B have no #s
  • Why F and C have no flats

These last two points are best explained by referring to the layout of white and black notes on the keyboard which is how the system was originally derived.

The point is that it is of no use whatsoever launching into chord formulas, modes, circles of fourths and fifths and all that stuff if your student isn't thoroughly sorted on these basics.

It must be done regardless of the level of skill or experience of the student. If they are genuinely sure of these points it will only take a couple of minutes anyway. You can then move right on to the next layer of music theory.

Here are some free teaching materials that will help with this:

[The Pyramid of Learning Guitar Music Theory] [Understanding the chromatic scale]


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Related Pages
 The Importance of the Major Scale
 Don't believe a word your student says
 Correct Sequence
 Use it or Lose it
 Don't Waste Time Explaining
 The Importance of Repeated Use
 Defining Musical Terms
 Motivate before Mystifying
 Examine, Revise, Consolidate
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