Death By Guitar Method Book


Start Teaching GuitarI started playing guitar twice…once in the 4th grade (that lasted about 3 weeks) and again when I was 18. One of the reasons I quit guitar in the 4th grade was because my teacher shoved a method book in my face and basically said “learn this”. Lucky for me, I eventually tried it again, but not until 10 years later!

Too many guitar teachers will toss some boring guitar method book at you as new student and try to force you to fit within it’s pages. I’ve learned over the years that method books are NOT the best way to learn guitar.

Every student is different…everyone likes different styles of music, has different players they admire, and has different goals for wanting to play guitar in the first place. Method books have their uses (like to help your students focus on certain areas they need improvement on) but they’re a terrible way to structure all of your lessons. Method books are the way LAZY guitar teachers will try to teach.

But you’re different, right? You’re one of those good guitar teachers.

A good teacher will begin the teaching relationship by asking a student one simple question: “What are YOUR goals?”. They will then customize the whole teaching process around THE STUDENT and THEIR goals for the guitar.

Always remember this: it’s not about you (the teacher) or your method book…it’s about YOUR STUDENT. They are paying you for results!

That’s my opinion, anyway. Have you had any experiences (good or bad) with teaching out of method books? Let me know about it by posting a comment!

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Death By Guitar Method Book was last modified: November 14th, 2012 by Donnie Schexnayder


  • I’ve had good and bad luck with method books. Alot I have come across are not very good. I can’t stand those note reading books where you learn old folk songs and nursery rhymes. Maybe for a real young kid that has no idea of what kind of music they like yet but older kids, teens and many adults like more rock based songs.

    For students that are interested in reading music or that I think really needs to work on this stuff I use a cool book by Dave Clo called ” You’re in the band!” It has real band backing tracks to play along with.

    I also have used Troy Stetina’s books alot. The rhythm book works very well just moving in order one subject after the next.

    On the other hand I have never had a teaching style of just throwing a book in front of a student, giving him assignments and sending him home. This is always just part of a lesson. We would also work on some songs, maybe improvising, theory stuff etc… in addition to this book material.

    So as Donnie mentioned they have their uses but I agree it should not be your complete lesson method.

    • Thanks for the comment, Don! I’ll check out some of Troy’s material…sounds like some good stuff.

  • Yes it is very good material! I have been developing course material of my own which I’m pretty much replacing Troy’s material little by little but even then it’s great resource material. Fretboard Mastery is an excellent book for developing your ear and learning music theory. Speed Mechanics is great for technique and the core lead and rhythm books are put together very well in that they progress in a natural order. The only thing is the lead book jumps very quickly from beginner to intermediate material so it may be better suited for a intermediate player. There still is stuff in the primer that is useful for a beginner though.

    I started creating material to bridge this gap and have been using it with my students. I have also created and also still working on an online rhythm guitar course which I’m putting together with an online company called Truefire. Can’t wait to get it up and running! It’s still a couple months away though. Any ways I’ll be using alot of this stuff with my private students.

    I do have some of my students still on Troy’s material now though.

  • Fernando Rio

    I totally agree with you Donnie, I have never used books. I write all my music lessons for my students, I write them to solve specific problem they may have. Plus it keep me learning more about solving problems, writing music and catering to their wants. So… rock on!

    • Thanks, Fernando…good method books do have their uses, but they can often take the focus off of your student’s goals and box them in too much (which usually makes them quit).

      I’ve used books in the past, but only if the book actually lines up with one or more of the student’s specific goals. For example, “Sheets of Sound” is a good method book if your student wants to improve their picking speed.

      You just can’t handcuff them to the book…it needs to be about them and what they want to learn for them to stay motivated.

  • Hi Donnie and everyone –

    When I have a new student, I usually recommend a method book for them to start with.
    I don’t force them, or try to fit a square peg into a round hole, so to speak. But, I feel like reading music is an important part of a well rounded musician, so I encourage them to do it.
    It also has technical benefits. Let’s face it, there aren’t a whole lot of songs that will let you get away with one or two notes. So, a reading book helps fill that gap with very gradually increased difficulty. This is assuming that they’re not screaming with their hair on fire every time you open the book ;).

    Also, I’m not 100% sold on catering exclusively to the student’s goals. Blasphemy! I know…
    For example, if a student says they want to be a great guitar player, and all they want to do is learn tapping solos, well I”m gonna have a bit of a problem with that. Will I force them to be more well rounded? No, but I will keep hammering away at them to convince them.
    So, I guess the short story for me is that if they have musically irresponsible goals or ways to achieve their goals, I have to stage a guitar intervention :).

    Every student is different, and we have to be sort of a chameleon to teach each one effectively. Great job Donnie – keep it up man!

    Dave Lockwood

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    • Thanks for the comment, Dave…I agree that books have their place. I like to use them to focus on specific things, and reading is a great example of that. I’ve just had too many experiences with teachers who basically teach you the book and nothing else. That’s just laziness, in my opinion. I’m just sayin’… :)

      That’s a great point about a student having unrealistic goals. I agree that you need to sometimes bend them in the right direction a little bit…but I’ve always found that it’s easier to use the interest in what they already want to do to help them get to the next level…to use that as forward momentum. But the ultimate goal is to help them become the best musician they can be…that’s why they pay us. Sometimes an “intervention” is the only thing you can do!

  • One of my favorite sayings is “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” I think this also applies to method books. Method books obviously have some major pluses, but they can also suffer from all of the shortcomings of a bad teacher (teaching too much too quickly, teaching to only one learning style, failing to motivate students or connect the material with the student’s interests, etc.).

    I’m generally a bigger fan of person-to-person teaching or video lessons than books, but here are a few qualities that I’ve found make the best method books:

    1. Not assuming too much about the student’s current ability, interests or goals.

    2. Keeping things simple. It’s always better to do a couple of things well than lots of things badly.

    3. Being goal-oriented and having a step-by-step process that’s easy to follow.

    4. Making it easy for “intermediate” students to jump in partway through the book (as with the “For Dummies” series).

    5. Making it interesting and fun (for example demonstrating material in new songs if possible).

    6. Having sound or video/sound examples. For those of us who learn best by ear, this is enormously helpful. It’s also helpful because some concepts of touch and musicality can’t be expressed in tablature or notation. Jam tracks are also ideal.

    7. Adding creative exercises. It’s a great opportunity for the student to grapple with the material and internalize it. It also teaches songwriting skills, which many technically excellent guitarists are lacking in.

    It really depends on the individual student and where they are in their playing and interests. The Guitar Grimoire series is excellent if you want to take the Steve Vai approach to learning guitar, but it’s not for everyone (beginners and kids in particular), and requires the student to bring massive amounts of their own motivation. I like some of the books that are simply full of licks or individual tips, such as 101 Guitar Tips by Adam St. James. Such books are incredibly easy to randomly pick up and find something new to learn.

    One series I like is Jody Fisher’s Beginning Jazz Guitar books. I find them well-rounded, easy to follow, easy to jump in partway through, and full of example songs to learn and jam tracks to practice improvising with.

    I’m a big fan of teaching theory through songs and composition exercises. Learning theory on it’s own is incredibly dry, but when you have something to apply it to it’s much more interesting.

    My favorite music book (although not specifically for guitar) is Composing Music: A New Approach, by William Russo, Jeffrey Ainis, and David Stevenson. Rather than merely discussing songs, the book is full of exercises that are designed to make the reader focus on one aspect of music at a time, while developing your own style naturally. It’s dead simple and entirely student-oriented.

    • Thanks for the comment and the recommendations, Jeff! Great insights…

  • I’m pretty straight forward when it comes to younger kids. Half the lesson I spend working on a method book, and half the lesson we work on whatever the student is interested in. This ebbs and flows a little, but for kids under 13 or so I stick to it pretty consistently. For teenagers through adults I do exactly what you suggest, Donnie, and it has worked for a long time. I teach 40+ hours a week and I believe it is a big part of the reason I’m so busy.

    But now, after your guitar class podcast, I’m working on that so I can leverage my time better. Thanks for the great advice and encouragement.

  • HarryPeters

    Nice. Thanks, guys. This is good stuff. I’m stuck between beginner and intermediate, and I love the input of those that teach. I’ve had 5 teachers over the last 7 years, and each had their strengths and weaknesses. The best asked me what I wanted to achieve and gave me assignments designed to meet that goal. (Hand written in tab). I know everyone is different, but when learning something as complex as guitar, I like being told, “I’ll expect you to know these chords/this riff/this verse/this scale….. by next week. Also, it provides confidence in the student that he/she is making progress. which is a great motivator. Thanks again.

    • Thanks for the comment, Harry…it’s always good to get a student’s perspective on things!

  • I have to say I like method books. I like the ones that teach the name of the notes on each string one string at a time. When your young your mind remembers a lot easier and you retain info. Then you will remember it forever. I learned the strings when I was 11. If my guitar teacher didn’t start me that way I might of never learned in the future.

    • Thanks, Steve…I like them, too, as long as they’re used correctly.

  • I know that I definitely benefited from “some” method books, but that doesn’t mean other people will see the value in them. When I briefly took a semester of music courses at a state college I had one hour principle lessons with a jazz guitar instructor. He asked me to buy a Berklee Guitar Method I book.

    I can see how learning from that has benefited me, but I don’t think it works as well in private lessons where students are more likely there to learn “exactly” what they want to learn rather than build an all encompassing foundation for musicianship. Students want to learn what gets them playing their favorite songs right away, and there is nothing wrong with that.

  • Great comments here!
    I agree that Method books should not be the only source of material for your students. The one I often use is Hal Leonard’s Guitar Method (Book 1, 2, 3 all in one). I use this if the students are interested in learning to read. I have had pretty good results using this in combination with my own written materials. I know that the nursery rhyme melodies can be lame if your students are older than maybe 12, but those melodies are really good in terms of ear training. Sometimes we overlook the benefit of learning simple melodies and the benefits that can come from learning them. I also tell my students that even though this might seem simple or basic, can you play the notes of Ode to Joy and have the listener be blown away by it? Think about someone like Steve Vai playing this simple melody, I’m sure it would sound amazing!
    I have my students get the 3 in 1 book because I like to jump to book 3 that has a lot of the scale patterns, chord forms, etc.

    But in the end, I really focus on what the student wants to achieve. This is usually done by teaching them the songs they want to learn and breaking them down in terms of theory and techniques used. You can break down pretty much anything into small pieces and have them work on those things to help develop their playing.

    Donnie, thank you so much for this incredible site and wealth of information!

    PS, if you hit my site I’m aware that I need major improvements!! Working on improving that in 2012!

    • Thanks, Liam! I took a look at your site…I’ve seen far worse :)

      There’s more you can do regarding marketing, but it’s a great start.

  • Alex

    I completely agree, from my very first experiences as a private guitar instructor it didn’t take me long to realize that most method books do more harm than good. I find they’re often very broad, lack a comprehensive approach in any one guitar technique and are poorly organized. Perhaps their greatest failing, I think, is their attempt to impose the method for learning a classical instrument (like clarinet or piano) on the guitar. Just this week my employer at the studio I’m at now told me she wanted my guitar program to fall in line with the piano program. These two instruments are completely different! And the priorities of a guitar student and the things they want to learn are as well. In my experience forcing a kid to go through what most method books with this classical approach prescribe (basic notation, Mary had a little lamb, etc.) always leads to disappointment and students ultimately quitting. That being said there are some method books that are geared for the guitarist that I really enjoy such as Parkening’s Classical Guitar Method, A Modern Method for Guitar and others but for the most part the success of my teaching has been wholly dependent on my own going outside of the book and making my own documents.

    • Alex,

      Absolutely. Unless you teach at a formalized school, I don’t think there are many hobbyist students who are going to learn guitar academia-style.

  • The really important thing is that you, as a guitar teacher, have gone through and are familiar with these methods. Whatever issue your student is having at the moment, it’s likely that it’s been thoroughly addressed by a teaching in the past. What’s really helped me out teaching is having a familiarity with dozens of different authors and their methods, and be able to draw from those author’s materials whenever appropriate for a student. Troy Stetina and William Leavitt, for example, will have very different things to say about the guitar, and what to practice for that 30-60 minutes a student will have in a day. When I started out I was terrible at this, using the wrong method all the time, but as I’ve gained experience it becomes increasingly second-nature to be able to recommend these books or sections of books whenever necessary. It’s also important for keeping lessons efficient, we don’t have unlimited time resources for every student (no matter how much we earnestly wish we did), so whenever possible we want to use something that has been used before.

    • Thanks, Daniel! I agree that we shouldn’t re-invent the wheel. I don’t have a problem with method books…I do have a problem with the way many teachers USE method books.

  • I’m a classical guitar player and Jazz guitar practicer.

    Over 7 years of full time teaching, I have learned to cater more to my students. I started teaching exactly how I learned: my first teacher saw in me “classical guitar” and so moved our lessons from rock/electric guitar to classical guitar. I started in the Mel Bay (general) Guitar method, and he supplemented with classical/fingerstyle repertoire as I learned how to read. It worked very well for me and has lead to a lifetime enjoyment of guitar and music/art in general. It changed my life.
    So, I started my teaching career doing as I had been taught – to learn your notes out of Mel Bay Guitar Method, and… play rock? sounds ridiculous in hindsight. Now I teach them the songs they want to learn, and I incorporate scales, a little theory, ear training, fret-board organization etc… into that. I’m also using my experience to write my own “universal” guitar method book – one that recognizes that learning how to read music is very useful, but does it in a way that does not focus on note reading entirely, and makes use of other important aspects of playing guitar to achieve [it = (n):
    n = n+1]. It’s 7 notes… I mean really…

  • Once again I am in near identical alignment with your teaching methods and ideas. I throw the books out. At least metaphorically. The very first thing I do is find out their goals. Often though if the student is younger than 12 or 13 they won’t be thinking of “goals”. That also happens with older ones too, but I first always find out why and what they want to accomplish with the guitar/bass. If a certain book I have experience with or have recommended to me is appropriate for a student then I start them off with it at some point in the beginning. At first though I do a combination of writing out charts of exercises/scales etc the basics and go from there for a couple of weeks or so and then see how their progress is. That is if they’re starting from the beginning. Sometimes just parts of a book are handy but I never have done the “lazy” way and said do exercises x,y, and z and come back and play them next week or so.

    80% or more of my student base just wants to come in and have me teach them songs that they want to play. A good portion of these students come to me with a basic amount of skill at playing. They’re already up and running so to speak. Some have bands and are learning songs for their bands or just want to play them. The other half are usually cold starters and starting from the ground up.I experienced the peak of these kinds of students who 99% of the time were not interested in any kind of boring books we all come to know during the reign of the games like Guitar Hero and Band Hero. I have seen a significant drop since these games have passed their prime. They’re still fans of them but honestly as much as people love and hate them, they were a big boost to the guitar teaching biz at least in my area. It also weeded out the ones that wanted to do the work to be a guitarist to the ones who realized they didn’t want to put in the time to really play.

    However as their teacher I have an obligation to try and break them out of their routine of just learning to cover songs and get them to explore new territories whatever that may encompass. It varies. Many times I do not have to they evolve on their own and come in and want to learn more. As a double edge though they might come ain and say I want to learn theory. To me that is a broad term and many come to know theory as many different things. Pure theory gets into that boring territory however it is not “lazy” territory either. Often they’re thinking theory as in playing great solos etc.

    In talking with parents often the first thing they ask me is, “is there a book we should be getting etc.” I always say that the first lesson is always the hardest because we’re getting to know each other and my style and what they want to do with the guitar, or something in that regard.

    • Thanks for the comment, Jon…I agree that the concept of goals is something a lot of people don’t think much about (especially kids). Sometimes we have to do the “thinking” for them and translate what a student really wants into actionable goals for them. In my experience, like yours, it usually revolves around songs. The teaching skill comes in when we can weave in the things they NEED to learn within the context of the things they WANT to learn.

      • I just got a dream call from a potential new student. When I say dream call I mean its a call that you want to happen everyday times 10 :-) This is that critical moment where I have disclose that I am not a method book teacher and offer the reasons why. Which we all seen discussed here and from Donnie most importantly. Its critical for because most of society thinks that this is the way to learn music and if I am not convincing enough they will never sign up for one lesson.I emphasize what was discussed last week with customer skills improvements and early podcasts about honing in on individual students needs.So when that return call comes back in this afternoon I will be applying new and old proven concepts :-)