The “Taylor Swift” Guide To Teaching Guitar


You may not be a big fan of Taylor Swift, but my daughter first introduced me to her music 3 or 4 years ago. She’s a really gifted songwriter, and I have to confess that this middle-aged “rocker dude” can occasionally be found with a Taylor Swift song or two playing on his iPod. She’s a great talent (the truckload of Grammy awards she’s won attests to that), but she’s never really been known for her guitar playing skills.

I recently ran across this short article about Taylor Swift teaching Zac Efron how to play guitar, and it got me thinking…here’s a quote from that article:

Her co-star Efron was certainly impressed with her at any rate, albeit being more thankful for her apparent skills at teaching guitar than for anything more suggestive. “She’s a great teacher,” he enthused at the premiere, explaining that she’d taught him a few things on the six-string. “In the past, everyone who’s tried to teach me guitar starts with music theory and stuff like that. I tend to just doze off after a little while. She went straight into songs. She taught me, like, four chords, and I’m already playing all the good campfire songs.”

Since Zac Efron is rich and famous, I’m pretty sure he studied with some experienced, high-level guitar teachers over the years…but they all FAILED when they tried to teach him guitar and Taylor Swift, of all people, SUCCEEDED. How is that possible?

Here are a few observations I picked up as I pondered this mystery of the musical universe…

The “Taylor Swift” Guide to Teaching Guitar

1) People want to play SONGS

I think Taylor Swift understands something that a lot of guitar teachers tend to forget: People want to play SONGS! They are less interested in music theory, sight reading, scales and chord inversions…and more interested in being able to pick up an acoustic guitar and play some songs for their friends. This is especially true for beginners.

Later on in their musical journey, your students will be more interested in the technical aspects…but in the early days of playing the guitar, you need to make sure you’re giving them what they REALLY WANT or they probably won’t stick around long enough to get to any of that other stuff.

2) You don’t need to play like Steve Vai to be a great teacher

I’d be willing to bet that 99% of the people who read this article can play guitar better than Taylor Swift, but IT REALLY DOESN’T MATTER. Like I mentioned before in this post about my son teaching his friends to play guitar, you don’t need to be an amazing guitarist to teach other people how to play…you just need to be one step ahead of them.

There’s always something unique that YOU can share with your guitar students…something special that differentiates you from everyone else. It may be your extensive knowledge of music theory, or it might just be the fact that you actually CARE. You will tend to attract students who are looking for that specific thing, so just be yourself and do what you do best whether you’ve been playing and teaching for 1 year or for 10 years. Always try to keep LEARNING and GROWING as a player and a teacher, but never lose sight of the things that allow you to genuinely CONNECT with your students. Remember: you DO have something to offer people RIGHT NOW…no matter what your level of development is.

3) It’s critical to understand your student’s EXPECTATIONS

All those other teachers Zac Efron worked with probably THOUGHT they were doing everything right. They started out trying to build a strong foundation with theory, the basics of music, and making sure he understood the fundamentals of how music works. Sounds great, right? WRONG! They bored him to death and drove him out of their teaching studios without even realizing it. They failed to understand his EXPECTATIONS…what he really wanted from the guitar, and from guitar lessons.

If you want to be successful as a guitar teacher, you really need to make an effort to understand WHY your students want to learn guitar in the first place…and do everything you can to fulfill those expectations. In THEIR MINDS, that’s what you’re being paid for…that’s their definition of “results”. Always remember that if your students don’t feel like they’re getting RESULTS, they will stop taking lessons with you and go elsewhere. This is a fundamental business principle…it would be unwise for you to ignore it.


So, those are just a few things that stood out to me from reading that article. It’s surprising and ironic how sometimes you can learn valuable lessons in the most unexpected places…in this case, from a 22-year old country artist. This might sound CRAZY, but it’s the honest truth: at the end of the day, as a guitar teacher, the ability to INSPIRE your students and teach them the skills they really WANT to learn can be more valuable than a music degree. Just ask Taylor Swift!

Do you think you’re a better guitar teacher than Taylor Swift? Let’s talk about it in the comments below!


The “Taylor Swift” Guide To Teaching Guitar was last modified: April 28th, 2014 by Donnie Schexnayder


  • Funny You wrote this. I have several young ladies that I teach and ‘Teardrops On My Guitar’ has been very successful with them.

    • Yeah, my daughter sits in her room and plays Taylor Swift songs for hours…when her friends come over, they play and sing those songs, too. It’s awesome to see and hear how music can bring people together like that…I think that’s what many people really want from guitar lessons: the ability to make that connection and just have fun with it.

  • Sam

    Great post man-I think this is totally right on. Most of us want to get students into the things WE are into instead of listening to what they like…important lesson across the board I think. Very good stuff here!

  • Great article. Its so easy sometimes as a guitar teacher to think that its all about theory and the technical aspects of playing while most beginners want to simply start playing songs.

  • don

    Yes, I couldn’t have said it better! I’ve learned this the hard way. I used to force feed music theory to my students and I lost students as fast as I was getting them. I at first didn’t understand why because I loved music theory so why didn’t everyone else?

    Well I cut back on the theory for a bit and things started to improve. Unfortunately a few years later I start listening to message boards where certain teachers would spout out the importance of teaching students to read music, theory, ear-training and so on. It is our responsibility as a teacher! So what do you think I did?

    It’s time to load up my students with more things they don’t really want to learn. But it’s our responsibility as teachers! So that is what I did. Guess what happened? Students started to disappear!

    In finally said screw it! If they just want to learn songs then I’ll concentrate on that. What happened next is my students started to come to lessons prepared and they looked happy. Now don’t get me wrong! I still try to throw a little bit of theory or rhythmic type stuff in but if their interests and goals lye in just playing their favorite songs then that is what the focus of lessons are on.

    This article to me is proof that we as teachers sometimes get too caught up with trying to create great musicians out of these student and forget that their interest and passions lay in learning the latest Metallica or Green day song. It’s our responsibility as teachers to help them achieve these goals instead of trying to force feed sight reading and ear- training exercises! Unless of course that IS their goal!

    Great article Donnie!

  • The only students who are invested enough to learn theory, improvisation, and ear training are going to be enrolled in some kind of academic institution. Most everyone else I’m sure is doing it for personal enjoyment and not trying to make a career in music

    I personally want theory, method, and such because I’m trying to compensate for my lack of formal music education, plus it’s part of personal guitar goals to do so anyway.

    I am, however, the exception to the Zach Efron rule.

    I don’t listen to Taylor Swift, but it’s nice to know that some artists are still writing their own material, of course I’ll give Elton John a pass :)

    • Thanks for the comment, Kyle! I agree…most typical students are NOT serious musicians. They do it for enjoyment and not because they want a career in music. That can (and often does) come later, but the goal should be to keep them around long enough for them to figure that out for themselves.

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  • Ian

    This is a great article and totally true!!!

    It took me several years to figure this out. Eventually, an 8 year old kid totally schooled me as a guitar teacher and I’ll be forever grateful to him for this.

    I had been teaching a kid for over a year, and focusing on teaching the stuff I thought was important for him to know…chords, pentatonic scales, 12-bar blues form, I-IV-V progressions, etc…he was progressing, but very slowly and wasn’t all that passionate about playing.

    Then one day at our lesson, he shows me Back in Black by AC/DC. As we went through the lesson, he kept having ADD and going back to playing Back in Black . He couldn’t get enough of it. He was totally hooked on playing it and could play it 100 times and not get tired of it. It turns out his little 8 year old friend he had just met showed him this.

    It was humbled by the fact his little buddy could inspire him and awaken passion to play guitar more in one day hanging out, than I could do in over a year of weekly lessons. I had to reassess my approach.

    I remembered that when I was a kid learning to play, all I wanted to do was play riffs…not even whole songs, just riffs. Riffs that I could show off to my family and friends. Riffs that felt awesome to play. Riffs….for me it was classic rock and 80’s rock, and funny thing is, almost 30 years later, kids still want to learn the same songs!

    From that point forward, I totally changed my teaching style to focus almost entirely (with beginners) on getting them to play just one single riff with authority and pocket. Yes, with authority! That is very important! Because once they can play one little riff like Crazy Train, Heartbreaker, You Really Got Me, TNT, with AUTHORITY, then it ignites a passion in the student that makes them LOVE their guitar and want to play it all the time.

    Instead of focusing on the theory, now I bring their awareness to the things they are doing as part of the song. Like Back in Black, for example…a great song to learn – it has the Open E, D, A chords, as well as the blues scale, and also involves some hammerons, pull offs, all stuff that they learn simply by playing the song.

    Anyways, sorry to ramble, but this post really hit home. Great website!

    • Thanks, Ian! That’s a great story…and so true. My son is 9, and “Back In Black” is the song he plays over and over again, too. It takes a truly great teacher to be able to learn and adapt like that, especially when the “lesson” comes from a kid. You are an example for us all. :)

    • Jim


      I have to chime in on this because I wrote an article about this exact thing for my website. It’s called “Songs Are Overrated. Riffs Rule!” and it’s about the age-old question of whether a student should be learning entire songs. I learned by riffs, like you – my first was “Cat Scratch Fever” – and as a 12 year old kid, it was the greatest thing ever.

      So I teach all my students great riffs and they love it! You can find a ton of important concepts, moves and techniques within them, and in the time it takes you to learn a full song, you can learn a half dozen riffs! And when they really need to, they can expand those riffs into full songs.

      The Taylor Swift method is truly the way to go. Inspire first, make some cool sounds, and you’ll ignite a passion that will motivate the student to keep learning.

      Great post.

  • Donnie,

    I just found your site recently and really like what you have going on here. This article also resonated with me because it’s my favorite way to teach. I love deconstructing someone’s favorite song into guitar principles so they can have fun while learning the basics. You can even get 5-yo little fingers to play 2 finger chords and they love it. I definitely know more Taylor Swift than I need to when teaching younger female students!

  • Brad Wheat

    Great article Donnie! I have been teaching guitar for a few years now
    with mostly school aged beginners. I have always been a firm believer
    in giving students songs to learn. My first 3 songs that I teach all my
    students are (including chords)

    1. Amazing Grace – A, D, E,

    2. Time of your Life – G, Cadd9, D, Em,

    3. House of the Rising Sun – Am, C, D, F, E.

    after 3 lessons my student know the following chords – A, C, Cadd9, D,
    E, F, G, Am and Em and 3 different strumming patterns. I have found a
    formula that works for me and I stick to it.

    I also leave theory for later down the track and even the times I do teach
    theory I include something fun in the lesson as well to keep my
    students focussed.

    • DonnieSchex

      Thanks, Brad! You’ve got it right…lessons are definitely supposed to be fun. :)

  • I think this is spot on in many respects. Actually, I use Taylor Swift’s songs quite frequently to teach my female students. If they can play a C, G, Em, D, and own a capo, we can play a ton of her tunes. One problem I encounter though, is teaching songs to beginners that cannot yet fret the chords or even get certain notes out of the guitar. Aside from putting them in a method book and getting them on a structured path to playing single note stuff, playing a couple of one finger chords, and reading, does anyone have any alternative suggestions?

    • DonnieSchex

      It’s a physical problem at the beginner stage. Teaching partial versions of the open chords is a good way to help…2 or 3 strings only, mostly open. Then you can add additional strings one by one until they can play the whole chord. Changing between the chords cleanly and dealing with the initial finger pain are two other obvious obstacles to manage for beginners. The student needs to be patient…if it was easy, everyone would be doing it. It will hurt a little bit and take a little while to master this stuff. Setting those expectations up front with them helps a lot, and then encourage and praise them for every little bit of improvement you see. :)

      • Yeah, that’s pretty much what I do. Unfortunatley it can be a slow process for some. It’s hard keeping their motivation up and looking ahead to the big picture. I will use the phrase “if it was easy, everyone would be doing it”. Thanks!

  • Man Of Integrity

    I give them the song of their choices. Any song they want. Whenever they want. I teach And kept feeding the theory stuff along with it..They can’t afford to miss the classes..

  • I’m definitely better than Taylor Swift!…..I jest…..I agree though. Incorporating music the pupil loves is essential,and fundamental,useful technique and relevant theory can be included alongside. The more they enjoy the more they practice the more they learn,until that sad day when you say to them…”Now YOU are the teacher. Go forth and be awesome”.

  • The other problem can be,and i’ve been there, that a new pupil turns up who knows far more than you about music theory and wants to indulge in harmonic analysis and learn more about modal structures. Awkward! Pushes me further as a teacher though as the sweat starts rolling down my forehead!