How to Know if Your Guitar Teacher is Full of Shit

Yep. That’s right. You read it right. Your former, current, or future guitar teacher could be full of shit. And if you teach, YOU could be full of shit too. What??? Noooo… nobody who teaches guitar would be unqualified or dishonest, or at least they’d tell you if they were, right? Unless they’re dishonest, of course, but then they should be good enough at faking competence to pass themselves off as not full of shit. Right? I mean, this guitar stuff is all about learning, exploring new ideas, accomplishing musical goals, and becoming a straight up bad ass on six strings, isn’t it?

And the best way to do that is to find a teacher, and as long as they have more experience than you do, they’re good enough, right? Don’t they all just do the same things?

Fortunately, no… they don’t all do the same things, and some just aren’t “good enough” to handle what you’re looking for. In fact, some are just plain full of shit. 

Hmmm...yep. Still full of shit...

Hmmm…yep. Still full of shit…

How do I know this? I’ve experienced it personally in the past, and I still see or hear about this sort of thing almost daily.

That, and so-called authorities who are full of shit are found in every industry, so why would the realm of guitar and its arcane secrets be any different?

 

PERSONAL EXPERIENCE

In my high school years, I took some lessons from a pretty hot player, and I learned some good things from him, like how to develop a consistent vibrato, and how to nail pick squeals/harmonics (YES!!!)

I also learned that reading biblical passages counts as a guitar lesson, and we even spoke in tongues (well, he spoke in tongues, and my brother argued that I, in fact, did not, but I was pretty sure that I did, too. I tried to convince him by repeating what I’d said, but I couldn’t remember how it went.) 

The guy also wanted me to bring in all my Slayer, Danzig, and other “nefarious” albums, so that he could burn them in a show of defiance against all that is “evil” (and fucking cool, apparently), and THAT was the last straw for me. It’s one thing to dislike certain artists or styles; it’s quite another to wanna burn some poor kid’s copies of “Haunting the Chapel” and “Lucifuge”. Not a happenin’ deal. 

In any case, my mom decided that she was paying for guitar lessons, and not for me to learn how to trick the Devil by speaking in an unfamiliar language, nor was she behind the idea of burning my tunes to help somebody keep warm on those long, cold, lonely, Iowa winter nights, so that was the end of that.

I guess my attempts to rationalize the whole thing by claiming the Devil didn’t need to know that I’d used parallel major and minor chords back to back in a progression fell on her ever-so-deaf ears. Oh well. Lucky Devil.

 I should mention that this cat showed a friend of mine who was also taking lessons with him how to play a basic, two note per string pentatonic minor scale, which was the first scale my friend learned. I thought that was all well and good, until he instructed my friend to “Go home and write a lead” using that scale, which prompted my friend to ask me “How the fuck do I do that?”

To me, that’s like saying “Here, take this hammer that you can use to pound nails, and swing it up and down. Got it? Cool. Now go home and build a house.” I think the approach is probably equally effective in both cases.

 

EXAMPLE OF REGULAR CONFIRMATION OF THE F.O.S.F. (FULL OF SHIT FACTOR)

Not long ago, I was talking with a friend/colleague/fellow guitar instructor who told me about another guitar “teacher” he knew who would intentionally seek out kids 11 years old and younger when looking for students, because he claimed he knew he “wouldn’t have to do anything” with them due to their age, as they wouldn’t know any different.

Nice. Way to give it your all. That shows a deep devotion to your craft, a burning desire to impart what knowledge you’ve gained, an unshakeable confidence in your own abilities, and a fundamental respect for your students. Or not. I’m sure the parents of these kids won’t know any different either, all while you continue to take their money for “doing nothing” week after week and month after month.

That sort of thing pisses me off more than a bit, but not quite as much as our next example…

 

UNQUALIFIED TO CHARGE MONEY FOR SERVICES

In almost every small town, and certainly in bigger towns and cities, one finds an interesting phenomenon: people who know ever-so-slightly more than your average toaster oven about a specific instrument and what to do with it, yet somehow feel it’s okay to “teach” that instrument, and charge good money for their services.  

This comes in many forms, and while I acknowledge that everyone is at a different level of development and understanding, and those differences shouldn’t necessarily preclude someone from teaching or learning what they can, there is a line between not knowing everything and just being a goddamn hack. 

Nobody knows everything. I sure as hell don’t, and I don’t claim to. I am also willing to admit that, and there are some (many, in fact), things I’m not qualified to teach, but I won’t pretend to be an authority just so that I can get paid. So, I’m not talking about different levels of understanding and experience, blah, blah, blah…as it relates to actual instructors and musicians who’ve spent a good deal of time and effort developing their abilities with a specific instrument, anyway. Those folks get a free pass and my encouragement.

I’m talking about the phenomenon of people who know a teeny bit more than their beginning students, more than likely have no understanding behind why they’re doing it, and who don’t even PLAY THE DAMN GUITAR, “teaching” others to play. What? How the hell does that work, you might ask?

Answer: It doesn’t. 

I’m talking about those people who own a guitar, are somewhat musically inclined, are “good with kids” or some other such vague descriptor, quite often give instruction in about 4,876 other instruments (singing lessons as well), but don’t really play the guitar, outside of the couple chords and strumming patterns they’ve had to pick up. 

I’ve known folks like this, and some of them follow this formula. Ready? Here it is (it’s totally winning):

1) Buy a guitar and a beginner’s guitar method book

2) Go through a few things in the book, and teach yourself the first lesson in said book

3) Get students

4) Go through the first lesson you taught yourself with your new students, making it their first lesson

5) Get paid, have students come back the next week, where you teach them lesson two in the book (the same lesson two you’ve just taught yourself) 

6) Stay one “lesson” ahead of your students, then wash, rinse, and repeat.

 

As you might imagine, this method pretty much sucks. A lot. And no, it isn’t “good enough” for a beginner to “get started” or whatever else people say to justify spending their time and money on this sort of garbage. In fact, someone just starting out needs more careful direction than a more experienced player, because they probably won’t know the difference between qualified and quack (or the musical equivalent), and they haven’t yet developed the fundamental and foundational skills of a more advanced player.

Granted, signs of the F.O.S.F. aren’t always going to be obvious, and not every example I gave above indicates that someone is completely full of shit: I did learn some cool and useful things from my former preacher… errr… I mean, teacher. Also, our kiddie seeker probably has some things on the ball, but in both instances, the former’s insistence on sermons and scriptural study qualifying as guitar instruction and the latter’s insistence on not doing the job he was entrusted with and paid to do make their F.O.S.F. more than enough to give ’em the boot.

Alright then, enough about my thoughts: how can YOU tell if YOUR guitar teacher, or someone you’re considering for the job, has more crap than credibility? Well, I’ve created a handy-dandy five point list for ya, and while every situation is different, I think these are some pretty good general guidelines:

 

1) Unwillingness or Inability to Answer Questions: Saying “I don’t know” to a question is a 429428legitimate and honest response, and does not mean someone is full of it or faking, unless, of course, that’s their answer for most legitimate questions you ask.

Continually avoiding questions, or saying things like “You’re not ready yet”, “Wait until next time”, etc. for most things are good indicators that something is rotten in Denmark, as they say.

While you may not be ready to fully comprehend or implement the answer you’re seeking, a qualified instructor should be able to give you good reasons for waiting until next time, or why you’re not ready.

There’s a big difference between being practical and trying to cover your ass by withholding information. 

 

2) Unwillingness or Inability to Provide Clear Examples/Explanations of What They’re Teaching: This is closely related to #1, but is a much more tangible and easily recognized sign of B.S. If your teacher isn’t very forthcoming with examples of and/or clear explanations for why you’re doing what you’re doing, they might just be a dick. Or, they might not be able to do it or know why themselves, which is likely more often the case. In any event, if this becomes habitual, let them know, and let them know you don’t appreciate it.

Tell them you aren’t getting the hang of what you’re being taught, and if they get pissy about you bringing it up, blame you for not understanding, or don’t change their ways, get rid of them. It can be intimidating to confront your teacher, and many of us don’t want to look stupid by saying we don’t understand. But, remember that it’s their job to teach you in a way you get, and to be patient while doing it. If that’s not happening, then they’re not doing their job. The end.  

 

3) Overall Lack of Ability, Knowledge of the Guitar and Basic Theoretical Concepts, and No Real Depth of the Knowledge They Do Have: Can they actually play? I mean, really play? This doesn’t mean they need to shred like a wood chipper, or navigate chord changes like jazz icon Joe Pass, but they should definitely be able to knock out more than a few chords or a scale pattern or two. Do they sound good if and when you do hear them play? You can determine this, whether you think you’re able or not.

Also, if you’re really new to the whole guitar thing, you’ll probably be a bit nervous and uncomfortable with the instrument in general. That’s okay; you’re the student, and that’s why you’re paying for lessons.

Your teacher shouldn’t seem as nervous or uncomfortable as you might be, nor should they basically plunk and clunk around on the guitar: again, they don’t need to be a world-class player, but they should be professional and not appear intimidated by a guitar (or guitar student, since they supposedly teach.) 

Do they generally seem to be at a loss when answering questions or giving examples and explanations of technique, theory, and application? If so, they shouldn’t. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bogus, but if you get the feeling that their knowledge base isn’t much deeper than yours, you’re probably in the wrong place. 

 

4) They Have a Cookie-Cutter, One-Size-Fits-All Approach to Teaching: Ugh. You’re an individual with your own unique set of circumstances, goals, and abilities; not a math equation in which 2 + 2 always equals 4. A good teacher should be able to adapt and change direction when needed.

 

5) The Method Book They Use Has More Teaching Ability and Personality Than They Do: Books are fine, as are other instructional materials, but they should ideally be supplemental, not foundational, to how you learn, progress, and play. In my experience, those who are full of shit almost always rely very heavily on method books, instructional videos, and so forth…too heavily, in fact.

Why? Because they don’t know what the hell they’re doing, that’s why. They expect the book, video, etc. to do the heavy lifting, and they expect you not to notice.

Your teacher should actually teach, not just point to things and parrot what someone else has written. Unless, of course, you’re hip to the idea of basically paying someone to read books to you, and tell you to put your hands in the same places you would if you were to read the book yourself.  

Okay. This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list of criteria pointing to a strong F.O.S.F., and I want to stress that exhibiting any of the above from time to time doesn’t mean that you’re being hosed (metaphorically speaking, although, if they hose you literally, they might also be full of shit.) If, however, you see one or more of these things consistently, or if you can relate to anything else I’ve written here, then you might want to reconsider your current guitar endeavors and how you’re getting there.

Also, if you’re reading this, and any of it relates to you as an instructor, then please do your students and yourself a favor by cutting the crap, learning what you need to know, and start respecting the art and craft, along with your students and yourself a bit more than you have been.

Alternatively, if this does relate to you, and you don’t feel the need to change anything, then you should probably do us all a favor and quit. Now. There can be enough challenges for guitarists as it is, and we’re all ultimately students, whether or not we teach and play professionally. Don’t add to the mess by being full of shit.

It ain’t that hard, folks.

P.S. – If you’re sick and tired of the bullshit, and you’re interested in methods to improve your guitar playing without a ton of time and money, check out the Academy here.

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