beginner

Things That Other Music Schools Won’t Tell You

It takes at least 3 months to get ‘good’.

With a perfect storm of hard work, consistent practice, talent, a good teacher, and a good teaching method, it takes at least 3 months to see permanent and significant results. Many other schools, in an attempt to load up their teachers and teaching facilities, will take anyone willing to pay for a week or a month. This sets expectations unreasonably low and often leads to frustrated, impatient students and abandoned dreams.

 

Enjoyable lessons are productive lessons.

When students are passionate about what they’re working on, they will work harder, longer, more focused, and more intensely than if they were working on something less exciting to them. Most other music schools will drag you through months of boring public domain songs (Hot Cross Buns, London Bridge, Go Tell Aunt Rhodie) and poorly designed method books before helping you with something you actually like or that your friends will recognize. Along the same lines, Rockwell teachers are not going to show off or talk about themselves for your entire lesson, they’re happy and fun people that enjoy their lives and are happy and excited about teaching you.

 

To most other music players, teaching is a side hustle.

In other words, it takes a back seat to performing. In other words, it’s just something to fill the time until they play. In other words, not the kind of teacher that’s going to prioritize your learning.

 

Amazing players don’t always make amazing teachers.

When something comes naturally to someone, it’s easy for them to lose sight of the struggle that a beginner might experience when they learn it, or the amount of time that a beginner might take to grasp it. An “amazing player/inexperienced teacher” will usually cope with this by adopting a disciplinarian attitude and hardline evaluation process.

 

Many career musicians lack viable business skills.

Let’s face it, musicians are not famous for their business skills. But in today’s day and age, it’s more important than ever— recording, publishing, and marketing are more accessible than ever. To a student, a teacher with poor business skills might translate to poor customer service, poor negotiation skills, being spread too thin as a result of undercharging for their services, and poor intuition for designing a teaching business that gives value to its customers.

 

Most music schools are either musical sweat shops or struggling to stay afloat.

Most other ‘churn and burn’ music schools sacrifice long-term success for short-term cash. They’ll take anyone that will pay for for their underpriced services regardless of whether they have a decent instrument, demonstrable commitment, or reasonable expectations for success. As a result, they pack their studios with flash-in-the-pan personalities, quickly burn out their teachers, and spread themselves too thin.

 

Most other music school curriculums are not song-based.

The overwhelming majority of players that have had a long, satisfying, and productive career/hobby of music playing did not begin with Rockin Theme #27 from Shmal Lennard Book 1, so why should you??? They heard something that sounded cool to them, and sought out someone to help them learn it or figured it out on their own. In the meantime, they were never taught how to teach and create an environment of learning, tried to patch it up with a poorly designed beginner’s method book, and called themselves a teacher for hire. Rockwell remembers the spark that started it all and seeks the song in every student that walks through the doors.

They Have A Guitar, What Can I Get Them?

There is plenty of stuff for guitarists to spend their money on. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if guitar players were the most marketed audience among musicians.

Maybe you know someone that just picked up the guitar, has shown a lot of potential and commitment, and you'd like to feed the dream a little with a well-targeted gift for the holidays. Here are some ideas to feed the dream.

Pedals

Pedals are basically little electronic boxes that you can plug in between your guitar and amp and can give you different sounds like distortion, overdrive, echo or delay, reverb, modulation effects, and so on and so forth. Have they been learning Enter Sandman but their amplifier doesn't quite deliver the metal badassery that the song calls for? You probably need a distortion pedal.

A description of the popular sounds is a little beyond the scope of this article, but there are two types of pedals: a dedicated pedal and a multi-effects pedal.

A dedicated pedal will do one sound very well and offer a little variation on that one sound. A multi effects pedal will offer many sounds but might not deliver them as perfectly as a dedicated pedal. A dedicated pedal might cost anywhere between $30-300 for one or two good sounds whereas a multi-effects pedal might cost $100-500 for 10 or 20 good sounds and a lot more flexibility.

For someone just beginning to get their toes wet, I would recommend a multi-effects pedal. Then once they find the sounds they use the most, they can collect the necessary dedicated pedals.

Boss Metal Zone (popular distortion)

Boss DD-3 Delay

Boss Tremolo (popular modulation effect)

Digitech RP55 Multi Effects Pedal (entry level)

Line 6 M9 Multi Effects Pedal (more advanced)

Capo

A pedal wouldn't be too practical for someone that only has an acoustic guitar, but a capo would be practical for both acoustic and electric. A capo is basically a metal bar with a pad on it that acts like an extra finger so that a player can move their open chords to other keys.

Capos can be very useful when you want to change the key of a song but not learn any new chord shapes. I'd say this is a must-have for players who learn songs to sing and play them, rather than just straight ahead guitar playing and no singing.

Shubb Guitar Capo-- the one I recommend most

Magazines

Some of my favorite guitar publications are Premier Guitar, Guitar World, Guitar Player, and Guitar Aficionado. It's a great way to broaden one's exposure to new music, products, trends, artist interviews, gear discussion and analysis, and music lessons.

Guitar World

Premier Guitar

Guitar Player

Guitar Aficionado

Picks And Strings

A guitar player can never have too many picks or strings. Sometimes though, these things come with very personal player preferences. Make sure you check in or do some detective work before you spend money.

My go to source for guitar strings and picks

Easy Guitar Hack: The F Chord

If I had a penny for every single time a student or scholar of the guitar came to me and told me that they quit taking guitar lessons or learning guitar because they couldn't get the F chord, I would be able to give my lessons for free. I don't know if it's a Minnesota thing or a St. Paul thing but it comes up a lot.

Many people have stuck with the guitar but skip over complete songs just because it has an F chord. It doesn't matter how head over heels passionate they were about the song, if they found out it had an F chord they dropped it like a bad habit.

Why Is The F Chord So Hard?

Unfortunately, the majority of guitar teaching materials out there give you the information without any consideration to how hard (or interesting) it will be for beginner fingers and brains. The author or publisher has forgotten what it's like to be a beginner. That means that you're going to get full-on bar chords on page 2 in between London Bridge (tacky nursery rhyme) and note memorization (boring subject).

Also, the F bar chord is located on fret 1 which is the hardest place to play a bar chord on the entire guitar neck. The frets are spaced the farthest apart in this area of the fretboard, so fingers need to stretch farther. And it doesn't matter if your hands are big, half of the equation is finger muscle control. The majority of new students have one but not the other.

Is It All Or Nothing?

It's not. And a good teacher knows that most things aren't.

Here's how to break it down into more simple, manageable, and achievable pieces (this is what we do at Rockwell Guitar School) :

A big-boy F major barre chord.

A big-boy F major barre chord.

Lowest note to highest note, the F barre chord on fret 1 contains these notes: F-C-F-A-C-F. So we have 3 Fs, 2 Cs, and an A. As you can see, there are repetitions of the same note. The bare minimum to construct an F chord is 1 F, 1 A, and 1 C. So, you can do without some of the notes in the original example. Leave out the notes on the 6th, 5th, and 1st string. That should leave you with F, A, and C on strings 4-3-2. Play these notes with fingers 3-2-1, respectively.

I'd love to show you how to do it on your guitar in my Shoreview MN teaching studio, but for some of you that's not possible so I'm going to leave you with a handy video:

Strings for Beginners

I'm going to let you in on a little secret: guitar string brands don't matter as much as string materials, construction, and size. 

I know, "but the guy at Guitar Center said..."

What Are They Made Of?

It depends on what guitar you have, and what string you're talking about. For example, acoustic strings are different than electric strings. E, A, and D strings are going to be different than the G, B, and E strings on an electric. On an acoustic, the B and high E strings are different than the rest.

There are wound strings and plain strings on a guitar. On an acoustic, the G is wound. On an electric, the G is plain (not wound). The E, A, and D strings are always wound. A wound string consists of a steel core with another smaller steel wire wrapped around it. The outer steel wire is usually plated with nickel on an electric, and bronze alloy on an acoustic.

Plain strings are just a steel wire with plating on it-- usually nickel for an electric and bronze for an acoustic. Plain strings are easier to bend than wound strings which is why the G is usually plain on an electric.

Sometimes strings are 'coated'. The composition of the coating depends on the manufacturer, but generally it is a variation on a polymer or plastic. This coating helps to keep the dirt and grime of of your strings, and lets them last longer. Usually coated strings are more expensive than uncoated strings.

How Do I Know When To Change Strings?

Pay attention when your strings are new because the aging process happens so slowly you might not even notice. When strings are old, they lose their shine, can become somewhat sticky, and sound a little less bright and jangly than they did when they were new. You probably won't notice a huge difference until you put new ones on.

The amount of time needed between string changes varies with the individual. It really depends on your body type (and indirectly with things like diet, fitness, composition, etc.). If your skin is acidic and oily, you will go through strings quicker. If you are dry, fit and consistently clean-handed, your strings will last a long time. It could be a matter of weeks or months. If you are a nashville player, you might change strings as frequently as every couple of hours.

How Can I Take Care of My Strings?

There are a couple of things you can do to maintain your strings so they last as long as possible. Most importantly, wash your hands before you play and wipe down the strings with a clean polishing cloth after you play. There are also string conditioner compounds that will help fight dirt, grime, Minnesota elements, and string-to-finger friction. Also, keep your guitar covered when not in use so that dust doesn't settle on it, and take care of your own body too. If you're desperate, you can boil your strings like Eddie Van Halen to make them last longer.

How Do I Know What Is Best For Me?

Like a lot of guitar products, the best way to know is to play it and/or experience it. The marketers want you to believe that all you have to do is buy the product your guitar idols use, but that's a stretch. Make a note of the players you like and what they're using, but don't forget to try it for yourself and put it through a somewhat organized evaluation process. For the best idea, record yourself to audio or video and review it, and also check out the documentation of other guitar players on places like YouTube or more independent record labels. 

Tired of the guitar store not carrying your favorite brand? This is my go-to website for buying that special set of guitar strings, especially in bulk.

 

Guitar Picks for Beginners

Why are picks important?

Guitar picks are very important. They are like the tires on your car-- they are the contact point between the driver and the instrument and they facilitate the function of the two together. You get in your car and drive it because you want to go somewhere, right? You pick up your guitar and play it because you want to make music, right? Tires and picks are the contact point of the function.

What are the options?

Guitar picks come in so many sizes, thicknesses, shapes, materials, textures, brands, and prices. There are even more exotic options: picks made of wood, stone, metal alloys, complex construction techniques, etc.

How do I find the best one?

The best way for you to find the right one is to buy a variety pack or assortment of the above variables, try all of them, and find the one that you like the best. That way, you only have one of each version that you don't like. When you find the one you like the most, buy a pack of those. The ideal variety option is going to have an assortment of brands as well, the only problem is that most brands aren't going to sell packs with picks made by other companies. The Dunlop variety pack has the best assortment of picks for any one brand, in my opinion. I just found a variety pack like this and shipped it to my guitar teaching studio in St. Paul Minnesota.

 

What should I avoid?

DON'T begin with a 20-pack of the same pick that you've never tried before. If it's not the best pick for you, that's money you could have spent finding something better. 

Why Do I Even Need A Teacher?

It's a valid question. The internet has revolutionized the way we access and have access to information. Transcriptions to your favorite music are available quicker and more efficiently. Tabs for just about anything musical exist. There are a plethora of videos out there that will show you how to play everything note for note. If you look hard enough, you can find method books or transcription books available for free or little cost.

But there is still a need for the live, one on one lesson in the basement of a church in St. Paul MN. If you find the right teacher, it can even be a more effective use of your money.

You Don't Know What You Don't Know

This is the biggest reason why you need a teacher: you don't know what you don't know, but a good teacher will be able to find out. There is considerable value in having an intelligent individual ask the right questions to figure out what the next step is for you, and develop a plan of approach to get you there. That is what a teacher does.

Entertainment Value

It might sound funny, but a good guitar lesson is half entertainment and half education. Many teachers laugh at the notion that half of it is entertainment, but I would bet that group also has terrible retention, frustrated students, and 'just teaches on the side' so they can pay the bills.

Why is entertainment value important in a guitar lesson? At every age level, attention is held & retained the best when it's funny, enthusiastic, and keeps you on your toes. The same goes for a guitar teacher! I have known some world-class teachers who went unrecognized because of their lack of these qualities in their teaching routine.

Experience Is The Best Teacher

Remember that hard place you were in where you were looking for your first job but they required 5 years experience to be considered? Well how do you get experience when you haven't even had a job yet? A teacher makes that easier. They have experience. It's their job to share it with you. Learn from their mistakes.

 

First Instruments For Beginners

So your child just told you he wants to learn guitar. He's always sung along to the radio in the car and you think he's pretty musical so you decide to surprise him for christmas. Your buddies at work all recommend acoustic guitars for beginners (they're more quiet) and Martins and Taylors are the best, so that's what you get him. After all, you want the best for your kid, right?

Good intentions, but not necessarily good choices.

Everybody Loves Music

Just because your kid sings in the car or bangs on the kitchen pots and pans doesn't mean you should buy him a big name guitar and lessons-- lots of kids do these things. Making noise and singing at the top of your lungs is a primal instinct for many children. I recommend enrolling your kid in an early education music class as a musical litmus test of sorts. These classes have lots of musical games and activities, and there is also a social element in the group setting.

Electric For Starters

One of the biggest hurdles when you're first learning guitar is simply the physical task of getting your fingers to do what you want them to. Electric guitars use lighter strings and usually have lower action (string height) so they will be easier on the fingers. They also won't hurt as much while a beginner is getting callouses. 

Many parents associate acoustic guitars with lower volume, but they don't know or realize that an unplugged electric is more quiet than an acoustic.

An electric guitar is also more durable than an acoustic. Young students bang their guitars on everything. They're just not used to the dimensions and balance of a guitar, nor do they realize that a wooden guitar responds to simple environmental changes like temperature and moisture in the air. No joke, these Minnesota winters are harsh on my St. Paul guitars, even the loaner guitar I keep in my teaching studio. So buy them a good student instrument while they learn how to take care of it, and get them the Martin later. It'll give them something to work toward.

Too Cheap

I've received lots of inquiries from potential students before they had an instrument, and they usually want to know how much to expect to pay for an instrument. My ballpark figure is $200-$500, anything less is a toy and not an instrument, and anything more is a liability in the hands of a beginner. Some people are shocked when they hear these figures, but really it's no big deal compared to other instrument prices. Don't believe me? Check out the prices on violins and saxophones.

Buy Used

If you feel savvy enough, you can get a better instrument for a better price and overall better value if you buy used. In general, shops that sell used gear feature 'pre-approved' stuff on their shelves. They're not going to take in junk if they can't get rid of it. Ebay also has great deals but you have to be more savvy to not get ripped off.

Moral of the Story

Don't buy them the Martin or Taylor yet. A high end instrument might sound better and be made better but it could be discouraging to a beginner when it reveals the flaws in their technique. Save that for later and teach them dedication and work ethic in the meantime.

For the dollar, this is a very good value pack for beginning guitar players. I've seen many new students learn successfully on these guitars and still have a decent guitar when all is said and done. It will include everything you need to get started, except a guitar teacher :) If you you're looking for a cheaper price...let's get real: this is a cheap price.