How To Teach Yourself Classical Guitar

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How To Teach Yourself Classical Guitar

It is important to acknowledge from the outset that:

  1. Nobody is really “self taught”
  2. A teacher does not make you a better player

A self taught guitarist does not sit in a room with a guitar and no other influences, fumbling around until things start to fall into place. Rather, she will have numerous sources of information, inspiration, and guidance from around the world thanks to our modern ease of access to information and products. Method books, youtube videos, blog posts, concerts, recordings, these days they all play a part in our education.

I think what we are really saying when we talk about “self taught” is the fact that we do not have a regular ongoing connection with a teacher.

To be sure, having a teacher whether it be private or in a group, is a luxury and a privilege. However, it does not mean you will become a better player!

A teacher is a guide. This guide should provide a curated and customized path upon which you can travel. If, along the way, you veer from the path or pick up bad habits then your teacher should intervene and get you back on track. But the teacher can’t practice for you, nor can they give you experience, that is still up to you.

Furthermore, you are not guaranteed to have a good teacher just because you are paying for it. I’ll just leave it at that.

Guitar Learning Spectrum

Like many things in life self learning can be considered on a spectrum.

“I just picked it up”

I suppose there must be some people out there who really did pick up the instrument and figured it out on their own; learning pieces by ear from recordings and watching intently at concerts can provide an adventurous path with mixed results.

In the earlier to mid 20th Century there were fewer pedagogical materials around, and they were difficult to come by. This scarcity resulted in a wonderful flowering of idiomatic playing styles. For all of those who made their idiosyncratic styles work, however, I can only imagine that there was a much larger part of the iceberg for whom the experimental approach was less successful. These days, with such vast resources, guitarists have become more homogenized in both sound and technique.

Hopping around YouTube and the Internet

It is the golden age of information, and classical guitarists get a lovely slice of the pie. Information is not scarce anymore but its proliferation has brought with it some other challenges.

  1. Quality of instruction has gone out the window

There have always been bad teachers, but now they have a much larger platform to teach from. Unfortunately, marketing and tech prowess can take a poor teacher quite a long way in the online world and while students with some experience may be able to spot these teachers, beginners will have a harder time.

2. Information overload

One of the most important tasks a teacher can undertake is to provide the student with the right information and materials at the right time. Online materials that are disconnected and out of order can be damaging for your progress and leave gaps, sometimes skipping over important foundational steps.

3. Frustration and Motivation

The result of the previous two challenges (quality of instruction and information overload) is frustration.

Rather than blame the teacher or the materials, we tend to blame ourselves first thinking that we can’t do it or the classical guitar is too hard for us. This is the most insidious of the challenges we face in this part of the spectrum because we don’t have anyone there to keep us motivated and on the right path. Add to this a lack of accountability with no one to check in on you and you run the risk of abandoning classical guitar all together.

Method Books

Affordable, structured, and often of a decent quality, method books have long been a popular method of “self teaching”.

The great advantage of method books is the ability to feel progress through the chapters, have materials provided in a suitable order, and benefit from a thought out program of study.

Teachers who have not developed their own curriculum will often use method books to enhance their private lessons, essentially offering feedback and pacing as you go through the book.

I have nothing against method books, except for the fact that they were created in a time when multimedia was not an option. If you presented me with the option of text, music, and static images vs. video, live sessions, community, audio, text, static images, and combinations of all of the above… I would choose the latter.

Dedicated Online Schools

An online school for classical guitar takes all of the aspects of a traditional method book and enhances them. Images become video demonstrations, written duets for teacher and student have audio play alongs, the repertoire list can continually grow and diversify while remaining structured, and you can learn through nuanced videos rather than reading text.

They also add many new features:

  • An online community to keep you motivated and accountable
  • Live sessions to provide feedback
  • Personalized video responses
  • Grading exams
  • Goals and rewards

One of the larger benefits provided by method books and online schools that does not exist in private tuition is the ability to absorb information over time. No matter how profound the information your teacher imparts on you, if you don’t understand it, or you are not ready to receive it, then the information is wasted. Online courses allow you to re-visit lessons as many times as you need to let it sink in. In my opinion, this is one of the most underrated qualities of online education.

Of course, online education is not for everyone. It does rely on a modicum of self discipline and at the very least a willing approach to computers. For those whom it does fit, it is a wonderful solution.

Private Teacher/Degree Programs

Usually viewed as the apogee of classical guitar education, this option comes with a big caveat; its effectiveness depends largely on the teacher.

Yes, it is a powerful learning tool to have personalized feedback, however, if you are learning a piece that is too difficult for you, you can have all the feedback in the world and it will do little to help. Likewise, if you have not been taught proper technical or musical fundamentals from the outset, a teacher that is unwilling to take you back and fix those things is doing more of a disservice than anything else.

My biggest gripe with all instrumental teachers (not just classical guitar teachers) is that they were never taught how to teach.

You might be lucky and find a teacher who approaches teaching like the art it is. Someone who is skilled in communicating, and takes care of their students.

On the other hand, you might find a guitarist that is teaching out of financial necessity.

Ultimately, this is on the most effective end of the spectrum for learning classical guitar, just make sure you find a good teacher.

Let’s Bake a Cake

(ingredients that go into a self-learning program)

  • The right information at the right time
  • The right repertoire at the right time
  • The right exercises at the right time
  • Inspiration and Motivation
  • Consistency and Discipline
  • Correction and Guidance

Let’s go through these ingredients and find some solutions for the self learner.

Timing is everything

I have talked about this idea before, but getting your information, exercises, and repertoire at the right time is crucial. By tackling material that is just one step out of reach you will make progress and feel good about it. Its a tricky balance to strike and often where “self learners” feel stuck.

In the Classical Guitar Corner Academy we solve this problem by providing a very structured path through our different levels. As we teach theory, technique, repertoire, sight reading, and other skills it has been effective to carve out a program that walks the student through each lesson while connecting and relating to what has already been learned before. It is highly structured and guides our students through the substantial amount of material provided for them.

Other ways to structure your learning in this manner include using method books and also using the “grade” systems that are available in various countries. These grade systems provide curated repertoire, theory, and technique books (as does Classical Guitar Corner) that are grouped at various difficulty levels. Even if you do not intend to take the exams, these grade systems will provide you a certain amount of curation that can be very useful.

These organizations include:

  • The AMEB (Australia)
  • ABRSM (UK)
  • Trinity College London (UK)
  • The Royal Conservatory of Music (Canada)

I cannot underemphasize  the importance of playing repertoire that is suited to your level. It is by far the biggest mistake made by guitar students around the world and if you are tackling appropriate material you are already ahead of the game.

Inspiration and Motivation

These two make up the secret sauce of success. If you are inspired and motivated, then you have fuel to practice.

I do my best to provide the classical guitar community at large with inspiration and motivation through the CGC blogs and podcast but I feel like the most powerful source will always be in-person experiences.

This was confirmed for me after running our inaugural CGC Summer School. It was truly a transformative event for the attendees and it has given a palpable boost to our online community throughout the rest of the year.

Attending concerts, masterclasses, regional events, guitar festivals, and classical guitar society events can all provide you with a boost of inspiration. I encourage you to seek out events near you throughout the year, and perhaps save up to travel to one of the many guitar festivals or Summer Schools that run each year.

Consistency and Discipline

Like I said in the beginning, a teacher will not make you a better guitarist, that job is still (and will always be) up to you.

As many of you know, practicing a little each day is better than practicing in one chunk once a week. It is easier said than done, and further complicated with work/family responsibilities.

The hard truth is that you have to make time for practice, it can’t be found.

Take some time to schedule out your practice, and furthermore, be vigilant of how you use that practice time. Set short term, achievable goals and don’t forget to pat yourself on the back when you reach them.

One of the great assets of having a private teacher is that your regular session provides a fixed point in time that aids your consistency and the potential for a pep talk helps you stay disciplined.

Things that can supplant this need include:

Signing up to play at your classical guitar society

Organizing a little soiree (no matter how informal!) and actually inviting people

Registering to take on of the grade exams or certificate courses at CGC

Join a guitar ensemble that requires you to turn up to rehearsals

Basically, you need to set a goal and if you start involving other people in that goal then they can help you by keeping you accountable. Even one persons asking where you were at the last society meeting, or a spouse asking “what happened to that house concert you were talking about?” these can all act as the little nudges that keep us practicing and disciplined.

Correction and Guidance

This is the most tangible benefit of private tuition. So how can we achieve this as a self learner?

  1. Recording Yourself

As a guitarist you may be a beginner, but you most likely have more musical acumen than you give yourself credit for.

It is easier to sit back and critique playing than it is to actually play (thanks captain obvious!) and you can use this to your advantage by listening back to your own playing. If you have had private lessons in the past then you might be able to acknowledge that more than half the time the teacher is pointing out things that you already knew, you just needed some prodding to work on it. Now you can prod yourself!

Here is a detailed guide on recording yourself for practice.

2. Feedback in forums or societies

At Classical Guitar Corner Academy we have a vibrant forum where teachers and students give feedback on video performances. I also run live sessions where students can play and get personal feedback. I can also recommend Delcamp as an excellent forum for classical guitar but I am not sure if they offer community feedback.

In a similar way, you can play at your local guitar society meeting and get feedback from fellow members.

3. Have a one off lesson

There is nothing stopping you from asking a teacher for a one off lesson. If you have a specific set of things you want to check with a trained set of eyes it could be money very well spent.

Just be sure to have a list of things you want addressed and make it clear to the teacher that is what you want to work on. Think of it like taking your car to the mechanic! You could even record the lesson to go over what was discussed.

4. Masterclasses and workshops

Just like the one off lesson above, you can make the most of masterclasses and workshops that are usually attached to festivals and events by having specific issues addressed in your lesson.

Share your insights

I know many of you are self taught out there, so if you would like to share what has worked for you, please do so in the comments below.

2017-10-11T19:35:19+00:00 11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. Bob October 2, 2017 at 4:13 am - Reply

    Hi Simon, Thanks so much for sending me this resource! It has led me to realize that CGC is a tremendous resource that I need to learn to use – to literally wring every drop of knowledge out of it because there is so much available. Case in point: you know from my submissions that I have had a miserable time trying to record and upload my grade submissions to you via YouTube. I’m sure that a simple query or ten to the forum would have provided me with the information that I need plus all of the experience others have gained in working through related issues. I need to adjust the way I think about learning the guitar. I fear I have fallen into a very self- destructive rut with my instruction over the past dozen years. The good news is that there is definitely a bright light at the end of the tunnel! I really began to recognize this when I started recording myself for my first submissions. It was the first time I ever heard myself play. It was dreadful! …but so easily repairable with the correct attitude and tools. I was amazed to find that when the red recording light comes on that it provides many of the same demands and stresses as playing in front of others. I had to record 90 takes to put together that first set of submissions. I am determined that the camera will become my friend. I need to use it to play for you and the others in the Sunday live sessions. Thanks again! My brain is bubbling over with possibilities that have been trying to get out for a long time. Back to the drawing board….

  2. joannes October 2, 2017 at 8:12 am - Reply

    Hi simon,

    I recieved your email about teaching yourself classical guitar and i will reply here.
    I think not only me but many of the CGC members do not have a private teacher regularly.
    we all have a different background and although i can and do teach myself in many ways
    i wanted to become a member of CGC for the structured way of CGC Akademie where i can take your and Dave’s valuable advise and also your lessons about Harmony.
    with a limited time of practice I often can fall back to the structured way your lessons are organized without thinking too much about what and how to practice.
    it motivates me everyday in my practice routines to look for improvement.
    unfortunately i cannot always contribute so much as i want in the forums but this can change in time.
    thanks for all your efforts to make CGC Akademie a place to return to.

  3. Myles October 2, 2017 at 10:29 am - Reply

    Hi Simon. Thank you for a fantastic overview of all the different opportunities to learn guitar with the emphasis on the fact that you have to do the work yourself.

    Among the salient points for me are:

    “The right repertoire at the right time”. I initially took up guitar because I was writing songs and wanted to be able to accompany myself. Over time I became reasonably proficient (mainly on steel string) in a number of styles but eventually tired of the “rut” of being a mainly chordal player who long ago reached a plateau. I took up classical guitar initially purely to force myself to do different things with my hands. I always liked Capricho Arabe so thought “Oh, I’ll learn that”. My first experience of playing this in front of others at an intensive guitar weekend was a humbling one, but a really useful lesson. And if you try to play something beyond your current level in public, your nerves will slaughter you!

    “Inspiration and Motivation”. I cannot overstate what a shot in the arm for my enthusiasm this summer’s CGC Summer School proved to be. I highly recommend it to all players at any level (even though I’d really love to keep it as an exclusive club!). The combination of wonderful company with the same interests, the highest level of tuition and joining in group work is invaluable. Great fun and good food too. (It all helps!)

    “Consistency and Discipline”; Since the CGC Summer School I have practised in a structured way every day (or near as dammit). I was amused by the spouse in your piece nudging the classical guitarist to have a house concert, because it may not be like that for everybody. My wife is a wonderful woman who I love but it doesn’t stop her from complaining that “You don’t play tunes any more” or that “It’s the same thing over and over”. In our small house I don’t have the luxury of somewhere to go to where I can practice completely unheard, so I have had to make it clear that I will be doing at least an hour’s practice each day and that now seems to be accepted. After all she can always drown out any sounds leaking out of my little practice room by turning up some loud hip-hop in the front room! By the way Tommy Emmanuel talks about this on YouTube. Repetition is the name of the game, he says, and you shouldn’t expect your family to be overjoyed about it! Having to assert myself over this proved to me how much I love learning to play classical guitar (with all its challenges) and I aint going to give it up!

    “Correction and guidance”. Through the contacts I made at the CGC Summer School I now have an excellent teacher who lives close to me here in London. I contact him when I have familiarised myself with what I’ve been working on and am ready for advice on technical and musical factors and to get further exercises and repertoire to work on. As I found out with the humbling experience with Capricho Arabe described above, it’s impossible to assess and guide yourself effectively. Whether through a private teacher or through an excellent online resource like CGC or both, expert guidance is vital.

  4. Roger Hyam October 2, 2017 at 11:40 am - Reply

    Another useful talk – thanks.

    A thing it would be useful to have tips on is “How can I tell the piece I’m working on is too advanced for me and that I should put it aside for another time?”

    A new piece will always be challenging to some degree – that’s why we do it – but how do I know if it is inappropriately challenging for my development?

  5. Gene Manko October 3, 2017 at 12:20 am - Reply

    Wonderful podcast. I am a member of CGC for a little more than one year. I continue my learning at my own pace and am enjoying the certificate course for level 1. Although I have not participated in the live seminars nor submitted any of my music, I continue to marvel at my ability to learn at age 71 an instrument that I started playing 2 years ago. Thank you for all of the effort you and your team has committed to structure such a terrific web site. I look forward to joining you at the next summer session.

  6. Raffy Lata October 3, 2017 at 3:48 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the insight. However, my viewpoint is that we are all self-taught. You started the article by clarifying what self-taught means and to me, it’s not the absence of a teacher. Being self-taught is having the grit and predisposition to pursue a challenge and stick with it until a resolution is achieved. Like you said later on in your article, our progress and success depend entirely on ourselves. Whether we have a teacher or if we solely rely on books and multimedia, we still end up teaching ourselves. I believe Segovia (the greatest self-taught classical guitarist) said the same thing, but that was something I found out much later. Thanks

  7. Steve October 5, 2017 at 4:51 pm - Reply

    Perils of a self taught guitarist:
    For the TLDR crowd: poor technique and bad habits.
    I purchased my 1st guitar in the 1960s. A friend at summer camp showed me a few simple chords and strums. I picked up more chords from charts, but never acquired any barre chords. Later another friend showed me a simple RH arpeggio pattern (pipm). I worked this into sounding the melody with the thumb and plucking chorded treble strings with my fingers. I wasn’t fussy about where my idle digits were: my LH thumb even came over the top of the fret board for some chords, LH fingers up in the air when not on the fretboard, RH fingers flew where ever they needed to be. At some point I had traded in my metal strings for nylon because I wasn’t playing often enough to maintain my calluses. All was good for the folk music I was playing.
    Twenty some years later I stumbled across a PBS series by Frederick Noad. I had always enjoyed listening to Classical/Spanish guitar, so I was intrigued. I ordered the work book and started following the show. After a few months I decided to find a professional teacher. But I didn’t know enough to select a proper teacher. He was a finger-style jazz player. Lessons focused on learning ALL the triad fingerings and working them around the melody. Nice, but not what I was looking for. I replaced him in a few months. My next instructor is a guitar virtuoso, mostly flamenco, but also classically trained at Sorbonne. He started professionally touring in his teens, and had even played Carnegie Hall. I learned a lot of new music, still in 1st position, but very little in technique. There was no correction of my flailing fingers. But a job transfer and life got in the way. The guitar became an occasional friend in my life.
    Fast forward to retirement (another twenty years) and the classical guitar comes back into my life. I start with method books (Shearer, Parkening, Noad, Tennant, even Carcassi), but most of it didn’t click. What was this thing called a rest stroke? What was “preparation”?
    As part of retirement, I became a ‘snow bird’. Travelling South for the winter; usually someplace different each year. One winter I went to the local music store and hired an instructor; this time being sure he taught classical guitar. Lessons included new music and some technique. I acquired a rest stroke for scale work, but not songs. This scale work also opened up the fret board, taking me down towards the bridge. I started controlling my LH thumb, but my fingers (LH & RH) still flew away from the strings when not occupied.
    The next winter I tried online instruction. Not formal course work, but rather a few individual songs, like Simon’s lesson for Tarrega’s Lagrima. While I acquired some desired tunes for my repertoire, these did little to correct my flawed technique.
    This past winter I hired another instructor. He paid attention to my technique! He introduced me to the RH arpeggios of Abloniz, played slowly, the method books of Sagreras with melodic exercises focusing on individual techniques like rest strokes, and the Segovia scale exercises. We even started diving back into the Carcassi studies. I continue to work my way through the Sagreras work books. But perhaps best advice he gave me was, “Slow down! Focus on where your fingers are; both when moving , but particularly at rest.” While we made some progress on my flaws, bad habits are VERY hard to break.
    This winter I’m not sure what I’ll do. Probably continue through the Sagreras, picking up the occasional tip online. But whatever it is, it will be slow and focused!

  8. Thomas October 7, 2017 at 5:23 pm - Reply

    Hello Simon, thanks for sharing this wonderful bit of information. It really gives me a better perspective on the reality of learning from an online program. On the other hand, I am also pursuing a degree in music at college. I kind of feel over burdened with information and knowledge at times and can become distraught or hopeless about the future. Although, the challenges of learning classical guitar and obtaining a degree are worth the hard work. So I am very excited to be apart of CGC, it has helped explain things to me that some college music courses have not. Looking forward to the next podcast!

  9. Craig McCallum October 13, 2017 at 3:32 pm - Reply

    This is an interesting piece, thanks Simon.

    I’m a re-learner, having given up on the classical guitar 15 years ago, and I have started out using the tuition offered on the Delcamp forum. There’s a structured curriculum, although some might find the very timetabled approach frustrating if they’d like to be more self guided. The general method of feedback is to upload videos, and for course mates to provide feedback for each other (with more experienced hands dropping in to provide feedback to the beginners threads).

    I’m finding it very useful so far (I’m only a couple of months in), but I do think over time I’d prefer a curriculum that I can take more at my own pace. I need to start saving money so that I can get that Classical Guitar Corner annual membership I’ve been eyeing up…

  10. Bruce October 16, 2017 at 5:34 am - Reply

    Hi Simon:

    This podcast is spot-on. I am an older player returning to the guitar after a couple decades of “taking care of life and business, etc.” When I first tried the waters, about four years ago, I thought that I should find a teacher and have live one-on-one lessons. Then I discovered the resources on the internet. I was skeptical. Now I am a true believer. Your site, and the other ones I work with, are fantastic. An embarrassment of riches. Now I have come to conclusion that — at least for now — the hybrid approach, combining the best of all the mediums — is the way to go. True, I already have a lot of experience in the past to draw on — but I remember you said that one of the rewards for you at the CGC summer camp last June (also great, by the way) was to see how students who were true beginners had done with only your internet-site instruction — and that the results were very positive. I can believe it. If a person is motivated, excited with the love for the instrument, curious, and connected, then this is a great time to be learning, and the resources are fabulous. Keep up the great podcasts.

  11. Franciscus J Welman October 18, 2017 at 3:47 pm - Reply

    I am learning the SOLE a no 2 that you showed on the internet. Who is the composer of this piece?
    In play classical music of the great composers on my steinway # B , but I was struck with neurology amyattrofe and could not play
    with my right arm.
    I took up the guitar and enjoy your teaching.

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