Kids are often bursting with a love of music, at least when they are very young, and the guitar has been the dominant instrument in our culture for quite a while now. Why are most of the children's music programs not involving guitars? How can we do better? Is ukulele really the best alternative? This is a look at the issues, problems, pros and cons and ways to solve the problems that are holding it back.
Children between the ages of 5 and 12 have not been learning to play guitar for a number of reasons. They have not been able to easily learn to form the chords they need to accompany themselves in keys they can sing in, the instruments they are typically given are not the best choice, and there isn't a compelling repertoire of songs to motivate them to learn. Let's look at all the interconnected issues. I could have broken this up into issues with chords, keys, songs or guitars but I wanted it all here in one place.
First I'll give you a glimpse of the future to show that there is a "better way." This is what I advocate as a model for what our children could and should be doing with their guitars, and I call it the Liberty Guitar Method. It is a way to simplify the left-hand chording, which is the primary hurdle for beginners who want to sing and strum. This 7-year-old boy has spent a handful of hours of his life playing guitar. He is innately musical, but millions of other children could readily learn to play chords and strum like this if they knew the secret to Liberty Tuning, which is the primary reason for his success. (Here are some other performances by Levi at age 6 or 7 and a few other kids.) Given the right tools, kids seem to be quite capable of playing "real songs" the way they feel them, with no adults accompanying or conducting. What Levi is doing here looks very natural, since it's just playing & singing a song, but have you seen a child this age do this before?
There are a number of factors that have contributed to the stagnant or non-existent children's guitar education situation. First realize there are 2 basic approaches to guitar education:
1) Instrumental guitar. Either with a pick playing single notes, or fingerstyle. Students usually just play a few notes, and it is usually part of a group. Very few people get very far in playing solo instrumental guitar, and it is not easy or reasonable in my opinion for children or adults to do this unless they have a real passion or need to do it. There is a lot of practice time involved to master the skills, and it rarely involves much rhythm, which is the fundamental and most compelling element in music, especially for children. Instrumental guitar is what the well-known Suzuki guitar program teaches. There hasn't been an instrumental guitar artist or band in the public eye for almost 50 years, and the other destination of this kind of guitar is the guitar orchestra, which is a music school contrivance.
2) Rhythm guitar: playing chords to accompany singing. This is what the majority of people do with guitars, and it is vastly more accessible than instrumental guitar. What I am advocating and discussing is this kind, that I sometimes call "recreational, "troubadour" or "campfire" guitar. It is more likely to offer meaningful musical experiences for beginners, and it is what most people do with the guitar. We should all be very familiar with the idea of guitar as a rhythm instrument, essentially a drum that you sing with. Until you can generate at least 2 and preferably 3 chords on the guitar in a way that creates the rhythm and accompaniment of the song in a key where someone can sing it, there isn't any music. The task of "learning to play guitar" becomes the task of learning to generate those chords well enough to make a song happen. The fundamental reason that children's guitar programs are not flourishing is because children generally can't play those chords. Why?
1) Hand size is the first and fundamental hurdle.
It's always been conventional wisdom that children can't really play guitar much until they get big enough to handle the basic chords, usually around age of 13. Here are 5 of the 14 open chords everyone has to learn (not pictured are A7, B7, C7, D7, E7, G7, Am, Dm and Em):
Nobody learns these chords instantly, especially not elementary school children. It typically takes a motivated adult beginner weeks or months to be able to change chords with enough facility to be able to strum a rhythm and sing even a very simple song. The failure rate of adults is above 90% for learning to strum these chords and sing some songs.
The starting point for beginning folk guitar is now generally accepted to be the D-A7 chord change, though there are some other approaches we'll look at later. With D-A7 you can sing a few dozen 2-chord songs in the key of D, though the motor skills are not trivial for forming the chord shapes, nor is it easy to avoid the low E string while you strum the D chord. (See the little "x" on the D chord diagram...) Even if the guitar were the right size for a child to hold and play, there is little in the way of an "immediate success experience" when a child or an adult tries to play these chords:
Before we go deeper into the beginning chord problem, let's look at the instruments themselves. One of the responses to children being too small to play adult guitars has been to make smaller guitars.
2) The guitars we typically put in children's hands are not ideal.
Full-sized guitars have not typically worked well for young children, but making smaller instruments isn't the answer. There is a better type of guitar, but they are not common, and are hard to find in a music store.
Short-scale guitars have several unsolvable problems:
When you make a smaller-scale guitar, it means the length of the strings is shorter. it does have several advantages, and the idea has taken root and makes sense to people. The Suzuki violin programs have been in place for decades, and move the students through a series of smaller-scale instruments, beginning as early as age 4. They now do a similar thing with smaller guitars.
1) Smaller hands can theoretically form chords on the smaller fingerboard. So it feels like the right answer and it looks right.
2) Stores and instrument manufacturers make a sale that they otherwise wouldn't have. They are OK with selling them. And they get to sell a full-size guitar later if they are lucky.
3) Whoever buys the small guitar gets to feel good about offering to a child the opportunity to play guitar.
UNFORTUNATELY, THE DISADVANTAGES OVERWHELM THE ADVANTAGES:
1) Kids still can't readily master the basic chords. Even though their hands might match the fingerboard size, a small guitar doesn't make it easy to form the chords. Kids are in the same boat as adults with full-sized guitars, who typically have a 95% failure rate in learning guitar chords.
2) Small-scale instruments don't sound good when tuned to standard pitch. When you tune shorter strings to the same pitch as a full-size guitar, they are necessarily much looser, which means they often sound out of tune (especially the B string) and they have very poor tone and projection. Small-scale guitars generally don't sound rich and resonant, and that robs the student of a major pleasure in strumming guitar chords. (Yes, pleasure or lack of pleasure is a big factor in music education, and it's not all about discipline and practice and doing things correctly.)
3) Thicker stringsoffer more tonebut they are then much harder for young fingers to press down. Levi was playing a Taylor GS Mini, that has a shorter scale, but it is strung with medium-gauge steel strings (.013-.056), so it has similar response and feel to an adult guitar with light strings. Other children may have trouble pressing the strings down, and this guitar is not ideal for very young beginners. Levi learned first on a nylon-string and an electric guitar, and the videos we saw above were his first day playing the Taylor guitar, and he was clearly enjoying the bigger sound.
4) Tuning the small-scale guitar 2-3 frets higher is also a trade-off. It gives the instrument a lot more tone and response, but the strings are now tighter and thus harder to press down, and there is significantly less warmth to the overall sound. And a D chord is no longer a D chord (It becomes an E or an F), and doing this transposes everything confusingly and teaches the child things about the key they are playing in that are problematic to unlearn or to transfer to full-sized guitars. D is toward the high end of kids singing range, and F is normally not good for their voices on common songs.
5) Errors in design and manufacturing are magnified, and short-scale guitars are considerably more likely to be made poorly and to play slightly out of tune. Playing a guitar that has little tone and that can't play in tune is not a recipe for joyous learning for anyone. A few guitar companies are making high-quality, precision-made small-scale guitars, and they have more tone and play in tune better than their cheaper counterparts, but are still not the best answer, and usually cost $400-500.
Almost all acoustic guitars are unfortunately made with deep bodies. They are louder, but volume isn't the defining issue. Even thin guitars are plenty loud for singing, and those thick bodies make the whole process unnecessarily harder for everyone, even adults.
It's an unnecessary relic of the unamplified past that the vast majority of guitars made in the last 40 years have the dreadnought body shape that was introduced in the 1930's. I am a large man and I don't even like that body size (below L).
The most common guitar used in classrooms is an inexpensive nylon-string guitar (above R) that has a pretty nice tone, but a host of big problems with playability and ergonomics that you can't really see by looking at this photo:
• Very wide (2") fingerboard- Since classical guitar players use their bare hands and nails to play, they like the right-hand string spacing to be large. (Steel-string guitars have much narrower necks and the strings are closer together.)
• Flat fingerboard- Steel-string guitars actually have what are called "radiused" fingerboards that have a slight curvature to them. Nylon-string guitars have traditionally been flat. The radius fingerboards are easier to play, but harder to make, especially in the old days of using hand tools. The only reason nylon-string guitars have flat fingerboards is because they always have had them. You also need a flat capo for a nylon-string guitar and a curved capo for a steel-string, which is annoying and unnecessary.
• Very thick neck- It's a throwback to "traditional" guitar-making techniques that guitars "need" a thick neck to be stable and to sound their best. I am a big man with pretty big hands and I have never liked the standard classical guitar neck and neither do most players I know. (A lot of us call them "baseball bats.") And they are a dreadful choice for children. Steel-string guitars have much more tension, yet they have proven to be stable with thinner necks. The only reason nylon-string guitars have thick necks is because they always have had them.
• Deep body- Guitars used to have a need to be as loud as possible, but the thick body is a big impediment to playing for a lot of people. The standard and most common guitars used are not ideal for smaller people.
• No cutaway- Also a throwback to "traditional" guitar-making techniques, when it was hard to make a cutaway body and it was thought to make a lesser sound. Not only do good players need access to the higher frets that a cutaway body shape provides, but this is vital for getting children to sing in the right keys for their voices by using capos and using higher neck positions that are unavailable on the 12-fret standard classical guitar necks.
My research indicates that the best answer is for children and adults to play guitars with full scale length so they have tone and projection. They can be strung with normal strings and tuned to normal pitch, but with thinner bodies and narrower, thinner necks they are significanty more playable.
So-called "parlor guitars" are also a better choice than full-size adult guitars, since they have full-scale fingerboards (or close to it) but much smaller bodies. Unfortunately, they are hard to find in stores, cost more than children's guitars in general, and don't seem to be made with cutaway bodies or 14-fret necks, which I have found to be vital. If the guitar body were shallower and bigger it would work better for children, and look more normal.
Luckily some manufacturers are now finally making inexpensive, well-made nylon-string guitars with the same kind of slender, narrower necks and radiused fingerboards that have been typically found on steel-string guitars. Unfortunately, they are not commonly found in music stores or schools and few people are using or selling them. They are sometimes called "thinline," "hybrid" or "crossover" guitars, and seem to be aimed at the South American adult guitar market.
The guitars I recommend for both adults and children that I like to call a "family guitar" don't even have a reasonable name, but if you spend a few hundred dollars on one, young children and their parents can learn on it, and when the child grows up they can take it to college with them. They all have built-in pick-up systems for performing. They are often sold in steel-string or nylon-string versions, thinline body (T), 14-fret neck with radius fingerboard, "auditorium" body (A), cutaway" body shape (C), that sometimes have the name the letters TCE or A in their name. Above is a Lag T100ASCE-BLK and an Ibanez GA5TCE that are both good choices, though I like the Ibanez GA35TCE better than the GA5TCE because it has a sunburst finish, built-in electronic tuner, position dots, an XLR connector for stage use, and strap buttons. Most of the manufacturers make similar guitars that have thicker bodies, no cutaway, or possibly 12-fret necks. (The GA35TCE is a great beginner guitar, but the much deeper and similarly named GA35CE doesn't work as well.)
The small-body nylon-string guitars favored by the Suzuki Method have three advantages: 1) They are small enough to hold comfortably 2) they make the student feel like they are playing guitar, and 3) the strings are easy to press down. But I challenge any of you who play guitar well to have any fun at all playing one of these small nylon-string guitars, and I challenge the assumption of this hallowed music education program that instrumental classical guitar is the ultimate goal of children's guitar instruction. The instruments given to beginners offer very little in the way of resonance or tone. How do we encourage our children to bond with their instruments if they don't sound rich and resonant? Do you agree that this is a model of what children should be learning to do with their guitars?
3) Electric guitars are not a great option either.
A common "solution" to the problem of children who can't form chords on acoustic guitars is to give them electric guitars, where the strings are very easy to press down, and the necks are very thin. (Actually it is a "fallback position" and not a solution.) Music stores seem to advocate this, since they get to sell you an amp also, and it seems to be a path to something exciting. Pop artists often play and therefore glamorize electric guitars, the children feel powerful with them in their hands, familes enjoy buying them from salesmen who look like musicians, and respond well to the idea that their children might be playing popular instead of classical music. (Electric guitars fuel a lot more fantasies these days than acoustic guitars.) But because the chords are still too hard, the children are most often taught to play "riffs" and single-note passages, which is essentially instrumental guitar, and it is rarely musical or compelling enough for the children to get any forward musical momentum. It's also not a great idea to put electric guitars in the hands of small children, since the instruments can easily be loud, and it's easy to trip over wires. The typical result is an expense of $300+ for guitar and amp, plus several hundred more dollars in lessons and trips to the music store for the lessons, and those awful conversations about "you said you wanted to play guitar, and we spent all this money so you better practice or you'll lose privileges."
4) Schools need ensembles that involve lots of kids.
Almost all elementary school music I have seen involves groups of children singing while an adult plays piano or conducts. In middle/junior high school they typically start with band and orchestra instruments, with the focus on getting a lot of kids involved and playing together. It's hard to do this kind of thing with guitars. Tuning 20 guitars would take half of a music class period.
When you get more than 2 or 3 guitars strumming at once it quickly gets ragged and cacophonous, in part because different people feel song rhythms differently and different people's approaches to strumming are not always compatible. The guitar orchestra idea, while it does involve guitars, is not ideal either. It may be that "campfire" guitar can only be effective in the classroom when a few people are playing them. This is what happens in real life with guitars. At a party or campfire, there are often one or a few people playing and a lot more singing. There must be ways to get a classroom playing and singing songs with a few guitars in a way that involves everyone.
5) The music is often in the wrong key for either guitars or voices.
We all have a range of where we feel comfortable singing songs, and men, women and children generally do not sing a given song optimally in the same key. And guitars don't play equally well in all keys. It's really common for a beginning guitar player to be either playing chords in a key that is nowhere near their optimal singing pitch, or for the optimal singing pitch to be a key that is not possible to do on the guitar. Most classoom music teachers are adult women, but the guitar evolved largely to be used by adult men. It favors the keys of E and A, while children typically sing best between Bb and D. (If you watch adult women artists play guitar, they tend to use capos a lot more than men, often in very high positions on the neck.) It's never been possible for children to play guitar chords for the keys they can sing in.
There is a reason the white keys of the piano are tuned in the key of C, but easy classroom guitar in C hasn't been available. All 3 basic chords (C, F G) are hard, and guitar doesn't have much warmth in the key of C, the most fundamental key in music education. The dreaded F chord which you can't live without in the key of C stops all beginning guitarists in their tracks.
D has won out as the most common key for guitar beginners, but as we saw earlier, the D chord is not easy to play, and none of the basic chords in the key of D make any use of the lowest-pitched and most resonant string on the guitar, the low E. A generation ago, many beginning guitar methods even suggested ignoring the bottom 3 strings of the guitar to allow simple, 3-chord songs in the key of C. (see next section.) This is not even reasonable to do with adults, and sounds incredibly bad when children strum across all 6 strings which they instinctively know they should do.
Liberty Tuning uses the natural resonance of the guitar, in keys of E and A. Adding a capo pushes the keys up to Bb, B, C, C# and D, all of which are ideal for children, and sometimes for adults too.
6) Common simplified chording methods all have big flaws.
Since children can't play regular chords like G, C, and D with enough agility to allow them to accompany songs, there are a number of methods that have been employed as work-arounds. Let's take a quick look at them:
• Use a capo. Capos shorten the scale-length of the guitar, but the other problems with guitars overwhelm this. Large body, thick & wide & short necks, no cutaway, transposes to another key, etc. And the chords are still too hard, though with shorter frets they are a little easier. This is a better technique to use with a 10 or 12 year-old than a 7-year-old.
• Use another tuning. Stringed-instruments that are tuned to an open chord (like the banjo) are more inviting to beginners, because there is the gratification of nice resonance, a very rich-sounding tonic chord, and the possibility of playing 2 and 3-chord songs in at least one key. When you free the left hand from having to form difficult chords, the strumming hand can get free, and the student gets to quickly go places that are months or years away in standard tuning.
In a non-standard tuning, all the fingerings work only for that tuning, and don't transfer to standard tuning. And only a few songs sound right in an open tuning. Playing a Hank Williams song in Open G tuning sounds completely wrong.
Open A tuning (E-A-E-A-C#-E) has been used in a few published methods, and D-A-D-G-A-D is gaining favor, though both of them require 3 strings to each be retuned 2 frets from standard tuning. The ability to form a full barre chord and clamp across all 6 strings, which works great in open-chord tunings and is conceptually valid, is unfortunately not a skill that adult beginners or children have the hand strength to do. In Open A tuning, adding a full capo at fret 3 pushes the guitar into the key of C, which is a reasonable thing to do. In DADGAD tuning, you can play workable 1-4-5 chords (these 3 chords function as D-G-A, though none of them is actually a major chord) in the key of D with these 1 finger chords.
When you play guitar in an "open" tuning, you always end up with chords that have missing or added notes, which sound OK on some but not all songs. Beginners also can't play anything more than basic 1-4-5 songs in one key, which can grow quite monotonous.
• Use a partial capo. Over the last 35 years, I have developed several partial capo beginner methods (The first was the Duck Soup Guitar book in 1982) that allow simplified fingerings, good resonance, no need to retune the guitar, and now with the discovery of Liberty Tuning, the ability to play more sophisicated songs in more keys, and in keys that are better for young voices. Earlier simplified partial capos ideas favored the keys of E especially:
• Mute or ignore some of the strings. If you ignore the bottom three strings or even mute them with masking tape, then you can play C, G and G7 chords with one finger and play simple songs in the key of C. Unfortunately the other important chord in the key of C is the F, which is hard any way you slice it..
Likewise, ignoring or muting the bass E string solves the problem of how to avoid the bass E note while you are strumming a D chord.It seems a shame to use masking tape to deaden the richest-sounding string you have.
7) Classroom teachers often aren't trained in guitar.
Music education training for classroom teachers has still not involved guitars much, and most of the guitars in the classroom are there because the teachers have brought in their own. Acceptance of troubadour guitar skills into the curriculum used to train public school music teachers has lagged decades behind modern culture. Luckily, there has been some progress. At Florida State University, the primary training ground for music therapists, they now have recognized that the next generation of clients in nursing homes will be baby boomers who grew up on guitar-based pop music, and the college kids are now being required to learn folk guitar and play a lot of 60's and 70's songs in order to be able to connect with their future career needs.
There are a lot of special skills in "troubadour guitar" that take a while to absorb: Thinking in terms of chord progressions instead of reading the music, transposing songs into other keys, using a capo, and understanding the guitar chord structure and chord structure of the songs. The basic music theory that folksingers have to learn still doesn't seem to be part of music teacher training. Some songs that are simple to sing are hard to play on guitar. Easy piano songs or easy trumpet songs are not the same as easy guitar songs.
8) Is ukulele the best answer?
Because everyone wants to play guitar and is having problems, ukuleles have proliferated, because they are inexpensive and offer a better initial "success experience." It is similar to rhythm guitar, since it involves strumming and singing, which people correctly understand is what they should be doing. Ukes are easier to hold, the nylon strings are easy to press down, and there are fewer strings to manage. Both soprano and baritone ukes allow reasonably easy chord shapes (at least for 2-chord songs) in the key of C, which is good for children singing and classrooms. But ukes are tuned like the top 4 strings of the guitar, so the basic chords aren't dramatically different and still require some dexterity and 3-finger chord shapes. And they sound very thin compared to a guitar. Here are the basic baritone uke chords. The more common small "soprano" ukes sound a 4th higher, so the G sounds as a C and the C sounds as an F. The chord fingering shapes are the same for different sized ukes, they just sound in different keys.
Ukuleles do allow an "instant music" experience, since you can play 2 chord (C-G or C-G7) songs in C on a baritone uke or in F with a soprano uke with chords #5 and either #13 or #14 and succeed immediately. Too bad the other chord you need to play a million songs instead of 25 songs is the dreaded F chord. Your other option is to play in D, and use D-G-A7, or play in G and use G-C-D, but the D is still hard and not a Day 1 thing that kids or adults can do.
Liberty Guitar has easier fingerings than ukulele, sounds much bigger and richer, it can be done instantly on any guitar, and you can play millions of songs, including much more interesting songs than just than 1-4-5 chord changes. Plus it's not just in one key, and you never need barre chords or any more than 2 fingers. And if you use the Liberty Guitar Method on the baritone uke, you can instantly play in 3 keys with very simple 2-finger chord shapes like this that are the closest thing to "instant music" I have ever found in 45 years of studying all manner of fingerboards and tunings.
9) There is no compelling repertoire of beginner guitar music for children. Intellectual property issues also interfere.
When I was a child, there was still some federal money in the arts, and there were still echoes of the program started in the 1930's by Charles Seeger and the Lomax family of folklorists. All those songs like Clementine, Oh Susannah, Shenandoah, Street of Laredo, Down in the Valley and the other simple folk songs that make up the bulk of the songs used in music education publications over the last 50 years were at least songs that children had heard in school or camp, and there was some common ground public domain material that children could be convinced to play on their guitars. When I first got a guitar in 1968 and got my first book of folk songs with chords, I was familiar with a lot of the songs, which is why I was able to get started. Kids today have little familiarity or connection with the folk songs that have been the backbone of music learning for decades.
You have to know a song and be familiar with it before you can" learn it," and almost all of the songs that kids respond to are owned by large corporations that enforce their copyright ownership aggressively, as professional music educators have learned. And beginning guitar begins with 2-chord songs, and there aren't that many usable ones that kids know and like. In 2007 Joyce Andersen and I made an epic 4-CD beginning guitar resource for adults called the Song Train, that teaches 56 one and two-chord songs, with an 80 page hardback full-color book:
I have been raising 2 children (born in 2005 and 2008) and kids these days don't even seem to learn the nursery rhymes anymore. Skip to My Lou, London Bridge, The Farmer in the Dell, The Eensie Weensie Spider and the other 2-chord children's songs I thought every child knew meant nothing to my kids and their friends. They do seem to know Row Row Row Your Boat and Wheels on the Bus, though. Luckily Wheels on the Bus has a bunch of verses. There is a lot of very interesting published research about how little commonality there is anymore in what songs children are familiar with.
In the 60's also there were popular artists playing a number of simple songs on the radio. We kids heard the Beach Boys version of Sloop John B, Judy Collins sing Amazing Grace. I was only 6 when the Kingston Trio had a worldwide #1 hit with the 2-chord Tom Dooley, but everyone knew that song and it wasn't corny yet. And those songs were public domain, and could be performed, printed and spread around more easily than songs owned by corporations. Peter Paul and Mary had a #1 hit when I was 10 with Dylan's Blowing in the Wind that was a 3-chord song played with just 2 nylon-string guitars, a string bass and 3 voices. There was accessible and compelling music for beginner guitarists in the air 50 years ago, and though things are far better now in pop music for troubadour-type music than during the disco, rap or grunge eras, there is still not really a zeitgeist that drives 8-year-old kids to want to sing songs with their acoustic guitars.
Guitar education materials that feature popular music that beginners can play on guitar are expensive, heavily marketed and controlled tightly, which slows down the learning processes. This situation is not ideal for classroom music.
Children between the ages of 5 and 12 have not been learning play guitar because they have not been able to easily learn to play the chords they need to accompany themselves in keys they can sing in. The instruments they are typically given are not the best choice, and there isn't a compelling repertoire of songs to motivate them to learn to play.
This is another posting where I'm trying to raise issues and awareness in the world of modern troubadours... Thank you if you made it this far, and please check back to look for new posts as I get them done. I plan to cover a wide range of issues and topics.