Teaching and the Future of Fingerstyle Guitar

In a recent blog post, Adam Rafferty asked: “Where do you think fingerstyle guitar is heading next?”

I’ve been thinking about this a lot since Adam’s post and wanted to share some of my own thoughts about it. Because I spend a lot my time teaching, my comments are chiefly in regard to the way I’d like to see the education field evolve.

Adam is correct that until Andres Segovia came along, most music conservatories did not consider the guitar worthy of the kind of in-depth study that is offered for say, piano or violin. Even today many schools do not offer the guitar as an applied area of study. With the exception of a few schools that focus on contemporary music, most guitar programs that exist today are fairly conservative and offer guitar programs that focus primarily on traditional classical or jazz repertoire and technique.

I completely agree that students must familiarize themselves with history of the instrument and its music and that having a structured approach to the discipline in place is necessary. In addition to music fundamentals, this will include learning benchmark pieces from the classical or jazz repertoire and mastering techniques that will enable the student to execute solo guitar material in a musical way.

On the other hand, I believe that there must be room in the schedule to help students to develop their own individual approach to the instrument and a repertoire that is at least somewhat unique. One way to do this is to have students choose some music that they love and help them to create their own unique arrangements.

Let me give you an example of the type of assignment I’ve given to several students in the past:

Before getting creative, the student would be assigned a piece of music selected by me that I feel will challenge them and help them to learn certain concepts, but that they can master with some diligent practice. Since I primarily teach jazz, let’s say that I have them learn Barry Galbraith’s arrangement of “Our Love is Here to Stay” from one of my favorite books: Barry Galbraith Guitar Solos by Jim Lichens. In addition to simply learning to play the arrangement we’d analyze the arrangement in two ways. First we’d look at the technical side of the arrangement exploring the fingerings in detail to make sure that everything lends itself to giving the most musical result. If we find that a new fingering seems to make more sense than the ones indicated in the book we can try it out and decide whether or not to implement it. Then we’d analyze the musical choices made by Barry Galbraith. In this arrangement he uses a variety of techniques such as: contrary motion, block voicing, walking bass lines, and chromatic planing.

Okay, so hopefully the student enjoyed the piece, has practiced it and has learned a thing or two. Once they’ve completed a couple of pieces in this manner, I’ll challenge them to choose a piece of music from a fake book and use some of the concepts to try their own hand at arranging. If the student is fairly new to jazz, a little direction may be needed – obviously jazz tunes are likely going to make better use of walking bass lines and chromatic planing than a rock or funk tune, but who knows?

Over the past several years I have been pleasantly surprised by students who have come back with really lovely solo guitar arrangements of jazz standards. Other times I have encountered students who seemed at a complete loss as to where to begin and needed more help along the way.

I believe that it is not enough to teach students only the standard classical or jazz repertoire. We have to challenge our students to not only be guitar players but to be creative arrangers and composers. This is what is going to get them noticed and ultimately what will pay the bills. Think about it: Segovia was the first player to be taken seriously as a classical guitarist not just because he was a fantastic guitarist, but because he played works by J.S. Bach, which he had transcribed and arranged himself!

Today we have access to thousands of performances from players all over the world via the Internet. If you’ve discovered artists such as Tommy Emmanuel, Pete Huttlinger, Adam Rafferty, Ulli Boegershausen, Sungha Jung, or Andy McKee in the past few years, I’ll bet you they weren’t playing pieces by Dowland, Bach, or even Gershwin when you first heard them. These guitarists have gained a worldwide audience because not only do they play beautifully, they play material that the vast majority of the public can identify with. The arrangements they play are not taken from any book but were created by the artists themselves.

Now I’m not suggesting that it’s my goal to create the next hot YouTube guitarist, but if a young guitarist is hired to play specific material they had better be prepared to work up an arrangement or two. If they can’t then I didn’t prepare them well enough. And if that material includes songs by top 40 artists, then so be it. I know that the future of fingerstyle guitar will continue to embrace the accepted repertoire but I sincerely hope that we can start to leave behind the notion that contemporary pieces are only novelty pieces and are not worthy of serious study. Depending on the arrangement, these pieces can be just as difficult as any classical piece, and – they can actually help you make a living!

3 thoughts to “Teaching and the Future of Fingerstyle Guitar”

  1. And maybe after we further legitimize guitar studies in more schools, we can go back and actually create some Bass Guitar studies programs!

  2. John

    I am totally in agreement with you. Part of my success in my Stevie & Jackson music is that I love it…that’s the result of my creative time, my dream. The reason I pull it off well is that I love it enough.

    When I see a great player like Tommy E or George B, I feel like I am seeing a right and left brain working together perfectly. That “state” starts a quantum activity and that in essence is the communication of music.

    Some young musicians get that pretty quickly…others may need to practice a long time but then get it when they reach points of frustration and give up…in a Zen way, then they “get it”.

    The “attractor factor” for a musician is that they themselves love and believe in what they are doing…they’ll broadcast that “quantum thing” that pulls others to their music.

    I went a scholastic route to make sure I was not leaving things out…but there’s more than one way to skin a cat. In short, yes creativity should be encouraged, and if the student can stand it, discipline and the “tradition” ain’t a bad thing to check out!



  3. I totally agree with you on this: “…it is not enough to teach students only the standard classical or jazz repertoire. We have to challenge our students to not only be guitar players but to be creative arrangers and composers.”
    This is the essence of a good teacher – one who will push the boundaries. I wish I had an instructor like you when I was learning guitar.

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