Students often come to the guitar to emulate their favorite bands or guitarists. Many have specific ideas about what style of music they wish to play. Mastering that style and modeling their playing after their idols motivates these students. It also can lead to a myopic approach to the instrument that eventually might result in stagnation. Guitar teachers can have a hand in preventing this stagnation by pushing students to play beyond their style of choice.
Specialization has some merit. To excel at a style of playing, a guitarist needs to spend long hours working on the techniques that give the style its identity. The best players are known for their prowess in a given style. However, many of these same players are known for their ability to fuse styles. A well-rounded guitarist should have at least some comfort tapping into adjacent styles to enrich his or her playing. Techniques tend to bridge styles, which can be the starting point for a teacher looking to help a student expand.
A guitar teacher introducing a technique will want to provide examples of that technique in use. The eager student will want to hear the technique used in a familiar song and the teacher should respond accordingly. Taking an additional step towards enrichment, the teacher can demonstrate the same technique used in a different style of music and then urge the student to try that example as well. Examples might include showing alternate picking used in metal but also used in surf, or picking over arpeggios used in country but also used in jazz. Seeing the mechanical connections between these styles can lend important perspective to the student.
Giving students style-hopping challenges can increase versatility. The guitar teacher can present these as challenges to complete, but they’re really growth opportunities. The same techniques are used in different ways across styles. Being able to apply a technique from one style to another demonstrates a mastery of the technique as well as a broadening of musical vocabulary.
Advantages to having students do this abound. Most simply, it might relieve boredom. Having to try something new could get a student out of a funk caused by playing the same material for too long. It also might help avert a plateau if a student has been struggling to progress in a particular area. Accommodating some new technique or applying one to a new musical setting will have natural and beneficial effect of stimulating the brain. Perhaps the greatest benefit could come from the accidental discovery of an unrecognized talent or fondness. A student might end up having a knack for playing in a style he or she hadn’t tried. Similarly, a student might discover a liking for an unexplored style of music. Either of these could have a long-lasting impact on the student’s relationship with playing and listening.
The effects might not be so profound, though. Some students aren’t going to take to such efforts and might even become resistant. The last thing a guitar teacher will want to do is inadvertently turn a student off to playing by forcing practice at something the student has no interest in playing. Sometimes students have to do what they don’t really want to do in the name of improvement. This applies across arenas of education. Learning an instrument involves a delicate balance, though. A student might choose to quit, which isn’t an option with academic subjects. Teachers need to push, but pushing the right way takes some trial and error.
From fostering physical development to exposing them to new musical ideas, having young guitarists play across styles has the potential to greatly enhance their playing. One can’t predict where exposure to just one song the student wouldn’t have heard independently might take that student’s playing. Sure, they might come to the instrument with preformed ideas of what kind of guitarists they will become, but even they can’t know where their musical explorations might take them. Guitar teachers have an obligation to be their knowing guides.
Written by Jeff Hartman