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Teaching rhythmic notation in guitar lessons

Some teachers avoid theory in guitar lessons in favour of giving students something they like. No note-reading or rhythmic notation unless the student is interested in doing that.

I get it. Make sure you give them what they want so that they enjoy themselves, have a positive experience, and keep coming back.

But this can go too far, and it’s not necessary to eliminate all vestiges of theory. This strikes me as an unreasonable fear of losing students.


I take the following approach with beginners.

At the beginning of guitar lessons, I do what the teachers I mention above do: give them only what they want, and help them make sounds that they like. Students need to be motivated, and guitar is hard enough without being made to learn notation right at the beginning. It’s ok if the first six months are nothing but song after song, slowly adding more challenges.

But once they get to a certain level, rhythmic notation can be introduced without fear. I find that, in general, students like to have some technical know-how. Rhythmic notation is relatively easy to learn, and it provides vocabulary for discussing more interesting rhythmic topics. Notes can wait; rhythm doesn’t need to. Besides, it can be enjoyable.

Here’s what I do.

Clapping quarter notes

During guitar lessons, have the student clap at an even tempo that is comfortable for them. Then find that tempo on a metronome, and have them clap to the metronome. Tell them that you’re going to write down the rhythm that they’re playing, then do so. Make sure that they keep playing as you do this. This provides instant visual feedback for what they’re doing, and connects their bodily movement with the parts of the brain that process symbols.

Give them vocabulary for what they’re doing, and for what you’re writing. For instance, “You’re clapping quarter notes, and this is what quarter notes look like.”

Clapping eighth notes

Now have them clap twice as fast; keep the metronome on quarter notes. This gives them the sound of notes between quarter notes. Make sure they’re clapping evenly. If necessary, have the metronome play the eighth notes, or clap along with the student  to model the correct placement.

As they’re clapping, write down eighth notes, and give them vocabulary for what they’re doing as you did with quarter notes. Change tempos so that they can get a feeling, both physically and emotionally, for what that is like.

Once they can clap eighth notes in a few different tempos, place quarter rests in the flow of notes on the page. Do this gradually. They should be able to play a rhythmic figure with a single quarter-note rest in a single bar. Have them loop the bar until they can do it easily. Do it in different tempos.

Now play that same rhythm on the guitar.

So now you’ve covered quarter notes, eighth notes, and quarter rests. They will now have a solid physical and cognitive understanding of these concepts. The key is to have them clapping or playing at all times during the process of learning.

You’ve also given them some independence, since they’re now able to pick up guitar books, and understand what’s going on. This is the aim of guitar lessons – give the student the means to learn for themselves.

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