How to Teach a Kid Guitar and Stay Out of Rehab - The Greatest Gig

How to Teach a Kid Guitar and Stay Out of Rehab

Check out my Facebook Live demo of this technique.

I guess I'm a masochist. Since 2003, I’ve become famous in Seattle for what would be many people's worst nightmare: Teaching kids aged 4-7 to play guitar. Perhaps in my retirement I’ll expand my legacy by choreographing goldfish.

I never planned on specializing in teaching young kids.  I’d make a terrible kindergarten teacher.  But in 2006, word got around Seattle that some guitar teacher was willing to teach kids as young as four, and he was actually pretty good. "Pretty good" normally doesn't qualify you as a specialist, but I was the only game in town.  Other guitar teachers  don't realize what a huge market there is for teaching young kids.  Or perhaps they're just not into choreographing goldfish.

By 2007, the leaders of several of Seattle’s biggest companies were paying me to come to their home to teach their young children.  For the most part, if I may toot my tricycle horn for a moment, my young students have flourished: I still teach some of those kids today, and they're wonderful musicians.  Goldfish can dance, it turns out.

I can attribute much of my success teaching young kids to a simple strategy I learned watching the amazing Terre Roche teach adult beginners at guitar camp one summer.  As long as the child likes to sing, this technique makes the guitar, a physically challenging instrument normally considered impossible for most young kids, friendly to tiny fingers. 

  • Find out the kid’s favorite song
  • Convert the song’s chord progression to just root notes played on the 6th string
  • Teach the kid to pick the 6th string with their thumb (and fingers planted on the pickguard)
  • Teach the kid to play those root notes in a steady quarter-note rhythm
  • Teach them to sing the song while playing
  • Reserve your spot in the Betty Ford Rehabilitation Center. You’ll need it when the success goes to your head after video footage of your adorable 5-year-old student singing “Folsom Prison Blues” goes viral.

Grab 41 chord charts I've converted to bass lines

That last bit actually happened (minus the need for rehab, thank goodness). In 2009, recital footage of my student Wesley’s perfect storm of dimples, Elmer Fudd pronunciation, and a grim tale about shooting “a man in Weno” got several million views in a single day.  Check it out:

The day after the video went viral, I got calls from the producers for Ellen and Jimmy Kimmel. Thankfully, everyone kept their heads: Wesley stayed out of the unhealthy TV spotlights, and I stayed out of the Betty Ford Center.

Ready to try this technique?   Download a zip file of all 41 chord charts I’ve converted to bass lines.  They feature a range of rock, country, and pop artists that appeal to young kids, such as Adele, Taylor Swift, Bob Dylan, Foo Fighters, and Bon Jovi.

One last tip: Make sure the guitar fits the child's body: A half-size guitar is appropriate for most 4-7 year olds.​

Check out my Facebook Live demo of this technique.

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Ry Naylor
6 years ago

Great article Rob. I’ve been following you since I started teaching back in 2009 when I did buy a copy of your teaching handbook.

I’ve been hesitant with parents wanting their young children to play guitar, but this makes me think I should start offering lessons to younger children (I normally insist the student is at least 7).

I look forward to more insightful blog posts. Keep up the great work.