Chris Phelps I write about guitar lessons.

Teaching A New Song

AKA Quick Hook Breakdown

I always ask new students what songs they want to learn. Usually those songs are too difficult to learn right away, but I make a note and come back to them as quickly as we can. Often I set a goal like “let's start that in six weeks.”

This means I get to learn a new song that's cool, analyze it, and figure out what part to teach. I found a method that works very reliably and quickly especially with young students, and I'm gonna share it with you.

Maggie asked to learn Jason Mraz “I'm Your's” in her first lesson. So, I listened to it on Spotify to get a sense of it, and looked up the sheet music on I found the chorus while listening because the words repeat in that part of the song. The words to the verses change in this song. Next I find the hook. In I’m Your’s it's where they say the title of the song at the very end of the chorus. This is classic song form. Most of the songs people want to learn have this structure because it's what makes them memorable. I teach the hook first because it's the most memorable part of the song.

After playing the chorus a few times I'll have a sense of how playable it is for the student, and what adjustments will need to be made. Usually the notation has too much detail, and it's written in a position that's too hard to play. So, I write it out by hand quickly with the bare minimum detail, and I focus on phrasing. Then I play it again to check how playable it is. Usually I will have to adjust the position the notes are played in on the neck to suit the student, so I expect to write it out again more cleanly.

As I write it out the second time I write the bar lines first with respect to the phrasing, and fill in the notes bar by bar so that the spacing makes the phrases clear. Maggie's example was only one phrase, so this step was unnecessary. Take a look. I included both original versions so you could see how I changed it to make it easier.

Stacks Image 361
Stacks Image 359

Next I let Maggie play it. If the student says it's too hard, I didn't make it easy enough. I will make the next one easier, and I won't force them to learn this one. I use the experience to refine my next transcription, and ask the student if they'd like to give it a try later accepting “no” if that's what they say. I recognize that they may have already learned what they needed to know and I'll be ready to show them a much easier version next time.

Most of the time this works, and they want to learn more of the song. Then we do the melody of the whole chorus, or the verse.

The moment their attention drops I ask what's next. Probably the next song. You'll be surprised how little they want to learn. Just the hook is plenty. Sometimes it's the intro to a classic rock songs. Keeping them in the Goldilocks Zone is the key. That’s when it’s not too hard, and not too easy, but just right. James Clear explains it perfectly here, and in his book Atomic Habits. I try to have lots of music prepared to show them at this point so we can move quickly to the next song and I keep the difficulty just right. (Much thanks goes to James Clear​ for the excellent information on building habits in his book Atomic Habits. I can't recommend it strongly enough, and right now it's #1 on the New York Times Best Seller list. Go figure.)

Once I show them a few of these they will be much more willing and interested in the direction that we need to go later to keep them improving. Anytime they lose interest I do this routine again on something they really want to learn, and it piques their interest.

I hope this explanation helps you understand what we do in guitar lessons, and it helps you teach guitar more clearly and quickly.

This week I did the same thing with Jaxen and Should’ve Been A Cowboy by Toby Keith, and next week he’s doing Johnny B Goode. What song’s do you want to learn?

Stacks Image 370