Ask Andrew: Questions and Answers

Here are some commonly asked questions, as well as a few that I wish folks would ask more often. If you have a question I haven't addressed here, free free to write.


Could you give me some examples of the songs that might be covered by a study group?

Sure. Here's a link to the pages devoted to supplementary instructional materials for Community Guitar students: For Current Students. Toward the bottom of the page you'll find a growing list of songs we're adding to our repertoire season by season. Most of these songs are covered at all three levels.

Isn't private instruction better than group study?

I like both, depending on the person and their needs at the moment. Private instruction can be great at those points in your learning process when you need that kind of one-on-one attention. It is probably also the best choice when you want to work on solo material such as elaborate fingerstyle pieces.

But individual instruction has its drawbacks as well. When I first started teaching group workshops back in the mid-90’s I quickly realized that some of my students learned faster in a group setting than they had in private lessons. More important, they seemed to enjoy the whole process a lot more.

Here’s a short summary of the potential advantages of group study, in my view: 

  • Nobody wants to be lost or hold up the show, so many people practice more when they have to show up ready to participate in a group.  
  • A teacher can prepare a coherent curriculum, including good recorded and written materials for a series of group lessons. You just can't do that for every individual who comes along.
  • A group provides the natural setting for learning what and how to play with others.
  • A study group is a great way to meet other players and build some common ground.  
  • The group provides a supportive setting to work on whatever shyness or jitters you may have at the thought of playing with others.
  • Groups instruction should be less expensive hour for hour and can offer a great value.

Of course, group instruction can be done poorly. But the same can be said for individual instruction as well. The whole point of Community Guitar is to make it easier for local instructors to offer high quality group instruction without unreasonable demands on their time, energy or wallets.  

How do I know what level is right for me?

The short answer is this: by meeting with your local Community Guitar teacher for a free level assessment. If you'd like a longer answer, here's a page About Our Levels.

How long do I stay at each level?

As long as you need or want to. The majority of my students work at a given level for at least a year, and this can easily stretch to two, three or even longer. Occasionally someone who could be working a level up chooses not to, just to keep the demands of the weekly learning manageable. If you are particularly motivated, adept or starting at a level that is not too challenging, you might only work at Level 1 or 2 for a single 10 week session and then make the jump to the next level.

I'm a fingerstyle player. What's in this for me?

Since virtually all of our rhythm and lead parts are played with a pick, (sometimes with fingers used as well), the main thing we offer fingerstyle guitarists is the opportunity to learn something new. Look...fingerstyle guitar is great. I was weaned on Mississippi John Hurt and sweated Deep River Blues for most of my sophomore year of high school. But getting "better" at fingerstyle guitar usually means covering more and more parts at once. In a jam setting this leaves less and less for other folks to do, unless they are going to stomp all over the same parts you've already got covered. No fun.

There's absolutely nothing stopping someone from contributing a tasteful fingerstyle part to many of the tunes we cover. But since our focus is on playing with other guitarists, we don't put any emphasis on learning to do it all oneself. For volume, clarity, simplicity and single-line speed, working with a pick seems to be the way to go. I know that for me personally, shifting from fingerstyle to styles that use a pick opened up all sorts of interesting areas of study from flatpicking fiddle tunes to jazz improvisation. I hope it will be as fun for you as it has been for me.

Aren't you just putting together guitar ensembles?

No, not as I understand that term. For me, a guitar ensemble works on set, composed guitar arrangements, much like a string quartet. Although all of our tunes are arranged and I encourage my students to learn both rhythm and lead parts as written, these parts are intended to emulate what players at a given level might come up with more or less spontaneously in a jam setting. (OK, so they are not likely to harmonize the melody note-for-note on the spur of the moment. But maybe they'll have it worked up by the second or third jam!)

Learning by rote is valuable as a way to develop technical skills and get idiomatic phrases under your fingers. But ultimately we'd like to see you coming up with similar rhythm and lead parts on your own, which is why we include music theory, the CAGED system and improv exercises in our material.

How do you present the songs? TAB? Recordings?

Standard notation, Tab and audio. Maybe someday, video. See this page for samples.

Do I have to know how to read music?

Nope, though I always encourage guitarists to get at least a basic familiarity with standard notation. It can come in very handy, especially in deciphering written rhythms, which tend to be unclear in TAB. Our materials do not, however,constitute a course in reading music.

While we're on the subject, though...don't confuse knowing how to read music with knowing where the notes are on the fingerboard or with understanding music theory as it applies to the guitar. Just because you are using tablature does not mean you can long avoid the necessity of knowing the language and the logic of music. That's a must if you ever want to move beyond plunking out the notes someone else has put on the page.

Why just guitar? Why exclude other instruments?

There is no reason whatsoever to exclude other instruments from your jams, and many good reasons to include them. Our study groups, though, are not just jams. They are intended to help you move forward as a player, and many of the challenges we face as guitarists are different from those we would face as banjo, mandolin, violin or, for that matter, clarinet players. So we're setting aside time and space to work on our instrument in a focused way. But the skills we're developing are precisely those that are going to work well in jams of all kinds with all sorts of instruments.

There are other reasons, though, why it's worth our while to focus some attention on how to jam with other guitarists. For starters, there are a lot of us and (hate to say it, but...) most of us have pretty weak skills. That's a bad combination. Add to it the fact that, at many jams, multiple guitarists are only grudgingly welcome and you have the makings of our present rather sad state of affairs. Community Guitar addresses all these points at once: we're strengthening our skills while working on material that works just fine with or without multiple guitarists. Sweet.

How many people are in a study group?

My personal practice - and my recommendation to other CG teachers - is to limit the group to roughly 10 people. In practice, most of our meetings are smaller than that either because enrollment is less or because not everyone is attending on a given night.

Can you describe what a typical class period is like (how the class period is structured?)

This depends somewhat on the level, but I'll describe a typical Level 1 class by way of example. We usually do 5 songs over the course of 10 weeks. Most songs have at least a couple different rhythm guitar parts that work together, as well as a couple solos at different levels of difficulty. I say, "We're going to play Come Back Baby (or whatever) next week," and introduce you to the parts. Then you go home with the CD and written materials, choose what you're going to work on ( for example, the first rhythm part and first solo) and you do so. (That, by the way is the critical piece!) There are also theory exercises that go with each tune and, ideally, you spend some time on them as well. When we get back together the following week, we go over the theory exercises and walk through each of the guitar parts, discussing any details or challenging spots. Then I count it off and we start to play. We go around the circle, each person soloing in turn, everyone else playing whichever rhythm parts they chose to work on.

So you're learning tunes that (unlike many) are good for group playing; you're developing your rhythm and lead technical abilities; you're seeing how different rhythmic styles might work together; you're applying theory to everything you do so it makes sense to your head, not just your hands; you're meeting other players; and you're getting real-life practice at playing together. In my humble opinion it's a terrific way to learn so long as you like acoustic roots music (folk, blues, trad country, swing) and want to play with others. (If you want to work on solo guitar pieces or death metal, that's another thing...) One of the biggest advantages is that you have a weekly reason to "get ready" for something, which neither self-guided or even individual instruction provides.