By L. C. Harnsberger

It would be easy if every student wanted to learn the same songs and had the same goals, but variety is part of what makes teaching fun. Traditional note-reading methods are perfect for a beginning student who knows they just want to learn how to play guitar—covering everything they’ll need to gain a great foundation of skills, learn familiar songs, and have a good time doing it. But how do you teach a new student who just wants to play rock guitar?

A common approach is to find out their favorite song and structure lessons to give them just the knowledge they need to play that song. Together you work on one section at a time and slowly it comes together. The end result? The student knows that one song.

Ideally, you want to be able to teach the student their favorite rock songs while also achieving the same results a traditional method would provide—skills to have great technique, understand theory, and the ability to put emotion into their performances. Methods like Alfred’s Basic Rock Guitar can help serve both purposes—teaching songs in the rock style while using a methodical approach that will provide the student with a solid foundation for playing. Here are some example principles from the method that can be applied to any lesson:

Start on the 6th String

Where traditional methods start on the first string with traditional melodies, a student interested in rock will really want to play riffs from day one. When I first started guitar, I picked one up and taught myself to play the opening lick from The Beatles’ version of “Money.” All I needed was the 6th string and a good ear. Starting on the 6th string will give your student an (almost) immediate ability to play cool licks, and skip songs like “Mary Had a Little Lamb” that populate traditional methods and might not pique their interest as much. Once the student knows the basic natural notes on the 6th and 5th strings, they can play licks that sound like “Louie Louie,” “When I Come Around,” “Iron Man,” and “We Will Rock You!”

Three-Chord ProgressionRiffs like this are fun to play and keep students’ interest. Honestly, who doesn’t like to be able to grab a guitar and play cool riffs endlessly?

Start Playing Power Chords Right Away

As you add more strings and notes to your student’s repertoire, they can play more riffs. More importantly, they’ll be able to play three-chord songs using power chords. Just by knowing the natural notes on the 6th, 5th and 4th strings, they’ll play an A-D-E progression. Start them slowly and gradually your student will sound like the Ramones!


Have a Goal

Some students have a favorite song they want to play such as “Good Times Bad Times” by Led Zeppelin. It’s great when students are driven to play songs, but it’s the teacher’s goal to make sure they are providing a strong musical foundation during that journey. Continue to introduce the fundamentals of playing while you work together towards a song. Gradually introduce essential techniques like scales, full chords, changing positions, bending, soloing, etc. Not only will they learn everything they need to play their song, but they’ll also have a full palette of skills and techniques that will give them the ability to learn other songs they choose to play in the future.


L. C. Harnsberger received his Bachelor of Music in Composition from the University of Southern California. There he studied with well-respected composers and arrangers including Morton Lauridsen and William A. Schaefer. He has written and arranged for numerous wind ensembles, orchestras, chamber ensembles, and soloists. His published works include music for band, full orchestra, solo piano, and choral accompaniments.