At any one time 1/3 to a 1/2 of my students are children and I am frequently approached by parents looking for a guitar teacher for their child. However, as a general rule, the youngest I am willing to teach is about 9 to 10 years-old. In this post I explain why guitar is difficult for younger children and what I recommend to parents when young children want to play the guitar.
The first issue is that the guitar is a physically challenging instrument for beginners of all ages. Part of the difficulty is building hand strength and stamina, developing new motor skills, and physically getting to grips with the size and shape of a guitar. Learning good playing posture and hand position can be complicated by the size of the instrument, and practice time can be limited by painful fingertips and sore hands. Even for adults this can be a challenge.
Second, the guitar is not an easy instrument for a beginner to get an acceptable sound from. A piano or keyboard is easy – the beginner can press a key and have instant access to the same basic sounds that the virtuoso pianist uses. That is not the case with guitars. Getting a single note to ring clearly is initially difficult. Basic chord playing requires two or three fingers to be accurately placed simultaneously without interfering with each other. And we have yet to mention the strumming hand technique or even learning to tune the instrument (which itself is a challenge to learn and should be done every time we play, unlike a piano).
Adults and teenagers can persevere through weeks of these initial difficulties but it can still be frustrating: Fender Musical instruments CEO, Andy Mooney, recently reported that 90% of first time guitar buyers quit playing in the first year, most in the first few months. That is a truly shocking statistic! (Those that do stay with have something in common – they take guitar lessons.)
As you can see, the important point here is frustration and this is the big issue with young kids. Don’t confuse your child’s initial enthusiasm as a measure of their ability to handle these frustrations. Young children are very ‘immediate’ creatures with a low tolerance for frustration. What looks like fun when somebody else does it is disappointing when they can’t do it straight away with little promise of fun for weeks or months. And the idea of practising to improve before fun happens is a total non-starter with many children younger than 10 years old.
Children also have short attention spans: a 60 minute guitar lesson is far too long for many 10 year olds, and even 20 minutes is a big ask for younger kids. Even with a good guitar teacher, for many kids that initial enthusiasm will vanish quickly leaving you with an unhappy child that may give up on playing guitar, or music, forever. We don’t want that to happen.
There is good news.
Most people I meet who had previously quit playing the guitar believe they lacked the ‘talent’ to play. I don’t believe that to be true. I think everyone, at any age, has all the musical talent they need to learn to play the guitar to at least a reasonable level and have a lot of fun doing it. I believe that persevering through the initial challenges and the ability to find time to practice counts far, far more than what most people think of as “natural talent”. And yes, making an at least initial investment in a guitar teacher will help enormously.
That will, one day, apply to your child too. Maybe at 9 or 10 years of age but probably a little older. Enjoyment of music and playing an instrument is a gift that will last a lifetime. There is no rush to start and may even be detrimental to do so.
So what to do in the meantime?
If you want to buy your child an appropriately sized guitar or ukulele, go ahead and do it. Many enjoy plucking and banging away on it even without the ability to play it properly. Just be realistic about what the results will be. Also be aware that cheap small toy guitars are not instruments to learn on (see my remarks at the bottom of page for more info). If you get one of these, you will need to upgrade when real lessons begin.
If your child is too young to start lessons but you have an interest in playing, this is the perfect time for you to start taking lessons. Between lessons, when you are practising or enjoying playing, let your child “play along” on their own little toy guitar or ukulele as you practice. If their guitar is tunable and actually playable, you can teach them some basics yourself. That takes the pressure off the child and they will learn through you that practicing is a necessary part of learning to play and have fun. When they are old enough to start taking lessons themselves, you’ll have given them a great head start.
For those parents that are ready to move forward with lessons for their children, have a read through my post: Guitar Lessons for Kids: Advice for Parents.
- There is a problem of poor-quality small instruments for children. Cheap instruments are cheap for a reason: low quality parts and materials, and poor quality control. As a result cheap guitars may be difficult to play, difficult to tune, and difficult to keep in tune, which compounds all of the issues mentioned above. Some of those issues can be rectified by a luthier or guitar technician (like me) but that adds extra cost (50 – 60€ per hour), often comparable to the price of the instrument. Click here for more info on buying a guitar in Paris.
- Yes, there are a thousand 7-year-olds on YouTube that play amazingly well but those children are very rare exceptions. The very definition of the word “exception” says your child is almost certainly is not one of them. And that’s totally OK! In the last 5 years I have only seen two children younger than 10 who were ready for real guitar lessons, and even they alternate between “twinkle little star” on one string and making lot of banging and noise. And that’s OK too.
Many thanks to my dear friend, and songwriter extraordinaire, Charlie Seymour for very useful comments and, as is the case for many of my posts, my fantastic wife for proof reading.