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 poses difficulties 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 a guitar, even with 3/4 size instruments. 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 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 statistic truly shocked me! (He also reported that those that do stay with the guitar all have something in common – they take guitar lessons!)
As you can imagine, frustration is the big issue for young kids. Your child’s initial enthusiasm is NOT a measure of their ability to handle these frustrations. Young kids are very ‘immediate’ creatures with a low tolerance for frustration. The idea of practising before fun happens is a total non-starter with many children younger than 10 years old. What looks like fun when somebody else does it could disappoint when they can’t do it straight away.
Children also have short attention spans: a 60 minute guitar lesson is far too long for some 12 year olds, and even 20 minutes is a big ask kids under 9. Even with a great guitar teacher, some kids’ initial enthusiasm could vanish quickly leaving you with an unhappy child that may give up on playing guitar, or music, forever. We do not 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, at all! 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. Yes, making an initial investment in a guitar teacher will help enormously. But persevering through the initial challenges, and the ability to make time to practice, is far more important than what most people think of as “natural talent”.
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 youngest kids and trying too soon may even be counterproductive.
So what to do in the meantime?
If you want to buy your child an appropriately sized toy guitar or ukulele, go ahead and do it. Many kids 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). 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 watching you that practicing is a necessary part of learning to play and having fun. When they are old enough to start taking lessons themselves, you will 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. And these issues usually get worse when we consider 3/4 or 1/2 size instruments for kids. 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, when simply spending 50% more could have avoided some of the issues in the first place.
- Yes, there are a thousand 7-year-olds on YouTube that play amazingly well. But YouTube has 1.5 Billion logged-in monthly users, so those children are very rare exceptions. The very definition of the word “exception” says your child will almost certainly not be 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 generally preferred “twinkle little star” on one string and making lot of banging and noise rather than ethri favourtie Cold Play song. 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, thanks to my fantastic wife for her proof reading.
Last update Nov 24, 2017; fixed a few typos, small edits here and there.