Guitar Class in the Hawkeye State

Number 32: The State of Iowa

By Thomas Amoriello, Jr.

NAfME Council for Guitar Education Chair


guitar educationToday we visit Iowa with Sam Johnson, who teaches two music exploratory classes at Humboldt Middle School in Humboldt: one focused on the guitar, and the other focused on composition. He is also the director of the 7th and 8th grade band. One of the most amazing aspects of teaching at Humboldt, he says, is the overwhelming support that exists for the music program from the school’s administration, the Humboldt Music Boosters, and the Humboldt community as a whole. It wouldn’t be possible to have such a successful program without that support, he notes.

Sam Johnson with guitar student

Photo courtesy of Sam Johnson


The NAfME Council for Guitar Education would like to thank Sam for sharing his guitar class insight with the NAfME membership.


Please tell us about your school and overall music program.

Humboldt Middle School is a rural 3A school tucked away in North Central Iowa. Located at the crossroads of Highway 169 and Highway 3, the Humboldt Middle School music program consists of general music classes in the elementary through high school levels. In 5th grade, we start our band program, and in 6th grade we have our first voluntary choir.

Overall, the music department serves more than 70 percent of the Humboldt Community School District every year through various classes, ensembles, and performance opportunities.


Please tell us about your own personal musical background growing up and your collegiate experience.

I grew up in Atlantic, Iowa, which lies near Interstate 80—about half-way between Des Moines and Omaha. Growing up, I was constantly listening to music. Through my parents’ vinyl records, my sister forcing me to watch every single Disney Sing-A-Long, or my older brother’s rock band that practiced in our basement, I was exposed to so many different kinds of music growing up. That continued through middle school and high school where I was involved in band, choir, jazz band, show choir, musicals . . . almost anything that involved music. While I loved all kinds of music, I was definitely a “band nerd,” and it helped guide me on my path.

Through the wonderful influences of my high school band directors and my choir director, I figured out that music education was my calling. So, I headed off to Iowa State University where I obtained my Bachelor’s degree in Music Education, and where I studied horn under Peter Kortenkamp. In college, I tried to maintain as much involvement in music as I could handle. I was heavily involved with ISUCF’V’MB (marching band), took private voice lessons, auditioned for spring musicals, played in Pit Orchestra, joined Tau Beta Sigma, and so much more. While I will say that I am far from an expert in any particular branch of music, I’ve had many opportunities to try lots of different things, and that has greatly helped me as an educator.


How do the guitar family of instruments fit into your teaching?

The primary place where the guitar fits into my daily schedule is through the two exploratory classes that I teach. With those two classes, I also am responsible for teaching the combined 7th and 8th grade band and the middle school jazz band, and assisting with high school band, 5th grade band, and 6th grade band.


What obstacles did you face when you were first hired at your school? Now?

To be completely honest, I wasn’t nearly as proficient at the guitar when I started teaching at Humboldt Middle School, and I still think I have a long way to go! HMS is my first job out of college, and while I knew some basics of guitar, I never had to think about what guitar pedagogy looks like. I spent a lot of my first summer teaching myself and working through the materials that my predecessor, Tim Miller, left behind so that I wouldn’t embarrass myself during the first year!

Now that I’ve gotten the hang of things, my biggest obstacle is making sure that we always have enough funds to maintain the guitar program. Until last year, we had a memorial fund that helped establish the program and unfortunately, that money has run out. Thankfully, we have a very supportive administration who has been working with me to figure out different ways we can make sure that we have the materials and have a system to repair and replace guitars over the upcoming years.


What kind of classes related to the guitar do you teach?

The main class that I teach that involves the guitar is an exploratory class for our 6th grade students. This class rotates every 35 days and helps establish some fundamentals of playing the guitar. We review reading standard notation, learn about the parts of the guitar, and discuss how guitars are made. We look at the differences between electric and acoustic guitars, and once they have all this background knowledge, we dive into playing. We work through the first couple strings, usually enough to play some nursery rhymes, and if time permits, we go on to talk about some basic chords.

The next year there is a 7th grade class that focuses largely on composing music. At this point, we are using the guitar as a tool and as common ground for all the students to start diving into some more advanced musical concepts. After going through many steps, students will finish off this class by presenting their song to the class. In the past, students have performed them on guitar, created slideshows, created their own movies, and presented a multitude of creative ideas to show off their freshly crafted songs. While the guitar isn’t a necessary component of this class, I often find myself referring back to it as a foundation.


What would you like to say to the non-guitarist music educator who is about to or interested in incorporating the guitar into their program?

As someone who would consider themselves a “non-guitarist,” I know that it can be intimidating to start a program like this. It can be expensive and time-consuming, but it’s worth it to reach out to those students who aren’t interested in the traditional band or choir experience. At the end of the day, music is music!

My only other bit of advice is to reach out into the community for help if you’re unsure. By pure luck, I found out that one of our school’s substitute teachers, Rich Lindaman, is a huge fan of bluegrass music and pretty great at playing it. Since most of my guitar experience comes from a rock background, I always love having Rich come in for a day and talk about Bluegrass and play a couple of songs for the students. Even though it might not be their favorite kind of music, it’s great to see them realize that you can be involved with music, even if you aren’t a music teacher.


Do you have any success stories you would like to share about students (musical and non-musical)?

While I’m sure I could spend the whole article talking about a number of different success stories, there is one that happened just recently that I’d love to share. Every year we have a student variety show called “STARS Night” that features the middle school jazz band and a number of student performers. While I’m always amazed at the talent we have on display at this show, this year for the first time a group of three students of mine got together to make their own rock band. They came in during homeroom to practice and teach themselves how to play through Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes. I could spend a couple of months trying to teach them exactly how to do that, but it was far more rewarding to see the dedication and progress that they made on their own with just a little bit of guidance.


What do you tell your talented students who are planning to pursue music or guitar studies in high school or college after they finish with you?

Since I’m at the middle school level, I usually try to encourage my talented students to try a couple of things. Being in charge of our middle school jazz band, I always recommend to my talented students to try out for the jazz band. It provides another opportunity to develop their skills and to learn a new style of music. If someone is particularly quick at picking the guitar up, I encourage them to try out the bass guitar as well. It’s a bit of a different beast, but if there is one thing the world needs more of, it is quality bass guitar players!

guitar teacher Sam Johnson in class with students

Photo courtesy of Sam Johnson


In addition, I have a list of private teachers in the surrounding area that I give to students who are interested in pursuing the guitar further. If private lessons don’t fit in their family budget, I try to guide them toward resources and apps that can help keep them learning and expanding their experience with the instrument.


Do you have any networking or advocacy tools that have worked for you promoting your program that would help other educators?

I think that the biggest thing to do is constantly get your program out there. Every rotation, we have our Guitar Open House where students invite their parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. They spend a whole class period trying to teach them how to play the guitar. It’s so much fun, and it really shows off what we are doing in the class! We also have our local magazine, the Humboldt Now! which does a page spread every month about something going on in music. This past month actually featured our 6th grade guitar class! If you spread the word about your program and ask for help when you need it, it’s very easy to maintain and advocate for a great program like this.


What kind of future do you see for guitar in music education in the Iowa school system?

I think that there are a lot of opportunities for the guitar to expand in music education in Iowa schools if the budgets can allow it to. As much as I enjoy teaching what I teach, the fact is that we are very fortunate to have this program in our area. There are many other districts that don’t have this opportunity, and I think that a guitar class helps provide a musical avenue for students who may not have been involved in music otherwise.


What type of lesson plans have you done for your classes that may be unique?

One of my favorite activities that we do every rotation is called “Tuning Relays.” The activity itself is very simple, it’s just tuning one string (E) of the guitar and then having it checked by the teacher. The teacher then throws it out of tune, and you do two strings (EA), then three (EAD), and so on. After they have finished all six strings, I give them various challenges to make them experiment with the guitar. “What fret do you press down on the 6th string to make it sound like the open 5th string?” or “Can you figure out how to play ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ starting on this note?” This gets them listening and figuring out the relationships between the strings before we even think about reading a piece of music.


Do you participate in any musical performances or activities outside of your public school teaching duties?

I am an active member of the Ft. Dodge Symphony Orchestra and the Karl L. King Municipal Band. I have also judged a variety of solo/ensemble contests at the middle school level and had the opportunity to work with students from other bands in clinics from the surrounding area.


Any last thoughts to conclude our interview? 

I am most definitely not the most talented guitar teacher in the state of Iowa, but I’m ecstatic that I have the opportunity to teach these classes. There is a huge potential for guitar education to expand in our state, and I hope that it does, especially in our rural districts. At Humboldt, we have an awesome opportunity to make connections to music that aren’t found in every school, and I consider myself fortunate to be a part of that.


Past “Guitar Class in 50 States” articles:


About the author:


Photo Credit: Jon Carlucci

Thomas Amoriello Jr. serves as the chair on the NAfME Council for Guitar Education and is also the former Chairperson for the New Jersey Music Education Association. Tom has taught guitar classes for the Flemington Raritan School District in Flemington, New Jersey, since 2005 and was also an adjunct guitar instructor at Cumberland County College, New Jersey, for five years. He has earned a Master of Music Degree in Classical Guitar Performance from Shenandoah Conservatory and a Bachelor of Arts in Music from Rowan University. He is the author of the children’s picture books A Journey to Guitarland with Maestro Armadillo and Ukulele Sam Strums in the Sand, both available from Black Rose Writing. He recently made a heavy metal recording with a stellar roster of musicians including former members of Black Sabbath, Whitesnake, Ozzy Osbourne, Yngwie J. Malmsteen’s Rising Force, and Dio that was released on H42 Records of Hamburg, Germany. The record released on 12-inch vinyl and digital platforms has received favorable reviews in many European rock magazines and appeared on the 2018 Top 15 Metal Albums list by Los Angeles KNAC Radio (Contributor Dr. Metal). Visit for more information.


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The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) provides a number of forums for the sharing of information and opinion, including blogs and postings on our website, articles and columns in our magazines and journals, and postings to our Amplify member portal. Unless specifically noted, the views expressed in these media do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Association, its officers, or its employees.

Catherina Hurlburt, Marketing Communications Manager. November 1, 2019. © National Association for Music Education (

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