Reel Students in with Guitar

“Are your upper elementary and middle school students too cool for school?” asks NAfME member Suzanne Shull. “Out-cool them by putting guitars in their hands.” Shull shares some tips to get students started on the most popular and versatile of all instruments:


Start using terms like tonic and dominant, I, IV, and V chords from the beginning. Children want to play a song as soon as possible; even very young children can do this with the easy C and G7 chords.

Help children navigate from one chord to the next.

  • Practice with students playing a chord on beat 1 of 4, giving them 3 beats to move to the next chord.
  • Share strategies for navigating from chord to chord—students can practice moving their fingers in shapes into place rather than moving one finger at a time. 

Rhythm & Beat

Use one-chord songs so students can focus on developing a steady right hand and listening skills. Some one-chord songs are The Commitments’ “Chain of Fools” and Bob Marley’s “Exodus.”

Note Reading

Connect what students know about the solfège scale with the notes they’re learning.

Use accompaniments in the key of G using easy chords on G(I), C(IV), and D7(V).

Connect with songs in the key of G that students learned for recorder (using B, A, and G). Guitars can accompany recorder players or play along with the melody.

Movable Scales and Chords

Start exploring the fingerboard early. Students love playing up the neck, especially those who love rock music. Pentatonic scales with roots on E and A strings are a good start. Basic scale patterns starting at the 5th fret are easy to see and reach.

Students can learn I, IV, V root patterns on the three bass strings and turn the guitar into a bass, playing in all keys.

Power chords are simply the root and fifth played at the same time with a pick. Bass strings on the guitar are a 4th apart, so a power chord is formed with the first finger on the root and the third finger on the fifth (next string over and 2 frets up).

Good songs for playing up the neck and remembering patterns and power chords include 

  • “Smells like Teen Spirit,” Nirvana 
  • “Viva la Vida,” Coldplay 
  • “Heaven,” Los Lonely Boys 
  • “Honky Tonk Woman,” Rolling Stones
  • “Give Me One Reason,” Tracy Chapman  

Connect with Orff and Kodály

  • Ask students how to incorporate the guitar into an Orff ensemble.
  • Use solfège syllables to find accurate pitches.
  • Have students play by ear.
  • Use Ta’s and Ti’s to represent down beats and up beats. 

Shull began teaching guitar in general music classes in the mid-1970s. She discovered that playing guitar gave students a new attitude about required general music classes and that teaching guitar attracted more young men into her choirs.

Even very young children can play guitar, as shown in this video of young Korean children.

If you’d like to start a guitar program in your school, sign up for a Teaching Guitar Workshop, sponsored by NAfME, GAMA (Guitar & Accessories Marketing Association), and NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants). Participants pay only $299 for an entire week of instruction, and receive a new guitar, guitar publications and accessories, and three graduate college credits from Duquesne University. Both Level I and Level II are offered.


Suzanne Shull, former chair of Teaching Guitar Workshops, taught choral and general music in the Atlanta area public schools for three decades.

—Linda C. Brown, March 30, 2011, © National Association for Music Education