Teaching Guitar through Popular Music Education

Teaching Guitar through Popular Music Education

Modern Band in the Classroom

By Scott Burstein and Bryan Powell

guitar lesson
Photo: Mark Jaworski


As the presence of guitar-based courses increases throughout K-12 music education programs in the United States, it is useful to examine the various contexts in which guitar is being taught to better understand practices in K-12 pedagogy. A closer examination of these approaches in the classroom reveals a variety of approaches to teaching guitar. These approaches range from teaching students to read only traditional music staff notation to only using guitar tablature, and everything in between. In this blog, we will look at one approach to teaching popular music that is currently being utilized in over 1,500 public schools in the U.S.

But first, a brief example.

The Warm-Up

All teachers know the value of a good warm-up, particularly for beginning players. Let’s look at this example of a typical warm-up you might find in a more traditional guitar method book:

sheet music


For non-guitarists out there, this is a chromatic segment played on two strings on the guitar, strings 5 and 6 at the 7th-10th frets. What is the goal of this warm-up? In this case, it would have a few different potential outcomes: using all four fingers, alignment between left and right hands, alternate picking, hand position, possibly staccato and legato articulations, a variety of topics.

It meets most criteria for a potentially solid warm-up, but fails at the most basic: It is boring.

music class
Photo: Mark Jaworski

With a few minor adjustments using student-centered music, approximation, and scaffolding, we could get the same outcomes in a way that is fun and connects to actual music. We will now add in tablature, an iconic notation that most guitarists use to identify how to play music they already can recognize. It uses a six line staff, each representing a string, and the numbers show exactly which fret to play. Let’s start by just playing the last riff backwards:



Now, how about adding in the low E string on the guitar to give the left hand fingers an opportunity to change strings:

guitar string


Now, let’s modify the rhythm just enough to make it into a recognizable guitar riff:

guitar riff


Sound familiar? Well, not if you don’t know where to place these notes on the guitar itself. But by simply lifting your fingers one at a time, striking fret 10, 9, 8, and 7 first on the 5th string, followed by the same exercise on the 6th string, broken up by an open 6th string, hopefully you sound a little more like this:


Modern Band and Music as a Second Language


By using very little modifications, we can make a fun and memorable lesson, one that approximates the original riff to make it appropriate for beginning guitarists. As students are able to play it, slight changes can be made to increase its difficultly and challenge, such as including the original bends or moving it to other string sets where the fret distance is wider. This approach is one espoused in a multitude of places, mainly associated with informal learning (Green, 2001), but specifically is the way that Little Kids Rock utilizes “Music as a Second Language” to teach “Modern Band”.

modern band
Photo: Mark Jaworski

As defined by Little Kids Rock (LKR), a US-based non-profit organization, Modern Band is “a genre-based, instrumental and vocal music program that focuses on the culturally relevant music of the past sixty years with a special emphasis upon the music of today.” The instrumentation of many Modern Band programs is similar to what many of us consider popular music instruments, including: guitar, bass, keyboard, drums, vocals, and technology.

However, teaching popular music in Modern Band classes necessitates a change in pedagogy, and LKR advocates for an approach to teaching music that they call Music as a Second Language (MSL). The MSL approach focuses on learning music the same way that we learn a second language, utilizing the principles of Stephen Krashen’s Second Language Acquisition (1982), and likens the development of music knowledge to that of the development of speech.

music education
Photo: Mark Jaworski

One of the primary focuses of MSL is to encourage instant success that teaches students to “play” music first, without increasing their anxiety and frustration by starting on the music theory aspects of reading traditional music staff notation. Students who are acutely aware of the names of the notes they are playing, the written version of what they are rendering, and the theory guiding it may be likened to the struggling foreign language stude nt who uses the conscious study of grammar as their gateway to speaking instead of participating in fun conversations at their level of understanding.

While there isn’t one “right way” to teach guitar, the approach to teaching guitar that embraces instant success through tablature is one that has been proven to work in the K-12 classroom by encouraging students to “play music,” and not just to “read music.”


Green, L. (2001). How popular musicians learn: A way ahead for music education. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

Krashen, S. (1982). Principles and practice in second language acquisition. Pergamon: Oxford.

About the authors:

guitar teacher

Dr. Bryan Powell is the Director of Programs for Amp Up NYC, a partnership between Little Kids Rock and Berklee College of Music. Bryan is a musician and music educator with elementary, secondary, and college teaching experience. Dr. Powell is an adjunct professor of music and education who teaches at Hunter College, NYU, and Bergen Community College and also facilitates online Masters and Doctoral level courses for Boston University. Bryan is the founding co-editor of Journal of Popular Music Education, a peer-reviewed academic journal published by Intellect Ltd. Additionally, Bryan is the Executive Director of the Association for Popular Music Education, an organization dedicated to promoting and advancing popular music at all levels of education. Dr. Powell currently serves as the NAfME Popular Music Education SRIG Vice-Chair. Bryan has a Bachelor of Music degree from Pepperdine University, a Masters degree in Education from Chapman University, and a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from Boston University.

music teacher

Scott Burstein is the National Director of Training for the non-profit Little Kids Rock. His duties include managing training, professional development, and higher education. He previously taught public high school in Los Angeles for 12 years, with subjects ranging from Marching Band to AP Music Theory.

Scott studied music at the University of California, Santa Barbara and Eastman School of Music, and is currently completing on his dissertation in Music Education at the University of Southern California. While primarily a guitarist, Scott has played a variety of instruments as a performer in the fields of classical music and jazz.

Bryan Powell and Scott Burstein will be presenting on their topic “Teaching Guitar through Popular Music Education” at the 2016 NAfME National In-Service Conference this November in Grapevine, TX! Register today! 

music education

Join us for more than 100 innovative professional development sessions, nightly entertainment, extraordinary performances from across the country, and tons of networking opportunities with over 3,000+ other music educators! Learn more and register today: http://bit.ly/NAfME2016. And follow the hashtag #NAfME2016!

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Catherina Hurlburt, Communications Manager, May 18, 2016. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org).