How Young is too Young to Play
“When you were young and your heart was an open book…” – Live and Let Die, Wings, Paul and Linda McCartney
In a recent email from a reader, which you may have seen in our Email of the Week feature in the Newsletters, I was asked about how when is too young to play a guitar. The reader was a grandfather, and he asked:
How should I go about teaching my grand-daughter to play the guitar, or should I even try at this time? She has had an inexpensive play guitar since she was four (she is six now). She has been playing with it steadily these past two years. The only problem with the guitar is that it will not stay in tune. So, this Christmas I purchased a Baby Taylor for her, so that she would at least have something that will stay in tune.
My question to you is this. After working with her these past few weeks, I think she may still be a little young in order to handle the physical demands that the guitar places on your hands. But, boy does the girl have rhythm! She cannot push the strings down real well, but she can sure keep up with me when in comes to strumming. We go into my office and jam to all kinds of music. I was thinking that perhaps I could get her started on reading music, and then in about a year she will be ready to really get into the guitar.
It’s wonderful that you are teaching your granddaughter to play! I don’t think anyone is ever too young to have a love of music instilled in them. My daughter wanted very much to play the alto sax when she was 8. (She’d been playing piano since age 5 or 6) We tried one, and she had excellent tone and rhythm, but she didn’t quite have enough arm strength to hold up the instrument for long periods of time. We switched her to the lighter clarinet for a few years, and now at 11, she is happily wailing on the sax. So, I think at 6, you’re not too young for making music. However, sometimes the kids are size wise a bit small for their instrument, as my daughter was. Time will cure that, but meanwhile keeping her interested is great! If she can strum some basic chords; wonderful! We also bought my daughter an acoustic Daisy Rock Guitar for that reason. It’s about the size of a Baby Taylor and has a composite back (so we didn’t have to worry about any accidental breakage of a wood body) and sounds pretty good. If you are interested you can find more at www.daisyrock.com. They also make smaller sized electrics, which I find a bit easier to play. It sounds like your granddaughter really enjoys the jamming, so you can take it a little at a time, and let her build up the calluses like the rest of us have! Even just strumming Em /A (the beginning of Somebody to Love) or Am/E (Summertime) which may be easier for her to hold down may be ok for her. Or if it is really hard for her, you can consider nylon strings for a year or two. They don’t sound as rich as the metal, but may be easier for her to hold down and strum. A luthier (if you know one, or if there is a good guitar store near you) may be able to lower the action on her Baby Taylor, making it easier for her as well. I think your idea of teaching her how to read music is also a good one. Both of my kids learned to read music via the piano when they were 5 or 6, and I took lessons from that age as well. It’s a skill that will be useful the rest of her life. Whatever music you enjoy, I’m sure she will enjoy as well, especially as it is the opportunity to spend fun time with you.
I think it’s wonderful that she has a grandfather willing to teach these skills and share music with her. I hope to be able to do that someday when I have grandkids. Enjoy; it sounds like you are having a great time with this! Let me know how it goes.
David Hodge added:
In addition to Laura’s comments, I’d also like to recommend a couple of things – first off, many teachers start off their younger students with partial chords, using just the first three or four strings. For instance, you can play a G like this: xx0003 and a C like this: xxx010. Another thing that one can do is to use an open tuning (usually G or D). This is especially good if the child it adept at strumming. You can show where to barre the frets (or even use a slide) for your typical three chord song and the two of you can have a blast.
Well, in reading over the question and responses, I thought that the information exchanged warranted its own article. I can tell you that I’ve observed very young infants, when just able to stand, bouncing on their feet to the beat of music playing. I’ve also heard preschoolers sing cherubic choirs to guitar accompaniment. Then there are the little 3, 4 and 5 year olds that play Suzuki violin and make beautiful sounds from that stringed fretless instrument. I think you are never too young (or too old!) to enjoy music.
Somewhere in the preschool age, usually 4 or 5 years, children can pay attention enough to learn to play an instrument. The piano is a good instrument to start with, as it does not require hand strength or lung strength. There is immediate positive feedback. When you play a note on a piano the sound made is in tune, in key with the right pitch, unlike learning frets on a guitar or having to blow correct pitch on a horn. The downside is that real pianos are quite expensive, but used electronic ones which never need tuning, can be reasonably priced.
A guitar is usually even less expensive than a piano. You can certainly spend as much, or more than a piano, but reasonably priced guitars are more common than reasonably priced pianos. While there are some physical constraints to playing guitar, they can be overcome with a willing student, using a smaller guitar. It’s important not to let the kids get frustrated with any instrument that they learn. Don’t force the practicing and keep the playing fun. One of the many reasons I picked up the guitar initially was to set an example to my children for practicing and having fun in learning a new instrument.
A mountain dulcimer is another good stringed instrument for a beginner. It is held in the lap and played with a device much like a slide guitar, so fretting the strings is easy. Plus, there are a limited number of notes (usually a little more than an octave or so in a particular key). You can think of it as a stringed version of the xylophone or recorder.
If you learn to play a song with your child or grandchild, they love it! Even better is letting them pick favorite songs that they want to learn and helping them learn the songs. It keeps the sense of fun and allows the child to share happy music with the adult. One of the benefits of learning to play guitar (or any instrument) at any age is the sense of accomplishment felt when you have mastered something. It reinforces the joy of music throughout our life. Many thanks to the reader who was willing to share his story.
n.b. This column continues in a series dedicated to the female musician. We have our own forum in the forum section. As always, I would love suggestions on topics you would like to see covered. Please email me and tell me your story. I enjoy hearing each and every one.
May 5th, 2012 @ 7:06 am
My son picked up a tennis racket to use like a guitar at age 2. He always had a great strum. He is now 5 and he has a electrical mini strat. I enrolled him in a social band. These kids make up songs and play in concert with guidance some instruction and real muscians. My question is: is if he isnt really learning to read music or chords etc. but is having fun and he doesnt practice. Am I not doing him a favor by not having him get straight guitar lessons. I just figured he was having fun (he thinks he plays guitar well already) and it was a social outlet for him. Now he may never be interested to learn the correct way. any feedback appreciated. thanks!
May 6th, 2012 @ 6:34 pm
As with most aspects of playing music, there is no “one size fits all” answer to your question. Much of the response depends on the various abilities as well as the personality of the student. At 5, some are able to sit through a structured lesson and learn and love doing so and some would rather be doing anything else.
For whatever it may be worth, there are a number of points that you and your son can talk about, or that you can decide for yourself to help him out at this stage. First and foremost is exactly what you write – is he having fun? It sounds like he is and that’s great. So then the question becomes “can lessons help him discover having more fun exploring his guitar?” And at this point, perhaps not, especially if he’s not going to practice. And that’s perfectly okay. You may be concerned that “he may never be interested to learn the correct way,” but if he truly likes and enjoys the guitar, then at some point he undoubtedly will. Especially should any of his friends start taking lessons!
You can also talk with him about learning about music in general and using the guitar to help him. Learning about notes and chords is part of the basics to learning almost any instrument and if he thinks he might like to take up piano or saxophone or even drums at some point, the fundamentals he learns with the guitar (reading music and rhythms) will apply to whatever other instruments he may take up later.
The whole process of learning in and of itself is important. When it comes to mastering an instrument, being able to deal with practice and deal with working out rough patches when things are not going one’s way will be invaluable in every other aspect of his schooling. So starting that process with an instrument he loves to play may help him in many other areas of both education and life.
Ultimately though, it should all be about his joy of playing. And one should also realize that as he grows, he will find more things that he enjoys doing. Having him pick the guitar and tell you that he wants to have lessons when he could be asking you for almost anything else will let you know when he’s ready. For now, simply letting him know that it’s an option that will always be there for him is probably a good way to go.
Hope this helps. Looking forward to reading more about how things are going with both of you.
March 20th, 2012 @ 11:39 am
I play guitar, and absolutely love it. I wanted a guitar since I can remember, and my parents finally told me when I was younger that if I took 2 years of piano, I could get a guitar. Well, I saw the misery my sisters went through with piano lessons (enrolled since age 5), and held out. I bought my first guitar with my first paycheck at 16. I still play, they do not. I suggest that forcing your kid to play is quite different than forcing them to stick with it, if only it is their idea.