How learning guitar made me a better piano teacher - Creative Music Education

How learning guitar made me a better piano teacher

By Tim Topham | Piano Teaching

Jul 13

learning guitar

Question: Why is learning guitar so popular?

Answer: Because it’s easy to sound cool and play great music in just a couple of lessons.

What can piano teachers learn from this?

Can we use a guitar-teaching method and apply it to piano?

The backstory

Back when I was working as an outdoor education teacher on an island off the coast of Tasmania (if you haven’t heard that story, then I’d recommend listening to Hugh Sung interview me on A Musical Life Podcast) I didn’t have much of an opportunity to play the piano. We were often out on trips and it wasn’t exactly an instrument you could play beside the campfire. Other students were bringing guitars and singing and I wanted in on the action.

I’d never really tried playing guitar before, but I knew the basics: learn some chord patterns, strum the chords in the rhythm of the song, sing over the top and voila: you’re a musician.

When I was next in Melbourne, I decided to buy a hand made Maton steel string guitar (made near me in Melbourne) – it was an absolute work of art and I quickly became quite attached! It had the most lovely sound (when the guy at the shop demonstrated) and I was hooked.

I downloaded some chord fingering charts and headed to Ultimate Guitar (a resource I still use today for piano) and downloaded the chords and lyrics for some of my favourite songs.

What’s being a beginner like?

I have long advocated that one of the best professional development experiences for any teacher is to learn a new instrument from scratch.

Back when I was teaching at Whitefriars College in Melbourne around 2010, I was asked to help teach the Year 7 classroom band program, teaching trombone and trumpet to around 20 kids at a time.

I’ve never played either instrument, but I was happy to give it a shot.

Learning how to play two completely new instruments ended up being one of the best things I’ve done – not only for my knowledge of brass instruments when conducting bands, but just for the experience of being a beginner again.

Reminding ourselves what it’s like to be a beginner with all its joys and frustrations is an experience that money simply can’t buy.

I encourage any serious teacher to consider learning a new instrument as some of the best professional development opportunities of your career.

As pianists, even learning how to use all the functions of your digital piano is great, or perhaps learning to use the pedals on an organ. However, nothing can beat learning a completely foreign instrument.

Learning guitar

The way I taught myself guitar was to learn chord patterns with the left hand. (That and dealing with callouses on the ends of my fingers and building up the stamina to hold the steel strings against the fret board!).

I practisesd as much as my soft, padded, pianists fingers would let me and gradually built up a repertoire of chords that I needed to play the music that I wanted to learn.

I downloaded chord and lyric charts from Ultimate Guitar so that I could sing along and play my favourite songs.

Here’s what the chord/lyric charts look like:

teaching piano chords

As piano teachers, we’d probably look at that and think, “How am I meant to play that?! Where’s the music?”

But for guitar players, that’s all you need.

With only a few chords (thanks Circle of 5ths), you can play much of the popular repertoire.

See a chord you don’t know how to play? Just google to find out where to put your fingers. Practise moving from chord to chord smoothly and you’ve got it.

Now sure, before all the guitar teachers out there get too angry, I realise there is more to learning the guitar than strumming some chords.

However my point is that because strumming chords is relatively easy to master and can be the focus of the first lessons, students can see quick progress and experience some huge wins really early in their learning.

If this works so well, why is it that most piano teaching is so fixated on middle C position, single note-melodies and note reading?

How is this relevant to piano teaching?

It actually couldn’t be more relevant.

What I realised was that the reason that playing guitar is so much fun is because learning chords gives you the ability to play just about anything without much technical knowledge.

As long as you can keep a steady rhythm with your right hand and know a few chord shapes (we all know how few chords make up most songs, right?), then you can play music.

It also takes away the stress of note reading. It gets you moving around the piano.

It gets you sounding like a musician.

And that’s pretty cool right?

Sound like something you’d like to try?

How to incorporate chords into your teaching

If this method of teaching is all new to you, then I’d like to check out some of the resources here at

Here are some of the most popular articles about this on the blog:

You may have heard about my online training course called: PianoFlix: Teaching Pop Piano.

This is an 8-part video series that goes into detail about my chordal approach to teaching music and looking at how to teach pop using this method.

The full course, and all my teaching videos, downloads and resources are available to members of my Inner Circle, but here’s a quick sneak-peak from one of the introductory videos:



If you’d like access to the full series, you can grab a monthly Inner Circle membership by clicking here.

While you’re there, you’ll also get access to two of my other most popular PDF resources: my 10-week Chord Teaching Lesson Plan, with step-by-step instructions about how to teach chords that cover 10 lessons over the course of a year and my Easy Chord Progressions to Inspire Creativity download which allows you to get creative while exploring some of the coolest chord progressions.

You can watch how I teach using these lesson plans in the videos inside the members area.


Adding some elements of a “guitar teaching method” to your piano instruction is actually relatively easy and can have a huge impact on the way you teach.

You don’t need to revolutionise all your teaching. You can just add elements of a chordal approach and watch as your students not only make faster progress, but also understand the construction of all their music. Students become better readers, more versatile players and start understanding the elements of composition.

What’s the weirdest instrument you’ve ever tried to learn?


About the Author

Best-known for his blogging and teaching, Tim is also a well-respected presenter, performer and accompanist based in Melbourne, Australia. You can check him out on Google+, Facebook and Twitter.

  • Nachum says:

    The first phrase of this article should not be taken otherwise than irony. The guitar is an instrument whose complexity of playing is on the second place , after the violin.
    However, guitar allows you to quickly start accompany harmonically simple songs, and this is its great advantage over the piano. Explaining student accompaniment texture in pop songs. I repelled from the texture of drums set, combined with guitar. Experience has shown the effectiveness of this approach.
    ]Another point, the possession of additional instruments, has beneficial effect on piano playing.

    • Maureen says:

      Totally agree, teaching piano students how to play from chord charts opens up worlds of music to them.

      I’ll add another advantage to a piano teacher learning the basics of guitar: you can play along with your students. Once a student learns a piece reasonably well, it can be helpful to them to have accompaniment. It helps them stay in time, learn to play with others without being “thrown off,” and play more musically. I find that even a lot of the classical pieces work well with a handful of basic chords.

      • Tim Topham says:

        Great idea, Maureen. Unfortunately, my callouses have disappeared so I’d find this really hard now but I can see how it would work. Anytime we get our students playing along with something – backing track, another piano, singing – it does them worlds of good with listening, pulse, ensemble skills, etc. 🙂

    • Tim Topham says:

      Hey Nachum. Yes, I realise that playing guitar is much more complicated than a few chords. It’s just that there is something about guitar that makes the chordal approach so simple which gives people a great opportunity to learn the basics quickly.

  • Marie says:

    I thoroughly agree! I’ve rarely had any lessons in anything, but have played recorders of various sizes, performed using finger-style guitar to accompany my singing for years, learned saxophone well enough to play in a band, am still trying to get used to clarinet, occasionally learn a tune on accordion, and (very rarely) try to play harmonica. It’s so important to understand how a beginner student feels – but also to experience the satisfaction of making music which pleases you, regardless of the level of skill.

  • I love the instant access to music through chords and while I don’t play guitar I love the simplicity chords provide to both piano and guitar as far as the learning curve goes.

    In our improv program, we often get the comment: ‘when will I be learning songs that I know?’
    While most of the playing is very creative motif exploration, chords are learnt very early using CFG all over the piano. So this can be the perfect jump into learning songs that they know.

    You should see their faces light up when they play through all their favourite kids songs that they are learning in preschool. And the warmth and fun that is generated as one student plays the chords and everyone else sings is priceless. (We even sing those really long notes as the students sometimes pauses for the next chords… inevitably turns into giggles all round!) It’s the equivalent of the campfire sing along and doesn’t it spark a reminiscence of the ‘old-singalong-round-the-piano’?

    Imagine at only 4 or 5 yrs old to have a grasp on playing accompaniment! All thanks to the simplicity of chord accompaniment. Great post Tim.

    • Tim Topham says:

      It’s great how something so simple can have such a profound effect. I love all the ways that you use simple structures up and down the whole instrument too! Thanks for your feedback.

  • Helen says:

    I really like your idea of becoming a better teacher by learning another instrument from scratch so that you can better understand your students. Piano lessons started for me around age 8, and I barely remember what it felt like to face a new challenge every day; I doubt I would be a patient teacher if I tried to teach piano. I’ve wanted to learn guitar for years (I know a few chords from my dad), and I am curious to see how my knowledge of chords and keys could be augmented by learning a second instrument.

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