Planning on Majoring in Guitar?

Majoring in guitar was a rarity in college music departments fifty years ago; programs based on band, orchestral and vocal music had little need for guitar components. Today, some string programs offer a classical guitar option, jazz programs typically include a substantial guitar component, and guitarists are especially common in Commercial Music and Music Industry programs.

However, many young guitarists enter college with inadequate preparation, and struggle as a result. Students planning on majoring in guitar in college should consider their current level of instruction and preparation in light of the substantial demands of a degree program. Like any other music major, students majoring in guitar will need to be focused, committed, and hard-working to succeed.

Learn the fingerboard

Serious guitarists should study movable forms, such as those produced by the CAGED system (an acronym for C – A – G – E – D, the five most common chord shapes on the guitar). Multiple fingerings of all scales should be mastered, with particular emphasis on seven-note (heptatonic) scales: diatonic major and minor, and the modes. Beyond just “open chords,” fingerboard harmony should include both barre and fingered jazz chords (Major-7, Dominant 9/13, etc.).

Learn to read music

Learning to read traditional musical notation is crucial to success in college and in the professional world as well; serious guitar students should not limit their music reading to ‘lead sheets’ and tablature (tab).  A Modern Method for Guitar (William Leavitt; Berklee Press) is one of many excellent music-reading books for guitar.

Learn classical guitar

Beyond literature, classical guitar study reaps rewards in tone production, co-ordination between the hands, posture and relaxation, hand strength and endurance, and velocity. These are crucial in all styles of guitar playing. Many college guitarists are required to study classical guitar, even if their emphasis is in other areas.

Participate in school music programs

The serious guitar student should participate in school music programs wherever possible:

  • Jazz ensemble
    Reinforces harmonic, ensemble and improvisational/stylistic skills.
  • Musical theatre
    An opportunity to learn how to follow a conductor and play in an orchestra.
  • Marching/field show pit bands
    An opportunity to use pop/rock guitar skills in an organized setting, as many marching bands perform popular music and feature a non-marching section on the sidelines.
  • Guitar class/ensemble
    Students who are fortunate to have guitar instruction in their school should take best advantage of these.

Participate in groups outside of school

Performing in groups such as rock bands and worship groups offers opportunities for learning and growth. Serious young guitarists should not rely on these bands as their sole performance experience, as these styles are seldom sufficiently challenging — technically, harmonically or stylistically.

Learn about different guitar styles

Serious guitar students should be aware of the great and important guitarists of recent decades, and listen to their recordings.  An introductory list includes:

  • Classical: Andres Segovia
  • Jazz: Wes Montgomery
  • Blues: B.B. King
  • Country: Chet Atkins
  • Rock: Jimi Hendrix
  • Flamenco: Paco de Lucia

Purchase appropriate instruments

The guitar is not so much an instrument as a “family of instruments.” A serious guitarist may need several guitars to be ready for college.  Thankfully, the quality of inexpensive guitars has never been higher; a student guitarist can often acquire all the instruments below for less than the cost of one saxophone.

  • Electric guitar
    Should have several pickups to cover a variety of styles. Use no lighter than gauge .010 strings (.011 if also used for jazz).
  • Acoustic: nylon, steel string
    Steel-string guitars are popular, but classical guitar study will require a nylon-string guitar; purchase both if possible. Select solid wood models, which sound better than laminates. Electronics are a nice plus.
  • Amplifier
    Select a compact, easily transported amp with a good “clean” sound and sufficient power (volume) for performances; effects can be added with pedals if necessary.

Select an appropriate teacher

Guitar instructors who primarily teach hobbyists are often not qualified to prepare college-bound students majoring in guitar. The most common reason college-bound guitarists don’t play jazz or classical guitar, know the fingerboard, or read music notation is because their teachers don’t. Select appropriate instructors: those who have earned a music degree, are outstanding players, and are experienced in teaching serious guitar students.

Tom Hynes (MA), assistant professor of music at Azusa Pacific University, teaches Commercial Guitar, Jazz Combos, Music Theory and Composition.  He also teaches jazz guitar for Idyllwild Arts Academy and classical guitar for St. Catherine’s Academy. Hynes authored “The Developing Jazz Guitarist” and Modern Harmonic and Melodic Practice (Hynesight Music). He has a BM is in Studio/Jazz Guitar Performance from University of Southern California Thornton School of Music, and a Master of Arts/Music in Composition from California State University, Los Angeles.


  1. Dave

    At the young age of 66 and after having played the guitar since I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, I am back in school studying guitar. And therein lies the difference. I have, for all these years, learned to play guitar, but now I am studying guitar. If the school in which you are enrolled is expected to award you a degree in guitar performance then they have an obligation to the community at large, to ensure that you can, in fact, play the guitar. Your plans could not be more irrelevant. The institutions name is going on the diploma. They have a reputation to defend. Which is why those of you who finish at Berklee or some other fine institution can hold your head a bit higher than those of us who will not.

  2. Gabe

    Versatility is never going to hurt. Knowledge is power and being closed minded will only hinder your growth. Learning all styles of music will make you creative, you will be able to apply techniques of all genres to your hearts desire.

  3. Ernest

    @ Lance….I believe Berklee is THE College for Guitar. And many other Instruments. MI is a good school – but Berklee it is Not!

  4. Lance

    So much of this is bull. I major in guitar performance at MI, (THE guitar school), and they could care less the equipment you’ve got. Why use 10s if you prefer 9s? Or 8s? By the logic in that little section you should own a Gibson Firebird X with a Peavy Frontman, or a 10w Spider. Yes, learning the styles is important, but if you plan on playing Acid Rock, why learn Classical/Country? Likewise, if you going to be a purely classical player, why hinder your growth there playing Jazz/Blues/Rock/Country? I realize you have a Bachelors in Guitar, and probably a few decades on me, but I mean come on, dude, you sound like a purist. Also almost no high school has decent school programs, and the greatest music is created in outside groups.

    • Paul

      Personally, I would have to disagree. It’s good advice to learn all the styles. This is a good article for kids in highschool exploring a musical career like myself. I know what high school life is like in many parts of the country seeing that i move a lot and everywhere I see tons of talent. MI isn’t a challenging school to get into which explains the standards and requirements. I’m not saying your school sucks, but in general, guitar isn’t appreciated in music schools as much as the cello, violin, or saxophone. In environments where guitar is emphasized more than classical instruments itself you are expected to not have to know as much as the guitarist going to a school where jazz orchestras are the primary focus. It all depends on where you are majoring, and the player themself.

    • Anthony

      If you learn multiple styles, You learn the nuances of each style, You can apply skills you learn from other styles into the style you’re focusing in. Plus it helps if you’re in a guitar rut.

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