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.
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.