man holding music notation and manuscript

Guitar Grades – Should I Take Them or Am I Better Avoiding Them?

Having completed Grade 8 in Electric Guitar Playing through the Registry of Guitar Tutors (RGT), I can definitely say that studying the guitar grades can be useful.

But are they the best way to learn to play the guitar? Can you become a great musician without them? Should you just avoid them all together?

 

For completely new guitarists, music grades probably aren’t the way to go

I know many teachers begin their lessons with getting the student to buy the Grade 1 book. This seems like a logical place to start. The problem is… it’s not the most interest book for someone who has never played guitar before. Plus, learning guitar in a logical order isn’t the fastest way of doing it.

Yes, it has useful things in it such as chord diagrams and scales, but without knowing why you need to know these things they seem like boring exercises.

Personally, I think there is a much better way to learn these skills in the first place.

What would you prefer, a book with 14 chords in it or being shown 3 or 4 chords that will let you play a song you know and recognise? How about 5 or 6 scales that sound just like exercises, or being able to play a melody that will impress your friends?

Learning a new instrument can be tough, so making it fun and interesting isn’t just a necessity, it’s the whole point of learning the guitar!

So when should you think about music grades?

If you want to study music at school, whether it’s at a College of University level, it’s going to be beneficial to have music grades. It’s not essential, as I know people who have music degrees and have never taken a guitar grade. It is going to help show that you have the level of understanding needed for the course.

For the most part, I see music grades as something that let’s you know how you are doing. Learning to play the guitar can seem like a long road if you want to become really good at it and sometimes it can be hard to hear your progress. Once you can play some of your favourite songs, you can improvise a bit and you’ve got some understanding of the guitar then grade 1 or 2 is easily within your grasp. Maybe even Grade 3 if you’ve already tackled barre chords.

Many students use this as a motivator as they can see that they are more than ‘just a beginner’. This is a great time to take a guitar grade. It feels good to be recognised for all your hard work.

Another reason is if you feel like you are plateauing. We’ve all done it as musicians. You’ve learnt your favourite songs. Check. You can improvise a bit. Check. You know where the notes are on the guitar and know some bits of theory. That’s all awesome.

But at some point, you just get into a rut. It all sounds good, but really similar. You need to find new fresh ideas. You need something to challenge you again.

Working on a guitar grade can bring you out of your comfort zone and introduce you to chords and keys that you might not use regularly or at all in the style of music you tend to play.

Can I learn this stuff without taking the guitar grades?

Absolutely.

You could understand everything required for getting the best music grade possible without ever sitting an exam. There are many established and exceptional musicians that have never and will never take a music grade in their life.

Ok, so music grades are totally pointless?

While you can learn everything you need to be an amazing guitar player without ever taking an exam, they can be useful.

I had a teacher for a short while that would teach group sessions. This was different to my other guitar lessons and I thought it would help me become a better musician. Now group lessons can be amazingly useful, which I will cover in another article. Unfortunately, these lessons were more to do with ‘you will all stay at the level of the least accomplished player’ rather than helping to inspire each other forwards.

I become increasingly frustrated with this. More so, I felt like we just kept getting to this point and we were never going to get past it. I would ask if there was anything I could add to it to make it more challenging, but was told to ‘stick to the book’. Needless to say, I stopped lessons with this teacher fairly quickly, but continued with my other teacher for many years later.

I wondered why a teacher would want to keep all students at a certain point. Is it the idea that the students will keep coming for lessons if they don’t get to a certain level? Well that clearly didn’t work in my case.

I was under the impression that you couldn’t teach until you had Grade 8. I don’t know where I heard this, but this was my belief. Turns out that teacher was only a grade 4. At the time, I was working on my grade 5. No wonder I felt I was being held back! Could this teacher have been a much more accomplished musician than his grade? Sure. But what he was teaching and the way he was teaching was putting a ceiling on everyones learning. If you want to teach guitar, it’s at least beneficial to understand music at a higher level and at that point, why not just take the guitar grade?

How useful are they?

Advantages of taking guitar grades
Disadvantages of taking guitar grades
It documents your progress as a guitar player. This helps you see your progression over time and is a way you can quickly show other people your
level of understanding.
If you are a complete beginner, I would start by learning music you truly want to play. Not just sticking to a grade book as you will likely become very bored with it very quickly.
It can help build confidence.Can become tedious if you don’t have a teacher that can explain to you how to use the information from the book in your every day guitar playing and why it is useful.
Helps you to try different chords and styles of playing you may never have
thought to use.
Useful if you want to study music at a higher level or teach in the future.

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