With so many hundreds of guitar method books being pushed on the beginning musician, it can be difficult to figure out which ones to use. Over the years, I myself have worked through a number of different theory books with my students—and I have found that they are not all created equally.
Most method books are pretty good in terms of content, but even though they may contain a lot of the same information, they all offer something different.
While it is important to consider a student’s individual goals, age, and experience when selecting a book, I have found that these are some of my all-time favorite method books for guitar:
1) The Hal Leonard Guitar Method is a classic starter book. It starts at the very beginning of guitar theory and increases in difficulty at a pleasant, steady pace.
I like recommending this book for young beginners and people who want to fill in the gaps of their guitar fundamentals. It’s also great for those who want to build a solid foundation for their reading skills, but don’t necessarily need to become expert sight readers.
This book is roughly equivalent to the Mel Bay Method, but both are a lot of fun. The songs are mostly old folk songs like “Aura Lee” and “Oh When the Saints.” Combined with the rest of lessons, the book is very digestible in small doses for those who want to prioritize their other guitar skills while supplementing their knowledge of theory.
2) Essential Elements for Guitar—another solid beginner guitar book from Hal Leonard—is often used in high school guitar classes since it also maintains a very gradual increase in difficulty.
While it is similar to the Hal Leonard Guitar Method mentioned above, the main benefit of the Essential Elements series is the updated song list, which includes a number of songs from The Beatles, Elvis, Elton John, and other famous artists in addition to the same old folk songs used in the Hal Leonard book.
Essential Elements is meant for absolute beginners, but if you already have some previous experience on the guitar, this can be a good book for filling in your fundamental knowledge while learning some classic tunes.
3) A Modern Method for Guitar by William Leavitt is probably my favorite guitar theory book of all.
This book has a much steeper ramp up in difficulty, and it is much more thorough. I like to recommend this book for more advanced beginner- to intermediate-level players who want to take a more comprehensive approach to learning the guitar.
Since the book’s music theory and reading material can help prepare guitarists for more difficult repertoires, it’s also great for aspiring jazz players as well as classical guitarists. The lesson content is meant to be played with a pick, but it can be fun for finger-style, too.
There are 3 volumes in the Modern Method series, but I definitely recommend buying them separately; the 3-in-one book is so thick and unwieldy, it can be difficult to actually use—especially since it takes about two years on average to get through Book 1.
4) For aspiring classical players, I recommend Learning the Classic Guitar Part 2 by William Shearer.
Yes, even beginners should skip Part 1 unless you really like reading—Part 2 is when you actually start playing guitar.
The music is nice and the ramp up in difficulty is gradual enough that it is good for absolute beginners or more experienced players who are newer to classical guitar.
I like this book more than the older Shearer method book, “Classic Guitar Technique,” which is published by Alfred. For starters, this volume is spiral bound—so it sits more easily on the music stand—but it also has an updated music list that is a little more interesting.
There are plenty of other great guitar method books out there, but this is just a list of my own personal favorites that I have discovered from several years of teaching. If you’re a beginning student, you could also talk to your teacher about their book recommendations; they may be able to recommend a book that is more specific to your needs—or maybe they simply use a book that I haven’t heard of before.
That being said, I do recommend working through some guitar method book at some point in your musical education—you may find that reading guitar music is a lot more easy and fun than you may have thought.
Justin Heath’s passion for music ranges across a variety of instruments, including acoustic guitar, 5-string banjo, mandolin, ukulele, and violin. His musical interests range from jazz to folk and bluegrass to flamenco, but he is now focused predominantly on solo classical guitar and performing tango music with his band the Toccata Players. Justin works at the House of Musical Traditions and teaches guitar, banjo, and ukulele for the School of Musical Traditions.