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Rock Talk: Starting a Popular/Rock Ensemble at Your School.

Popular/Rock Ensembles in school programs have gained a ton of momentum as legitimate school ensembles in North America over the past decade. Perhaps you want to start a rock group at your school but you have no idea where to begin. Maybe you've got a group of kids who are keen but you have no idea where to go with them. Or maybe you just don't know what is needed to get it off the ground. For the most part, your learners will know what to do and in many cases, they will know more than you. There are always musicians in our schools who are missing out on a music education in school because they do not play a traditional school instrument. Regardless of where you are with this experience-wise, I'm hoping that this article will help you in some aspect of your popular music preparation and pedagogy.

What Gear Does the School Need?

Most of what you need, the school will likely already own. In most cases, kids in these types of rock ensembles already own a guitar that they will be able to bring to school and use anyway. If you are a "normal" K--6 school, chances are you will have a PA system with mics, an electronic piano with an amp, and you may or may not have a drum set. You may need to invest in a bass as it is not common for a learner to have their own bass to bring to school. However, a bass can plug into a keyboard amp or directly into the line input of your PA system if you're not able to get a bass amp at this time. As for a drum set: if you are able to source pieces of a drum set to get started, all you need as a bare minimum is a bass drum with foot pedal, a hi-hat stand with cymbals, a snare drum with stand, and perhaps a crash cymbal with a stand. If you are in a "typical" Intermediate or high school with a jazz ensemble, you will already have what you need to get started with this. I was able to use my own equipment with my learners for a time but eventually built up what I needed to help my rock program thrive.

What Do My Learners Need to Know?

You may be auditioning your kids, you might pick out kids who you know are able to play, or you might even let anyone sign up. Whichever way you've decided to form your ensemble there are basic skills each musician should be able to perform. Here are the bare-bones minimum skills to be able to have your group sound as authentic as they can at any level from as young as Grade 3 to as old as Grade 12.


If singers can sing in tune and possess good pitch retention, this will be a huge help. Good memorization skills are also an asset.


There are 7 Chords that every guitar player should know as well at least one scale pattern. The best part is, most of the 7 Chords have simplified versions to help with younger learners or as a scaffold to the full chord shapes. Even if they know two or three of these "Main 7" chords it will be extremely helpful. Here they are:

Em C G D Am A E

Here are the simplified versions of these same chords. Notice D doesn't change:

Em C G D Am A E

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The minor pentatonic scale is one of the most common scale patterns used in rock music. It is often called the "box" because its shape is that of a box. Here is the pentatonic scale pattern:

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It's better if your learners, when improvising, use only a few of these notes within the pattern--less is more!


Bass guitar usually follows the root notes of the chords that the guitarist plays. I have my guitarists double on bass very often which helps them to recognize root notes on the guitar. In a more advanced group, arpeggios and 'walking' lines are helpful. 'Walking' lines are basically when passing tones are added in between chord changes. Hint: Bass guitars have the same note names as the 4 thickest strings on the guitar, but they sound an octave lower.


The drummers in a rock group have an extremely important job. The drummer--not the guitarist--can really make the difference between a polished-sounding group and a beginnersounding group. Thankfully, there are only two main patterns a rock drummer needs to know--the basic rock groove and the power ballad groove:

The Basic Rock Groove

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The Basic Power Ballad Groove (AKA: The Basic Blues Groove)

[phrase omitted]

Most drum patterns in rock songs are variations on these two. If your drummers can play these patterns, they have what they need to be successful with this. Once they have them, it is important for your drummers to learn how to feel, and perform a 4-measure phrase with even just a simple cymbal crash to signify the beginning of the new phrase as notated above. The simple addition of a crash to signify a new phrase will make a huge difference musically. The best part is that once they figure these patterns out, it will be easy for them to transfer their skills to new patterns with very little coaching--many times without any coaching at all. If your learners aren't ready for this yet, have them play bass-snare-bass-snare only. If you have two drummers playing at the same time, have the other play the hi-hat and cymbal parts to fit it together.


As a bare minimum, diads will suffice. Triads are even better but not required to get started. If your learners aren't ready for diads, start with root notes and add in diads as they are able to play the progression with the group. As they progress, they will be able to hear the difference or know the formula for a major and minor chord and be able to change on the fly. Once your learners know how to form a major chord on a keyboard, they can pretty much figure out the other ones with little coaching. Knowing the first few notes of scales in common guitar keys is helpful too. Hint: Guitar players love sharp keys!


If you add horns to any of your rock groups they should be aware that rock music uses very little--if any--sheet music and that they will be expected to learn much of the music by ear or be required to make up their own part. A lot of 80s rock music uses synthesized horn sounds so using real horns could sound even better! If you don't have horn players, they can easily be played on a keyboard/synth and still keep the integrety of the music intact. As a bare minumum, if you add horns, your beginning horns should know pentatonic scales in common guitar keys like G, D, and C. That way if they need B minor, they can play the notes of D and add a low B. Hint: Rock bands don't often play in Bb, Eb, or Ab so your beginner horn players' Bb major scale will likely not be as useful in this genre!

A Few Final Things

I presented you with the bare-bones basics of what you and your learners need to start a rock group. Keep in mind though that many times the kids know more than you think they do; so you don't even need to know that much at first. If you keep an open mind and you are not afraid to discover with your learners, you will be successful with this. Try learning some of these skills yourself! Just grab a guitar or a drum kit and go. It is also important to note that this genre is best learned by-ear, as the only means of transmitting rock music is through a recording or tablature (TAB) on the internet. Learning by ear is a legitimate, authentic, and completely natural way to learn an instrument in this genre. I don't know any rock or popular musician who does not learn a song by ear on a regular basis. It is very rarely written down in standardized notation, and that is not a negative thing. There are other important and useful musical skills that are typically ignored when relying on standard notation and traditional music literacy.

Until next time, Happy Musicking!

Steve Giddings teaches K--6 Music at Montague Consolidated School in Prince Edward Island where he leads two rock groups, a couple of choirs, classroom guitar groups, and acts as musical director for various productions at the school. He is author of a book for music teachers called "Rock Coach: A Practical Guide for Teaching Rock Bands in Schools," available on Amazon in print and Kindle formats. He is also owner and operator of, a website and blog dedicated to the professional development of music educators around the world providing lesson plans, helpful tips, and ways of thinking for teachers. He has been active as a workshop leader and presenter and can be available for your event! Any comments, questions, or requests can be forwarded to

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Title Annotation:popular music education
Author:Giddings, Steve
Publication:Canadian Music Educator
Date:Sep 22, 2018
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