Adapting Guitar for Musicians with Down Syndrome

Post by Cathy Knoll, MA, MT-BC. ~ A music therapist recently posted this question on the MT Unite! Facebook group, “Does anyone have experience teaching guitar to a student with Down Syndrome? What books or method do you use?” Lots of music therapy colleagues posted great ideas. Here are six VIP points that come to mind based on my experiences helping many, many dozens of toddlers, kids, teens, adults, and older adults with Down Syndrome learn to enjoy making music on the guitar over the years.

1. INDIVIDUAL DIFFERENCES. With some minor adaptations and patient teaching, several of my MT friends with Down Syndrome have learned over time to play 5 or 6 traditional chords to accompany their favorite songs, and/or some familiar guitar riffs or bass patterns. In contrast, other MT buddies with Down Syndrome have very limited motor skills and are thrilled to be able to just strum along on an open-tuned guitar. Given the wide range of abilities and interests,  I just meet the person where they are at the time and move forward slowly but surely.

2. REAL INSTRUMENTS. Most of my MT friends are really drawn to “real” instruments, so I try to use top quality acoustic and electric guitars, and, if possible, try to help them purchase their own instrument of decent quality. In addition to the pride of ownership, having their own instrument encourages the self-responsibilities of bringing their instrument to music therapy, caring for their instrument, getting the instrument in and out of the case, and learning to hold it correctly. Granted, many of my friends need assistance with each of these areas, but, over the years, some have learned to be relatively self-sufficient.

3. OPEN-TUNING. Many of my friends simply do not have the motor skills to play typical guitar chords, so we often use open-tuning. I usually tune the guitar a C chord with 5th and 6th strings tuned to G. That allows the individuals who can form a simple 3 string barre for D, F, G, and A chords with color cues. We can use a capo for the key of D if needed. Many of my friends cannot create a clear chord with a barre, but by muting the strings for that chord, they can play along in an ensemble or play along with their favorite recorded song without too many out-of-tune notes. Some of my friends cannot follow the music and color cues, so I just teach them follow along, playing open strings for the C chord, and taking a stab at a barre chord to mute strings at the right time. Others have very limited motor skills and are only able to hold the guitar flat in their lap and strum the open-tuned guitar occasionally. Using guitars with nylon strings help the music blend even when they are playing a C chord when the rest of the ensemble is playing a different chord. These folks learn to start and stop along with the ensemble and to strum when they can, and their smiles indicate the enjoyment of making real music.

4. UNPLUGGED. Some of my MT friends with Down Syndrome are determined to play lead guitar along with their favorite recording artists despite the fact that they simply do not have the motor skills required to play even the simplest guitar riffs. And they want to move their left hand up and down the neck of the guitar like they see their guitar heroes playing on stage. Over the years, every single one of my MT buddies with this tenacity has been very happy with owning his or her own electric guitar and amp, but the amp is unplugged. They put on their headphones, grab their guitars, and play away in live jam sessions or along with their favorite recorded songs. Because the amp is unplugged, their off-key music doesn’t irritate people around them, and the wanna-be guitarists love every minute.

5. BASS! Some of my friends with Down Syndrome are real rock stars to their family and friends when they play bass guitar. Some are not able to hold the electric guitar, so they position it on the floor and play sort of like a standup bass. Some learn simple bass riffs, and some play pre-tuned open strings on cue. Others just play any string when they can, starting and stopping with the ensemble or recorded music.

6. ADAPTED CHORDS. Some musicians with Down Syndrome have left-hand coordination allowing them to learn to play some adapted chords on guitar. I put together a whole book on that teaching method, so zip me an email if you want to know more. <>

7. RESOURCE. For more good info about effective, field-tested music therapy for individuals with Down Syndrome, check out one of our popular and highly-rated self-study e-courses “Developmental Disabilities Toolbox: Mapping a Clear Route” by Cathy Knoll, MA, MT-BC. More info here:

NOTE: photos used with permission.