Learning To Play Guitar As An Adult

A guide to learning for those who have said "one of these days" to themselves.

Ultimate Guitar
It was 1978 when I first wanted to play guitar. I was 5 years old, and my older brother had brought home Van Halen's first album. We were living in Ottawa, Ontario (that's Canada FYI), and how my 9 year old brother discovered this band I'll never know but he was excited. The first time he put it on the stereo when Mom and Dad weren't home and I heard the opening bass of "Runnin' With The Devil" my ears perked up. Next track on the album was Eruption, and that was when I wanted to play a guitar. I spent my elementary school years idolizing Eddie Van Halen, and wishing I could do what he does. So you'd think a little kid listening to Van Halen, AC/DC, Led Zeppelin and such would be harassing his parents until they got him a guitar. Well I didn't. I still don't understand why I didn't. I'm positive that they would have gotten me a guitar and lessonsmy parents both enjoy music (albeit mostly country), but for some strange reason I never asked for one. All my life I've been drawn to guitar based music, in the 80's it was the classic rock of the 60's and 70's I loved. I was never into Motley Crue or the other hair bands of the day. In the 90's I discovered blues, Stevie Ray Vaughan became my favorite, I discovered Eric Clapton's music beyond "Layla", and I couldn't get interested in the Alternative bands others loved, and hated most of the Grunge thing. Nirvana still grates on my every time I hear their stuff. Once I was an adult I kept telling myself one of these days I'll learn to play guitar. I told myself that for a very long time. It wasn't until Christmas of 2006 that I started, and it took a friend showing up Christmas Day with a Yamaha acoustic as a gift. Today is the day were his words. He has a keen interest in music, the blues mainly, and he thought he should kick my a-s in gear. I'm glad he did. I bought a couple books to begin learning basic stuff, and worked at it a bit, I had to put it down after a few months because of some work I had to do to begin a new career, but the next winter, my girlfriend got me some lessons for the first time as a birthday gift, as well as a month later at Christmas she got me a gift I will have forever, and which is the single best gift I have ever received... a brand new 3 tone burst American Strat. Since then I have taken lessons every week with very few exceptions, and played almost every day. Some days were half an hour, many were more than an hour, and many have been several hours. I have a guitar in my hands as often as possible these days. Along the way I've picked up some more guitars, some amps, some pedals, and learned a lot. I don't think of myself as very good yet, but some people tell me they're impressed, especially with my only playing for a short time. I'm still learning every day, and I get people who are just starting asking me a lot of questions, so I thought I'd jot down this list of key points I've come to consider important for learning, and mixing it into your grown up life. I'm just getting ready to do my first gig, for my own birthday party, I'm turning 40 next month and thought this might be a fun way to celebrate. I'm very nervous, but I've got some great people in the band that'll help make me look good. My Tips (not in a particular order): 1. Start as soon as possible, it takes time and there are no shortcuts 2. Get a decent guitar to start, and only buy used if you can get a knowledgeable person to check it out for you. It doesn't have to be expensive, but it does have to be set up well 3. Don't take lessons right away. The very basics such as chord shapes and intervals etc... can easily be learned with books such as Guitar for Dummies or videos on the internet, an instructor is worth the money they cost, but not to learn simple things such as how to make a D chord 4. Play every day... every day... every day. Even if it's 15 minutes, you can take 15 minutes every day. 15 minutes every day is better than 2 hours one day a week. Your fingers build callouses, muscle memory, it keeps things fresh in your brain. 5. Try to learn something new every day. It doesn't have to be a whole song, just one little tidbit you didn't know yesterday. Maybe it's as simple as learning that on the Low E string, the 5th fret is an A. As you progress the thing you learn may be a song, or a chord progression, or a small riff, it doesn't matter what it is as long as it's something you didn't know yesterday. 6. Take care of your guitar but keep it out where it's visible. If you have to go get it, you're less likely to play it. 7. YouTube is your friend. There are more good guitar videos on YouTube than you could watch in your lifetime. They help with a lot of things, but are not a replacement for a good instructor you see regularly. 8. Once you know some basics take lessonsfind a good instructor you get along well with. You may get lucky as I did and get a good one to start off with, but don't be afraid to try somebody different if things just don't gel between you and the first person you try. Also keep in mind that if you don't practice what they teach you, it's you not them. They know right away if you worked on the scale they showed you, don't bullshit them. 9. Be realistic. "Stairway To Heaven" is not a starting point. There are many good songs that are basic in structure, and those are places to begin, you will find it less frustrating that way and you'll make real progress. 10. Play with others as soon as you can, and don't be intimidated. I heard this one myself and was too embarrassed to play with better players, because I sucked. If they know you're just learning, they'll teach you things, and aren't expecting you to wail a wicked solo. It really does help, after the first time I played with someone else I noticed a difference... and now I play with others as much as possible. 11. Once you've played for a while and if you come to the conclusion that you're going to keep at it, get a good guitar. Get one you love and can't keep your hands off of. It's worth a few extra bucks, and a quality guitar will last you your lifetime if you take care of it. A new American Strat goes for about $1200 give or take, and you will never be a player it isn't good enough for. A Les Paul Standard will cost more, and sounds different as well as feels different, but it isn't better, that's all a personal decision. Even at $2600 new the LP Standard is cheap over its lifetime if you play it every day for 20 or 30 years. 12. The first year sucks a bit. You will get bored trying to play basic things, stick to it. Once some chords get engrained in your fingers, and your dexterity and pick control improve, you will start to have fun, and then it just gets better from there. 13. Don't kick yourself (as I did) for not starting earlier in life, it's pointless and counterproductive. Enjoy your guitar now that you have it. 14. An unplugged electric can be in your hands while you watch TV. Running finger exercises and scales on the couch is a great way to put time in and not bother others you live with (well it won't bother them too much). 15. You won't notice the improvement as much as others will. It's weird but true. That's all for now, I'm sure I could keep coming up with stuff, but in essence it all comes down to this: Play your guitar every day, and enjoy it. Thanks for reading.

47 comments sorted by best / new / date

    6. Take care of your guitar but keep it out where its visible. If you have to go get it, youre less likely to play it. This. Since I have a guitar at hand I play more often.
    I honestly think that anybody who wants to learn how to play the guitar should just keep learning (and playing along to) songs that they love. Best way to get good at playing the guitar is to play the guitar.
    Yeah man, you should play an instrument because you love music and play the music you love.
    for me though, this article is more or less the same with general tips on playing guitar for everyone, not just the adult.
    True, but I titled it that way because I've talked to many people who think it can only be learned from a young age, and I feel that if I can learn, anyone can.
    Years ago, a friend gave me a DVD that was horribly produced with some weird dude with an ugly ass'd guitar that was to improve your playing by 1 year if you followed his exact instructions. I did and I improved my playing dramatically in one week. It freaked me out! This guy knows something...I think the guy might really be Satan, I'm not sure. Anyway, muscle memory is vital when learning to play.
    Yes watching is learning! Heres a cool site that does just that. Watch videos and learn! www.MasterGuitarVideos.com
    My Last Words
    Cool article man! Oddly enough I really liked point no. 12. I hate it when articles tell me to "have fun! music is supposed to be fun!" Seriously, whenever you are frustrated with something those things will only increase your frustration. Good to see a fellow player acknowledging the fact that it's not always fun.
    Yeah....it's hard to push past the frustrating bits, but my first guitar teacher put it this way "It's hard because it's new....if I don't try difficult things, I'll just be strumming a D all day"
    Great Article..thanks for sharing Ive been playing for about 35 yrs...when i was younger it was to show off, get chix...I stopped for years and started again a couple years ago with a different perspective...just loving it. I teach quite a few people now, and your guide is pretty much the same as I tell them...Kudos brother
    "be realistic" - Best advice in the article. I've had a lot of students that were just terribly unrealistic. They thought they'd buy an axe, and in 6 months be playing like Van Halen. Patience and pratice. Everything else will fall into place.
    Im a cabinet maker and i have chosen to build 3 1959 style les pauls as inspiration to learn to play. What ever it takes! Thought if i put all the time and expense to build these guitars i will take the time to learn. Glad to hear others learning in their mid life years! Cheers
    I would add a little note to #15 If you can, record your playing. Once a week/month just play for an hour everything you can, record it, listen to it after a month - You will hear the difference.
    I agree....didn't think of that when I wrote this up. I've also noticed that there's mistakes I hear when I play something, that I can't always hear in the recording which means an audience wouldn't hear it either.
    Danjo's Guitar
    Youtube is a blessing and a curse. If you need to know something, its probably on youtube, which is great. The bad part? There are also thousands of guitarists on youtube who apparently learned Steve Vai's complete latest album the first time they picked up a guitar. I first started learning to play 9 years ago now, and those people still get me down if I'm not careful. Never compare yourself to others, only to yourself.
    Yeah, lots of good lessons on Youtube. As far as people commenting that they "learned Steve Vai's complete latest album the first time they picked up a guitar," and they have nothing to show for it, just remember: they are defnitely full of shit. That's Youtube for you Obviously lessons are a great way to learn guitar for anybody, but another (less expensive) thing that's really good for learning is to use programs with built-in metronomes, like Guitar Pro or Powertab.
    Danjo's Guitar
    I wish I just meant they commented that. I mean obviously I'm exaggerating, but it always hurts a little to see the five year old kid who can play some parts of Crazy Train better than I can. I've been playing that song almost twice as long as he's been alive! (Actually the kid may have been 6 or 7, but still, I'm referencing a real video). Or just the fact that youtube is filled with a sea of guitarists who I will probably never be able to play faster than. At some point you just have to accept that.
    Boy did I enjoy this article! It's me! Started playing when I was 9. Did it until early teens. Put the acoustic down. Bring it out at the occasional family Christmas function but that was it. I'm 52 and 'was regretting not keeping at it' (point 13). I'm into my third year lessons. Bought a Strat and Fender acoustic and a good Line 6 amp. My gear is set up all the time (point 6). Laptop for Youtube and Jam tracks. I play a minimum of 30 minutes every day. Most days are an hour or so. When I'm the only one home, off go the headsets and crank up the volume. I finally went out to a few jam sessions set up by Fromager Music in Owen Sound Ontario. Nervous as hell, but a great group of teachers. Those jams alone were a milestone for me. Company Christmas party the other night. Piano player had an electric acoustic there. I was encouraged to pick it up. I did and I didn't want to put it down. I want to jam more (in public) and try and hook up with other musicians to play. I just love this part of my life now.
    Hi, thanks for your insights, like yourself been meaning to learn to play guitar for many years, life seems to have a knack of putting obstacles in the way, of those important things to yourself. With me it's the self expression, getting out what's within, putting all those thoughts, inspirations, and feelings to music. My ultimate goal is to learn and play guitar and add my own words to music, your words have given me the impetus to get going, make that start, again many thanks. Hope to post a progress comment down the line!
    "Today is the day." LOVE this! I too waited a long time to finally pick up the guitar, but now that I have I can't put it down. People can learn to play at any age! You have a lot of great tips here, although one thing I disagree with is on getting lessons. For me, it helps not only to learn new things quicker, but also for keeping me accountable and on track. Although I would play every day, it wasn't until I got a pro instructor that I really started making significant progress. Anyway, keep up the good work and thanks for encouraging adults to keep playing. Rock on.
    Learning as adult realy sucks ive been trying to play guitar for about 5 years on and off, last few months at least 2h daily practice. And i still cant play a song i feel like i will never learn it, i really dont get it how allot of ppl can play a dozen songs in like 2 months. I must be the worst guitar player in the world ffs
    You sound a lot like me - I played off and on for years, sometimes sporadically sometimes manically and it never seemed to make any real difference. The problem was that I wasn't following a logical plan and I wasn't really learning the basics, like strum patterns and pick control. There's an excellent site on the net called Justinguitar that lays out a whole approach from beginner to expert. When I wiped clean everything I 'knew' and started from scratch following the plan on this site I made more progress in a month than I'd made in a lifetime.
    Great article, I started playing at 22, had an hour lesson once a week for 5 years, but never practiced in between and stopped playing. Just picked my guitar up again the other day at the age of 35 and am really keen to start getting stuck into. Want to inspire my 16mth old son to maybe pick up the guitar soon aswell....
    Thank you for this. I am starting to learn at 46 years old and found this while googling "Am I too old to learn guitar?" No joke. Your words inspired me and helped a lot. Thank you again!
    Matt Celini
    This is very interesting. I've always wanted to learn to play guitar, but always thought it would be impossible for me to really get a grasp on it. I had read something about guitar lessons here but never pursued it. I think I might give it a try now. Thanks for the motivation!
    Excellent article. This is me. I am recently retired and have rededicated myself learning and progress. At the stage where I would really like to find someone to play with. I am flexible on time and type of music. Looking for another guitar player(singer) and or a piano player in Cornwall, Ontario. Have networked with teachers, Kijji, and music stores but no luck. Open for ideas on how to improve the search results. Tks
    Excellent article! I was older than you when I started. I have a couple of issues though: I disagree with point 3. I've never taken lessons but I wish I had.....I've seen what they done for my son. I would change point 3 to "lessons aren't mandatory but if you have the time and money go for it." There is no point in learning bad habits that you have to break later. Also don't be afraid to try a few different teachers until you find one you connect with. Being a great player doesn't necessarily mean you're a good teacher. No one needs Joe Satriani teaching them at the start (it would be kind of cool though Regarding point 7, you're right but be careful...there's a lot of bad advice there as well. Get lessons at the beginning and you will be able to separate the good from the crap.
    Learn the riffs to old classic rock songs. Rockin Me Baby, Carry on My Wayward Son, Tom Sawyer, China Grove. Those things always get me motivated.
    Great post, thank you. Started playing bass when I hit 40 and found it tough to start with. Books, a good teacher and #4 & #14 off your list have been really helpful. One thing I would say about youtube - don't just stick to the instrument you are playing. There are thousands of good drum tracks, bass tracks and guitar tracks out there which are much more interesting than a metronome to play along with as well as giving you a better idea of how what you are playing fit within a song.
    I agree with a lot of what MrClean911Fire has to say. I myself have played since the age of 12. Mostly self taught. I always wanted to take it seriously, but never did. I live in the real world and have a job. I am 42 now, last January at the age of 41 I started to take lessons. Now, I was hardly a beginer, but am now learning basic theroy. I definately can tell I have become a better player. Learning Greensleeves and Mexican Melodys are not the most exciting, but it builds skill and dexterity. When I decided to take lessons I put myself on the five year plan. Hoping that in five years my skills and catalog of knowledge will let me acheive my dream.... to become a weekend warrior!
    I started in Mar 2011 and did what you did above except the lessons. I hate lessons and can't see how it will help me. But I'm stalled right now so I guess it would be the right time to consider them...
    Here's how I think lessons help...a skilled person will see small things you can do differently to make it easier, and give you advice on technique. I also find my current instructor pushes me to learn things I would be hesitant to try otherwise. Example: About a year into taking lessons, I had found a tab for "What It's Like" by Everlast...learned how to play thee opening riff by myself and was making it sound pretty good. I showed my guitar teacher one day, and he proceeded to show my a better way to play the same thing. I was playing it with a bunch of wasted movement, when all I had to do was start with my fingers making a Dm chord...way easier, and a set up for the rest of the song.
    Good article....I'm 45 and my playing time is now just under 3 years, so I identify with it a lot. Have I improved? I think so but feel free to check me out. Just Google Hadian Gates on Reverbnation, Facebook, Fandalism and Soundcloud.
    Great article man. Like how you said "it takes time and there are no shortcuts" When I first started out I always looked for shortcuts to get to play fast and cool, but there are none. My first guitar book was about speed picking for lead guitarist or something lol. Could not understand most of it, but learned how to tremolo pick quick.
    Yeah...I've looked for shortcuts a lot....this is the most difficult thing I've ever learned to do, but it's worth the effort.
    I am a 68 year old granny who is trying to learn to play guitar. Taking lessons on guitartricks.com. I love it but it is not easy. I am trying hard but get discouraged. I know lots of chords but what do I do with them. I think it is time for face to face lessons.