By Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers
If you’re worried you’ve waited too long to get started, fret not and read on for some advice and encouragement about learning guitar at any age.
Is there an optimal age for learning guitar?
There really isn’t—any more than there is a perfect age for all people to get married or have children or take up tennis. We all live and learn according to our own schedules, and the simplest answer is that we are ready to take up the guitar when we are ready to take up the guitar—when we have the desire, the energy, and the time.
Of course, our age and stage of life does significantly affect the learning process. Kids are famously fast learners, with high energy, flexible limbs, and a gift for imitating what they see. But Marcy Marxer, who along with Cathy Fink has been teaching and entertaining both kids and adults for several decades, points out that some things can be harder at a young age. “The coordination and dexterity it takes to play guitar is often a bigger challenge for kids than it is for adults,” she says, “so they need to be patient, as it may take a bit longer. But the one thing kids have is time—they tend to have more free time than adults do.
“Adults have other advantages from having listened longer,” she adds. “I once had a student who was in her mid-50s and was playing guitar for the first time. She wanted to learn swing music, so we went in that direction, and all she needed to know was how to play a few chords—she knew automatically how to put them together from how they sounded. She’d say, Oh, that’s just like this song or that song. That life experience really helped her.”
Carol McComb, a veteran teacher and performer and the author of Country and Blues Guitar for the Musically Hopeless, observes that certain aspects of the guitar tend to be easier to learn at certain ages. She says, “For example, fine fingerstyle playing is hard for younger people; I don’t think they have developed the motor coordination, by and large, to do it. Some kids are unusual and are OK with it. Teenagers get very coordinate from about 12 on.” That coordination remains with adulthood, but she finds that some students over 60, especially those with arthritis, have difficulty getting their fingers to learn basic techniques.
Because of the guitar’s close kinship with rock ’n’ roll, many of us start to play in our teens, a time in which we (potentially) have not only the coordination but the drive and schedule to devote countless hours to listening, practicing, and poring over guitar magazines—Bill Purse calls hungry young students like these “legends of their own room.” Of course that same wellspring of energy can easily be diverted into any number of other activities, leaving the method book or the lessons unfinished.
What it all comes down to, Purse says, is commitment. If we would rather be shopping or flyfishing or surfing than playing the guitar, we won’t very likely go far with the instrument. But if we, at whatever age, are truly determined to make music come out of those six strings, we will.
Any advice for a grown-up beginner with a job and a family?
As a grown-up, you may well look enviously at all the kids learning guitar, with seemingly bottomless supplies of time, energy, and confidence in their ability to conquer the six-stringed beast. But you’ve got some special advantages, too. As noted by Marcy Marxer, your years of listening have given you a lot of intuitive knowledge about the structure and traditions of music, as well as a sense of what specific style(s) you want to play. Your experience in mastering so many new skills, from driving a car to job responsibilities to parenthood, has undoubtedly given you insight into the ways you learn best—lesson that you can apply to this new quest.
And while you may have passed up the chance to be a child prodigy or teen heartthrob, it is never too late to start. Ask any teacher. Cathy Fink tells about a favorite student who picked up guitar at 55. “I went around the room and asked all the beginners what they were doing in the class,” she recalls. “This guy said, ‘Well, I watched my father when he retired and he was lonely and bored. That’s not going to happen to me, so I got a guitar.’” Too bad that man’s father didn’t know about the couple in their 90s who once took Carol McComb’s beginning class at a music camp!
As an adult beginner, you first need to strategize about time—this project is going to take a regular commitment. Be realistic; it doesn’t do you any good to set a goal of practicing three hours a day if there’s no hope of actually pulling it off. If you are taking lessons, discuss time issues with your teacher right away. Your playing sessions need not be long: efficient 20-minute practice sessions that tackle specific and achievable goals are more effective than hours of mindless noodling. So set aside small chunks of time at frequent intervals for you and your guitar, and protect them. Finding a space at home where your kids won’t be climbing all over your back while you’re playing is not a bad idea either.
There are so many ways to learn guitar these days, from books, videos, and apps to private and group lessons to music camps, that you can surely find one that matches your schedule and your personality. (Check out our guide to the best websites and apps for learning guitar.) Plus, you’ve got more options than a kid does, considering that you hold the purse strings and presumably have wheels.
Many adults are inclined to study on their own, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But many teachers strongly recommend group classes, jams, and music camps as a way to accelerate learning and have big fun in the process. (Check out our guide to planning your summer camp getaway.) The opportunity to play along with even one other person can bring tremendous rewards. I know several parents who decided to begin playing guitar along with their kids, a special experience for all concerned.
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Remember that whenever we are learning something new, we need to allow ourselves to be clumsy and awkward for a while. Kids are more used to this, while grown-ups tend to favor activities that they know well and can do competently and unself-consciously. Jimmy Tomasello, who teaches a wide range of guitar classes at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music, notes that “people in adult education are somewhat insecure. And they want to be right—that’s a falsehood when you’re learning something. The more mistakes you make, the closer you get to reaching the goals that you set for yourself.” So cut yourself some slack, take chances, and most of all, enjoy the matchless experience of learning to make music with your own hands.
More resources for adult beginning guitarists from the master teachers at Acoustic Guitar magazine:
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How old were you when you started playing? What tools have you found most useful in beginning your guitar-learning journey? Give us your suggestions, stories, and questions!