Philosophies for Learning the Guitar at 60: 500 Hours

Philosophy 3

Humble yourself to 500 hours. How long does it take to be able to play the guitar with basic proficiency? The answer depends on innate ability, prior experience, the quality and consistency of practice sessions, and how the term “basic proficiency” is defined. So any number we might choose will be somewhat arbitrary. That being said…

I’m using 500 hours as a benchmark. That’s about how much classroom, practice and study time I estimate I’d need to really get down all the material in a two-semester college level beginning guitar course. It’s also roughly the amount of work it appears it will take to thoroughly complete the 24 lessons in Collin McCallister’s Learning to Play the Guitar: Chords, Scales and Solos at The Great Courses along with the supplemental material I’m using.

This 500 hours does not include the time it takes to pick up and tune your guitar, locate your music, repeatedly check the clock or take a phone call. This is 500 hours of purpose-driven practice.

Let’s take a moment to consider what this means in terms of skill acquisition.

  • Committing to daily practice of 30 minutes, it will be 1,000 days before 500 hours of meaningful practice have been invested. That’s 2 years and 9 months. With these relatively short practice sessions, a high percentage of time will be spent warming up. Days will go by between circling back to practice certain skills and there often won’t be sufficient time to work through problems. Thus, even with 500 hours (2 years and 9 months) under your belt, you will likely not have attained the same skill level as someone got to 500 hours through longer practice sessions over a shorter period of time.

As a young person, you or someone you know may have been instructed to practice half-an-hour a day on the piano, violin or another instrument. It’s a fairly common prescription. But with time off during summer, missed weekends and holidays, inevitable illnesses, visits with friends and relatives, school projects and other commitments intervening, and (let’s be honest) a certain amount of wasted time during those practice sessions, it is often the case that practice only occurred on about 200 days in a given year. That’s only 100 hours of practice. At this pace – which is a fairly typical one – a person could take lessons for 5 years before hitting the 500 hour benchmark. Meanwhile, with all the interruptions, much of that 500 hours would have been devoted to review. This is one reason so many people who attempt to learn a musical instrument (or a foreign language) come away from the experience believing they have “no talent” for it. In reality, they never gave themselves an opportunity to develop the talent that they probably do have.

  • With 1 hour a day, the time to 500 hours is cut to 1 year, 4-and-a-half months. Because a higher percentage of practice time will have been devoted to skills beyond warm-ups, and because you can both practice a broader range of skills in each session (thus avoiding forgetting and other forms of skill deterioration) and because you’ll have more time to work through challenging areas and to experiment, at the conclusion of 500 hours you’re likely to be well ahead compared with had you committed to shorter sessions.

Still with days off here and there, you’re looking at close to a year-and-a-half before you’ve got 500 hours under your belt. That’s a fairly long time.

  • Two hours a day will get you to 500 hours in just over 8 months. In other words, within a year of first picking up a guitar, you could be playing it fairly well.
  • And so on. A schedule in which one begins with an hour a day in the first month, progresses to two hours in the second month as hands become stronger, and then ups practice time to three hours per day thereafter will get the guitarist to 500 hours in just over 5½ months. Consider the path any accomplished musician – or cook, fly-fishing master, athlete, educator, artist, or writer – took to reaching proficiency. They got there with lots of purpose-driven practice.

From 1960 to 1962 The Beatles worked bar gigs in Hamburg, Germany where they played five hours a night seven nights a week. That’s thousands of hours of meaningful, purpose-driven practice before their first #1 single in October 1962, Love Me Do.  

Keep in mind that the annals of achievement are filled with stories of people who weren’t very good (or who were actually quite awful) when they started, but by sticking with it and putting in the time went on to accomplish great things. Conversely, there are at least as many stories of people who began with great promise but who didn’t invest in the time and who subsequently fizzled out.

I offer the above as grist for thought rather than advice; each person must determine their own schedule and the pace of their own journey. But here’s a further observation. We all know people who have practiced a given skill “for years” and who still aren’t particularly accomplished at it. That’s because, as the above example with piano lessons illustrates, skill acquisition cannot meaningfully be measured in years. Dabbing at or dabbling in a complex skill in short practice sessions interrupted by distractions and further chopped up with lengthy periods when the thing is not practiced at all is a slow, long path and one most likely to end in discouragement.

As to 500 hours… It’s a lot of time. Think of it as a journey, enjoy it, and when you arrive you’ll be able to look back at that time when it (guitar or whatever else “it” is) was just a dream to a present time when you have acquired enough skills to make yourself say “Wow! I’m doing this!”

4 thoughts on “Philosophies for Learning the Guitar at 60: 500 Hours

  1. I’m enjoying your thorough and considered posts on applying oneself to learn something new. As a young idiot of 23 I decided I was too old to learn the recorder (🙄) so am unqualified and definitely disqualified from giving any advice. However it seems to me, using a musical instrument as an example, that it is a finite, fairly contained occupation (even if one progresses spectacularly across a spectrum of say Mozart To Glass).
    On the other hand applying oneself to the intellectual pleasure and creative satisfaction of writing is limitless and without age restrictions. Given you have a remarkable talent already at your finger tips I cannot understand why you aren’t producing that novel instead of trying to keep your strings from rusting! I know this sounds cheeky, for which I apologise, but you know I’m a fan and I stand by these thoughts whole heartedly. With best wishes to you both, Sally.

    • Thanks for putting a smile on my face this morning! I know, I know, I know… But at this point I see it as something of a civic duty to determine whether or not one can really (meaningfully) learn to play a guitar in the 7th decade on this planet. I was shocked to find nothing addressing this on the internet, as I’m sure many, many others have wondered about this. By nothing, I mean nothing – I’m not going to dignify all the patronizing “You’re never too old to learn,” “Anyone can,” and “Wonderful benefits can be derived” assurances other than to say 1) Show me examples, not homilies and 2) the question is not about “benefits,” it’s about learning to play an instrument.
      All of that notwithstanding, I begin each day by 7:30 AM, mornings devoted to writing and editing photos. Now to find an editor with your enthusiasm about my writing! Thanks as always for reading. JD

  2. Excuses, excuses…. 🙃

    PS delighted with my skiffing outing, so much abundance is good for the soul in these bleak times. Thank you.

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