Video: The 500 Hour Experiment – Learning to Play the Guitar at 60

At the outset of this experiment, I had said that once I got 500 hours of practice under my belt, I’d post a brief video performance to document whatever progress I had made – good, bad or indifferent. Here’s the video.

To recap if you’re a regular reader and to explain what this video is about if you’re not…

I turned 60 this year. On December 31st of 2019, New Year’s Eve, I decided to finally attempt to learn to play the guitar I’d been toting around for most of my adult life. I had very little formal background in music in general, and essentially no experience playing the guitar beyond three badly played chords and a mistake-filled one-note-at-a-time version of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star laboriously picked. The whole thing seemed to be beyond me, so in homes from Arctic Alaska to Mongolia and points in between, my guitar sat cradled in its stand, faithfully dusted, usually kept in tune, and otherwise untouched.

But I love music, I especially love steel string acoustic music and I realized that if I didn’t learn the guitar now, I may as well take Barbra’s advice and sell the instrument.

On January first, I began the experiment – to determine whether or not a person my age could learn to play or whether age had closed doors. I scoured the Internet looking for answers to questions I had about older people learning to play the guitar from scratch and could find nothing useful. Nothing at all – just patronizing advice about setting your sights low and maybe learning to play Happy Birthday, getting your cats to finally stop yowling when you play, or being content with “the benefits seniors can get from taking up a musical instrument.”

In other words, the advice seemed to be a patronizing pat on the head and the implied message, “Go back to your rocking chair. Learning to play a musical instrument is for younger people.”

But it was also clear from my Internet research that others had questions similar to the ones I was asking. I want to underscore that these questions are not about whether someone who used to play when they were young can continue playing into their 60’s and beyond. There are many, many examples of people who have done so, as well as of people who set aside their guitar for awhile and then came back to it later in life. Acquiring a complex skill for the first time, from scratch, is a very different matter than continuing with a skill already acquired.

With no answers to be found, I decided to do my best to find answers myself. Five hundred hours of practice seemed about right – enough time to give myself a chance. To learn to read music, to understand scales, to learn the Circle of Fifths, to understand the principles of improvising, to practice some flat-picking and finger-style techniques, to memorize a few dozen songs. In other words, to achieve a status somewhere around “Advanced Beginner.”

A move from Chignik Lake to Newhalen as well as the need to take time out to stock our freezer with salmon fillets, blueberries and mushrooms took a bite out of my playing time, but in early November I hit my goal. Five hundred hours. Had it not been for the move, I would probably have hit 500 sometime in late August.

I can’t say whether or not my experiment was “successful.” I believe that is for each individual listener-viewer to evaluate. What I can tell you is that I’ve already begun my next 500 hours.

Please look past the low production values. I videoed myself with the equipment I have on hand, which is not the right equipment for this sort of thing. Thanks for watching. And let me know what you think.

Jack Donachy
Newhalen, Alaska

You can read more about The 500 Hour Experiment by clicking these links:

Why 500 hours?

Learning to Play the Guitar at 60: La Grande Expérience (or is it even possible?)

Learning to Play the Guitar at 60: Begin

6 thoughts on “Video: The 500 Hour Experiment – Learning to Play the Guitar at 60

  1. Thanks for the encouragement and for sharing your success!  Nice video! Patty Sent from my Verizon Wireless 4G LTE smartphone

  2. Congratulations. At a similar age, I set about to learn to play the piano using a keyboard. But in order to not subject my wife and the rest of the world to the sound of my practicing, I used headphones. Unlike you, however, I did not persist to where I would be willing to post a video. I was growing increasingly deaf and told myself it was not worth the effort, that the earphones did not work well with my hearing aids, and that turning them up louder might actually do damage. I did enjoy the effort however and wonder if it might really have just been a matter of persistence. Instead, I moved on to other things and at 75 practice with a foreign languages every day. Now I am deaf in English, Spanish and German. 🙂

    • Thanks, and thanks for the note. I like you statement, “I did enjoy the effort.” That really is a great reward – the effort itself – isn’t it? I studied Japanese a two years ago, and as I got into music this past year I was struck by the similarities between music and foreign language in terms of skill acquisition. So much of it comes down to persistence and repetition. Barbra and I are contemplating studying Italian next.

  3. Jack,
    Greetings. I found you. Can you update on your journey with guitar? I am turning 60 next month and it is time to learn. Similar story to you. Inspired. Thank you

    • Hi Michael. Well, I put in a lot of work on my Martin. My advice is to go for it. On the one hand, I do think that windows close – or at least become more narrow… I did not make the kind of progress I might have made at the age of 16. BUT, I am grateful that I put the time in. I learned a lot about music in general and the guitar in particular. Music Sounds different to me now – I hear more things than I ever used to hear. And I can play a little now and I really enjoy it. I will add that I was happy with the learning materials I used: Mel Bay’s Modern Guitar Course and Collin McAllister’s Learning to Play Guitar – a video series available through The Great Courses. Good Luck!

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