Philosophies for Learning to Play the Guitar at 60: Listen

Philosophy #13

Listen. Listening well is a skill, and therefore as with any skill it can be developed through practice. A person new to birding may know only a few bird songs – perhaps not even a few. (Hollywood directors frequently – almost ubiquitously – place Blue Jay calls into film settings where no Blue Jay has ever flown; those same directors dub in hawk cries when the birds are eagles.) But with practice, anyone can learn to recognize dozens of bird calls and songs – a skill that seems almost magical at first. Similarly, as a young fly-fisherman I remember an older mentor directing my attention to the sound of bluegills feeding among lily pads along a calm lakeshore. The gentle popping-kissing sound was unmistakable, and my ears became trained to listen for it when I’m on a springtime or summertime lake where these sunfish might be patrolling the shoreline. 

With just 153 hours of practice under my belt since January 1, I cannot yet answer the question, Is it even possible for someone in their 60’s to learn to play the guitar with any meaningful degree of proficiency? But what I can say is that after even a few hours of focused practice, you will probably notice that you are hearing notes and music in a new way. Familiar songs on your iPod or Spotify playlists will suddenly sound new as chords, riffs and even lyrics that have always been there suddenly seem to leap out of the speakers. And on your own guitar you’ll probably begin to notice when strings are even slightly out of tune.

Regardless of what you play, listen carefully, for as you practice, so you will learn and eventually so you will play. Make certain your instrument is always in tune. Sound notes with care so that they ring true. Test the chords you’re learning by playing each string individually. Train your ear to expect beautiful tones.


Philosophies for Learning to Play the Guitar at 60: Choose the Right Guitar

Philosophy #12

Take a Tip from Harold Crick:
Choose a Guitar that Makes You Want to Play.

I once owned a 2005 Toyota Tacoma pickup that was in every way so perfectly customized to suit my preferences that had I been given an assortment of the best vehicles in the world – Lamborghinis, Mercedes, Jags, whatever – they’d have sat untouched. That Tacoma was the only ride for me.

I feel that way about my guitar.

If you’ve ever watched the film Stranger than Fiction, you’ve seen what is probably the best way to choose a guitar. Harold Crick, played by Will Ferrell, has decided to finally act upon his oldest desire – to learn to play the guitar.

Like you, Harold already knows what kind of music he wants to play. And like you, he knows how much he’s willing to spend on a guitar. And so, like you, he doesn’t really need a lot of advice from the staff at the guitar shop, friends or online experts. What he needs to do is go to a store with lots of guitars, look at them, and pay attention to which one he wants to pick up and play.

And since he can’t play… not yet anyway… there’s no need to embarrass himself or anyone else by taking an instrument down and strumming it.

It doesn’t matter that when he finally made his decision, Harold chose a guitar that I wouldn’t choose and that perhaps you wouldn’t choose either. He picked the guitar that spoke to him.  Here’s a link to the minute-and-a-half clip.

Stranger than Fiction: Harold Chooses a Guitar

If you’ve made a commitment to learning to play the guitar, get one you really like now rather than later. A rose is a rose is a rose… until you get to know roses and every subtle difference among them pops out.

Although I had an inexpensive but perfectly serviceable Fender acoustic steel string when I began this experiment, I knew after two weeks of practicing on it that I wanted something else. Since I live in the Alaska bush and don’t have access to a guitar shop, I did my looking online. I knew next to nothing about guitars, but it wasn’t long before I found exactly what I was looking for – the guitar that spoke to me. 

I called Mammoth Music in Anchorage, paid a nominal fee to have the guitar delivered to Lake Clark Air (our bush plane service) and in short order I was playing the guitar of my dreams.

I love this guitar.

I love that it was crafted in my home state so that there is a connection with a place I love.

I love that the top is Sitka Spruce, and that I can follow my memory to spruce forests in Oregon, British Columbia and Alaska where I’ve hiked and camped and that I can almost smell the loam and trees, hear thrushes singing, see sunlight streaming through spruce boughs when I pick up my guitar.

I love that my very first musician hero, Johnny Cash, played this model. So did Jimmy Page, Bob Dylan and a long list of other musicians I admire.

I love that the rosette design is modestly understated, so that one’s eyes are drawn to the grain of the wood rather than distracted by embellishments.

I love the way this guitar resonates when I hit a note just right – and the fact that it doesn’t punish me too severely when I hit a string wrong.

So, go find the guitar (or fly rod, cookware, camera, or whatever it may be) that’s right for you. It can make a big difference as you continue on your journey.

Philosophies for Learning to Play the Guitar at 60: Open Door

Philosophy #11

Keep the Door Open. At least some of the time. This is about nipping stage fright in the bud. Go ahead and let people hear you play. So you make mistakes? It’s fine. You’re making music and music is to be shared. Also, when people find out you’re learning to play, they’re going to want to hear you play something. Go ahead! The more often you take advantage of these opportunities, the more at ease with an audience you’ll become. That’s the idea, right? You want to avoid becoming a person who has “been practicing” but who is still reluctant to play in front of others.

Philosophies for Learning to Play the Guitar at 60: The 90% Rule

Philosophy #10

Call 90% “Good Enough for Now.”

Perfection is an elusive target.  Strive instead for 90% – or even 85% (a sold ‘B’), knowing that you will circle back again and again to every key concept and skill. This understanding will help prevent you from becoming bogged down, frustrated or bored.


Philosophies for Learning to Play the Guitar at 60: Memorize

Philosophy #9: 

Memorize. Not only does memorization help create synapses in your brain, as you memorize melodies and scales you will begin to develop a better ear for individual notes and solos.

Yes, memorization is going to be more difficult at the age of 60 than it was at 16, 26 or even 36.

Stay with it. It’ll come.

Think of other things people come to later in life and, over time, master. RVing, fly-fishing, birding, baking and cooking can seem overwhelming at first. Yet, with repeated practice knowledge that once had to be constantly reviewed gradually becomes ingrained until various water and electrical hook-ups are done without hesitation, knots are tied easily by rote, a glance reveals the difference between a crossbill and a grosbeak, and a properly seasoned dish becomes almost instinctive.

Even if you don’t get everything you play memorized perfectly, you’re still building music connections in your brain. And you’ll probably surprise yourself. The more music you memorize, the easier additional memorization becomes.


Philosophies for Learning to Play the Guitar at 60: Metronome

Philosophy #8

Use a metronome. Both to keep steady time and to challenge yourself to play with increased speed.

As a high school student, I ran middle distances for my track team and was introduced to a world carefully measured in minutes and fractions of seconds. Our coach, Bob Bowersox, kept meticulous records. He recorded our race times, of course, but he also kept records of our workout times as we ran repeated intervals of 440 and 880 yards and he encouraged us to do the same. Thus, over the course of a season, we had proof of our individual progress as race times and practice times got faster and faster.

It’s a strategy that applies to guitar work as well – one my daughter, Maia, used as she became an accomplished violinist and later a pianist and guitar player. I occasionally give myself “time trials” and record the results in metronome-measured beats per minute in my music book. It’s a confidence boost to document that songs and scale exercises I initially struggled with are becoming faster and smoother. At the same time, using a metronome helps me push myself toward these kinds of improvements.

The main reason to use a metronome, though, is to help develop a sense of steady rhythm. Set the metronome for a beat you can handle and play along with it. The metronome will remind you not to rush easy passages, and it will also help you identify places where you stumble and need more work.

Philosophies for Learning to Play the Guitar at 60: Scales

Image courtesy Wiki Commons

Philosophy #7

7. Practice and memorize scales. Scales are the key to chords and melodies.
In his book about the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team, The Boys of Summer, author Roger Kahn provides insight into George “Shotgun” Shuba’s bat swing which was famous for producing hard line drives and was said to be “…as natural as a smile.” The backstory on that “natural” swing, according to Shuba, was that for a time in his life, each night before he went to bed he performed hundreds of swings with a 44 ounce bat. Many thousands of swings later he had developed that “natural” swing.

Think of scales like that as you work on them to develop your ear, your finger and hand speed and your knowledge of the fretboard.

Philosophies for Learning to Play the Guitar at 60: Warm Up

Philosophy #6

Warm up. Ever walk the halls of a college campus or music conservatory where students are in individual rooms singing or playing instruments? What strikes many experiencing this for the first time is that rather than songs, a lot of what is heard are scales and other musical drills.

Just as a chef prepares with mise en place (everything in place), and just as an athlete limbers up, begin every exercise session with warm-ups such as scales, moving up, down and across the fretboard, repeating chord changes and so forth. It’s tempting to skip this. Don’t. Warm-ups gently bring your mind and hands back into the world of the guitar, and they provide a good time to check mechanics such as good posture, proper hand positioning, and striving to hit notes so that each one rings true. Mindful warm-ups are vital to making playing the guitar second nature. It’s helpful to write down routines.

Philosophies for Learning to Play the Guitar at 60: Study Systematically

Philosophy #5

Study systematically. Virtually everyone who loves rock, blues, jazz or other music featuring guitars has formed in their minds an image of a teenager cloistered in a bedroom or garage working tirelessly with a cheap guitar to pick out riffs and chords by ear from a favorite song and then going on to guitar hero status. Although the great majority of people who embark on this route probably end up quitting before they get very far, it works for some…

Who begin as teenagers…

…with all the time in the world before them.

But if the peak of your capacity to acquire new skills lies some decades in your rearview mirror…

You’ll make better progress with a more systematic approach.

Work with a good teacher and a proven text of spiraled skill acquisition. Spiraled… as in beginning with an introduction regarding nomenclature, proper posture, correct hand positioning, and the names of the strings. Page by page and lesson by lesson you’ll add to your knowledge until you’ve formed a solid base that includes the ability to read music, proficiency with scales and chords, and foundational skills that include efficient shifting, flat picking and finger-style playing. Along the way, you’ll probably learn some guitar music history, too, and that can be very enjoyable – especially as your circle of friends begins to include others who are interested in such things.

For what it might be worth, I’m very happy with the sources I’ve chosen for learning the guitar. Here they are, in order of importance to my learning thus far.

The Great Courses
Learning to Play Guitar: Chords, Scales and Solos
Instructor: Collin McCallister
Don’t be put off by the somewhat low 4 out of 5 stars rating this course is receiving on The Great Courses site. Most of the complaints are over the fact that McCallister spends time discussing the historical roots of guitar music and examples of learning. Personally, I wanted to learn more about guitar history, and I find his insights into learning to play the guitar to be quite valuable. As to the guitar lessons: McCallister is a masterful musician and an energetic, engaging, sometimes humorous university professor who has taken the time to put together a carefully spiraled approach to gradual skill acquisition. He’s also more candid than over 90% of instructors out there who will happily accept your money on the subject of “how long” it takes to achieve something like Advanced Beginner status: “Hundreds of hours of practice.” I couldn’t be happier with this course.

Mel Bay’s Modern Guitar Method Grade 1
First published in 1948, this slim, 48-page book has outlived the man who wrote it. (Bay died in 1997). The longevity this book has enjoyed – along with its outright popularity (millions of copies have been sold and it’s still widely regarded as the best beginner text) – are a testimony to the intelligence and accessibility of its carefully spiraled approach to learning chords, scales and familiar songs.

Uncle Tim’s First Year: A Beginner’s Guide to the Guitar
Tim Gillespie takes a unique approach in laying out the foundation for learning the guitar. His 82-page book is filled with text rather than with songs. Interspersed are illustrations of chords, scales, flat-picking and finger-style patterns, and… hmm. That’s pretty much it. If you want to understand guitar music theory (and as an older learner, you should – this knowledge will boost your learning curve), this is a terrific resource. Do you understand The Circle of Fifths? How scales work (and therefore how lead solos are put together?) Neither did I. This book goes nicely with Collin McCallister’s class, above.

Youtube Videos and other Internet Resources
I’ve been Googling videos to listen to how songs in Mel Bay’s book are supposed to sound, to see demonstrations of finger-style patterns, for general inspiration and to expand on subjects Collin McCallister introduces in his lessons. Check out this video of Mississippi John Hurt picking John Henry.

And if you’ve started playing, keep playing!

Got a tip from your own experience learning a skill late in life? I’d love to hear about it.

Philosophies for Learning the Guitar at 60: Don’t Set Expectations

Philosophy #4

Don’t set expectations. As a wise person once observed to me, “It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t have expectations.” Goals set too early in an endeavor can be worse than useless. They may lead to disappointment if timelines aren’t met, to imagined competition with others, and to frustration with progress perceived to be too slow. None of this is helpful. Even if you meet some arbitrary goal, so what? You would have gotten there just the same simply by putting in practice time.

As an older learner taking up the guitar, there’s simply no way to know what you’ll accomplish. So don’t worry about it. In fact, try not to even think about it. Enjoy the journey and what you discover about music, the guitar, and yourself.