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