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 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.

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!”