Learning Guitar as an Adult

Learning Guitar as an Adult

Strumming Up a New Hobby: Learning Guitar as an Adult

Learning the guitar at any age is a valuable pursuit. As adults, we tend to think that we’ve passed the threshold of learning new skills, but that couldn’t be further from the truth! In fact, American blues musician T-Model Ford started playing guitar at age 58 and still managed to release four albums in his lifetime.

Like with any new hobby, you’re bound to run into some challenges. In those moments, it’s important to maintain consistency, a vision, and the excitement that got you started in the first place.

The Benefits of Learning Guitar as an Adult – Striking the Right Chord

Learning any new instrument has some seriously good benefits. Playing an instrument, especially in retirement, can lead to improved brain function, having fun, and finding community.

Cognitive & Emotional Benefits

Science – and our own experiences – make clear that as we age, our mind isn’t as quick as it once was (where did I put my keys again?). Given this, it’s in our best interests to keep flexing those brain muscles.

The good news is, research shows a positive correlation between practicing an instrument and improved cognitive function! Dr. Debra Shipman’s study, A Prescription for Music Lessons, shows that playing an instrument actually lifted the spirits of people experiencing anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Ensemble’s own Ellen Rice also notes plenty of emotional improvements through practice! For instance, staying consistent in practice can be a great way to prove to ourselves that we’re capable of following through on our goals. And what better way to do that than by playing some music that you love?!

Social & Creative Opportunities

I get it, we’ve got busy lives, jobs, and families. The cost-benefit analysis of taking up an unnecessary risk needs to lean very heavily to the benefits. So, what else can starting up guitar later in your life get you

Community! Playing guitar is an excellent way to connect with music lovers at your local music store, open-mic night, YMCA, or even a group guitar lesson. Yeah, your work buddies might be great, but taking some healthy steps back from your job can really help you destress. Who knows, maybe you’ll make a lifelong friend!

student learning to play guitar

Once you’ve gotten the hang of a song or two, playing in front of an audience offers you the chance to learn collaboratively with others to improve. Plus, you get to prove to yourself that you can surmount your nerves!

Moreover, a 2012 study found that guitarists playing the same music experienced a synchronization of brain waves. I don’t know about you, but that seems like a magical connection I’d want to get in on.

Don’t Fret: Setting Up For Success

Alright, so we’ve decided that jumping into guitar is absolutely worth it. What’s next?

Finding the Right Fit

First, you’ve got to get a guitar that matches your needs and budget. Ellen Rice has a great article on where to start, including size, price, style of music, and a consideration of your physical needs.

Goal-Setting and Accountability

You might be asking yourself, how will I ever find the time to master the guitar amidst all of my other responsibilities?

It’s important to frame your goals very carefully. “Learning the guitar” is such a vague goal that it’ll feel permanently unreachable. Instead, consider your lifestyle and time commitment in order to make more realistic step-by-step goals.

For instance, the first month of “practice,” could just be to pick up the guitar every day for five minutes. If you do end up missing a day, it won’t feel like you’ve catastrophically failed. And, when you do play, you may end up getting immersed and practicing for 10, 20, or 30 minutes instead! Giving yourself the space for these small successes is crucial to stay motivated.

Don’t know what skill to build on? There are plenty of practice apps to help you stay on track!

Of course, the best path to success is by finding a good music teacher who can personalize the plan to your needs. Pairing this with your individual efforts will garner the best and fastest results.

Rocking the Foundations

Guitar Anatomy

As with every skill, we have to start at the very beginning. Once you’ve gotten your guitar, it’s important to familiarize yourself with its different parts and the function they serve.

First, you must learn the names of the strings! The order from thickest to thinnest string goes: EADGBE. A common saying to memorize this order is “Eddie Ate Dynamite, Good Bye Eddie.” A bit morbid, yes, but it’ll definitely stick!

guitar string notes

Now, let your fingers pass over the strings. Does it sound a bit off to what you’re accustomed to? Then let’s get tuning!

When you’re starting, it could be helpful to purchase an electronic tuner that will help train your ear to what the correct notes are. Or, if you want a challenge, use a reference note from another instrument, a video online, or a pitch pipe to match the notes yourself! Either way, get familiar with the way your guitar is supposed to sound.

Essential Chords and Fingerings

Now that your guitar doesn’t sound like a cacophony of mismatched noises, you can officially start your musical journey!

One of the most empowering aspects of playing a guitar is learning how to assemble the six strings’ notes to create music. Starting with basic finger positions will get you there.

When attempting these chords, remember that you have to start somewhere, but it won’t always be pretty! Don’t worry if you can’t reach the string placements– your fingers are not yet adjusted to stretching out along the guitar fret. Or, maybe your fingertips hurt when pressing against the strings. The only way to surmount this is to live in that discomfort and meet it with patience. With consistency, your fine motor skills (and the calluses of a hardened guitarist) will develop.

Basic Strumming Patterns and Rhythm Exercises

Alright, so you’ve got your fingertips pressed against the strings. What next? Strum!

Strumming seems deceptively simple (it’s just pushing your hand along the strings, right?). In reality, there are several skills that must be built to achieve the right sound. To work on this, pay attention to the innate sense of rhythm that you have when listening to a song. Do you tap your foot on the floor? Bob your head? Use this as your starting point.

“With any beginner-level pattern, the downstroke is the downbeat and the upstroke, the upbeat,” Luke Chandler from The Music Room says, “A concept like syncopation, which is so abstract on the verbal level, becomes intuitive when the strumming student experiences two consecutive ‘ups.’”

Guess what! Practicing rhythm can also help you hone your quantitative skills! Our very own Jake St. John, who is a pro drummer, helps us understand what rhythm is.

“Beat 1 often has its own unique rhythm that sets it apart as the most important beat of the measure,” Luke adds, “Strumming-oriented timekeeping helps develop a kinesthetic awareness that goes beyond mental math, and that level of rhythmic awareness is just what a musician needs.”

“For beginning students, a good rhythm to learn as a strumming pattern would be 3 quarter notes and two eighth notes,” says Andrew Kremer from Christopher Laughlin School of Music in Northbrook, IL, “The quarter notes would all be played with a down strum; the two eighth notes will have a down then up strumming pattern. This will provide a good foundation for other strumming patterns.”

Fine-Tuning Your Skills

As You Progress: Learning More Complex Chords and Progressions

Once you’ve gotten the hang of the basics, you’ve opened yourself up to a world of opportunity. Remember: a song isn’t made up of a singular chord played in isolation– they’re a progression of many! So, once you’ve made sure your chords sound good on their own, it’s time to combine everything you’ve learned thus far- chords, rhythm, and strumming- to make music happen.

“In order for more complex chords on the guitar to be played comfortably, a student is required to first possess a command of open position chords and small bar chords (2-3 strings),” Kremer suggests, “From that foundation, larger bar chords may be pursued as well as chords with harmonic extensions whose shapes are not as typical.”

Scaling Up the Intensity: Mastering Scales and Improvisation Techniques

A great way to practice scales, chords, progressions, and the other skills you’re learning is to improvise! This hones your understanding of the techniques and concepts beyond what you’re told to what you feel.

Understanding those concepts will be key to breaking the rules in a way that makes sense and sounds good, as opposed to breaking them without reason.

Developing Fingerpicking and Arpeggio Skills

As with any other skill, find a song you like that also happens to use that musical technique. For fingerpicking, songs that fit this include Bob Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right, The Beatles’ Blackbird, Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven, Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah, and Green Day’s Good Riddance.

Remember, these songs are played by trained and seasoned musicians. So, take it slow and break down the skills as you learn.

Find Your Inner Rockstar

Incorporating advanced techniques like hammer-ons, pull-offs, and slides

Another set of skills that should be on your radar are hammer-ons, pull-offs, and slides.

A hammer-on is the forceful fretting (or “hammering”) of a string that is already sounding, which produces an entirely new note without the aid of the right hand: after your right hand strikes a single string the usual way—it can be a fretted or open string—a left-hand finger then comes down quickly on the desired fret.

This often pairs with the pull-off, which starts with a fretted string that is already sounding and involves the removal of a left-hand finger from the fretboard to produce a new note, again, without the aid of the right hand: once a fretted string is sounding, the left-hand finger that is on the higher fret—listen up, this is key!—needs to slightly displace (or scoot) its string downward as it lets go, which actually amounts to a sort of left-hand “pluck” of the string. (Merely removing the finger without the scoot yields mixed results, with the final note coming out far too quietly in most cases.) Check out Jack Johnson’s Taylor to help you master the hammer-on and pull-off.

Slides are another great expressive tool. Just by placing a small metal or glass tube over your finger, you can get a singing vibrato effect (over a single-fret region) or achieve the expressive portamento of a violinist, seamlessly gliding up or down from one pitch to another, or even one chord to another if you use open tunings characteristic of this style of playing. (But that’s a different discussion!) Before you begin jamming out some awesome slide-guitar, be sure your slide finger works out the right amount of contact with the string(s) you are playing—too little and you get a nasty buzz; too much and your strings hit the frets—and that any note you are going for stays in tune through precise alignment of the slide with your frets. For some helpful listening, check out Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers, especially the live recording of “Statesboro Blues” from At Fillmore East (1971).

Learning to play your favorite songs and music genres

The unique quality of starting later in life is that you already have an established music taste! That means your practice can be filled with songs that you love to hear. Ever wanted your favorite guitarist to add a riff in their solo? Now you can add it and live out your rockstar fantasies before heading back to your day job.

Developing your own style and sound

Let’s face it: learning other people’s songs is great, but at some point you’ll feel like a chord here or there could be different, or you wish you could just strum a bit differently than the original.

Lean into that instinct! Kremer says, “The best place for a student to start in developing their own style and sound is to first listen to a lot of music and a lot of players over the course of several years in order to determine what the player likes.”

From there, you can figure out what you like, what you wish something sounded like, and then you can figure out how to best start emulating your favorite players. “Next, with all of their acquired knowledge, the player must engage in some creative exploration of the guitar in order to create their own unique vocabulary which will be the beginnings of their artistic self discovery,” Kremer notes.

So pick up your guitar, and get funky!

Plucking Through Tough Times

Dealing with frustration and setbacks

Let’s be real, frustrations and setbacks are inevitable. The important thing is how you approach them. If you miss a practice session, you can’t seem to make a progression sound nice, or you just can’t move your fingers fast enough, it’s not the end. If you keep pushing through and remind yourself to enjoy yourself for the sake of enjoying music, you’re sure to find success even when it feels unlikely.

Finding the right resources and support systems

There are so many resources and communities of support out there for you to learn guitar. You may be asking yourself, “what’s the best choice?” The honest answer is that having personal music lessons will undoubtedly teach you the most. If you’re struggling to figure out what a YouTube video means when it describes a technique (or even if they’re even a source to trust), we can guarantee that you’ll have greater success with someone who you can talk to in real-time and respond to your needs.

Keeping your motivation and passion for playing alive

The great news is that the confidence and skills you gain by starting to learn will build on themselves as you continue. That means, once you’ve proven to yourself that you can accomplish your goal of playing for 5 minutes every day, you’ve given yourself the chance to believe in your ability to accomplish loftier goals! Celebrate the small victories because they may turn out to grow into larger ones.

Conclusion – Play Away

If you’re interested in learning guitar and you think it’s too late to start, it absolutely is not. Ensemble is here to help you get started, either through our informative posts or through an expert ready to jumpstart your musical skills.

The key is to remember to keep pushing forward and allow yourself to learn through failure, success, and all the iffy notes that lie in between. Happy playing!

man and woman playing music

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Author: Kayla Powers

Kayla is a globally competitive and nationally ranked debater who is currently studying Writing, Rhetoric, and Media at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Kayla has work experience as a writer for the HWS Communications Department and has interned at multiple law firms, including Deloitte and Gusrae Kaplan Nusbaum. Aside from work, Kayla enjoys singing and found a love for musicals at a young age.

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