It’s a fact of life that we learn new skills slower as we get older. But this shouldn’t deter you from starting anything new.
Quite the opposite in fact.
See it as a challenge and learn to feel achievement in all the small steps along the way.
Research shows that its extremely beneficial for our mental well-being to take up new skills and keep the brain active.
A study into the cognitive benefits from musical activity in older people, (published by The National Library of Medicine in the US), found a significant improvement in memory of test subjects who were exposed to musical improvisation.
Learning an instrument such as guitar can be a fantastic way to do this.
Music is a beautiful thing that touches every culture around the world. We can all reap the benefits it brings.
It has the wonderful ability to bypass the logical part of our brains and get straight to the emotional part.
It can evoke powerful reactions, both positive and negative. I’m sure we have all said ‘ I love this song’ or ‘I hate this song’ countless times!
Guitar legend Keith Richards shows how to rock out in style at 76 years of age!
Over the years I’ve worked with hundreds of beginners from all ages, but most of my students discover the guitar at 50 and over.
Many students state:
“…I’ve always wanted to play an instrument but never had the time, now that I’ve retired, I thought I’d try it…”
Sound familiar? or maybe…
“…I’m tone deaf and have no rhythm but I’ve always loved music…”
“… My arthritis is developing and I’d like to keep my hands active…”
I hear statements like this all the time, don’t fear, you’re not alone!
In this article, I’d like to share some tips and advice for newcomers who are discovering the guitar a little later in life.
So you’ve taken up guitar? Great! Now what guitar do you need?
Acoustic, electric, full size, half size? So many decisions!
Perhaps you’ve already got a guitar and are wondering if it’s the right choice, maybe the guitar is stopping you progressing?
Guitar stores often have every wall covered in various models, shapes and sizes
Here’s some valid points to consider that people rarely think about:
These are actually important questions. Progress will come much easier if you feel physically comfortable when playing your guitar.
You may have noticed that humans don’t all come in one shape and size.
Shocker, right?! Well neither do guitars.
Don’t worry though, I’ll forgive you for not knowing as you’re your new to this!
There is an enormous difference between an acoustic and an electric and the various styles of each.
These come in several styles and sizes. The two key types would be steel string acoustic or nylon string classical (Spanish) guitars.
Within these two categories there are sizes to consider – full size, 3/4 size, half size. Also, especially with steel string, you’ll notice a variety of shapes and sizes such as large dreadnoughts or slim bodied guitars that are easier to get around.
Why so much choice? Well, this comes back to my earlier questions – how big are you? How big are your hands? Etc.
Tall and slim? No problem. If you’re around the 6 foot mark you should be comfortable with any guitar, even those jumbos and dreadnoughts!
If you’re short or small build, you may find that dreadnought is too big for you.
Aim for a slimmer acoustic guitar or even a 3/4 size if you’re finding that you have to tilt the guitar to get your arm around it.
Acoustic guitars come in various shapes and sizes. From parlour on the left to jumbos and dreadnoughts on the right.
Larger framed people – whether big bones or beer and biscuits, there need not be a reason. Some of us just come out slightly rounder (myself included).
Ladies, you also have your chest size to consider when sitting comfortably with a guitar.
I would recommend slimmer bodied guitars, and the shorter ones among you may even consider 3/4 size.
You should be able to sit comfortably with the guitar. If it’s too big, it will hinder your playing.
Honestly, I’d say the important question here is not ‘will nylon be easier on my fingers’ it should be ‘how big are my hands?’
If you have large chunky fingers, the wider neck of a nylon stringed classical guitar will give you a little more room to position fretting fingers without bumping into other strings.
Those with smaller hands, usually the necks on steel string acoustics are slimmer and easier to get around.
You may have small hands with chunky fingers. This is not uncommon so don’t despair you can still play!
You may find that a smaller size guitar will work best.
We can make adaptions for chunkiness, but so much not for a short reach.
All the previous points are still valid here but keep in mind that entry level electric guitars are usually Strat type so will have slimmer necks and bodies.
The action (the distance between the strings and fretboard) is usually lower, making it a little easier to play.
Overall electrics are easier to play, requiring less finger pressure from the fretting hand, but need extra equipment such as an amplifier to get that electric sound.
An amp will also amplify unwanted noise until you really learn to handle it.
Lets get down to more hands on advice. Although rocking out over Bohemian Rhapsody or Freebird straight away is tempting – remember to crack the basics first.
So what do I mean by basics?
Well, the real basics would be – parts of the guitar, string names, tuning.
There’s also some essential guitar foundations to be aware of such as correct posture and feeling the pulse of music.
Keeping these in mind will make a huge difference and give you the best possible chance of success.
Start with the real basics of technique. These include how to hold a pick, strumming technique, holding notes down, counting the beat to play in time and changing chords.
Once you feel comfortable with these basics, try playing some simple riffs using single notes and use open chords to strum through a simple song.
You’ll find that some of these new skills come faster than others. Things really get interesting when you start playing open chords and try to change between them in time.
Now, this can take several weeks or even months to get proficient at. This is where most people consider giving up.
Training your fretting hand to remember chord shapes (muscle memory) and changing from one chord to the next takes practice.
Especially when playing to a metronome.
I’d recommend starting with 3 chords A, D & E.
Work with a metronome at trying to play your next chord in time for beat one. Just strum once to start with, to help train the change. Another effective tip is to visualise the changes when away from the guitar.
Try to imagine the fretboard and where the chords live, run it through your mind as much as possible and will speed up your progress. The result will be smooth and quick chord changes, in time to a beat, that will enable you to play recognisable music.
We all want these, right? So not everything here is essential, although they will help with playing or practice.
Clip-on tuner / tuning app
Tuning is essential and should be one of the first things you learn. Personally, I prefer a clip on tuner where there is background noise it’ll pick up just your guitar.
Clip-on tuners work on vibration which can be handy when there is too much background noise
Microphone tuners like the apps will pick up anything, making them harder to use in noisy environments. Also, some apps may limit you to just EADGBe so if you wanted to explore other tunings down the line you’d need a different app.
Guitar tuner apps are extremely useful especially when out and about with your guitar, plus most are free
However, the convenience of a tuner on your phone is a big bonus and as you can get them for free, there’s really no reason not to install one.
Plectrums, or picks, come in a variety of shapes and sizes. For starters, stick with a regular looking one so no shark fins or 50p coins!
The thickness is really the key thing here. Thick plectrums are better for faster picking of single notes whilst thinner plectrums sound lighter and are more suited for strumming.
Anything thinner than 1mm is usually a suitable place to start. A pick can feel alien at first but stick with them as they are a staple of guitar players across many genres.
A metronome is for keeping musical time and I recommend them to all students. One of the most important elements of playing the guitar will keep time.
Practicing with a metronome right from start will build your sense of time.
After a while you won’t need it so much anymore as your own feel for rhythm will have improved.
But this skill will only get better if you work on it so pick up a free app or a physical one if you prefer. You set a metronome by BPM – beats per minute – start your practice around 60-80 BPM and build up from there.
Soft case / hard case
Get a soft case, carry it on your back when you go to lessons or need to transport it. It’s a simple decision.
It’ll keep the rain off and if you’re going to a lesson, it’ll likely have a pocket for your paperwork and any extras like tuners or cables.
A hard case will be tricky to carry longer distances as they’re heavier and all the weight will be in your hand instead of your big strong shoulders!
Hard cases usually have less storage space for extras. Either way, a case is better than a bin bag over the headstock.
Despite buying yourself a high quality padded case – once you get home you need to take it out of the case so it’s in view and easily accessible for practice at a moment’s notice.
A stand is much better than resting it against something where it could take a knock and get damaged. Keeping the guitar visible will make you want to pick it up and play.
This will make practice much more comfortable. Rather than trying to position yourself at the dinner table or balance your papers on the sofa next to you, use a stand.
This will help you get into a good posture for playing enabling you to play better for longer.
Light Gauge Strings
Strings are sold based on the thickness, or gauge, of the strings. The thicker the string, the more force required to press it down.
For steel string acoustics I would recommend 11’s. For electric guitar, I’d recommend 9’s. Lighter strings are not just for beginners, pro players prefer them too.
String changing equipment
Yes, you will break a string, no it won’t take your eye out! Strings will age and deteriorate with use.
They will also snap if you over tighten them. The most common cause of this is an inexperience with tuning.
You’ll either go too high looking for the wrong note or you’ll make the classic rookie mistake of plucking one string whilst you tighten the peg of another! Whatever the reason, when a string breaks it’ll need replacing.
Depending on the age of the strings you may want to replace either just the broken one or the whole set. Rather than pay someone to do it for you, try giving it a go yourself.
There are plenty of resources available to guide you through this, but a few gadgets can improve the process. I’d recommend: fresh strings (obviously!), string cutters, a string-winder plus a set of pliers with rounded ends to help grab some more slippery strings.
A Guitar Set Up
The ‘action’ of a guitar refers to how much space there is between the underside of the string and top of the fret. A higher action (although prefered by some pro players) can make difficult playing for beginners
You may not need this with a brand new guitar but if you’ve picked one up in a charity shop, at a car boot sale it might need TLC.
A set up will include having the action checked and adjusted if you’re finding the strings too hard to press. Having a guitar set up professionally is not super-cheap but can be worth it to get it playing the best it can.
OK, so you can’t go out and buy these! but once you’ve built up the required callouses on your fingertips, you will find practice easier and more comfortable.
Usually the first weeks are the worse. There probably hasn’t been a point until now in your life where you thought it’d be an excellent idea to jab steel wires into the ends of your fingers!
The pain or discomfort will pass as the skin toughens. I’ve had of people using surgical spirits to toughen their skin. I can recommend the old-fashioned way – lots of practice. – It will be time well spent!
Ladies, you’ll probably suffer the most for this! To play effectively, you need to be pushing the strings down with the very tips of your fingers, not the pads.
The only way to do this effectively is to keep the nails of your fretting hand short.
If you have long nails, you won’t be able to get at the tip as you must approach at more of an angle. This will cause your fingers to drag across and interrupt other strings. Pro tip: use a nail file rather than biting, cutting or tearing the nail.
I often hear from retired people that they have less time now than when they were working! Kids have it easy: they knock off at 3pm, they don’t have to cook dinner, do the shopping, etc.
With these other demands on your time, you need to make the best use of your practice time that you can.
• Warm Up – Just like you would before going for a run or a workout at the gym (not speaking from experience!) you need to warm up on the guitar.
This will get the blood pumping in your hands and limber up the tendons for stretching without causing strain. I usually recommend some scales or technical exercises for this.
• Set Goals – Rather than spending an hour flitting from one thing to the next, it would be more beneficial to decide what you want to work on and divide up your time appropriately.
• Take Breaks – You’ll see greater progress with small bursts for a few minutes rather than non-stop playing. Use an alarm or monitor the clock to help with this.
It’s tough to enforce this, especially when it feels like you’re on a roll, but even 30 second rests between 2 minutes of playing can be beneficial. Breaks will help reduce strain from over-playing and also help the information sink into your fingers and brain.
• Stop or Start Again? – A common problem player’s face is what I’ll call ‘the problem bar’. Let’s say you’re playing through a song and the intro and verse are on point, but you always mess up at the start of the chorus.
“Avoid playing to the problem bar, then jumping back to the start once you slip up. Look at the problem bar in isolation. Take it out of context and make an exercise of it”
Once you can play that bar, take the previous bar and practice transitioning into the problem bar. Then take the bar after and try playing in and out of the problem bar.
By working on these trouble spots you’ll end up with a much smoother performance of the complete song rather than a just the first bit of it.
• Technique and Exercises – Beginners should be aiming to build a great technique. General playing will help here, although improvements can be made with more specific exercises.
The ‘spider’ exercise is very popular for this. It will help you to build strength and control in both your fretting and picking hand.
There are many other areas to focus on, but having a few exercises to warm up with or making your own based on songs you’re learning is a brilliant way to get ahead.
A teacher will recommend according to where you are with your playing technique.
For some, you’ll be happy to self-teach using the internet or books & magazines. For others you might attend a course and learn in a group environment or arrange 1-2-1 lessons with a tutor.
If the way you’re learning isn’t working, then before you quit try a fresh approach.
As someone who teaches groups and 1-2-1’s, I can say that groups aren’t for everyone.
Whilst you may get better value paying for a course than the same amount of £/per hour for 1-2-1, if you have particular needs and really want to achieve, 1-2-1 may be best.
Here’s an example: you’ve been to a weekly group lesson for 5 weeks but don’t seem to be ‘getting it’ or coming along as quick as the others.
You find certain chords harder and slower to change than the others. Your arthritis is uncomfortable and you don’t think you’ll be able to play some shapes.
Keeping in time with everyone else seems impossible. The teacher is nice and helpful, but you can’t seem to do what they ask. With these complaints you might be ready to give up!
It’s important to note that progressing at a different speed to others is entirely normal and expected. What takes someone else 2 weeks might take you 3 months, and that’s fine.
As long as you have the patience and persistence, you’ll get there.
In my experience there is a small percentage of people that haven’t progressed well in groups.
This is entirely individual, but I’ve often found that a physical difficulties play a part in this. This doesn’t completely rule you out of playing, but it will make it more challenging.
Together with your teacher you will have to be up for the challenge to overcome it.
If conventional chords/strumming isn’t working because of restricted finger movement, 1-2-1 lessons may be more suitable.
You could focus on open tuning and slide playing to progress. Doing this in a group just wouldn’t be possible.
Maybe you’re thinking about getting started or perhaps have already begun trying to teach yourself or are having lessons.
I think it’s important to know what to expect and also to be mindful of what you expect of yourself and your teacher.
First, let me say outright that progress will be slower than you imagined. It may be tough to hear, but the guitar is a challenging instrument and is not as easy as it looks.
That being said, hopefully you’re sensible enough not to expect to be playing like Eric Clapton overnight! So, what can you expect regarding progress?
It’s important to know that everyone will progress at their own rate. There is not one set speed of progression.
The biggest factor on your progress will be practice – and you will hear this a lot from me and any teacher. How much you immerse yourself in your new instrument is the biggest deciding factor on how you will progress.
I’ll go deeper into practice regime and how to practice effectively in another lesson. For now, keep in mind that as a beginner, practice doesn’t mean perfect, but it means progress.
No one “perfects” the guitar without years of practice. Taking several weeks or even months to crack some basics is OK. What’s important is that you are picking it up every day even for just 5 minutes.
No excuses, pick it up when the kettle is boiling, when the adverts are on TV, before lunch, after lunch. It doesn’t matter when, just that you are.
An excellent teacher will give you some key exercises to work on and perhaps give you some song studies. They’ll try to keep things at a good level for you but also try to challenge you and move you forward.
If you feel like progress is slow or you’ve hit a wall, ask yourself – ‘have I really been working on this as much as I could?’ An excellent teacher can open the door for you, but you have to walk through.
It’s important to speak with your teacher about your progress, they will notice improvements even if you think you haven’t progressed. They’ll also know if you haven’t been practicing!
Your teacher wants you to achieve and feel good about your learning, so make sure you set some smart targets.
Finally, keep in mind that it does take a lot of practice and whilst that might sound daunting or boring it won’t be once you’re doing it.
Nailing a particular change or finally play something that sounds recognisable is a brilliant feeling and chasing that buzz will motivate you to keep going.
Always be looking back on your progress at the slight steps you have climbed to see just how far you have come.
When progress is slow and you’re growing tired of practicing the same thing over and over, it’s easy to think about giving up.
Don’t do it! To keep motivated, you need to keep it fun. After all this is a hobby right?
A discussion with your teacher can help if it’s getting too repetitive.
They can advise and introduce fresh exercises and songs to try.
Keep listening to and exploring music. Listen to the music that inspired you to pick up the guitar or music that you are aspiring to play.
Try to watch live music as much as possible. Whether in person or online, seeing your favourite players in action is inspiring, especially when you’re flagging.
Try something different. Struggling to strum? Try some picking. Bored with rock n roll? Try some Folk.
There’s so much music out there, and nowadays it’s easier than ever to access it. Head to YouTube or Spotify and start exploring.
In short, there are many ways to make the most of learning guitar at 50, or any age for that matter. Whatever your situation, talking it through with your teacher will give you the best chance of finding the right approach for you.
Sam Grant is a graduate of the prestigious London Guitar Institute and a guitar teacher for all ages. He has over 10 years experience specialising in writing and delivering beginner and intermediate courses for adults and retired learners.
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