7 Practical Insights for Learning Guitar at 50 and Over

Finding your way and avoiding common mistakes.

Profile shot of Sam Grant guitar and Ukelele teacher from Gosport
learning guitar at 50. An older mans hands picking an acoustic guitar

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.

Contents

Research shows that its extremely beneficial for our mental well-being to take up new skills and keep the brain active.

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.

 

"Have you just started your journey as an older beginner guitar player? follow these top tips below"

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!

Keith Richards playing on stage

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…” 

or…

“… My arthritis is developing and I’d like to keep my hands active…” 

"Tone deaf or have little rhythm? these are common misconceptions. With a little work and the right guidance you'll be up and strumming in no time"

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.

1. Getting a Guitar

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: 

  • How big are you? 
  • How big are your hands? 
  • How tall are you? 
  • How much of a belly do you have? 
  • Are you a man or a woman?
 

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.

Acoustic Guitars

wall of acoustic guitars in a music store

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.

Choosing the Right Guitar Shape

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.

chart showing the various types of acoustic guitar body shapes

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.

Steel string or Nylon string? 

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.

Electric Guitars

Wall of electric guitars stretching into the distance

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.

2. Understanding the Basics

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.

Practical Advice

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.

3. Useful Guitar Accessories

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.

close up of the Korg Aw-2 clip on tuner on the head stock of a 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.

The Boss tuner app available for smart phones

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

plectrum display table at a guitar show showing various shapes and types


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.

Metronome

classic style metronome

 

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