Am I too old to learn guitar?

The guitar is the most popular musical instrument in the world, but learning how to play it, takes time and determination. Unfortunately, these are two things that get scarce as you get older, and now you wonder whether you are too old to learn guitar. After studying the scientific and circumstantial data about guitar learning in adulthood, we are optimistic!

You are never too old to start learning how to play the guitar. If you are 30, 40, 50, or even 75 years old, there is a place for you in the guitarist community. Furthermore, there is solid proof that you could also make a career out of it even if you started later in life. 

In this article, we will prove that age does not matter when learning how to play the guitar, and the benefits shown by scientific studies are immense whether you are 7 or 70. We will also share with you a few interesting methods of practice improvement tailored especially for adults, and analyze different guitar player age groups. Let’s begin!

Learning guitar at the age of 30 (or even 40)

30 is a significant age for someone who has always dreamt about becoming a guitar player. This meaningful turning point, where you start to understand more about the differences between dreams and reality, can confuse many of us and deprive us of fulfilling our most ​​coveted goals.

If your goal is just to play a few songs, maybe jam with your friends or even play in a cover band, you can undoubtedly do it. The number of practice hours needed to get there is not big at all (around 1000-2000), and with good time management, you’ll reach your goal in approximately a year or two.

If you want to learn to play the guitar and make a living out of it, that’s a different story, but you can still make it if you just apply yourself and are serious about it. To reach that level of expertise, you’ll need to accumulate around 10,000 practice hours, and it can take approximately 3-6 years if you are determined (4-8 practice hours a day).

If you are interested in perfecting your guitar practice regime, check out this article about guitar practice, and if you are wondering how to make a career out of it, check out this article about how to become a professional guitar player.

Author’s note: Though it might not be very common, I personally played with a skilled and professional session bass player who picked up the bass for the first time at the age of 29! For me, he is living proof that you can build a career in music at any age!

In addition, there are advantages to learning guitar as an adult:

  • Music theory is not a complex thing for adults, and understanding it takes them a very short time compared to young students. The difficult thing is to assimilate these concepts into your playing, which happens in real-time when there is no time for a thinking process.
  • In comparison to kids, adults are more determined and focused, and when they have a specific and defined goal, they also have a good idea of how to pursue it. On the other hand, the kid approach is more exploratory and focused on experiencing the world of music.
  • Adults are more developed motorically and physically, making learning new chords, scales, and positions mentally faster and physically easier. As a result, this makes the whole first step of learning guitar less frustrating and much more fun.

Learning guitar at the age of 50, 60, or even later!

The older aspiring guitar players among us probably have little different goals than the younger ones. They will usually turn to the guitar for enjoyment and self-improvement and with less intention of going professional.

To really start enjoying playing guitar, even just as an enthusiast, you need to get to a certain level of execution. The minimal amount of practice hours you should put in to get to this level is estimated to be between 500 to 2000 and it can take between 1-3 years, depending on how determined you are. This amount of practice hours should grant you the ability to play a few of your favorite (intermediate) musical pieces, meddle with blues, and accompany you and your friends’ singing sessions.

If you still dream about going professional or being a recording artist, believe it or not but that window is still open for you, and you will find proof of it in the following section of this article. If that is your case, you’ll have to put in around 5000 practice hours if you want to be a knowledgeable singer-songwriter and double if you aspire to get to a professional performance level. Achieving such a goal could take you 3.5-7 years if you practice around 4 hours a day.

What may hold back the adult guitar student

We are not use to being clueless

As adults, we are used to being skillful in whatever we do. We have already spent years acquiring knowledge, professions, and experience. Therefore, we are no longer used to being clueless, which could be pretty frustrating. As a result, adult students may struggle with sticking to a simple and systematic practice regimen. Instead, they look for shortcuts, hidden secrets, or some more profound understanding of music rules without realizing all they need to do is sit down and practice.

Being shy

Some of you may think that playing guitar is reserved for the young, for those with luscious hair, smooth skin, and funky outfits. You are afraid of looking stupid, and you’re maybe even thinking that it all related to some kind of mid-life crisis.

You couldn’t be more wrong. People who play an instrument greatly benefit from doing so physically, socially, and mentally. Plus, in the eyes of other people, young or old, a person who plays an instrument will always look cooler!

Less time to invest in hobbies

As we get older, we have less time to do the things we love, especially if they don’t bring any visible profit. We have work to do, bills to pay, and as a result, things that bring us joy get pushed down on the priority list. Don’t abandon your guitaristic dreams, it is bad for your mental health, and overall quality of life (and it has been scientifically proven).

Fear of failure

Adults, in comparison to kids, are much more competitive when studying in a class. They will prefer not to be subjected to shame (like a college student who wouldn’t dare ask a question in front of the class just because he thinks it might sound stupid). This could make the learning experience of adults much more complex, so it is imperative for the teacher to ensure that adult learners feel safe and welcome.

Never be afraid to ask questions, even if you think it might sound dumb. It would be even dumber not to ask something crucial for your understanding and progress just because you’re afraid of what other people may think or say.

You have missed your chance

Many of you probably feel sorry you didn’t start learning guitar at a younger age, mainly because you think you have already lost your chance of doing it. You cannot be more wrong, and there is evidential as well as scientific proof of it.

Learning guitar from scratch might seem more intimidating the more you get older, but it sure is possible. If you are looking for solid proof, here are some exciting stories about successful musicians who started playing the guitar at a much older age than the average guitarist.

Musicians who made it at old age:

T-Model Ford (James Lewis Carter Ford) was an American Blues guitar player. He was born between 1921-1925 (he cannot really tell by himself) and waited until he was 58 years old to pick up the guitar for the first time. It was when his fifth wife left him and gave him a guitar as a parting gift. At the age of 75, he recorded his first studio album, “Pee-Wee Get My Gun,” and has recorded seven more studio albums since.

Malvina Reynolds was an American folk/blues singer-songwriter and a political activist. She played the violin in a dance band in her twenties but wasn’t musically educated. Her songwriting career began much later in life when she was in her late forties. Only then she picked up the guitar and returned to school at UC Berkeley, where she studied music theory. She had quite a few popular songs, including “Little Boxes,” that enjoyed renewed popularity after being featured as the “Weeds” TV series theme song.

The unbelievable story of Pat Martino – Pat Martino is a Jazz virtuoso born in Philadelphia in 1944 and was named “the most influential Jazz guitar player of the ‘60s”. Aside from his musical career, Pat is also one of the most interesting medical cases related to musicians. Due to a tumor found in his brain, he underwent a left temporal lobectomy that made him forget almost everything he knew, including playing the guitar. 

However, at the age of 36, he managed to relearn all that he lost and regain his previous virtuoso status. In addition, his medical history and neuropsychologic functions were examined and revealed a remarkable degree of recovery.

  • Another honorable mention is Seasick Steve that even though he has been making music all his life, his big breakthrough only happened when he was 58 years old! 

The stories of James Ford, Malvina Reynolds, and Pat Martino are solid proof that anyone can learn guitar at any age. It doesn’t matter if you are 30, 40, 50, or even 75 years old, if you love music, it is possible, and if you are a true dreamer, you could even try to make a career out of it.

How to improve your practice method and strengthen your motivation as an adult guitarist:

The following data was gathered from a neurological study done at The MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour, and Development at Western Sydney University, Australia, in 2019. It is one of the few studies done on musical learning during adulthood and examined adult novice piano players across a period of ten weeks. 

This research examined how adults’ cognitive and motor skills can be affected by music learning in comparison to an inactive control group.

The environmental factor

Group learning environment can improve motivation through competition and mutual encouragement. It also pushes people to socialize, especially when playing together in a musical ensemble. The experiment also showed that a stronger bond between the group would affect learning progress positively.

Author’s note: As a professional guitar player, I got a chance to be a part of many different ensembles, and in each one, a special bond was created between the players, even if we didn’t know each other prior or didn’t see each other years after. Something in being a part of this living singular being called music has pulled us closer together.

Favorite music

According to the research, the choice of repertoire can also affect a student’s (or a group’s) motivation and progress. It is pretty simple, the more you like a particular song, the more you’ll be willing to put in the time and effort necessary for playing it. It is also easier to learn a familiar song since you don’t need to learn the whole musical piece from scratch, but just how to play it.

A good teacher

It seems like an obvious thing to mention, but having a teacher who knows how to teach an older crowd is essential for the student’s confidence and progress.

Authors note: When I teach youngsters, I tend to be more of a coach than a teacher and give them simple orders with no questions asked. This method is good for kids because they struggle with more complex musical concepts and react positively to such workouts. However, it gets a little trickier with adults because they understand musical concepts faster but on the other hand, you have to address more complicated issues or insecurities.

One of the cognitive tests done in this study is the TMT test. Try to follow your brain function using this app as you practice and get better at playing guitar.

The amazing benefits of learning guitar at an older age and the science behind them.

Learning to play a musical instrument is more important than you can imagine

With medical advancements and a decrease in overall fertility comes a dramatic increase of older adults worldwide. The estimation is that the proportion of people over 60 years old will increase from 10% in 2000 to 21.8% in 2050.

The consequence of these changes in our societal structure is the rise in neurodegenerative diseases that are more common in later stages in life. Within this context, we must adopt new strategies to prevent cognitive decline and promote a healthy physical and psychological lifestyle. 

The deterioration of brain function can significantly impact the lives of older adults. White matter degeneration can result in an attenuated performance of executive functions, including working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control. It can also affect brain processing speed and memory abilities. In addition, older people also suffer from reduced motor abilities.

The benefits of playing a musical instrument

In this research from 2013, a group of 13 male and female participants aged 60-84 took part in a 4-month piano learning program. All of them had the same cognitive abilities, estimated intelligence, motivation, level of interest for the activity, and time available for practice. In addition, a control group of 16 participants with the same cognitive abilities and level of education has been tested for comparison.

The results showed significant improvement in executive function, inhibitory control (self-control), and divided attention on the piano training group. Moreover, the participants showed enhancement of visual scanning and motor ability as well as decreased depression, induced positive mood states, and improved psychological and physical QOL (quality of life).

This experiment suggests that playing a musical instrument through reading can be extremely useful to promote cognitive reserve and improve well-being with older adults. It is also one of the most efficient ways to stimulate wide-spread areas of the brain simultaneously. 

When we play a musical instrument, brain areas that control attention, memory, motor function, and emotional processing are in action. In addition, this intense brain workout was shown to promote brain plasticity, which is the ability of neural networks in the brain to change through growth and reorganization.

Many studies have revealed significant differences in brain function between musicians and non-musicians. Professional musicians showed to have greater than average grey matter in certain areas, differences in white matter structure, and increased transmission of information in the corpus callosum (the bridge between the two hemispheres).

How can we be sure it is related to music studies rather than other life experinces?

When studying older adults, it is hard to determine that differences in brain function are directly connected to music learning because the differences in education, life experience, age, and socioeconomic status between adults could account for these results. Therefore, the most persuasive evidence of these effects comes from research that involves children.

It has been found that children who received 36-weeks of musical training showed a significant increase in IQ compared to children who took drama classes. Furthermore, it has been shown that 6-year-old children who received 15 months of private music lessons showed structural brain changes with improvements in auditory and motor skills. Finally, another series of studies comparing musically trained 8-year-olds to those who trained in painting found that skills learned through musical training have a transfer effect to linguistic abilities (auditory and speech), and behavioral function, while painting lessons do not.

Gon Zadok

Gon Zadok is a Tel Aviv-based session player, recording artist, and independent producer for Simply and local artists. He plays various instruments, including guitar, bass, synths, and ukulele. Gon studied music at Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in Israel and music production at SAE Institute in Berlin, Germany.

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