As a beginner guitarist in midlife, I have quickly come to the realization that I don’t pick up new skills as quickly as I used to. Well, that is my general feeling any way but with experience I know that when learning things for the first time there can be some small hurdles that have to be overcome.
Often these small hurdles can grow into bigger ones the size of walls that stop us in our tracks and it is no different when learning guitar. So it is important to realize that you are on the right path and that you are making progress.
As a beginner I have committed to 5 hours practice a week minimum, and then I record my Guitar Journey progress for my YouTube channel which you can visit here Midlife Guitar Journey – YouTube Channel. However finding 5 hours a week can often be a challenge for me as having a young family is a joy and a blessing but also one that requires the most commitment in my life.
So when I look to play and practice I want it to be focused, efficient and progressive but above all I want it to be fun, challenging and rewarding.
With all this being said I wanted to put together some tips that I feel work for those of us who have come late to the guitar, those in our 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, 70’s+ so that we can make solid, well-informed decisions and stick with it.
So without further ado here are 14 Tips for the older beginner guitar player.
1. Be Patient With Yourself
When we were a child we had hours of free time to dedicate to learning a new skill. We were used to starting from scratch and having to learn the hard way. As an older adult we forget this, we have forgotten what it is like to be new at something.
Learning to play the guitar requires your hands to form shapes, very specific shapes and even develop new muscles. These muscles are likely ones that you have never needed before.
My daughter is currently learning to use coloring pens to draw and over the days and months, her dexterity improves but at the start everything was a squiggle. Her hands will need years of training to become capable of writing letters just as ours did and that only comes about through repetition, review and focused practice.
Playing guitar is no different. Regardless of your late start, good techniques come only with patient, focused practice.
2. Buy A Decent Well Adjusted Guitar With Lighter Strings
If you have quite a few years on your life clock you will likely know that buying cheap will often end up on the heap. This is no different from guitars, but you don’t have to spend a fortune as most guitars in the $200 – $400 bracket will be absolutely perfect for your needs.
I own a Seagull S6 (acoustic), which falls in this price range, it was made in Canada by Godin with timber from their own forest and is widely known as one of the best acoustic guitars for the money, aimed at committed beginners. In my eyes, it is phenomenal value but I won’t hark on, you can read my review here if you want to know more.
This clearly is not the only great guitar in this price range though, there are a decent handful of others. The point I am trying to make is that you should spend the money now. You want a guitar that is well made and easy to play. Often the cheaper guitars fall out of tune quickly and the action is set very high, which is very common. The action is the distance between the fretboard and the strings. When this is set high you have to push down further so it not only slows you down but also can kill a lot of the enjoyment.
For generally $80 to $100 dollars your local guitar shop will set up the action for you and this might involve changing the strings, filing down the nut and saddle and possibly other adjustments. But the cost of it will be well worth it as making any guitar easier to play is just one less barrier to getting the strings under your fingers.
If you want a really, really nice guitar it would be better to wait a few years until you have developed preferences for shape, feel and sound.
Another tip closely associated is to use light strings, these will be easier on your fingers when you first learn. Light strings are a 10 or 11 gauge, so if you are buying your guitar new then ask them to put a set of these on the guitar so you can start out on the right track.
3. Choose Songs To Suit Your Level Of Ability
Many of us have songs that we would love to be able to play so they may be first on our list to learn. However many songs that we may want to learn will be too challenging when we start or contain elements that will take many hours of dedication as a beginner to learn.
The important part often missed when first learning is achieving easy wins, that is learning to play songs that boost our ego, provide confidence and spur us on to learn more. I talk about exactly this and how to approach learning guitar as an older beginner in my article How To Learn Guitar Later In Life which is worth a read if you want to start out on the right foot, or hand (pun intended).
If you start by learning a song way too advanced for your level then it will likely put you off as the frustration of not being able to master it will be discouraging.
There are many songs that are aimed at beginners or have been reinterpreted by experienced musicians in order that they are playable by the guitar beginner. In fact, if you just learn 4 chords you will be able to play hundreds of songs. If you go to Justin Guitar’s song page you can select the chords that you know and it will spit out songs that you can play with those chords.
Combining point 3 and point 4 above, you could following the Justin Guitar Beginner Course which is completely free if you want to get an idea on what it is like you can see my first Guitar Journey video here.
Alongside his learning, he has songs geared to each level so you know that you will be learning songs that you will be capable of playing with a little practice and they will build confidence.
4. Practice 5 Minutes A Day To Start Building A Habit
This is all you need to start.
When you are a kid you have tons of time to practice and not a lot of distraction so that is a lot different than someone who is learning in their 30’s, 40’s, 50’s 60’s, 70’s+ that is picking up the guitar for the first time.
I have built up to playing 5 hours a week now but that started with 5 minutes a the beginning. However, if you tell yourself that you have to play half an hour or an hour every day right from the very start then it just won’t happen.
The beauty of starting by playing for only 5 minutes is that it will likely turn in to 10, 15, 20 minutes without you even realizing it. It puts less pressure on yourself particularly when you are time-poor, as even on your worst days you will likely manage the 5 minutes.
Psychologically you haven’t had to set aside 30 minutes of your day to practice. By practicing 5 minutes a day it also better than playing just 30 minutes one day a week.
5. Buy A Guitar Stand or Wall Mount
When you are first starting to learn you are trying to build a habit and you want to make it as easy as possible for you. By having your guitar out on display where you can get to it easy, in your living room or office or wherever it may be then this eliminates that excuse of not playing because you have to get out of a bag or case.
I recommend this guitar stand and/or mount, it has foam pads, an auto grip system and if you have ever been to a guitar shop then they likely have these or the wall-mounted versions in the shop.
6. Cut To The Chase
If you are an older beginner then you likely have less time left in your day so it is important to focus and practice efficiently.
For example, if you have learned some chords but struggle to put them together when playing a song, then practice changing between them. Set a timer for 60 seconds, pick two chords and change between them as quickly as you can and then write down the number at the end. Work on this each time and you will get quicker.
You will find all this as part of the Justin Guitar Beginner Course, but in general, practicing efficiently comes with learning guitar with structure which is my next point.
7. Structured Learning
From my experience, so far, I start to learn a song and then find so many others that I would like to play that it can be a little overwhelming and you can end up jumping from song to song.
This is where structure to your learning is important but also sticking to learning songs that are at or just above your current level. If you are just learning songs from YouTube this is where your journey can become undone.
It will appear that songs are very difficult to learn when if fact there are hundreds of songs you can learn if you only know 4 chords for example.
8. Find One Course And Stick With It
Moving from one course, one song, one practice pattern to another with no structure will kill motivation, not provide a sustained feeling of accomplishment and likely end your learning.
Pick one course or one series of teaching and stick with it. If you are looking for inspiration to get you started, I wrote an article on all the free (and I mean FREE, no cost) places you can learn with structure here Where To Learn Guitar With Structure For Free Online.
9. Toughen Up Your Fingertips When Away From The Guitar
You can’t escape it when you learn on a steel-string guitar and to a lesser extent an electric guitar then your finger pads are going to take some punishment. Steel strings are effectively cheese wire so they hurt to start.
You can toughen your fingers up in a few ways when away from the guitar, the simplest would be to use your thumbnail and just dig it into your finger pads and hold if for a few seconds and move on to the next finger. Repeat this for as long as you like but it will help and simulates the feeling of a steel-string. Alternatively, you can use a finger exerciser like this one and there are some great little exercises you can do with which I talk about in that article. They are particularly good if you have older hands and struggle with barre chords.
If you struggle with finger pain whether it be blisters, calluses or generally sore and aching fingers that read my 21 Tips For Guitar Finger Pain because I cover all this and more.
10. Try A Wider Necked Guitar
You can buy steel string guitars with a wider neck, the one I recommend has slightly wider than average neck and that is one of the many reasons I bought it. I am close to 2 meters in height and have quite large hands so having more space around the fretboard was important to me.
Alternatively, if you want a wider neck and find the steel strings harsh on the fingers then you can try a classical guitar that has nylon strings. If you are planning on learning rocks songs they won’t quite sound the same but you can still strum out songs on a nylon guitar and they can still be great.
11. Ease The Fingers By Using A Capo
By putting a capo on your guitar you can do two things, one you can reduce the action height from the saddle height down to the fret height which a significant change and also you can shorten the fret board.
The benefit of shortening the fretboard is that you can play further down the neck where the frets are closer together. So if you have a hard time stretching your fingers to reach a chord or pick a string then this will be easier.
As you get better you can move the capo down closer to the nut of the guitar and so gradually increase the stretch in the fingers.
You can tune your guitar down a whole step from EADGBE to DGCFAD and put the capo on the 2nd fret then it will be exactly the same key as if it was open.
12. Keep Your Nails Short On Your Fretting Hand
By keeping your nails short it avoids the nail digging into the fretboard damaging your guitar but importantly having long nails can change the angle of your finger which may cause you to mute other adjacent strings.
13. Let Your Teacher Know What You Want To Learn
If you are having a physical lesson with a teacher then make sure to let them know what you want to learn.
You don’t want to get bogged down in theory or a scale if it is killing your motivation to continue. Let them know that you want to play that song you love or songs that you love. If it is important to you then they need to know.
14. Electric Guitars Are Great For Late Night Practice
By not plugging an electric guitar into an amp they are very quiet and a great alternative to playing an electric guitar when noise is a concern.
I practice in the evening when the children are in bed and I certainly have to be considerate of the noise. Alternatively, you can buy accessories that help with noise if you play an acoustic guitar. I talk about the ways you can play guitar quietly in this article here How To Play Guitar Quietly (Electric, Acoustic, Classical)