4 Famous Guitarists Who Started Late

Learning how to play the guitar – it’s not just for kids, anymore. Truth be told, it never was. Musical instruments are not to be pigeonholed to a particular age group; there is no age ceiling. There are many shining examples of players who got their start later in life. Some of them you may have heard of and if you haven’t, you will have some names to add to your playlist.

There’s a misconception that learning an instrument is harder to do as an adult. It’s more difficult in the sense that life is busier and responsibilities are greater, so making time for it takes more intentionality. However, you will not somehow have a limitation on how well you will be able to play based solely on your age.

Many adults will believe that learning to play guitar is the same as learning a new language as an adult (which is harder), but it’s much different in that unlike language, there is no central music area of the brain. Adults even have an advantage over child students since they have more developed brains, they can see and hear things in music that a child cannot.

No need to take the word of various neuroscientists, though. Check out some of these real-life examples of famous late bloomer guitarists.

If you are more of a visual person then watch my video below.

1. Wes Montgomery: 20 years old

John Leslie Montgomery was born in 1923 in Indianapolis. One evening while dancing with his wife as a newlywed, Wes heard Charlie Christian for the first time. The very next day, he went out and got his own guitar and spent the next year or so trying to play like Christian. Having taught himself to play, he was soon playing in clubs as a twenty-year-old newbie. By day he worked as a welder at a milk company, but by night, he was out playing, imitating those Charlie Christian solos.

A few years later in 1948, jazz musician Leo Hampton was on tour with a stop in Indy where he heard Wes play. He just so happened to be looking for a guitarist and here was this guy playing in a club who sounded a lot like Charlie Christian! He had a unique way of playing with the side of his thumb. It was a soft attack but he maintained rhythmic drive and had a very distinct use of octaves. Montgomery was hired.

Wes spent the next two years in Hampton’s band. He was offered opportunities to play with Charles Mingus, Milt Buckner, and Fats Navarro, but ultimately turned them down. He was already in his mid-thirties by the time he was getting noticed in the jazz world. He continued playing the clubs in his hometown while keeping a full-time job and supporting a wife and six kids. 

In 1959, producer Orrin Keepnews had a new label and was persuaded by saxophone great Cannonball Adderley to go check out this local legend named Wes Montgomery out in the midwest city of Indianapolis. Cannonball was very enthusiastic about it, so Keepnews agreed. He checked him out at his usual gig, then by sunrise, Montgomery was signed.

Wes continued to work with Orrin for about five years and became quite famous. He was putting out albums very regularly, but unfortunately had his career and his life cut short by a fatal heart attack at the age of 45 in June of 1968. He won many awards, including Jazz Man Of The Year in 1967 and a couple of Grammy Awards. He is considered one of the greatest jazz guitarists of all time.

2. Johnny Ramone: 24 years old

His real name is John Cummings, but you may know him as Johnny Ramone of The Ramones. He was born in 1948 in Queens, New York. He was a big Yankees fan and an avid baseball card collector. Now, he did play a little guitar as a teenager, but nothing at all serious. 

In 1974, he and Douglas Colvin (soon to be known as Dee Dee Ramone) went to a music shop where Johnny bought a guitar and Dee Dee bought a bass. They collaborated with Jeffery Hyman (Joey Ramone) and Tamas Erdelyi (Tommy Ramone) and The Ramones band was formed.

Johnny’s technique was mostly that of a rhythm electric guitarist, playing all downstrokes, full barre chords, and a very aggressive and rhythmic attack. This was all pretty unique at the time for a guitarist. Occasionally, he did play some lead using basic pentatonic ideas. However, most solos on The Ramones’ recordings were done by uncredited guests.

Johnny was heavily inspired by Jimmy Page which is where his style of fast rhythmic downstrokes most likely came from. He also used a lot of gain and distortion which was another unique idea at the time. His techniques went on to inspire guitarists in the new wave of British heavy metal, alternative rock, and thrash.

Although his playing may seem simple and he makes it look easy, almost any veteran guitar player you speak to will say that what he did on the guitar was a lot more complicated and difficult than it appears. There is beauty in simplicity!

Johnny died in 2004 following a battle with prostate cancer at the age of 55. An annual memorial is held every year at Hollywood Forever Cemetary in Los Angeles.

3. Chuck Berry: 29 years old

Chuck Berry is a household name in Rock. In fact, he is known as the “Father of Rock and Roll. Born in 1926, he started playing as a young man since he had such a big interest in music. Having had his first public performance at the age of 15, his playing life was interrupted. Getting arrested for armed robbery has a way of doing that.

He was sent to the Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men at Algoa in 1944 when he was 18 for three years, having been convicted of robbing three stores and stealing a car at gunpoint. Berry would later recount in his autobiography that his pistol was non-functional. While incarcerated, he formed a singing quartet which was good enough to be allowed to perform outside the detention facility.

After being released on his 21st birthday, he got married, started a family, and worked several jobs including as a factory worker, janitor, and beautician. He resumed his playing in the early 1950s and started playing in local clubs. With his affinity for music and his natural giftings, it wasn’t too hard to get back on the saddle.

In 1955, he met Muddy Waters who suggested he hook up with Leonard Chess of Chess Records. Even though Berry was more interested in recording his own blues music, Chess liked his version of “Ida Red” and had him record it in May of ‘55. He did so under the title “Maybellene” which sold over a million copies and reached number one on the rhythm and blues charts, and number five on Billboard’s “Best Seller in Stores” chart. At almost 30 years old, Chuck Berry now had a career in music.

He went on to become one of the chief influencers and inventors of the Rock and Roll genre. His music wasn’t the only thing that inspired an entire movement and subculture, but his showmanship. He created the “rock stance”, for crying out loud. His overall musicianship and attitude birthed what we now know as rock music, which is absolutely astounding. And to think – he went from being just a normal, responsible adult with a family and a job to becoming a musical and cultural icon in less than 10 years.

He was cited as a major influence of Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, ELO, AC/DC, The Yardbirds, The Grateful Dead, David Bowie, and Buddy Holly just to name a few. John Lennon has one of my favorite quotes ever about Chuck Berry: “If you tried to give Rock and Roll another name, you might call it, ‘Chuck Berry’.”

After studying the History of Rock through the University of Rochester, I learned so much about why Chuck Berry was so influential. It wasn’t his late start, it wasn’t his abilities, it wasn’t even his hair. It was his timing. He and so many other successful musicians didn’t need to start playing at a young age or be some sort of genetic freak to make it big. They were aware of the times they were in and they spoke to culture.

At Berry’s time, music was severely segregated. There was white music and there was black music and the two worlds were incredibly far apart. The genius of Chuck Berry and those like him was to be able to bring cultural groups together. One of the ways he did this early in his career was to blend in some country and western music in his repertoire while playing those clubs. With those genres mixing together to form his unique style and sound, Berry was able to reach a wider audience which was a novel idea in the fifties in America.

The cultures came together, the genres came together, and a cultural shift occurred. If you want some great inspiration, I recommend Berry’s autobiography that came out in 1987. Not only will you never again say, “It’s too late for me to start learning how to play guitar”, but you also will not use age or season of life as an excuse for much of anything!

Chuck Berry died on March 18, 2017, at the age of 90.

4. James Lewis Carter Ford: 70ish years old

Speaking of not being too old, James Lewis Carter Ford (a.k.a. T-Model Ford) was not in his late twenties or early thirties when he started playing. No, this cat was in his seventies!

Although the date of his birth is not certain, his likely birthdate is listed as June 24, 1923. Ford’s life is an interesting and tragic story, starting with an abusive father and continuing with a life of distress and violence. He was sentenced to 10 years on a chain gang for murder, had several wives, and an unknown amount of children, but said he had been told the number is 26.

Ford was illiterate and worked various blue-collar jobs including plowing fields and working at a sawmill as a foreman and truck driver, which is where he got the nickname “T-Model”. Following his release from the chain gang after only two of the original ten-year sentence, he stayed in trouble with the law.

When his fifth wife left him, she left him a guitar and that’s when Ford learned how to play. Different sources report different ages for when this happened with some citing he was 58 and others saying 75. Either way, he was no spring chicken when he started pickin’. Being a native of Mississippi, he of course taught himself guitar so that he could play Delta Blues.

He was discovered in 1995 by Matthew Johnson of Fat Possum Records and released five albums from 1997 to 2008. In 2008, he began working with the band GravelRoad with whom he toured and played with until 2010. In 2010, he suffered a stroke but still managed to complete the tour. In 2013, he died of respiratory failure.

It’s Never Too Late

These examples prove that anyone can learn how to play guitar at any point in their life. These are just famous cases. There are countless other examples out there of people you will never hear of with similar stories.

If you still arent convinced that you haven’t got what it takes, regardless of age then read our article here 17 Reasons Why You’re Never Too Old To Learn Guitar

Luke Winter

I'm Luke, the owner of this site, and I started learning guitar in 2019 online. I documented all my progress on YouTube and created this website to help others wanting to learn guitar online later in life. Find out more about me, what gear I use, or just get in contact by clicking on my image next to this bio.

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