Ask your musical friends or the staff at your local music store how long it takes to learn how to play guitar and they will probably palm you off with a vague answer or even the “how long is a piece of string” argument. While there are a lot of variables which can have an impact on the length of time it takes you to play guitar, it is not immeasurable. Our guide will give you some real answers on the skill level you can expect after a certain amount of time.
So, how long does it take to get to grips with the basics, or to become a virtuoso?
To get to a basic level of knowledge, being able to play simple songs, around 150 hours of practice time will be required. This can be achieved in a few months if you are dedicated. To reach a professional level, thousands of hours of practice time may be needed.
There are many different levels of ability. Being able to strum a few chords around a campfire and being able to play Hendrix solos or complex heavy metal are very different propositions. We’ve explored many of the variables and time it will take to reach different levels of skill in this detailed guide.
Establishing Your Goals
“Learning guitar” is quite a broad concept, when you think about it. It may sound cliched, but it is true that a guitarist never truly stops learning. Even if you have devoted thousands of hours over dozens of years, there is still the potential to learn a new technique or get better at a new style of playing. For this reason, it is important to work out what sort of level you want to reach to work out how long it may take you.
If your plan is to get to the point where you can play along to some of your favorite songs, have a singalong with your friends or just be able to enjoy picking up a guitar and making it create a pleasant sound rather than a buzzing mess, a basic level of proficiency may be all you need.
If you want to be in a punk band and only ever play really simple songs, you may be able to get by with relatively basic knowledge. If, however, you want to play with professional musicians and be able to play complex solos and musical arrangements then you will need a professional level.
Measuring Your Time
When people get started, they often want to know how many weeks or months it will take before they can play songs. This is pretty useless as a metric. While it is easy to guarantee that you won’t be playing complex solos in a few days, the rest is down to how much time you actually devote.
If you’re practicing for five minutes a day, you will get somewhere eventually, but the progress is going to be very slow. If a matter of minutes every day is all you can manage then it will be years rather than weeks before you can play full songs.
Practice hours is the key consideration. If you are dedicated enough to spend two hours or even more each day on learning how to play guitar then you might start to pick things up very quickly. Think of it like learning how to drive, if you do one hour a week you might get there in 6-12 months, but if you take the ‘intensive course’ you can be up and running after a week or two of solid tuition.
Practice Hours and Levels of Ability
An Example Case Study and Practice Schedule
Using the table above, it is simple to work out a rough timeline for your own playing and the level of playing you want to reach. Divide the practice hours required by how many hours you are willing to put in each day and you will get a rough estimate of how many days it will take to get to your desired level. Of course, this is not gospel. There are many different variables that can impact how long it takes, as we explore later in this guide.
Around 150 hours is an average length of actual practice hours to get to some level of proficiency. So, if we extrapolate that into an example timeline with practice time, it is easy to estimate when you might be able to play to a basic standard.
Tom starts to play the guitar completely from scratch. Though he played a little bit of violin at school when made to do lessons, he has never really understood much about how music works and is a total begginer.
If Tom were to dedicate 30 minutes a day for six days a week, this equates to three hours a week. This means in just under a year he will probably be at a level where he can play quite a few songs but his technique will be far from perfect. He probably won’t achieve advanced techniques like soloing or improvising in this length of time, but this is with a relatively small daily investment.
If Tom can give two hours a day to your hobby for five days a week, he can expect to be playing to the same standard in just a few months. (10 hours a week for 15 weeks = 150 hours). This means that within a year at the same level he is well into the “beginner” category of playing or even creeping towards intermediate where he may be able to play some songs with very few errors or even experiment with writing his own stuff. WIth this level of dedication and the right learning resources, he might even be at an intermediate level. The hour guidelines in our table are simply a rough estimate.
A lot of people have busy lives, but this doesn’t have to rule you out of learning to play guitar. If you don’t stick to a schedule then it can be easy for three or six months to pass of you picking up the guitar intermittently and wondering why you haven’t made progress.
Practicing multiple times a week will ensure that the knowledge sticks in your mind, and improve the muscle memory and even the hand strength required to play guitar. While you can play guitar pretty much for as long as your schedule allows on a day to day basis, don’t practice for 9 hours one day and then not touch your guitar for the next two weeks. This will mean you are less likely to remember the knowledge you’ve picked up and the use of time is not efficient.
Schedules don’t have to be like a school timetable. It doesn’t have to be like being thirteen again, but creating some sort of a plan is a good way to encourage regular practice. Regularity is the best way to get to a decent level of playing.
One extremely simple tactic people sometimes employ to encourage regular practice is “The Seinfeld Method”. This productivity technique is much-mocked, and it does seem too simple to even be advice! Originally used by Jerry Seinfeld to ensure he didn’t procrastinate too much, the technique is simple:
Get a calendar, and mark off each day you reach your practice goal with a cross. The idea is quite simply to aim to make the longest ‘chain’ of days in a row where you have practiced. It is that simple, but many people have claimed that this method has helped a huge amount with learning any new skill. For this technique to be effective, you need to create a ‘minimum’ level of practice which qualifies you for a cross. For instance, at least 20 minutes a day. Otherwise, you could cheat your system by simply strumming a couple of chords.
How Quickly Can I Start to Play Songs?
There are plenty of music teachers or even guitar tutors out there who will tell you that learning the fundamentals is the most important thing when getting started. Plenty of teachers will teach scales before you even start to look at a song. Realistically though, most of us learn to play guitar with the ambition of playing songs they know and love. The quicker you can get to this goal, the better it is for your confidence and enthusiasm. There is nothing wrong with taking the quick route to playing songs.
Though you are unlikely to be able to play full songs in your first day or two of playing guitar, it is not unrealistic that you could learn to play riffs and licks that people recognize. Many people start by learning a simple riff along the lines of “Smoke on the Water” or “Seven Nation Army”. There is nothing to say you won’t be able to play a section of one of these simple songs within a couple of hours.
To play chords (which you will realisticly need in order to play full songs) your task is a little more complicated. Chords will mean getting used to multiple hand shapes and moving between them, and though this will result in a fuller sounding song, it can be challenging and could take a couple of weeks to play even a few simple chords.
There are eight simple chords which can be played with an “open” shape. This means you don’t have to clasp your index finger along a whole fret and play a ‘bar chord’. These eight chords are enough to play a huge amount of songs. Without having to build up the finger strength and technique for bar chords, the process is quicker, and you can expect to learn three or four chords (enough for a simple song) in 4-6 hours of practice time. You are likely to make more errors at this stage, but being able to play something recognizable can be hugely rewarding.
These beginner songs are brilliantly categorized in a way that can show exactly which chords you need to learn to be able to play simple songs.
Do I Need Lessons?
This is an interesting subject of debate. When it comes to learning how to play guitar there are different schools of thought. The truth is, there are many ways to get to the end result of being able to play, and plenty of exceptional guitarists have never had a lesson in their life.
Learning the guitar in the modern age is easier than it ever was historically. Imagine trying to navigate a new instrument without the internet. There is a famous story about how the Beatles once took a bus across Liverpool to find someone they had heard knew a chord they didn’t, so that he could teach it to them. It is truly incredible to have all this knowledge at your fingertips in the modern age, but has it completely eliminated the need for lessons?
One huge advantage of guitar lessons is the interaction. If you are watching a video or reading chords or tabs and trying to play them then it is sometimes difficult to realize if your technique is not up to scratch. A teacher will be able to point out if you are playing a chord wrong, or even if you have a true fundamental wrong and aren’t holding the guitar correctly, for instance. Online learning is a wonderful tool, but ultimately doesn’t allow for much in the way of feedback. There is a chance you can be playing a song wrong for a long time without ever noticing it.
Another benefit of having lessons is the fact that they can be tailored to your needs. A good teacher will have lots of techniques and methods to help you to learn and keep the process exciting for you. If you have a day where you want to focus on something specific then a teacher should have specific exercises and methods to help you.
This isn’t the cheapest way to learn, which undoubtedly will play a part. A weekly lesson can prove expensive. It also ties you to a certain time which has its own set of pros and cons.
Our top tip for those who have the luxury of being able to have lessons is to take plenty of lessons at the start while you are developing your basic skills and understanding. This is likely to be the time when you have loads of questions and when your technique needs the most wok, and a guitar teacher should have taught many people who are absolute beginners.
Once you reach a certain level of ability then the ability to learn independently becomes much easier. This can minimize the time needed to learn guitar. Realistically, 2-3 months of weekly lessons (around one hour each) should give you a decent basis for independent learning.
If you cannot afford lessons or do not want to take them fo another reason, this shouldn’t put you off. You can build the knowledge on your own, though this may not be the fastest way to learn guitar. Our top tip for those who don’t go the route of having lessons is to start playing with others as soon as possible. Though you may not be able to keep up the pace when jamming with friends, they will be able to give you pointers on your technique which you simply won’t get from solo practice.
This is undeniably one of the biggest factors which will impact the time it will take you to learn guitar. The number of different courses and websites which claim to be able to help you to learn guitar is massive. Some are far better than others, especially for beginners. It is easy to jump into an advanced course and get lost or to pick a course which moves too quickly or slowly for your needs.
Recommended learning materials include:
Justin Guitar. We’ve already linked to this site when discussing chords. The resource Justin has built is absolutely huge. There are hundreds of hours of lessons which you can follow and a specific section for beginners. There is a reason he has almost a million YouTube subscribers and some unbelievably famous guitarists recommending the course. His beginners course allows you to learn almost 250 songs along the way and can be completed in a matter of months or even weeks if you’re dedicated.
Udemy. Udemy is an online learning platform for pretty much anything you can imagine! From sewing to throat singing to guitar! Udemy courses don’t tend to be free, but they do often have some excellent offers. Two things make Udemy great: The fact there are so many teachers with their own unique style and who specialize in different genres, and the fact the platform is so transparent with reviews encouraged. This means you can see what has worked for others before taking the plunge. You can see how many learning hours are recommended, too, to help give you an idea of the time it might take you to nail the basics. Keep in mind that you may have to watch some of the videos twice.
Ultimate Guitar. It is key that you have the ability to attempt some songs which you know and love, rather than just what your teacher wants to teach you! Ultimate Guitar is a resource which has tens of thousands of tabs which are usable. Tabs are how most guitarists write and read music and is far simpler (and even more effective) than traditional notation. Ultimate Guitar has a guide to reading tabs, and once you have this nailed you can attempt any of the songs in their huge database. They are often ranked by their difficulty, too.
Minimizing the Time Needed to Learn Guitar
Our top tips for learning the guitar in the minimum time possible, and streamlining the process, include:
- Establish your learning style and try and match up the learning materials you eventually opt for. We all learn in different ways and knowing more about how your brain likes to absorb information can help you to streamline the process.
- Having the right equipment can help a great deal. If you’re learning on a hand-me-down guitar with some damage then it is easy to pick up bad habits or not realise a string keeps going out of tune, for instance. There are plenty of excellent beginner guitars which don’t cost a huge amount but will be good enough for you to learn the hobby.
- Play with others. Whether this means getting a teacher, asking a friend who can play for a few casual lessons or eventually joining a practice group or club, it is vital to play with others to ensure you haven’t picked up bad habits without realizing.
- Be dedicated. Practice as often as you can, and don’t go to huge lengths of time without playing your guitar, this way it is easy to forget the previous things you have learned. Even if you are playing for four or five hours, the knowledge can be forgotten if you then don’t play for a few weeks. Regularity is key.
- Find a style you’re interested in. Once you’ve got the basic level of knowledge, it is important to keep the passion alive, and the best way is to be learning songs you enjoy hearing and are proud to be able to play.
Is it quicker to learn acoustic or electric guitar?
Electric guitar is definitely quicker to learn. Not only do you require less in the way of finger strength, the fingerboard is often easier to move around and you can play power chods moe easily, which are a sot of ‘shortcut’ to playing certain songs on guitar. Don’t just make your choice based on what is fastest, though. If you eventually plan to move on to acoustic guitar it can be difficult if you have started on electric exclusively.
Am I too old to learn guitar?
The answer is definitely no, whatever age you are! Guitar can be a great way to keep your brain sharp into old age, and you certainly don’t have to start when you are a child to reach the top.
David Allan Coe didn’t pick up a guitar until he was nearly 30. Legend has it Seasick Steve was much older than that. Leonard Cohen didn’t release an album until he was in his 30s. You are never too late to start, especially if the guitar is going to be a hobby rather than a career. There is even an argument that once we reach adulthood we are likely to be better at learning guitar as we are more patient and less likely to get distacted by something else we’d rather do.
Is there such thing as too much practice?
Absolutely. Don’t overdo it. When taking on new knowledge it is best to do so in relatively small, digestible lessons. Don’t try and take on loads of knowledge in one day, instead, focus on ensuring the knowledge you’ve already learned in that day has been perfected.