“Music is too important to be left to professionals.”
This quote is ascribed to more than one source. Whether you know it to be from Michelle Shocked or Robert Fulghum is beside the point. It’s one of the most poignant phrases ever uttered about the wonderful gift of music and if you are reading this, it’s very likely that the guitar is the instrument that you identify as the primary conduit of your musical expression.
The guitar can be a very challenging instrument to learn. It requires not only that you develop a sense of rhythm and pitch, but it is also physically demanding on the fingers and hands. With all of these potential hurdles, you may have asked at one time or another, “Should I give up learning guitar?” Maybe you feel it’s not for you after all.
If the guitar excites you and you enjoy the music created by the six-stringed wonder, then the guitar is absolutely for you and you should NOT give up learning. Now, I believe the guitar is the greatest instrument in the whole world. There. I said it. Almost everybody I know either plays the guitar or wishes they could. I think everyone ought to learn to play it even if you are just banging on the darn thing.
Now that I have unapologetically revealed my bias, let’s see if I can convince you to stick with it. I’m going to tackle every single excuse to quit I have come across in my 25 years of playing. I have heard these excuses from students and friends, but I have also attempted to use them myself. The excuses range from physical to metaphysical to logistical to feelings of inadequacy; and none of them are good reasons to quit.
“MY FINGERS HURT”
“Well now your back’s gonna hurt. ‘Cause you just pulled landscaping duty!”
I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist referencing the Ben Stiller line from Happy Gilmore. I have shared many stages with many bands and almost all of them use this quote to encourage the guitarists when they complain of sore fingers heading into hour 4 of a show or a rehearsal.
Yes! Your fingers will hurt – it happens to the pros, too. Even after you have spent months developing your calluses, they will inevitably need to be maintained and reinforced over and over again as the calluses get sanded down from playing and the newer skin makes its way to the surface. The good news is the more you play, the less these “rebuilding” periods will affect you. The will get stronger quicker and they will hurt less.
When you have fresh pink fingers, they will hurt after about 10 seconds of playing. They will blister and you may even draw blood if you are playing hard enough. But if you have the will to work through the pain, after just a few days of abuse your fingers will begin to grow that protective armor that will make your life so much easier. It may not be fun, but it’s so worth it.
You may be asking, “How long does it take to get these calluses you speak of?? I’m just not getting them!”
Fair question, and I hope to be encouraging here. I recently had a freak medical issue that kept me off the stage for a little over a month. I lost my calluses for the first time in over two decades! I finally had an answer of how long it took to lose the calluses: about 5 – 6 weeks in my case. If it only takes that amount of time to lose calluses that could scratch diamond, it will be at least half that time for the average hobbyist.
When I got back in the action, I had to play an acoustic set to start things off. My acoustic guitar has thicker strings than what the average civilian is comfortable with. Truthfully, I wasn’t even aware that my fingers were completely fresh and I played like I hadn’t missed a day. That was a very painful experience that resulted in a bloody pinky finger.
For the first time in a very long time, I felt that awful feeling of discouragement that follows such an injury. I consider that a blessing because as someone who is also an instructor, I needed to be reminded what that feels like so that I can better relate to and serve my clients. I decided to have a competition with myself to see how quickly I could get them back.
So how long does it take? It’s not a clear-cut answer for everyone. It depends on how much you play and how hard you play. In my case, I got my calluses back in pretty good shape in two weeks. That is not a long time, but keep in mind that I do this for a living. So don’t think about it in terms of how many days/weeks/months.
The formula for callus growth is (time + consistency) x intensity. To get calluses in two weeks’ time, I found it to be about 20 hours of playing. When I say playing time, I mean playing. This means playing in chunks of 20-30 minute intervals without extended pause or silence, and pressing as hard as you need to to make the strings make the proper sound.
To sum it all up, if you practice an hour and a half a day, you will get pretty solid calluses in roughly two weeks. Thirty minutes every day – which is the standard recommended time – and you are looking at about a month and half if you play like you mean it.
“MY FINGERS JUST DON’T WORK LIKE THIS”
No doubt the guitar requires your hands to conform to shapes and positions that are less than natural. There aren’t many other instances where you need to curl your fingers in the shape of a C-chord in real life. Don’t worry, you do not have a handicap. The muscles for your hands and fingers need to get used to this and the good news here is that this is a very similar process as growing calluses.
The more consistent you practice and the more focused you are when you practice, you will develop not only calluses, but the muscle memory needed to make the chord shapes, hit the notes just right, and coordinate your strumming and fretting hands.
When you practice regularly and with the proper intensity, the hands will get stronger. Your fingers will become more dextrous as the muscles of the forearm grow in the way they need to in order to perform the task at hand. Pun intended.
Again, I know exactly how this feels. I remember all to well my issues with certain chords as a new student. I remember like it was yesterday how I just could not get my fingers to stand up straight to make a C-chord without muting the strings. I am forever scarred after having to learn the dreaded F-chord, a chord that I still hate to this day. I dislike the chord so much that I labored for years over how to make this chord easier to play and better sounding. I decided to make that chord my bit…. Ahem… sorry, I still get riled up over it after all these years.
Hands need to get in shape like any other part of the body. With plenty of exercise, your hands will have the dexterity needed to perform and they will even get more flexible and you will be able to stretch further as well. Just make sure the exercise you are doing is on the guitar. These gimmicky finger exercisers you find at the music store are useless. If you want your hands to get strong enough to play the guitar, then practice on the guitar!
“BUT MY HANDS ARE TOO SMALL!”
We all have different sized hands, which prompts people with smaller hands or meatier fingers to immediately disqualify themselves. Jimi Hendrix had E.T.-like fingers and Steve Vai looks like he could palm a beachball, but that doesn’t mean you have to have freakishly large hands and skinny fingers to play guitar.
Pay attention to some of your favorite guitar players and their hands. Angus Young, Randy Rhodes, Paul Simon, Tim Reynolds. All of these famous players have hands on the smaller end. Tal Wilkenfeld is one of my favorite bass players and she is petit. If she can play a bass that well, nobody is allowed to tell me their hands are too small to play guitar!
Not every guitarist has hands like Paul Gilbert and that’s okay. Joe Pass, Victor Wooten (again with bass!), Andy Summers, Joe Bonamassa, Steve Lukather, Carlos Santana, David Gilmour. The list goes on and these guys seem to get by just fine. And must I remind you that Phil Keaggy only has nine digits?
“I’M NOT MAKING PROGRESS”
Lack of progress is still a surprising one to me. Part of me just wants to call these people lazy, but I know that’s not always the case. I was (am) one of the most impatient people I know. I wanted to go from zero to 100 overnight when I was a younger student. I had been playing guitar for two whole weeks and I still couldn’t play “Warm and Breezy”, so obviously the guitar was not for me!
If you are not making progress, it’s not a reason to stop learning. It’s a reason to keep going. However, the truth is you need that affirmation in order to feel like you are getting somewhere and if we don’t get that affirmation in a timely manner, we tend to get very discouraged. So try a couple of things before you throw in the towel.
First, set actual goals. If you don’t have a clear direction, you will wander aimlessly and wonder why you aren’t getting anywhere. You can’t get to where you’re going if you don’t have a destination. What specifically do you want to accomplish by learning
Second, make smaller goals in order to reach the bigger ones. If you want to play “Sweet Home Alabama” start with just getting that D-chord down. Get a crisp, clear D and celebrate when you have it. Move on to the C- and G-chords and check those off the list. You will feel like you are making progress, because you are. If you didn’t set the smaller goals of learning those three chords, instead of celebrating the little wins you would be cursing the heavens because you still can’t play the song from start to finish.
Third, have some accountability. We don’t like that word, but it’s a good one. This can come in the form of a friend who plays, a good instructor, or a personal mentor. Ask questions, get advice and be honest with them, but also be honest with yourself. Don’t beat yourself up when you mess up or hit a bump in the road. By the same token don’t sit and piddle around with the guitar for thirty minutes and call it practice. Even with all the accountability in the world, at the end of the day you are still responsible for your own progress.
“I DON’T HAVE TIME”
This one is a crowd favorite and I really don’t like it. It takes a great deal of energy for me not to call bull and potentially alienate a person when they say this. I do find that some people really believe they don’t have time, so I have to extend grace. We live in a busy time culturally speaking and tend to stretch ourselves pretty thin. The more responsibilities that land in your lap, the harder it is to budget your time.
I use the word ‘budget’ because time really is a currency and it needs to be prioritized. If you tell me you don’t have time to learn guitar, I will ask, “Well, do you really want to learn?” If you say yes, then you have time, you just have to prioritize it or budget for it. This is obviously not just a virtue for learning the guitar, but it’s a discipline needed in all aspects of life. If you really want to learn guitar and you legitimately don’t have time, then you need to cut something.
Author and business management expert Jim Collins has a great way of thinking in this area. We all make to-do lists when what we really need to do from time to time is to make a “stop-doing” list. The addition-by-subtraction concept is a profound one and is very beneficial when implemented.
You want to learn to play guitar, but you don’t have time? Take something out of your schedule. One less episode on Netflix alone gets you there. “Accidentally” misplace your phone, wake up earlier, turn off social media for a bit, you get the idea. You don’t need me lecturing you on time management if guitar is something you are really set on accomplishing.
Here’s the last five percent on this:
If you are still telling me you don’t have time, then be honest about whether or not your really want to learn guitar. The excuse of “I have no time” (from adult students in particular) I find oftentimes to be a red herring. The real issue is that they really don’t want to learn the guitar at all. To use an old line, you don’t love the guitar, you only love the idea of the guitar.
“I’M TONE DEAF”
I can’t help but laugh when I hear this. I don’t mean to be condescending, I actually think it’s rather cute. Amusia is a condition that affects a person’s pitch discrimination. Congenital amusia is a disorder that one has from birth. Acquired amusia happens as a result of some sort of brain damage.
The former classification of tone deafness only affects about 1 in 20 people, so chances are that’s not you. Even if it is, there is still a chance you could be helped with therapeutic ear training. Besides, the guitar has frets. As long as you put your fingers in the right place, the notes will be right. You don’t even need a sense of pitch to tune a guitar. I use a tuner and I’m a professional!
A singer-songwriter acquaintance of mine out of Nashville has a stutter that is pretty painful at times, but you should hear him sing! It’s absolutely flawless. And if you really want guitar-specific inspiration, you need look no further than the professional guitar player who doesn’t have arms!
The bottom line is handicaps, whether real or perceived, can be overcome. Rhythm can be learned, pitch can be developed, and physical barriers can be circumvented.
“WHY AM I HAVING SUCH A HARD TIME LEARNING?”
Some people feel like they just aren’t getting the concept at all. Not only might one have a hard time getting the physical mechanics to work, but maybe that particular part of the brain just seems unaccessible. Maybe you can identify easily with mathematics or visual art, but this music thing just doesn’t make sense. Or perhaps you can understand the language of piano or drums, but there is just this barrier with the guitar and you feel lost in translation.
What you need then is a good interpreter otherwise known as a guitar instructor. Yes, some folks have the intuition and discipline to teach themselves using all of the resources available to them, but even the great self-taught musicians need someone to show them a trick or two from time to time.
A good teacher is such a valuable tool and I find it often to be something that is hard to find. Maybe you don’t even know what to look for in a good teacher. Now, I am a long-time instructor so some people might see this as a conflict of interest and that I should recuse myself from giving advice lest I be accused of trying to selfishly drum up business for myself.
I became an instructor not just to have something to do while I wasn’t performing on stage, but because I had a great teacher when I was in my teens. He was so good at what he did and he helped me so much that I wanted to be able to do that for another aspiring guitarist one day. He and I remain friends to this day. I also had many great mentors over the years and I would not be the musician I am today if not for the tutelage of others. So please allow me to make the case for getting a good teacher.
I went to see the Foo Fighters a few years back and Dave Grohl had a part of the show where he picked a young aspiring guitarist out of the audience and told him he could be a rockstar, too. It was actually pretty cool and I’m sure that kid is still riding that wave wherever he is today. He gave the kid the secret to becoming a rock god like Uncle Dave Grohl: Don’t take lessons! After all, Grohl didn’t take lessons and he has done just fine. He pointed to his guitarist Pat Smear and said that he hadn’t had a lesson a day in his life and it worked out pretty good for him, too.
I remember hearing that and thinking on one hand, he was right. You don’t need a teacher, not even if you want to make it big. Not only that, but having the wrong teacher – whether the teacher just sucks or it’s just a bad fit – can do great harm that will take some serious effort to repair. If you have been discouraged by what you have heard or if you have yourself had a bad experience with an instructor, then who can blame you? Most people tend to think the problem is with them as the student when in reality it’s the teacher a lot of the time.
Here’s what to look for in a guitar teacher:
They have the heart of a coach
The difference here is having a teacher who will not just show you how to play the guitar, but how to learn the guitar, and that difference is profound. A plain ol’ instructor might just write out some tablature for you and give you a handful of chords to memorize. A good teacher will actually train you in the craft which will help you to become your own teacher.
Not a lot of instructors I have met have this philosophy. They care more about keeping the student for as long as they can rather than releasing them into the wild. The reason why I stopped teaching for a big online lesson company (who shall remain nameless) is because their number one priority is student retention and keep students on the roster for as long as possible by keeping their students reliant on the instructor.
You want a teacher who will make things easier for you to understand and not be overly complicated, esoteric, or worse – condescending. A good instructor doesn’t keep music shrouded in mystery and they don’t keep any “trade secrets” from their pupils. They want you to succeed and you can usually sniff out the bad apples who are only interested in keeping you trapped in their studio for ten years.
With most of my students, I have a time limit. That limit may fluctuate from student to student, but I always have the plan of having the student exit one day. For a teen or the average adult, 3 years tends to be plenty of time. At the end of the day, the student is the one responsible for their growth. It’s the teacher’s job to help them own that responsibility and to guide them toward their goals.
I learned the time limit thing from my teacher. He booted me after 3 years. I was hungry for more knowledge, but he said that I had enough knowledge and it was time for me to fly the roost and apply that knowledge. It was that act of eviction that led me to going pro and it made me realize that I will never stop being a student. However, an electrician doesn’t apprentice for his entire career. Neither does a guitar player take lessons his whole life.
Your interests are put first
You are learning guitar for a reason. You might not have specific goals or be able to articulate the reasoning behind your decision to play, but you have goals nonetheless. A good teacher will try to pull those out of you over time and develop a customized curriculum designed to fit your learning style and your ambitions.
If you want to learn how to play old school grunge like Nirvana or Pearl Jam, you don’t need an instructor showing you how to play smooth jazz. If your goal is to be a classical soloist with an orchestra behind you, you would be better off avoiding the teacher whose repertoire only includes Grateful Dead and Phish covers.
You and your teacher either need similar interests, or the instructor needs to be versatile enough and/or have a rather large and diverse palate in order to get you to where you want to go. Too many guitar teachers make the mistake of trying to live vicariously through their students. You are not there to be indoctrinated, you are there to be guided. At the end of the day, you are the teacher’s boss. That leads me into the inevitable “but” disclaimer:
The “CT” scan – Chemistry & Trust
It’s important to be able to get along with your instructor. Not only do they need to have your best interests in mind, but it helps to not be allergic to each other. Ever heard of the “beer test”? Ask yourself if this is someone you would be able to sit down and have a beer with. If the answer is “no”, then it may be time to find another instructor.
Maybe you don’t care about that kind of chemistry, and that’s completely okay. The point is that you don’t want to dread going to lessons because you can’t stand the person in the other chair in front of you. If there is no relate-ability, then trust is compromised and it’s important that you trust that your instructor is not going to lead you astray and give you honest feedback.
You want a teacher who will both celebrate your milestones and criticize your mistakes. If the pendulum swings too much toward affirmation, then you may have a passive teacher who is too lazy to correct your mistakes. Even worse, that could be a sign that the instructor is trying to make you think you are doing better than you are in order to keep you on the roster for as long as possible.
If the pendulum swings the other way, you could have an overbearing perfectionist of a tutor and you will burn out very quickly. I’ve known many people who once took music lessons but quit because their teacher was a jerk. Rather than switching teachers, they were forever turned off to learning an instrument.
When you get along with and trust your teacher, then you will have more confidence and you will be more open to critique because you trust that your instructor is not trying to beat you up. With chemistry and trust, you will have an easier time deferring to your teacher and submitting to their process.
You may think you know what you need or not need to learn, but at some point you have to put your trust in the professional. Having goals is not the same thing as having a plan to reach those goals. Let me explain:
I had a student in his forties who wanted to be able to just pick up his guitar and learn Metallica songs by ear anytime he wanted. So his plan was to take a few months of lessons and be done with it. I like that plan! The caveat to that was he did not want to “waste time learning any theory” and only collect tabs of guitar riffs to memorize. My process doesn’t work that way. I don’t believe in circumventing theory for this particular goal. However, this student (who I will refer to as Dale) was very turned off by the “math” of music.
I tried to make my case for him to learn only the very basics of theory, otherwise he would not be able to have the properly trained ear in order to be able to teach himself. At this point, we had to part ways. He knew what he wanted, but he thought he knew the best way to get there. Our personalities were clashing and he was unable to trust me enough to go with what I thought was going to be best for him.
This doesn’t mean Dale couldn’t reach his goals, he just couldn’t reach them with me. At the end of the day, he did not trust my input and we were just not getting along. There were no hard feelings or arguing, but there were impassible differences that prevented me from being the teacher for him. I remember him being actually grateful for my honesty because he didn’t want to waste money. His son and nephew were both taking lessons from me as well, and he continued to bring them to my studio while he sought lessons for himself elsewhere.
It would have been a colossal waste of time for me, and a big waste of this man’s money for me to try to follow the three biggest rules of a typical school/studio: “retention, retention, retention”. Most teachers are not willing to fire their clients, so you may be the one who needs to make that call and hand in your “Dear John” letter. That’s okay! There are plenty of teachers in the sea.
If guitar is something you are interested in, please stick with it. You should not quit for any of these reasons.
- Blistering fingers is par for the course, but they won’t hurt for long if you keep at it.
- The size of your hands and any lack of dexterity in your fingers are easily overcome. It didn’t come naturally for me either, but it worked out just fine!
- Making time is a discipline needed in all areas of life so if you this is something you truly want to do, then you will make time.
- It is extremely unlikely that you are tone deaf, so don’t jump to that one so quickly. If you are one of the rare cases, then being tone deaf is but another obstacle that can be worked around.
- Having the right teacher is the biggest boon to your learning. As with any service, you need to shop around and find the one that works for you. Most places offer free consultations. Hopefully the points I have outlined will be helpful in your search.
Okay, so I said there’s no excuse for quitting guitar. I lied. Well, sort of. There is no excuse, but there is one reason that I support for someone quitting guitar or any other instrument for that matter. YOU DON’T ENJOY IT. You will not successfully learn guitar if you aren’t excited about it. If you gave it a fair shot and it turns out to be a passing fad or you just plain don’t like doing it, then you have my blessing to move on.
But if this is something you are hungry for and it’s something you really desire to do, then stay in the game.