Throughout my performing and teaching life, I’ve had lots of older people coming up to me and telling me that they’ve always wanted to play guitar. This is followed by the usual excuse of wishing they’d started when they were young, or even the very morbid “I don’t have much time left, and it takes years to become a pro.” Well, yeah it does, but learning something like guitar does not always have to be something you start very young. In fact, there is nothing about guitar that specifically states you have to be young to do it. It is true, then, that you are never too old to learn…
…How to play guitar.
Classical instruments like violin and piano may have 300 years of music to wade through. Those instruments are generally taught with a standard method, all with a steady diet of recitals and performances. With any luck and a lot of time, you will be a concert player in several years. It is a linear approach to learning which has worked well for hundreds of years, and has produced many outstanding musicians, all of whom put the time in to practice their pieces, perform, get graded, and advance slowly through the steps of becoming a concert player.
There is nothing wrong with this.
However, this method of learning leaves no room for the value that music can add to older people’s lives. In fact, a lifetime, no matter what age you start, is not enough time to learn it all. This tradition continues though, and sadly, this approach to learning has scared away an older generation from the most iconoclastic of instruments, the guitar.
Thing is, guitar is different. It’s taught differently, and everyone who teaches it has their own methods. Some are based on the classical approach to learning, and some are a little more free-flowing. All are valid, all are fun, and get this: all are possible for everyone, including Those of Advancing Age.
I once had a student for a little while who had gotten a guitar from her kids for her birthday. This person did not really listen to music, much less ever mention to her kids she had a desire to play an instrument. In our first lesson, while explaining how to hold the guitar, she exclaimed “I’ll die before I learn anything on this!”, and things didn’t get much better than that. She felt like a kid being forced to go to piano lessons. There was no drive there, and there was no passion behind that drive. She didn’t think she could learn anything at her age, and convinced herself it couldn’t be done. I couldn’t teach her an appreciation for music, much less guitar, and she doomed herself from the start. Much like the kid being forced to take tuba lessons, it became an obligation, and something she was doing for something else.
This was many years ago, and I believe her proclamation became true.
However, many older people were children of the 50s, 60s and 70s, and grew up when guitar was king. Some people played guitar in their teens, and stopped as school and family obligations took over. Some were just always fascinated with the instrument, dreaming of some sort of parallel universe when they got a chance to dedicate some time.
Well, there is no need to test astrophysics – that time is now. Guitar is a great instrument that you can take as seriously or not as seriously as you want to. Once the process of learning begins, we start to realize that it isn’t that hard. Once we take away the pressure of recitals, performances, and multi-platinum album sales, we can just have fun. It will keep our mind sharp and our fingers moving. Once we learn a few songs, we start to realize that many songs use exactly the same chords. And you play those same chords for a long time!
And don’t worry, if older hands can’t quite make the chord shapes, there is always slide guitar or lap steel to try.
Guitar is as easy or as difficult as you want to make it. Many of my students are older people, and they love figuring out songs they’ve always wanted to play. Not only that, but guitars themselves have improved by leaps and bounds over what was available 40 years ago. Then, an inexpensive guitar couldn’t play in tune, and sometimes had complex wiring that didn’t always work. Now, inexpensive guitars are great instruments, and the best part is that that you can upgrade them as you grow.
…How to Upgrade Your Guitar
Most common guitars can be improved upon by upgrading small things, like pickups, tuners and electronics. For older people, this might not be an option, especially if they have vision problems or hands that are not as steady as they were. Some people, however, like to tinker, and come from an era where tinkering was not only a pastime, but required if you wanted anything to get fixed. For these people, I’d recommend this article, which explains the complexity of certain tasks and lists those that many guitarists can do themselves. Adjusting a guitar to play for your hands might make the difference between playing daily or not at all. Tasks like cleaning your guitar or restringing are also most likely performed by the player as well. But don’t forget, if you love your guitar, but don’t like the way it sounds, that can be adjusted for your preferences too.
Nowadays, with the advent of the internet and the idea of the User Group Forum, you can ask questions about playing and adjusting your instrument to make your guitar journey personalized for you. Just ask the forum a question, and within minutes, have it answered.
The time to start is NOW
I had a student who was 70 years old, legally blind, and arthritic. He had always wanted to play a particular song for over 50 years, but could never quite get it. His drive kept him coming week after week, sometimes working on one bar of music at a time, and he eventually accomplished his goal. Now he doesn’t fear any musical challenge, as he knows that progress is accomplished in baby steps, one after another. Put your head down and tackle the task in front of you, and before you know it, you can learn to change strings, play your favorite song, or even rewire your guitar.
Thing is, the restrictions we put on ourselves, no matter if we are 40, 50 or 70 are not real. We don’t know what we are capable of unless we try. Most guitarists continue to play guitar even if they don’t play as well as Hendrix or Van Halen. But we have fun, learn things, and keep driving forward. So stop telling yourself you can’t, because if you argue for your limitations, they will be yours.
At what age did you start to learn? Do you know anyone that had started playing later in life?