I hear this question and see it posted online all the time. I don't think there has ever been a definitive answer, but the question intrigues me…so I decided to Google it.
That little suggestion dropdown shows Google’s frequent searches-which means 'Guitar' tops the chart over all other things to learn? Wow! Well, naturally I had to see how long it takes to get GOOD at guitar…
so I searched it:
Same thing – Guitar tops the charts again. Evidently a lot of people want to get good, and they want to know how long that takes! Looking at some of the results, I didn't really find a definitive answer to 'How Long ?'. After around 30 years of toiling away with the old 6-string, Here are some of my own thoughts.
You Have to Enjoy Playing
The first thing everyone says about learning guitar (or any instrument) is that it takes discipline. While I do think practice and repetitive activity do require some degree of discipline, I think a passion to play is more important. If you sit down to practice and get lost for hours, truly enjoying it, you probably have that passion. If you sit down to play and 10 minutes later you are frustrated because you aren't learning fast enough, maybe you need some new inspiration! This syndrome is especially common with older players, who have less time to practice and more self-criticism to throw on themselves.
When you are learning to play, it is important to build up your rhythm skills and listening skills. One great way to do that is just to play along with some songs you are learning. Even if you can't play everything perfectly, just getting used to listening and following the music is a crucial thing to practice. Making mistakes and learning to compensate is something you use at all skill levels. Playing music should not be a rigid, flawless routine like painting by numbers. Little quirks and mistakes are what make it listenable and human – instead of cold and mechanical. Don't be afraid to screw up! Just play along and have some fun! I know – there are some readers right now thinking 'That is horrible advice! Never play something you can't play perfectly!' Well, I have to disagree here. One of the most common problems I saw when teaching students (especially older ones!) was when they could not get a part down just right, they would sit down, spend 10 minutes fumbling around with it, get frustrated, and either walk away completely or keep banging their head on the wall, getting nowhere and getting discouraged. I say move on and come back later, or figure out a way to play the part that works for you. Be clever…be inventive..guitar playing is not brain surgery. If you have the type of mindset and the time to relentlessly practice something until you nail it, go for it – but that approach doesn't work for everyone.
So Are We Talking Months, Years, Decades?
We have all seen the Youtube videos of freakishly good kids playing advanced stuff that most people couldn't dream of, so I guess the answer to 'How Long ?' CAN be just a few years. But that is not the norm. Most of us do not have 14 hours a day to practice. When I was a kid, I did practice that much – usually at the expense of sleep or other human comforts… but it is important to point out that the learning curve is not always a straight line up.
Progress Comes in Bursts
Learning an instrument is not all fun and happy times. There will be times when you feel like turning your axe into a pile of mulch…that is just life. If it was really easy, we wouldn't be having this conversation. Throughout the process you will have breakthroughs where you really feel like you progressed, and you will have stretches where you feel like you have hit a plateau. Pretty normal stuff. The secret is to stay motivated and enjoy what you are doing. Now let us dig deeper into those bursts of progress.
I remember having students who started with me from ground-zero…no prior guitar experience at all – often getting into it for no better reason than 'My mom wanted me to have a hobby'. I would teach them some basics, they would take 6 months or so of lessons and then move on to the next thing – football or whatever their surroundings pushed them into. At that point in their life, music was not the burning passion that it can be for some…not that there is anything wrong with that…but they are not focused on it enough to really progress. I sometimes saw those 'Sleeper' students come back a couple of years later (after changing schools or friends or whatever) and they were like a whole different person – totally immersed in playing, hanging with friends that played in bands, excited about guitar and music. Often in only a year or two they had completely changed their attitude and become driven to play, undoubtedly influenced by some outside force – the friends, the promise of fame and fortune (kidding!) or whatever.
The point here is that your ability and desire to learn has as much to do with your life situation as it does with your 'natural talent' or ability. the mind is a powerful tool when it is focused on a certain thing – and throughout your life you will find times when that focus is easy to sustain and times when it is not.
You Have to Put in The Time at Some Point
Every player I know that really got good at their instrument had a time in their life when they were fully immersed in playing – usually around 4 or 5 years of serious dedication to it. This is what I think of as the 'Raw Materials' phase. This is when you learn to pick, strum, memorize scales and chords, read music, whatever you can stuff in your brain. It usually happens once in a lifetime, and really separates the casual players from the extraordinary ones. The raw materials phase is important, but must be supplemented with real-world experience.
Beyond Raw Materials – Don't Just Hide in Your Room and Practice
Having great technical skill on the guitar will certainly help your playing, but getting experience playing with other people and a variety of musical styles will truly bring your playing to the next level. The problem with toiling away in isolation is that you don't always focus on the things that make you a well-rounded player. Get out and play with real people – they will push you harder than you push yourself, and hopefully motivate you to learn new things. Some of the biggest bursts of progress happen when you play with others. This is how you get beyond the raw technical skill and actually develop musical skills, which make you a seasoned player. Improvising is one skill that elusive to many players, often because they don't get out and play with others. Learning to listen and react to the music is something you get from playing in dynamic real-life situations. Practicing scales and chords is only a tiny piece of the puzzle.
Embrace the Music, Not Your Ego
When you do play with others, leave your ego at home in the practice room. It is a bad habit to bring the mindset of 'I need to show these guys what I can do'. Don't let your self-consciousness get the best of you. Play for the song, focus on being a team player and playing what works in the song. If you are constantly worried about how you look to others, you are either going to be really stiff and uncomfortable playing, or you are going to be an annoying show-off that has to prove something every song. Just dig in and listen to what everyone is playing and try to fit in, while adding your own style and flavor to the mix.
Learn to Ride the Waves
Throughout your life you are going to have high and low points of interest with the guitar – unfortunately we can't all play guitar 24-7 – we have families and jobs and other responsibilities, so you have to let the passion ebb & flow. You can always come back to it and immerse yourself when you have the desire.