Every guitar player goes through a similar process when they bring home their first six-string. First comes the feeling of excitement; the head becomes filled with dreams and possibilities, and the player begins scheming on all the beautiful things they will do with this new hobby.
Then they pick it up and try to strum.
Before long, everyone asks themselves the same question - how long does it take to learn guitar?
In this article, we will help you try to get some answers so you can manage expectations and stay on track.
Like any artistic endeavor, the process of learning guitar begins with setting goals. Do you want to sound decent around a campfire, or shred like John Petrucci? Do you have an existing timeline in mind, i.e., learning a song in time for a particular date like an anniversary?
The goal-setting process also depends on how you want to play the guitar. One of the most compelling features of the instrument is its diversity. The guitar can play classical music, jazz, rock and roll, folk, and anything in between.
No matter the style with which you begin your journey, you have a much better chance of success if you have a specific target.
Setting goals also means you get a feeling of satisfaction once you hit them. That satisfaction helps you understand that no matter how frustrating any one practice session feels, you have gotten better, and if you stick with it, you can get better still.
Be sure to set at least some goals you can realistically achieve. Deciding you want to play guitar for a living is an admirable goal, but without a few checkpoints along the way, you may get frustrated when you haven’t booked a gig six months into your journey.
Finding Good Help
Yeah, we know, Jimi Hendrix didn’t need a guitar teacher. The world of guitar heroes abounds with people who found success on their own. Those tales of rock and roll fail to address three things:
- Those musicians had an exceptional level of motivation.
- They might have gotten there faster with a little help.
- They likely got a lot of help along the way, even if they didn’t pay for lessons.
The first point is that even though they didn’t have a teacher, they still approached guitar learning the right way. John Frusciante set goals like learning the songs by The Germs and got there by trial and error.
The second bullet point speaks to the fact that many paths can lead to success. Trial and error form a crucial component in any guitar player’s journey, but the right teacher can help reduce the errors with fewer trials.
The third point speaks to the fact that every good guitar player learns from others, even if informally. Once a guitar player gets decent enough to play around with other musicians, those musicians will rub off on each other.
John Lennon and Paul McCartney were mostly self-taught, but they were still taught at least somewhat by one another. Simple questions like, “Hey, what was that lick? Can you show me how you did that?” require an active learning process, even if not directed at a teacher.
Long story short, finding a good teacher can speed the process up considerably. While many novice guitar players worry about a teacher influencing their “style,” in reality, a good teacher will recognize and help to develop your style.
Find a teacher who can help you achieve your goals as mentioned earlier. Teachers exist who specialize in jazz, music theory, metal, classical, and just about any other avenue to greatness you choose to pursue.
The internet has undoubtedly made the process of finding lessons a lot easier. Countless sites can connect you with a teacher who provides real-time remote learning. But beware of the generic youtube lesson. Feedback is crucial.
To get better fast, you need someone to hear you play.
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Most guitar players give up before they really get started because the process seems to slow. Rest assured, to get good at anything, you will have to suck at it really bad for at least a little while.
Even Slash had a phase where he could hardly play a D Major chord.
It helps to have a sense of your progress by understanding what you can play, when. No two players will follow the exact same path, of course, but there’s a general timeline.
Most guitar players begin by a basic mastery of the open-position chords - C Major, G Major, D Major, B Flat (Bb) and both the major and minor E and A chords. With focused practice, most guitar players can get these chords dialed in within one to three months.
To clear the next major hurdle, you will want to get comfortable switching between those chords. In the three to six month phase, you will likely start to develop your right hand (strumming both up and downstrokes) along with smooth chord switching on the left hand.
This phase might also be when you experiment with simple single-note patterns, like the iconic “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple or “Seven Nation Army” by the White Stripes.
If it sweetens the pot any, let’s take a look at some of the songs you can play with just those open chords we’ve discussed.
- Let It Be (the Beatles)
- Sweet Child of Mine (Guns & Roses)
- With or Without You (U2)
- Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door (Bob Dylan)
- Three Little Birds (Bob Marley)
- Lazy Song (Bruno Mars)
In other words, if you can get to this point, you can keep people entertained (or annoyed) at a party. If you can successfully play a handful of songs, you can play the guitar. So how long does it take to learn guitar? For most people, about six months.
After about a year, you will likely start to experiment with the “final” phase of basic guitar skills - bar chords. These chords allow you to play up and down the neck and, once mastered, bar chords will enable you to play virtually any song.
About this time, you may also start to learn a few different chord shapes. While the basic bar chords mean you can play any song’s basic structure, different chord shapes help develop different sounds and more accurately recreate your favorites.
If you can get to this point, the world is your Blue Oyster Cult. But why stop there? About this time, you might start trying to develop a more specific style. Again, lessons will make all the difference - online tablature can get you the basics, but to grow from here, you might want help.
So we come back to the idea of lessons. Do you want to develop a fingerpicking style? Classical guitar lessons can help build independence of the fingers on the right hand. Do you want to play solos? A teacher skilled with music theory can teach you how to think on the fly.
After about two years, you will likely have developed more complex single-note lines and string-skipping riffs. If you have worked on improvisation, you might feel comfortable trying solos and learning how to play lead guitar during this phase.
If you can play bar chords, lead riffs, and improvisations, you can safely call yourself an intermediate guitar player. Coincidentally, this will also be the time you realize how little you know.
At this point, your ear will have developed to recognize “easy” and “hard” guitar playing. You will have “learned” to play songs but probably begun to wonder why it just doesn’t sound the same when you play them.
Your guitar life now consists of developing a personal tone and improving technique to play faster, more complicated music with the raw mechanics under your belt. You will find that the more you learn, the less you know.
If you make it to this point, congratulations, you have reached the final guitar playing level. Musical development has no endpoint. You can always get better. The only question remaining is how much better you want to get.
Of course, this rough timeline assumes a consistent, focused practice schedule. Many novice guitar players get frustrated and put their instrument down for a few days, pick it up for twenty minutes, and get frustrated again that they’re not any better.
To get better at guitar, you will have to practice. No matter what the internet tells you, there are no shortcuts. But if you lay out a good strategy, you can quickly push through the hardest part - getting started.
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Determining your practice strategy depends on many variables. Commitments to jobs, family, friends, and other hobbies can influence the amount of time available to practice. Internally speaking, you may have intense motivation - or on some days, none at all.
You can mitigate both internal and external factors by setting a schedule and sticking to it. The good news: you do not need much time in the early phases to rapidly improve your guitar playing.
In fact, according to guitar teacher Aaron Matthies who draws on psychological research to develop his teaching strategies, you should not even try extra-long practice sessions when you first start learning.
Which is good news, because the initial learning period with guitar presents a lot of frustration. The early practice sessions can bring value in just ten minutes or so, and in those first few days, your fingers may not take much more.
Far more important than lengthy sessions is consistency. Set aside those ten minutes every day and make sure you stick to it. The first week or two might feel like nothing is happening, but suddenly your fingers will start to behave, the calluses develop, and voila - you’re playing.
As you gain the skills and physical stamina to play longer in the first few months, you might extend your sessions to fifteen or twenty minutes. Again, consistency matters. You get more out of “spaced repetition” than hammering away on a riff for hours.
Eventually, your repertoire will expand enough to get into longer practice sessions. Many of the greatest guitar legends put in practice time that stretches to eight hours or more. But even for them, the psychology intervenes.
The brain simply stops locking in information after about an hour, so guitar legends usually break their marathon sessions into smaller sections dedicated to specific techniques. The more techniques you learn, the longer it takes to work through them all.
Here we get to the 10,000-hour rule. Made famous by Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, many have misunderstood the principle to mean that to master a skill, you need to spend 10,000 hours doing it.
Not quite. You need 10,000 hours of focused practice. That takes discipline, repetition, and feedback. You have to actively work on exercises and technique for the guitar, and have someone (teacher or audience) tell you whether or not you got it right.
While you can go far - sometimes very far - with hours of simply noodling and experimenting, eventually, you will hit a plateau without focused practice.
Breaking Through the Plateau
A plateau in skill development refers to a period of stagnation that follows a period of sustained improvement. You stop getting better - at least for a while - but you don’t get worse, either. Even though you have more ability than you did months ago, plateaus still cause great frustration.
Often, a plateau can cause guitar players to give up either temporarily or permanently. They master the open chords and a handful of songs, but they just cannot get bar chords dialed in. Or their right hand just won’t strum as it should.
Even more advanced players hit plateaus. Perhaps the improvisations all sound the same, or they have topped out at a certain BPM (beats per minute) in all their go-to exercises.
When battling a plateau either early or late in your journey, two major strategies can help get the progress back on track.
Try something new. Learning guitar has so many forks in the road, you can almost always go back to the time before you got stuck and try a new path. If you have practiced lots of metal, try learning some pop solos. If you play electric, pick up an acoustic for a while.
Varying techniques can also help form new channels in your brain to start making progress again. If bar chords give you trouble, find a chord book and work on some weird chord shapes. If you have been practicing traditional acoustic, maybe try some fingerpicking or classical.
Even advanced players can usually find a new frontier in something niche or off-the-wall, like the koto technique or bending behind the nut. Just a little something to shake things up often does the trick to bust a plateau.
Find some inspiration. Frequently, we get so focused on our own playing that we lose sight of the vast world of skilled, innovative guitarists and music theorists out there. Watch some live music, or read up on the greats and how they approach (or approached) the instrument.
In courting this inspiration, especially in the midst of a rut, it might even help to look outside of the guitar world. Listening to the giants of other instruments can cause you to seriously reexamine how you approach the guitar.
If you have the gift of learning by ear, trying to figure out a Miles Davis solo or an arrangement of a piano-driven song can turn into something you spin off into your very own guitar masterwork.
Of course, one need not find inspiration from only the greats. Simple jam sessions with a new group of musicians can do wonders to open up new chapters in your playing career. One of the cardinal rules of skill development says to practice with people better than you.
But when it comes to guitar playing and music generally, considerable growth can come from practicing with just about anyone. Even less skilled musicians can teach you something just by virtue of their different approaches to the instrument.
Long story short, plateaus happen because you fall into the same routine. However you can do it, find a way to get out of your comfort zone. Growth requires stretching your limits; while it feels frustrating to struggle again after you’ve found some success, the struggle helps in the long run.
How long does it take to learn guitar? In truth, no one knows. The more you learn to play, the more you learn to recognize your own limitations.
When it gets hard, remember why you started. Playing guitar is fun. There’s no feeling like playing a full song start-to-finish in front of people who you can impress. Anyone can learn guitar with the right goals and strategies.The learning process never stops. Humans have made music for thousands of years. You can always find a new song to play. You can always find a new way to play. The key is to cultivate curiosity about the craft - reading this article is a great start - and learning to love the journey.