Can I learn to play the guitar?
May 8, 2016 10:10 PM   Subscribe

Can I learn to play the guitar? Hope me!

So, I started having a vague interest in guitar about 10 years ago. I've been trying to actually play for about a year. I still have trouble singing and playing at the same time. Chords still hurt my fingers (definitely acoustic and also electric), I always feel like my chords sound sloppy, I can only play slowly and I know the following chords: A, Am, C, D, E, G. I can fingerpick the simplest of patterns. It's pathetic.

My soundcloud for reference is, which will give you some example.

Anyway, I'm feeling really discouraged. I am going to try with lessons in earnest, but I feel so dumb for not being more skilled than I am, and so sad because I really, really, really, want to be in a band.

Please hope me that I can do this! Also I keep thinking it's too late (I'm in my mid twenties) to become a competent guitar player. That's all I want, is to be a competent rhythm guitar player, no crazy solos, but some faster fingerpicking would be nice. It's all I want because what I really want to do is be in a band and sing, but not just standing there singing.

Anyway, like I said, hope me.
posted by DeltaForce to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (22 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
You have absolutely no reason to feel dumb. Babies don't come out of the womb knowing the left hand chord positions.

Music - any instrument - is a learned skill, and you get better over time. You talk about this like you're waiting to start learning how to play guitar, but it sounds like you've already made a lot of progress. I'm assuming you taught yourself to play the chords you mentioned. That's good! Don't discount that at all. It's not like everyone can do what you've already learned how to do.

Taking lessons will help. Don't feel dumb to be doing so - there would be no point in offering lessons if everyone showed up already knowing how to do everything. The point is that they're going to give you feedback where and when you need it that will help you improve on what you've already learned since you started playing.

Basically - you're already doing it. Lessons will help you, but you've done a lot on your own. You're going to do great.
posted by teponaztli at 10:38 PM on May 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Yes. You're already fairly competent. Personal lessons will vastly speed up your progress, and your fingertips will stop hurting after a while. Practice every day and you'll become a good player. You are definitely not too old, you whippersnapper.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 10:39 PM on May 8, 2016

Yes, you can. It's extremely typical for your hands to hurt and not be able to make the proper shapes, at first. You're teaching both your body and mind to do something new! I've been playing for over half my life and still don't like to sing and play at the same time - and I've been in numerous bands, some of which even did small tours (think 'East Coast' or 'Southwest US').

Lessons will help guide you, as long as you stick to the practice regimen. I only took lessons for the first year or so of playing, and my instructor would straight up tell me I hadn't been practicing enough. He was the guitar player in my dad's band so we had enough familiarity for him to call me out, which I actually really appreciated. I learned enough to teach myself the rest, or to teach myself to teach myself the rest. Heh. If you really want to get better, start that band now. Play with musicians that are better than you. Rehearse with them enough so that it feels like a job. That's how you jump upward in skill.

Honestly, from what you've said: you've already got two very important necessities for playing the guitar under your belt so you should feel encouraged: you WANT to do it, and you KNOW your areas of weakness. The rest is just doing it!
posted by destructive cactus at 10:45 PM on May 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

You are not too old. If playing hurts your fingers, it might be because you are playing on a crappy guitar with steel string and / or high action (how far the strings are from the neck when you push down). Electric guitars always have steel strings, so it hurts more to learn to play on them. Get a better acoustic (or get the neck adjusted on the one you have) with nylon strings and play that for a while until you build up callouses, then you can start playing the steel strings (it will still hurt a bit at first).

Play every day for at least an hour. Take lessons. Learn a new chord every week, and practice switching between them so the movement is smoother. Finger picking is hard, and it helps to have an instructor to help you figure it all out. Playing while you sing will come. It just takes time.
posted by ananci at 10:46 PM on May 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

You can do this! As others have said, you're off to a good start. Regular practice, learning something new every week--even if it's a small bit--and soon enough you'll be impressing yourself and friends.

Lessons are good because a good teacher will be able to guide you towards your interest, as well as keeping you encouraged. And if you want to fingerpick, I'd definitely suggest a teacher because it's a bit of a challenge to get things going. But once you do, look out!

I'm basically an advanced noodler, but I take lessons and always am happy to get something new in my repertoire. (This is my latest obsession which I began learning the other day.) Just keep in mind that it's supposed to be fun and that it's okay to make an occasional mistake. Add a F chord to the chords you mentioned and there are literally thousands of songs you have the basic tools to play.

Good luck!
posted by CincyBlues at 1:16 AM on May 9, 2016

Like the Radiohead song says, anyone can play guitar, including you. Lessons might help, but you probably don't even need those. I learned without a single lesson, and many of the people I know did as well. The biggest thing is time. If you spend hours every day playing, you'll get good fast. If you only play a few minutes a week, you won't.

It sounds like you know the basics already. Now focus on putting things together. The easiest way to do that is to play someone else's music. Look up some tabs and play - just google "name of song tab". As you get more comfortable with the material, play along with the recording. There are probably YouTube tutorials for a lot of popular songs, too.

Do you have anyone to play with? This is a great way to make big improvements quickly. If you can find someone else just above your skill level, that would be perfect.

Whenever you go see a band, pay attention to the guitarist. Even if it's just a hippy in a coffee shop, watch his hands and get a feel for what he's doing.

Painful fingers are kind of a badge of honor among guitarists. Most have callouses on their left fingers; it's normal. There's a (probably apocryphal) story about Stevie Ray Vaughn that he would play so much that the callouses on his fingers would fall off, and then he'd superglue them back on. The longer you play, the more you get used to it.
posted by kevinbelt at 5:14 AM on May 9, 2016

Anyone can learn to play at any age. I took about a 10 year hiatus from guitar and picked it back up about a year and a half ago. I am currently taking lessons and supplement that with several online guitar programs.

Some that you might find useful are JustinGuitar, Active Melody, and GuitarJamz.

If you know your basic chord shapes then I would highly recommend JustinGuitar. He takes things very slow and has a great practice schedule for each lesson. I have learned alot of useful information. Active Melody is great, because the lessons focus on a variety of styles and techniques.
posted by Benway at 6:13 AM on May 9, 2016 [3 favorites]

If that's you playing guitar on your soundcloud tracks, I'd say you've made excellent progress for someone who's only been playing a year.

I think you're maybe unconsciously counting those 10 years of "vague interest" as part of your time, so you're feeling, "God, I've been playing forever, and I'm still not good." Nope. You've been playing ONE year - you're coming along just fine.

I still have trouble singing and playing at the same time. Chords still hurt my fingers (definitely acoustic and also electric), I always feel like my chords sound sloppy, I can only play slowly and I know the following chords: A, Am, C, D, E, G.

Practice practice practice. Unless you are unearthly naturally talented, none of this just pops out of nowhere, you need to develop these skills by doing them again and again and again and again. Your fingers build calluses, your fingers find the right positions so chords sound better, moving between chords gets faster and cleaner, you learn more chords, etc etc.

Lessons can help some people by 1) giving them definite goals to work towards and 2) giving them some techniques for figuring out what they're doing wrong, how to analyze that, and how to fix it. But lessons often don't do much if you don't practice between lessons and apply what your learn in those lessons.

Really, the answer to your question is "time and practice." You're feeling discouraged because you want to be better NOW, but that's not how it works. Keep at it and you'll be fine.

Also I keep thinking it's too late (I'm in my mid twenties) to become a competent guitar player.

My dad's in his 70's, and I think at least once a decade for his entire life he's taken a whack at learning a musical instrument. It was banjo just a couple of years ago. It never really works out, but he's a walking talking example of "You're never to old to try to learn something new."
posted by soundguy99 at 6:46 AM on May 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

all I want because what I really want to do is be in a band and sing

More than taking lessons, I'd say join (or start) that band. Good bands have been started with fewer chords the their disposal and a bassist with no experience. With a band, there's more sound, more help carrying the rhythm, and perhaps a quicker path to the groove that allows one to play and sing at once. You might find learning along with others, be it creating songs or figuring out covers, easier than practicing alone. Even when the tiniest thing clicks, it's invigorating, and fuels practicing more.

BB King never figured out how to sing and play that the same time. Other fine musicians can sing and play to varying degrees - some just hitting or chord here and there while they're multi-tasking. Took me years to be able to do it, and playing with others is what gave me the ability (and nerve) to get the skill down.

Also, I notice that you started the "dreamy folk psych rock" thread. That's an entire genre where the band dynamic and a whole lotta guitar effects outweighs musical chops.
posted by bendybendy at 7:24 AM on May 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

I wish I had started playing guitar and fiddle when I was a little kid, but I didn't start until I was 27. I never had lessons, just listened to a lot of music. Thirty-five years later, I play in several bands and session groups and music is a major component of my life. I know people who started playing music in their fifties and they are doing well and progressing quickly.
posted by Agave at 7:38 AM on May 9, 2016

There's actually a book about learning guitar as an adult (not so much a how to as the psychology)
posted by drezdn at 8:12 AM on May 9, 2016

My son is eleven and takes lessons. (Mind you, practicing is a different story...) His teacher has as many adults as kids for students, some of whom are experienced and some of whom are not.

posted by wenestvedt at 8:48 AM on May 9, 2016

My bandmate didn't start playing until he was in his thirties; he's become quite capable, and has been writing songs etc. for a couple years now.

As people have already said, practice. Every single day. Lessons would help, but playing with other people helped me more than formal lessons ever did.
posted by aspersioncast at 8:54 AM on May 9, 2016

Just another encouraging anecdatum: My pal started taking lessons in his late 40s, several years on, he's in a band.

Sounds like you've made good progress already, lessons will definitely speed things up. Learning an instrument just takes a long time (unless you're freakishly talented or maybe already learned a similar instrument as a child) so don't be freaked out that it's taking you a long time. It just does.
posted by penguin pie at 9:06 AM on May 9, 2016

Dude, you can totally do this!!! You're not too old!!!

To get better, the main thing is you gotta play. A lot. You sound like you really want this, so make it a non-negotiable part of your day. Did you get out of bed today? Then you gotta play your guitar. Every day. And you will get better!

If you're gonna be playing that much, you should definitely get your acoustic set up properly by a luthier. The steel strings on acoustic are harder on your fingers than an electric, for sure, but if the action (the space between the strings and the fretboard) is too high, then it will be harder on your fingers. Do this soon. It might cost you $50 on the very high end but it's worth it. The luthier will put new strings on when he does this, but make sure you're changing out your strings when they need it. Old strings are much harder on your fingers, too.

Now, in order to make noticeable changes in your skill level, you're going to have to work at it. Since you want to play a lot, you've got to keep yourself interested! In my experience, the easiest way to do this is to learn to play songs you like. Pick a couple to learn COLD. Start to finish, every bar. If you start to get bored, pick some more songs - but don't give up on a song until you can play it well from start to finish, without looking at songsheet or screen.

Here's a great method to get better that I learned while taking lessons on another instrument. Since you want to play guitar and sing at the same time, I would use this method for guitar only until you have it down cold, then add singing to the process. Get out a set of 10 pennies. Line them up on one side of the desk/table/music stand where you're practicing. Play the passage you're working on - start with short passages, like a few bars of the song, then move on to longer passages, like whole verses or chorus - and if you mess up, start it over. When you play it through correctly once, move one of those pennies over to the other end of the table. Do it over again, moving a penny over each time you get it right, but if you mess up: start over at zero pennies. If you're having too much trouble, practice the passage at slower than normal speed until you get to your 10 pennies, then speed it up to normal for 10 pennies.

This may seem tedious, but it pays off so hard! If you practice a song this way, you will have it down cold and can practically play it in your sleep. You'll notice that your strumming patterns, finger-picking, hammer-ons, etc will be much, much better. And the best part - you won't have to devote nearly as much space in your brain to playing the guitar part, so you can focus on your singing at the same time. If you want to play in a band and perform, then you'll need to have your playing down at this level. You don't want to be embarrassed on-stage when you flub a part, or get flustered, and it's just more fun when you have some confidence.
posted by hootenatty at 11:14 AM on May 9, 2016

Yes, you can do this. I'm in my 40s and started playing about 4 years ago, and oh how I wish I'd begun when I was in my mid-twenties.

I'd suggest looking into Rocksmith; it's how I got started and over the "Hoo boy do I suck at this" stage. When I was incapable of playing on more than one string at a time or on a fret that required me to move my hand, it was nice to at least have the rest of the Rolling Stones playing the song correctly in the background. You need only a decent PC or game console, the program and included cable, and a guitar with a 1/4" output. The program is customizable to lead, rhythm, or bass playing, and includes useful video lessons, minigames teaching scales, chords and other techniques, and of course, lots of songs. There's a pretty robust community creating free custom songs too, so if you're not seeing enough that you like in the included song list or DLC, you can always download what you like.

Good luck!
posted by EKStickland at 11:14 AM on May 9, 2016

Lots of good advice here, and I just wanted to add that you can absolutely learn and become proficient at any age. And absolutely nth-ing lessons; teachers see plenty of adults running the full gamut of age and experience, and good ones don't judge at all.

With regards to singing and playing: my personal experience is that it's really hard to do both if you're not comfortable with either. I'm terribly self-conscious about singing, so when I do attempt to sing and play at the same time my anxiety over singing affects my playing too. But if it's a song that I've heard all my life and know both the music and words by heart, it's much easier to relax and do both at the same time. I know your goal is to be in a band and sing, but I wouldn't stress out too much about singing and playing at the same time right now; one thing at a time!

One thing worth looking into is whether there are any community guitar programs in your area - I joined one of those for about a year and it was a really good program for getting used to playing with, and in front of, other people; there were about a dozen people in the class and everyone would work on the same tune for a week, then play it together in class. Lots of fun and a really safe environment to get used to playing with other people. And with regards to singing, you might see if there are any Sacred Harp/Shape Note Singing events near you. (The music is Christian in origin but I get the impression that most Sacred Harp events are quite secular in nature; people are just there for the joy of singing.) A friend of mine has been trying to get me to come check out the local Barbershop Harmony Society's open rehearsals. (There are also the Sweet Adelines.)

But yeah: Lessons! External pressure is a good motivator to keep you practicing, and a good teacher will have a sense of what you should be working on before progressing to more challenging stuff. Have fun!
posted by usonian at 11:18 AM on May 9, 2016

It seems to me that you have already established yourself as a student of the guitar. If you learn two more chords (F and B), you can play in most keys. Right now you would benefit from having a jam partner, who will play certain simple songs with you. You will learn timing, and how to get into a zone with another player. This is sort of a zen trip, because when you learn to set a rhythm with another person, you get a better grasp of timing for solo work. This is a big deal, and not really difficult, but it requires you to put in the time to learn how. Another skill that comes with jamming is that you learn to anticipate chord changes, so you can position your hand move on time.

This is an acquired skill, sort of like stepping onto an escalator, and as soon as the theory makes sense it's just a matter of doing it until you no longer have to think about it. It's harder to learn this tactic when you are alone because your mind will let you cheat on the timing if the change is difficult.

Taking lessons is a good move, but it doesn't have to replace finding a partner to jam with you.

Certain things about chord construction can be useful, without diving too deeply into music theory. You can do this the easy way by learning a chord pattern for a certain tune, let's say in the key of G. Then transpose your song to the key of D. This may seem daunting until you do it. Best to use a 3-chord song to begin with. Once this idea begins to make sense, get a capo and see what you can do with it. (If you put a capo behind the second fret and play a C chord shape, you get a D chord. If you play a G chord shape you get an A chord.)

As for finding a jam partner, I did it by joining the Oregon Old Time Fiddlers. I don't fiddle, but around here fiddlers are a dime a dozen while a solid rhythm guitar player is gold. Also, one of he music stores in my area lets people jam on Saturday afternoons in one of their back rooms. Usually four or five of us show up. In addition, open microphone sessions are scattered about our area; you may not want to perform, but you might run into someone who's interested in picking up a jam partner.

Being in a band is sort of like finding a set of jam partners, but on steroids. My experience there is limited, but for me the bands were focused, within a fairly well established genre. Practicing was always exhilarating; our gigs were great, although they didn't pay much I managed to recover the cost of the PA system. Long story short, the first band--a blues band--dissolved when the drummer ran off with the sax players wife, who was our lead vocalist; the second band was a trio; we did oldies and novelty tunes, and I quit after two years because I just couldn't bear to do another fucking round I've Been Working on The Railroad, to which our leader seemed to be addicted. Anyhow, the Fiddlers ring my bell for now. We play eight or ten gigs a month around here, each gig varying from four to twenty musicians, depending on the venue.

Anyway, play your guitar a little every day. Your fingers will stop hating you sooner or later. I often use my 0300 bathroom break to do a short set in my living room. Mrs mule says she likes to hear it--the wee hours often encourages the muse to come tinkle in my ear, and I impress myself by stepping outside the box. But when working on a new piece, I find it best to be alone in a part of the house that won't let anyone hear my 600 laps on a hard riff. By the way, although I have a decent finger-picking ability, I am far from comfortable trying to be the lead guitar in any session.

Seriously, my guitar has pulled me through some hard times, and continues to link me to green pastures. Take that for what it's worth from an old fart. By the way, one of my cronies--a fellow guitar player--celebrated his 100th birthday in February. Although he has to stand a little closer to the mic, he shows up at most of our gigs, and pesters me on days between to come to his place to play music.

I wish you well.
posted by mule98J at 12:44 PM on May 9, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm going to reference my answer in an earlier AskMe guitar question and say you sound like you're doing fine -- it took me 2-3 years to be a reasonably competent self-accompanying singer/player.

A few tips:

* Like so many areas in life, your aspirations can either pull you along, or they can overwhelm you. You can't immediately level up to where you want to be, all you can do is pick some practices that are likely to help you improve and put the time in on them.
* Reduce friction to practice. Leave your guitar out nearby. If possible, make it as easy to pick up as your phone.
* Make sure some of your practice (maybe up to half) is play and not a drill. Sure, you're going to do drills too, but don't forget this is fun, you're doing it because it's fun, maybe even because you just like the sound the guitar makes when you let the strings ring.
* Once you know your chord fingerings, practice your chord transitions with your eyes shut.
* Rhythm: slow first, fast later. And remember that strumming you can practice anywhere without the guitar, just something to brush your hand against.
posted by wildblueyonder at 1:02 PM on May 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Get some Hal Leonard published tab or chord books of some singers or groups you admire (they often have "Easy Tab, Easy Chord" versions"), strum and sing, taking time to listen to the actual music every so often seeking to "center the bubble" as close as possible to the timing and rhythm of the actual song. For all I or you know, you might eventually do the tunes better! You don't sound as if you want to be a guitar hero, but, rather, a music maker, and I salute you in that.
posted by Chitownfats at 5:17 PM on May 9, 2016

fairly pro muso here, and you're perfectly decent. You have good feel and great musicality which is vastly more important than notes per minute. Keep practicing and the notes will come. Lots of good suggestions above, I can also recommend Yousician as a great android/ipad app for practice/training.
posted by Sebmojo at 6:04 PM on May 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Rocksmith - it makes you want to play every day!

Yes, yes, lessons, youtube etc, but Rocksmith is the thing that put the fun into playing.
posted by lamby at 5:39 AM on May 13, 2016

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