How long does it take to learn the guitar?
March 24, 2008 7:44 PM   Subscribe

How long does it take to learn the guitar?

I'm toying with learning to play guitar. I understand there's work involved and I'm willing to do it, but I'm curious how long it would take the average person (me) to reach a point where I'll be good enough that I won't piss off other people in the house?
posted by CarlRossi to Media & Arts (27 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
The answer to the basic question is: your whole life.

But as far as the learning curve on the guitar is concerned, the point where you stop aimlessly twiddling and fumbling and start sounding solid on the instrument is probably between 3 and 6 months or as long as a year... it depends how quick a study you are.

One important thing I'd advise is that if you hope to be able to sing and play at the same time you should start by doing that from day one.
posted by wabbittwax at 7:48 PM on March 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

You'll always piss off other people in the house, because if you want to keep up your skills, you're going to have to keep practicing, and it's never fun to listen to someone else practice a song over and over.

But maybe you're asking when you'll reach a point where you can play a song for other people and they'll actually enjoy it. That depends completely on the song and the audience. If you just want to have a campfire singalong, you just need to learn three or six chords and you can play "Big Rock Candy Mountain" or "Personal Jesus" well enough for people to sing along to. For that you'll need a few hours to build up finger strength and speed, but you could get to that point over a weekend if you're patient or obsessive. You'll need to build up calluses on your fingers to play acoustic guitar comfortably, and that will take longer than just learning the chords.

On the other hand, you could spend months learning classical guitar or speed metal and still not be even semi-pro caliber, depending on how easily it comes to you.
posted by L. Fitzgerald Sjoberg at 7:57 PM on March 24, 2008

i went from very occasional barre chord player (smoke on the water) to "sultans of swing" (including about half of the first guitar solo) in a semester. 90% of my guitar playing was "famous songs," though you can mutate stuff pretty easily if you learn a famous song and take the chords and techniques into your own world. good luck!
posted by rhizome at 8:00 PM on March 24, 2008

It depends on your existing manual dexterity (already knowing another instrument, or even being a skilled typist helps) and the amount of practice you put in. I've played on and off for over ten years, and I was blown away by a kid who'd been playing for only six months.

I highly recommend drilling yourself for about 30 minutes a day on the modes of the G Major/E Minor scale. Scales are boring, but it's like going to the gym for your skills. You'll find that you pick everything else up with much less effort when you're comfortable with your scales.

Bottom line, if you practice for an hour a day, in a month you'll have a few songs in your repertoire that will be pleasing to listen to. In three months, you'll have many. In a year you'll be able to jam with musicians and feel good about your skills. The key is consistency.
posted by mullingitover at 8:02 PM on March 24, 2008 [3 favorites]

"6 months" (from the first answer) is way off. Maybe that's how long it would take someone who isn't seriously practicing.

You can get the very basics in about a week or two, and you should be decent at guitar after about a month. Not great, not bursting with confidence, but passable.

That's assuming you practice a minimum of half an hour a day, 7 days a week. If you don't have time for that, then you don't really have time to learn guitar, so all bets are off.

Listen to the album Last Splash by The Breeders. By her own account, the lead guitarist had been playing guitar for 2 weeks before they started recording the album. It's pretty good, simple music.

Again, realize that the answer will vary wildly depending on how much practice time is put into it. If you don't practice, it could take years just to become a bad guitarist!
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:05 PM on March 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm doing about about 1/2 hour to 45 minutes 5-6 days a week for four months now, and I would say i need about the same amount of time till I will be really doing ok as a beginning guitarist.

But I am having a lot of fun, and musically, I started from zero. I haven't gotten any lessons from real people, but I did sign up to, which is an internet service that offers guitar lessons, and I really like it. (i am not connected or affiliated with jamplay other than being a member).
posted by extrabox at 8:18 PM on March 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

Wow, it's funny how much these answers vary. For me, I'd say it took about a year of practicing half hour a day, seven days a week, before I felt like I was "playing," and before I was able to sing along with what I was playing halfway passably. Jaltcoh's answer of one month, in my experience, is only true if you only want to play "Wild Thing" over and over again. But maybe I'm just terribly uncoordinated.
posted by kingjoeshmoe at 8:20 PM on March 24, 2008

There is no straight answer to this question, there are just too many personal variables involved. I understand your concern for disturbing those around you, but a simple solution to this would be to get a practice amp with a headphone input so you can practice to your heart's content at any time without involving anyone else. If you constantly challenge yourself and set-up a regular practice routine you'll be shredding in no time. *devil horns engage*
posted by ISeemToBeAVerb at 8:22 PM on March 24, 2008

To be clear, I'm not talking about Wild Thing, which you could probably learn in one lesson. I'm talking about a variety of songs -- but selectively chosen to be easy to play for a beginner.

And do realize that half an hour a day is not a lot. It's OK, but it's a minimum -- anything less would be a problem.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:30 PM on March 24, 2008

It all depends upon how you define success and how much effort you're willing to put into attaining it. If you put in daily practice, you can move from sucking to not sucking in as little as six months to a year. But it all depends upon how much of it you're able to learn and retain. Musical instruments, like languages, come easily to some and only with great effort to others.

I've seen a few very good players who had only been practicing seriously for two years. And I've known plenty of players who have been playing casually for decades and still suck.
posted by wheat at 9:01 PM on March 24, 2008

Jaitcoh, I think it's all about knowing what you want to be playing, and practicing until you reach that first, "I can do this" breakthrough, which is impossible to predict, but shouldn't take to long if you don't get discouraged.

I started playing when I was fifteen. I moved to a new town and bought a guitar off of one of the first friends I met for $5. I had rhythm from the beginning, and could run up and down the scales (mostly on the low E) like a madman after about a week, but it still took a few months of constant playing before I was comfortable with chords. For other people, it will be the opposite.

In any case, don't worry about how long it will take as, a few plateaus aside, you'll just keep getting better and better the longer you practice. I get the essence of your question, which seems to be, "how long will it take before I stop being frustrated," though, and that'll probably be about a month or so, I reckon.

My advice is to think of some songs that you think you can play with just a little work from the start (for me it was Nada Surf and the like, but this was a dozen years ago and my musical references are pretty dated) and also something you know you won't get to for a while. Go onto or something similar to find the tabs, and start working on the easy ones you picked out. Every once in a while, check in on your difficult choice to see your progress. And yes, sing along from the start if that's what you plan on doing.
posted by My Bloody Pony at 9:03 PM on March 24, 2008

>Listen to the album Last Splash by The Breeders. By her own account, the lead guitarist had been playing guitar for 2 weeks before they started recording the album.

I think this deserves comment. You mean Kelley Deal? Who'd been playing one instrument or another since she was a teenager? She may not have (professionally) played (lead) guitar before that point, but you make it sound like she'd never even picked up a guitar.

A rough calculation from a glance at Wikipedia says she'd been playing guitars and drums for twelve or thirteen years by the time of "Last Splash". I'm guessing that helped.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 9:14 PM on March 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

According to David Fair, it takes one day. "HOW TO PLAY GUITAR"

As folks are saying above. It all depends on what you want to do. If you want to learn a specific song, it's not going to take long. Then you can learn another one. If you can read music or play another instrument, then that will effect your learning curve as well.

If you want to get on stage and shred like Iron Maiden, then you might want to set aside a few years of full time, daily practice.

As for your roommates. Either they will want to rock with you from day one, or you will never get good enough. If they're cool, maybe you can start a band with them. Then you can all learn together and become millionaires in the process.
posted by paperzach at 9:25 PM on March 24, 2008

My 9 year old son was playing a song after his first or second lesson. It is quick to get into. As with any other skill based endeavor, mastery comes with much, much work. The not piss off point, probably that first day. The guitar is easy to take. Drums and trumpet, not so much, trust me, really, really, not so much, but at least they are not bagpipes. Go electric, get a volume control and never worry.
posted by caddis at 9:28 PM on March 24, 2008

Yeah, the Breeders story seems a bit weird to me (Still should pick up the album, however, as it kicks ass). However, I have heard that Michelle Branch apparently decided to learn guitar as a teenager by locking herself in her room for a week and just asking her mom to deliver her her meals. By the end of the week, she had written that three or four-chord song of hers that became a hit. This seems entirely possible to me.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:31 PM on March 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

As for your roomates, get yourself some headphones and some sort of setup so you can practice silently (or nearly so). I use a Line6 TonePort UX2 for this. There are lots of other ways to pull it off. Most practice amps have a headphone jack. A closed door will cover the sound that comes off your electric itself (as opposed to the sound that comes from the amp).
posted by wheat at 9:41 PM on March 24, 2008

You can get the very basics in about a week or two, and you should be decent at guitar after about a month. Not great, not bursting with confidence, but passable.

That's assuming you practice a minimum of half an hour a day, 7 days a week. If you don't have time for that, then you don't really have time to learn guitar, so all bets are off.

I teach guitar, and I'd agree with this, but I'd say you'd have to assume a good teacher, a lot of enthusiasm, and closer to 2 hours of practice a day. Some amount of aptitude, favorable physical proportions, and a nice instrument go a long way as well. And you'll have an easier time learning on an electric than an acoustic.

According to David Fair, it takes one day. "HOW TO PLAY GUITAR"

Please don't read that, it will make you dumber.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:50 PM on March 24, 2008

Addtional variables:

Fundamentals of musicianship, i.e. having a good sense of rhythm, melody, harmony, tone, etc.: If you've already developed those on another instrument, you'll be able to learn how to function on a guitar much more quickly. If you're one of those lucky bastards with tons of natural musicianship, you may learn quickly. Otherwise, it may take a while longer.

Quality of practice: You can learn more with 1/2 hour per day of focused high-quality practice than in 2 hours per day just noodling around. Make sure each practice session has a specific goal. Break down your practice goals into small achievable pieces. Practice slowly with a metronome before you try increasing your speed. I strongly recommend this DVD for instructions on how to get the most out of your practice time.

Other people have already mentioned quantity of practice, consistency of practice, and natural dexterity. All those can make a significant difference.
posted by tdismukes at 9:54 PM on March 24, 2008

I say you can play some songs recognizably within a few weeks. Those would be simpler songs. The longer you do it (and practice frequently), the more complicated the songs you'll be able to do.

I started with just strumming chords along with radio-type songs: matchbox 20, 3rd eye blind, etc., now I'm working on fingerpicking some Bob Dylan songs and playing jazzier stuff like Tom Jobim. I still sound fairly amateur, but at least now they're slightly crappy versions of interesting songs, rather than slightly crappy versions of crappy songs.

To get a good, like, pro-quality version of a song, you either have to practice it until you're too sick of it to ever play it again, or just practice the guitar for years so you can pick it up and play any song pretty well. (Fact. Not sour grapes. well, maybe a little)
posted by ctmf at 10:32 PM on March 24, 2008

You also fail to mention if you're still in your late teens/early twenties, in which case you can channel all of your angst and whatnot into playing a lot more per day than you'd realize.

It sounds silly, I know, but I'm not kidding, and it helps.

If you're a bit older, it'll take a bit more discipline, but that's what maturity's for, right?
posted by Navelgazer at 10:36 PM on March 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

Acoustic before electric, finger picking before power chords.
posted by eclectist at 12:57 AM on March 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

I guess I should throw in at least something. : )

If you want to be able to practice without annoying other people, you should really keep your ears open and try to make a nice sound when you practice. Of course people generally don't like to listen to repetitive things, so mix it up a little, and try to always make beautiful music when you practice.

posted by strangeguitars at 2:57 AM on March 25, 2008

You mean Kelley Deal? Who'd been playing one instrument or another since she was a teenager? She may not have (professionally) played (lead) guitar before that point, but you make it sound like she'd never even picked up a guitar.

I read it in an interview with a guitar magazine years ago. I can't find a link.
posted by Jaltcoh at 5:04 AM on March 25, 2008

I started last October 1 at age 50 and coming off hand surgery. I take a 30-minute lesson from a great teacher 3 out of 4 weeks a month. With practicing for 30-60 minutes five out of seven days a week I now have a memorized repetoire of a dozen songs ranging from the Beatles' 'I Should Have Known Better' to Jeffrey Gaines' version of 'In Your Eyes' to Jack Johnson's "Sitting Waiting'. I've even been able to play with other gutitarists a little. Practice consists of 30% scales and 40% working on one song for the week and 30% playing all other songs over and over. I'm at the point now where I'm starting to lay basic blues progressions into my Mac with Garageband and playing down improvised tracks (from my scales) over the top.

I disagree with Navelgazer's quote that "If your'e a bit older, it'll take more discipline." It takes discipline for any learned skill at any age. I will say that I fgound myself more aware of the process and the hills and valleys of learning a new skill. The ride's been as much fun as the destination.

While you're question of "when" is open for interpretation, if you're wondering when the first time will come when you play a relatively simple chosen song and get through it with smooth chords changes so you feel like too really "played" it, I think that will happen anywhere between four and six weeks. YMMV.

I should add something, though. If you want to play with/for other people, get a song(s) to where you think they're ready for prime time, then practice them for at least another month. It's much harder to play something in public than alone in your room.

But absolutely go do it. I can't imagine ever stopping and I'm off this week to sho for a good guitar so my wife can have her's back.
posted by lpsguy at 6:13 AM on March 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've been playing casually for about three decades, and I still suck because I never practice. At one point I was taught by a guy who was considered a great guitarist, but he was really just a mathematician. He taught me the solo from Hotel California note perfect, but he had absolutely no soul. You need soul, my friend, to be a good guitarist.
posted by Nick Verstayne at 8:03 AM on March 25, 2008

Acoustic before electric, finger picking before power chords.

posted by ludwig_van at 8:17 AM on March 25, 2008

There is really no answer to this. There are a million different ways to "learn" guitar. For any rule you care to suggest, no matter how solidly founded in "proper" technique, you can find some guitar hero who totally violates it. If you want to play campfire guitar, the guitar 90% of people play, with half a dozen chords plus one or two variations one a few of those, giving you the ability to passably knock out or fake dozens of standards, you know, a month to a few months of routine, non-aggressive practice will do this. First you get to where you can finger the chords cleanly, then you get your changes between chords down. I can go a year basically not playing and still manage that sort of guitar without much trouble: it took me maybe two months to get there. And it's a fun skill to have, purists be damned: you don't have to be able to keep five flaming clubs in the air to enjoy being able to juggle three balls.

And yes, the guitar in all its variety has a lifetime of dedicated labor in it for anyone who wanted to try and plumb its depths.

As others have expressed above, dedicated practicing for proficiency, regardless of your level, is annoying because it involves repetition by nature. In college I lived in a house where 4 of the 7 inhabitants were musicians and the most annoying (in this sense) member was hands down the best musician: a musical polymath with a reasonable mastery of 4 very disparate instruments. A significant part of the reason he was so good was because he would just keep at it, striving for some new technique, screwing up and starting over and going through it again and again. It was annoying for exactly the same reason.
posted by nanojath at 9:25 AM on March 25, 2008

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