As you know this blog is made for the older student looking to learn and improve their guitar skills. Unfortunately, there are a lot of myths involved with this amazing instrument of ours and many of these myths are so ingrained into students who are learning later on in life, that it is detrimental to their playing. This is a very important guitar lesson for older adults.
Some of these myths are old school myths that are finally starting to die out, but as an older student, you may have heard these for the last 40 or 50 years and therefore have them deeply ingrained – even if you have only recently started playing the guitar. Some of these myths are associated with ageing but as you will see none of the myths has any validity in the real world.
Let’s look at these depressing myths and dispel them once and for all – and doing so will allow you to improve at a healthy and more enjoyable rate!
#1 – “I need to be young to learn an instrument!”
Most of my students, both in real life and on this blog, are over 50 and many are over 60. Most of these players are passionate about music, love playing the guitar but have the nagging belief deep down inside them that they are too old to learn.
In the early stages of tutoring a student, I often hear things like:
“Why am I doing this?!”
“Am I too old for this?”
…and similar lines.
The truth is, you are never too old to learn, so get this belief out of your head completely.
As long as you have a decent brain and are in good physical health then you are more than capable of being a fine guitarist who at the very least, can play the songs they love. I have taken many retired students from having a lifetime of never playing any instrument (apart from maybe the odd trombone lesson 50 years earlier in school!) to being fine guitarists who can play all the pieces they want to play at a high standard.
I often had to work a little harder with these students than the younger ones, simply because they believed this myth.
The belief that learning a new instrument is for younger people is something these older students have heard said by others, and society in general, a lot – but it’s simply not true.
Some cultures are a little more encouraging of older people learning new things. In Sweden, it’s very common for retired people to learn new skills, such as a second (but more often a third!) language and to take up a new instrument.
There are thousands of older students, many older than you, who are learning and improving on guitar (and other instruments) every day. There is no reason why you can’t be one of them!
#2 – “You should start on an acoustic guitar!”
This is one of those silly myths that has been around forever but no one really questions it. I think it came about as almost a “badge of honour” type thing.
With most acoustics being harder to play than most electrics (all things being equal that is), you have to battle harder to play it and therefore you will “earn your stripes” with your playing.
Acoustics can be harder to play (and more expensive to get a decent one) but electrics can be more fiddly for getting a good tone, more things can possibly go wrong (amps, wiring, leads, etc.) and they can make fingerpicking technique harder for the picking hand (due to the strings being closer to together).
I actually recommend you start with the type of guitar that you have a preference for and that’s it, but if you are feeling 50/50 about it and have struggled on an acoustic in the past, try learning the basics on an electric and then switching to an acoustic 6 months or so down the line if you eventually want to play acoustic.
Electrics are much easier to set up and adjust which makes them much more playable with just the turn of a few screws. Acoustics, on the other hand, are harder to set up.
I usually recommend most guitarists get one of each eventually anyway as this is the most fun!
The bottom line is, if you prefer the sound of an acoustic, learn on one, (just ensure it is well set up), if you prefer electric, go electric, and if you don’t mind either way, then get an electric as you will find the journey a little easier.
#3 – “You should have calluses on your fingers!”
I hate this myth. It is absolute, 100% nonsense. You do NOT want calluses on your fingers. You only want your fingers to harden up just enough to be able to play the guitar well and with ease.
This a really important lesson as well as a myth that needs busting once and for all.
Thankfully, in some circles, this myth is starting to die out, but I know some of my students who have friends who have played for 30-40 years have these friends give them tips and advice on doing stuff like dipping their fingers in vaseline to ease the pain and help the calluses.
The truth is, this is all pointless.
Just read this post, don’t press as hard as you have done, and use good technique. If you do so, your fingers shouldn’t be sore!
You should always aim to play with the softest, lightest and most gentle touch with the fretting hand.
If you do so, you will find you won’t have sore fingers, you won’t need calluses and your playing will be 1000 times more enjoyable.
I don’t have calluses but I used to. Why? When I started out, I pressed way too hard, built up the calluses but when I realised (years later) that I should play with a light touch, the calluses started to soften.
Calluses are usually a sign you are pressing too hard. Good technique and a light touch are essential. Play about with random notes on the fretboard, get close to the fret and try to press as softly as possible while still keeping the note clear.
#4 – “My older brain cannot absorb information as easily as a younger person does”
One of the issues holding back older guitarists is they forget new things they learn faster than younger students.
On the surface, you might think it was because of their brain deteriorating and that’s what many people think, but in my experience, one reason younger students learn and remember things faster is because they are more “primed” for learning than older students.
What I mean by that is that the older student usually hasn’t learnt any new skills for years and often, decades. They come to learn the guitar totally out of practice with how to learn a new skill.
Younger folk, on the other hand, particularly those of school or college age are learning all the time and their brain is switched on for learning.
It takes older people a little while to get back in the swing of things but thankfully once they do, the snowball effect takes place and learning new things on the guitar makes learning more new things easier.
The key thing here is to ignore this myth and get the ball rolling with your learning. As long as you follow the “Golden Rules” of learning you will do well.
#5 – “Older people get dementia as they age”
Just because we are all getting older doesn’t mean we are doomed at some point to suffer from the horrible effects of dementia. Yes, it occurs more in older people but this is not simply because they get older but usually due to other factors.
Some of these factors can be controlled by a healthy lifestyle and stress-reducing activities (it’s a good job we play guitar then!)
Just because you are getting older doesn’t mean for one minute that you will get dementia and just because you forget how to play a riff or chord for a minute doesn’t mean dementia is taking hold.
That happens to everyone.
Something that is annoying is, if a young person forgets something, it is regarded as perfectly normal and most people don’t think about it. If there is a similar lapse in memory in an older person, the ideas and beliefs about the decline of memory with age quickly surface, and some people I know even panic a little at this.
The good news is that guitar playing is great for the brain and body because it forces you to engage lots of areas in your brain, it helps reduce stress by playing beautiful music, and it even helps many people to socialise.
You don’t need those brain training apps that were popular years ago, guitar playing trains your brain better and is more fun!
#6 – “You should focus on strumming songs first – and that’s it”
This is another myth that stems from many old guitar books and teachers (real life and on YouTube) who like to preach strumming is easy, when in fact, being able to play a handful of strumming songs, is actually tough.
If you love strumming, yes, you should learn how to strum, learn the core strumming patterns and spend a healthy amount of time improving your overall strumming skills.
It might be a bit of a strange thing for someone who has just released a strumming book to say don’t spend all of your guitar practice strumming.
There are lots of benefits and joy to be had from strumming and getting good at it is a critical skill but make sure you also spend time doing the other fun things on the guitar. These things include fingerpicking, learning riffs, playing a bit of blues, etc.
Most of my readers love to fingerpick but sometimes get discouraged by others who tell them beginners should only focus on strumming.
A couple of my students tell me that their other guitar-playing friends only do strumming songs with their teachers and don’t even touch fingerpicking, blues or learn any riffs!
I can’t imagine they are having much fun. Variety is key to getting good at this instrument, having fun and becoming a more rounded player – especially for beginners.
If fingerpicking is your great love, focus on it. If strumming is your great love, focus on strumming. You get the idea – there is no benefit to slogging away for months (or even years) on only strumming songs before you learn to fingerpick and do the other fun stuff.
#7 – “Rhythm can’t be taught – you have to be born with it!”
This is wrong and deep down hopefully you know it.
The myth has arisen from the fact that some people can just pick up an instrument and immediately play some great grooves or that some people can just get on the dance floor and bust some great moves even though they seemingly never do any dancing.
The truth is, these people aren’t born with these skills. They have developed them over time by practising them. They may not have practised them in obvious ways but they have certainly practised them.
Rhythm is something we should practise in all of our day-to-day lives. That is how non-musicians (or muggles as I like to call them!) improve their rhythm skills without realising.
Some people are constantly dancing, tapping their feet to the music, nodding their heads to grooves and generally feeling the music and some don’t do this at all. The ones who do all the shakin’ and a-groovin’ are the ones improving their sense of rhythm all the time.
Imagine the difference between two people, one who does this sort of thing for 50 years and one who doesn’t.
Rhythm is something you can learn any time and is something you are NOT born with.
If you feel you have no rhythm, spend some focused time on improving your rhythm skills, about 10 minutes per day and in a few months, you will have more groove than Michael Jackson and John Travolta having a dance-off at a late night disco!
There you go – the above are some really frustrating myths which have hopefully now been dispelled so you can get on with enjoying your playing.
This will serve as a good guitar lesson for any older adult out there. There is a lot of psychology involved here and as someone who studied psychology at college, I am still fascinated by beliefs and the way they impact someone’s success.
Remember, there are a lot of benefits that come from getting older. Life experiences, valuable lessons learnt and a greater knowledge of what you love in music and life. Younger folk don’t have this yet.
I’d love for you to leave a comment and let me know your experiences of learning guitar later on in life, what challenges you have faced and how you feel about them now. Leave a comment and I’ll get back to you on this blog page with any tips or advice you need.
I have your books on fingerpicking and I have read a lot of your info, I am 76 years old and have only been playing for about 3 years – I consider your style of teaching plus the content to be the best on the Internet. Music and guitar playing has become a late in life passion for me and I agree with your comments on older players 100%
Keep up the good work and be assured I will be purchasing anything you produce related to fingerpicking .
Best Regards Terry.
Dan Thorpe says
Thanks for the kind words and sharing your experience with everyone. You`ll no doubt inspire others who read this. I`m glad I have helped you on your journey so far. It sounds like you are having a lot of fun and enjoying the journey! All the best with your playing and keep in touch with any questions.
I’m 46 and last tried to teach myself the guitar 18 years ago or so from a handful of books and failed miserably. But it left an itch that became annoying enough that I’m having another go but with a tutor this time and a side order of Dan ?.
If you want to start with an acoustic, try the Yamaha F310, not affiliated in anyway. My wife managed to break my G series Takamine……!!!! I bought one of these Yamaha’s to fill the gap whilst I decided what to do, straight from Amazon. Mine has an action so low and light across the entire fretboard I don’t know how it doesn’t buzz (I’ve tried and it won’t) and the shortened scale was just so much easier to play for my Zoidberg claw hands, hardened from years of PC keyboards.
My learning suddenly exploded with this guitar, chords came easier, solos were faster. All this from a guitar a third of the cost of my firewood takamine.
I’ve since moved on to another guitar but with much better knowledge of what was right for me from the F310. The Yamaha is now waiting for my little ones and still gets a play now and then.
I’d also echo doing lots of different activities to practice, seems anything you do on a guitar helps elsewhere.
Finally the best advice is don’t give up, even when it feels like you’ll never be able to change chords quickly enough, or hit notes in time. It will come, you may need to be patient but practice solves everything in the end.
Dan Thorpe says
Haha, glad to know I`m helping, and as a side order too! 🙂 Hope the main dish is helping you lots too, and it`s good to get lessons, even just for the fact of getting some feedback and playing with others. That`s really valuable.
The Yamaha F310 is a super guitar and like you say costs a lot less than a lot of other guitars that are supposedly better! Most students who have tried one really like them whereas a lot of guitars suit some but not others.
Great advice for anyone reading this too on being persistent. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and tips. Many others will hopefully feel inspired reading your comment!
Lorrie Pearson says
Hi Dan your myths about older players all have an element of truth for me. However if you add in another myth, which is that l thought l would be playing competently after six months?
I realise now that l can learn the guitar, but it takes time, commitment and practise.
To all thise would be guitarists, as the previous comment said don’t give up. If it takes longer, so be it, but enjoy the journey.
Dan Thorpe says
That is a common myth but one that every guitarist seems to have, and not just older people. (I kept this list as myths specific to older people). Myths like this stem from a lot of false/bad advertising on the internet, things like “learn 40 songs in 40 days” type videos and “clickbait” YouTube stuff doesn`t help.
Like you say though, keep on going! 6 months is nothing in the grand scheme of things. Everyone who sticks with it gets there in the end, and after a little while the “snowball effect” plays a big part. Keep going and keep having fun!
This article is SPOT ON and I say that as someone that has just turned 63 and my music is as important to me now as it has ever been … and actually brings me more inner peace, enjoyment and satisfaction that at any time before …. and I’ve been playing for over 30 years. AND I make a point of trying to learn something new every day. In fact I have only just taken the time to learn music and fretboard theory (including the modes) in the last 5 years.
The only comment that I would offer that is specifically relevant to this article is that playing an instrument actually helps maintain AND continue to develop your brain. There has been so much research over the last decade that has proven that learning various aspects of music – AND particularly playing, helps build new pathways in your brain. So there are many more benefits than simply maintaining what you already have. This applies to both young and old alike.
One of the greatest aspects for me in recent years has been that the knowledge of music and fretboard theory has encouraged me more to focus on improvisation rather than simply learning the music written by others. This knowledge has literally set me free and has really enabled me to express myself, how I’m feeling at any particular time and to communicate effectively through my instruments. In fact in the last 2 years I have started all over again by going back to basics and learning to listen to each of the 12 tones in each octave …. it has absolutely revolutionized the way I play. It has been instrumental in allowing me to focus on melody rather than studying and learning scales using patterns … a process which robs many of the opportunity to build melody into everything they play.
So that’s enough from me. Thanks again for a GREAT article. And anyone that is reading this that does not play an instrument yet, DON’T DELAY any longer. Dive in, the water is great … and you won’t look back.
Kindest Thoughts from New Zealand. And come for a visit … and don’t forget to bring your guitar.
Dan Thorpe says
Thanks for the wonderful comment. You will no doubt inspire others with your message so it`s great that you took the time to write it. Indeed, playing a musical instrument is awesome for the brain and then there are the social aspects too which I love. You know, when you have a chat with other guitarists or musicians and everyone else is thinking “what are they talking about?!” I love that, having a good old guitar chat and jamming with others is great too.
Anyway, you are absolutely right with what you put and focusing on melody, fretboard knowledge/theory is a very powerful liberator for musicians and something I advocate every guitarist learn too, especially once they have the basics sorted and a good little repertoire of songs.
Thanks, Nick, one day, I`ll head to New Zealand (it`s on my to-do list), guitar in hand and we will have a jam! 🙂
Tony Hannah says
I’m strictly self taught and have been playing for over 40 years. I enjoyed your article and would like to say that from experience I can attest to the accuracy of your statements.
Finger picking, calloused fingers acoustic/electric and so on. I would especially like to comment on the last point I mentioned.
If you are genuinely interested in the instrument, you’ll eventually own both. One will be your favorite, and the other will scratch that little itch caused by your favorite. A word of warning though. You may become addicted.
Dan Thorpe says
Thanks, Tony. 40 years is certainly enough time to hear all the myths so I’m glad you know the truth (unfortunately many don’t), and haha, the addiction is the price we pay! Great to hear from you.