Learning to play guitar at age 50
Bryan Adams famously got his first real six-string in the summer of ’69. I waited until the summer of 2017.
I had just turned 50, and a series of lucky events led to my possession of an electric guitar. (My best friend’s wife commented one day on the overabundance of guitars in their small Brooklyn apartment, and by the end of the discussion one was offered up to me.)
Having recently learned to ice skate, I decided I was up for the challenge.
I was starting from zero — my only hands-on musical experience had been playing the recorder as a small child — and I certainly had no expectation of being good at this. But what young man hasn’t dreamed of being the lead guitarist in a rock band?
First, to complement my sexy black-and-white Fender Telecaster, I shopped for an inexpensive amp at my local Guitar Center, and also bought a few picks.
But what was the best way to learn? Would it even be possible at midlife to gain any mastery over my new instrument?
I’d recently been thinking, with my 11-year-old son’s education in mind, about the different ways we learn, and how pathways are built into the brain’s memory circuits. I knew I would have to develop my ear, manipulate my fingers in ways I had never done before, and learn about notes, strings, chords and musical notation.
I decided I would try a handful of methods: books, websites, apps, YouTube videos and, finally, a teacher. I wanted to learn some of the basics before playing in front of another person.
The first job was just to get comfortable holding the thing. To tune the strings, I downloaded an app called Guitar Tuna and picked up a book, “Guitar for Dummies.” Like many before me, I learned the names of the strings (E, A, D, G, B, E) by using the acronym “Eat All Day, Go (to) Bed Early.”
Next came some basic chords, strumming and picking. I began to work with Yousician, an app that lets you play along with animation. It picks up the music you play through your phone’s microphone, and indicates whether you’re hitting the correct notes, chords and timing. The instant feedback was fantastic, but it was difficult pausing the app when I needed to rewind and see something again, all while trying to hold down the chord and keep strumming.
Perhaps it’s because I’m older, but I found a book very helpful. I could go at my own pace and see the chord diagrams on paper. I made notes and drew my own diagrams to help me remember the new information. This worked for me back in high school, so why not now?
The toughest part of learning to play was the physical part: repeatedly moving the fingers of my left hand into uncomfortable positions, and developing muscle memory there without getting my brain and fingers in a muddle. I tried to practice daily — five or 10 minutes in the morning before work, and then in the evening I settled in for an hour with the guitar on my lap, often with a soccer match on TV, the sound down low.
Eventually, I started to develop the essential calluses on the fingertips of my left hand.
Late at night, I might play for a few minutes before bed. I found this time magical and relaxing, simply repeating the same basic chords or single notes over and over.
I also tried a few YouTube videos, but it was difficult to find the right ones among the thousands that are available.
I did like an online service called Fender Play with a web and app version. It teaches with videos, and shows the guitar from different positions — head-on and from above (the player’s viewpoint). It starts slowly with tuning and chords, and includes some fun songs. I preferred the web version, which was easier to see, and the videos progressed at a pace I could handle.
So far, I was progressing well on my own. But I wasn’t getting any feedback; it was time for a teacher.
From the start, I knew it was a good decision. At first, I was nervous playing in front of someone else — my fretting hand seemed to have a mind of its own. But Frumi Cohen, who teaches out of her home in Yardley, Pennsylvania, put me at ease and gave me confidence. Having someone listen and instruct me made the experience real for the first time.
Frumi and I could also discuss music. She suggested that I think about songs I would really like to play. Until that moment, I actually hadn’t considered that I could.
But the right song, as Frumi noted, makes you think, “That’s why I want to play guitar. If I could play that, I’d practice forever.”
Now, between lessons, I keep working with the Fender Play videos and my “Guitar for Dummies” book, and I practice at least a few minutes every day.
I also sometimes turn up the amplifier to 11, turn on the distortion and crank out some seriously loud noise. Every once in a while, I have to free my inner rock star and jam with the best of them — in the privacy of my own home, of course.