Why is Guitar So Hard to Learn, You Asked.

Guitar player

Initially, our relationship with the guitar is uncomfortable. But, at the other end of the learning spectrum is the performance where our bodies and the guitar are one instrument emanating perfectly synced music. In the interim though, we still have this question: Why is the guitar so hard to learn.

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The intelligent beings we are, of course we get that we are starting something new and to expect a learning curve. What we really want is a shortcut. There is a modest shortcut. We can manage our training and diminish the discomfort. If we take a look at the following issues with learning we know exactly how to adjust our approach.

  1. The finger muscles haven’t yet memorized the needed movements
  2. The fingertips aren’t fully calloused yet
  3. The whole body and hand position cradling the guitar is still new
  4. You are expecting to hear different than you are playing
  5. Practice time isn’t always long enough
  6. Practicing incorrect playing
  7. Not accepting the beginning phase and too anxious to move beyond
  8. Not recognizing and celebrating small incremental accomplishments

All the above show how we introduce struggle and resistance into learning the guitar. And, as expected. When do we ever see anyone playing like a beginner. Nearly never. We are used to watching seasoned players and experts. Then understandably we refocus on our own production and feel incomplete. We overlook the gains – knowledge and the resulting baby steps. We briefly lose perspective as we compare stellar performance to painful learning.

Guitar learning

If we can stay with the idea that learning is what we are experiencing and that we are exactly were we need to be, we may reduce the not-there-already stress. Keep in mind also that the celebrities and other experts who so impress us, started where we now are. And, some were simply obsessed with their guitar such that their practicing turn into marathons.

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They don’t tell us about the time their fingers bled; when they lost track of the hours or days due to excessive practicing; or the neighbor who shook his head in irritation from seeing the amateur and his instrument. That neighbor could not appreciate the noise coming off the guitar. But, as learners we do:  Our ears become more attuned to the different sounds; our fingers become accustom to reaching for the right strings; our bodies adapt a tireless way of supporting the strapped guitar, and gradually, without the struggle and resistance to learning, we shift into the player we want to become.

In the following video, author and business adviser Josh Kaufman provides valuable guidance for learning quickly. You may jump to the 17 minute mark for the instrument demo part of his performance.

Kaufman informs us at the 8 minute mark that a key precursor to success is removing barriers to practice. Make it easy to slip into a practice session. He gives the example of placing the guitar close to the spot where you will be practicing instead of storing it in a closet in some back room that you rarely visit.

Among the valuable guidance he also tells us, at the 10 minute mark, to pre-commit to an initial twenty hours of “focused, deliberate practice” before starting. This pushes us past the first several hours of frustration from learning something new and guarantees we get through it.

Tips For Guitar Practice Routine

Choose nylon or steel, or a beginner guitar that has extra strings for beginners. Keep in mind not to put nylon strings on a steel guitar, string tension would be too much.  As for the steel guitar strings, those strings would create too much tension for the classic guitar, damaging it.

Shape your fingers in positions to match the guitar chords. Getting used to the sound of that shape and how you hold the guitar becomes comfortable quickly. How you hold the classical guitar will be with less slouching and more poise. Such allows the fingers to better assume the classical guitar technique.

After enough practice, callous formed on your finger tips allow you to play much freer

Observe the timing and pacing of the music or song but this is easiest after you have been practicing the hand positions

Guitar Yamaha Red Acoustic Guitar Group Female playerLearn two hand shapes well and switch between them

It may be tempting to buy coverings for the fingers but that only delay the callousing needed to harden your fingertips

Play pocket guitar between practices if you aren’t able to bring the guitar with you most times

Commit to about 20 hours of practice total broken up into just under an hour every day. This pre-commitment ensures you build it into your schedule and also increases the chances that you will push through to make all the practices

Keep the guitar handy in case you get opportunities to practice. If that isn’t practical consider getting a pocket guitar

Be sure you are practicing correct finger positions so you develop effective habits from the start

Wear the guitar strap if needed for comfort and support. Personalized guitar straps are available, but some of the best guitar straps are not custom made.

Use a finger guitar pick for strumming if needed. It is most suitable for rhythmic style music and the sweeping style lets you play more than one string. You would not use the pick if you want to play with a slide on the guitar.

Keep Your Guitar Nearby

Guitar Yamaha Red Group Female player

The main thing to do consistently is to always have your guitar nearby. You may not at first start off with All-Star guitar chords but many songs can be played in one or two chords allowing you to practice hand positions. You can even follow along with your favorite guitarist for rhythm.

After you get your guitar you’ll find numerous resources to help you progress within your first learning phase and beyond. Some people try to learn guitar on Youtube, very handy for narrowing down on the direction you want to take with the guitar. For more consistent training that takes you from level to level making sure you haven’t missed any of the basics. If you plan to learn the guitar online, consider looking into training from someone the other side of the screen who is working with you.

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O’Connor, J. (1988). The Guitar: A Guide for Students and Teachers compiled and edited by Michael Stimpson. Oxford: University Press, 1988. £22.50 (hard covers); £7.95 (paperback), 284 pp. British Journal of Music Education, 5(3), 317-319. doi:10.1017/S0265051700006719

“Picture.” Yamaha Acoustic Guitars, 17 Aug. 2018, usa.yamaha.com/products/musical_instruments/guitars_basses/ac_guitars/ta_series/gallery.html#product-tabs.

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20 Comments

  1. I was active in sports as a youth. I wish I had found the time to learn to play the guitar then. Your article highlights the importance of managing expectations. I like the fact that you are upfront with the challenges of learning to do something new. And that it takes practice. And then some more practice. In my case, I learned to play golf. It took hours and hours of practicing and playing to take my golf game to the competitive level.

    • Hey Glen,

      It’s exciting hearing about your achievement and at a competitive level. Kudos to you!

      Best,

      Terri
      denebguitars.com

  2. Hello there.
    This is a great post. I can totally relate as an acoustic guitarist. Although I learned it when I was a teenager and stopped playing for 15 years. When I tried to play guitar again, It was like riding a bike. I like the fact you mentioned about the fingertips callouses. 😉

    Very inspiring and encouraging for a beginner.

    • Hi Che,

      I’m glad to hear you have your guitar. I don’t think the fingers every forget.

      Best,

      Terry
      denebguitars.com

  3. Great website especially for those wanting to learn the guitar. You let your customers know that it does take lots and lots of practise to master it. I always wanted to learn to play the guitar after someone gave me a one when I was 17. It just never happened though unfortunately. Well Done.

    Janet

  4. I’ve never played the guitar or any other instrument apart from the recorder many years ago at school, but this is a great metaphor for life in general. Everything worth doing takes sometimes many years to achieve to a professional standard. It’s true, we do all want it now in this day and age, we don’t like the in between learning bit.

  5. If feel that the video is kind of reinventing the wheel by using different terminology. Really he’s just saying to make goals, set a plan of action, practice and commit. I like the idea of keeping the thing you love most, like a guitar, ready to go in your room and not put it away. Tha tis what I do with my dumbbells and push-up bar.

  6. I started playing guitar back in highschool. As you said in the article, practice makes a lot of difference. I found it also helps to practice whenever you can everyday, and to listen repetitively to music that you enjoy and play along to said music. I bought a lot of Green Day CDs during those days, since their songs were pretty easy to play. Sooner though you get better and your musical interest also widens.

  7. In my last career I was a professional musician and as you say it takes incredible discipline and lots of skilled practice to get to a level where you can finally relax and enjoy playing without tripping over all of the technicalities and basics. The phrase practice makes perfect is a bit of a misnomer…perfect practice makes perfect as they say. Not many people seem to have that much focus anymore in our fast paced, tecnological world, but it makes it all the more rewarding when you accomplish it.

    • Hey Susanne,

      Manufacturers are making guitars easier to work with, such as the rolled edges along the neck making it smoother to move along the fretboard; wood is treated to sound like aged wood so the new guitar sounds the best right out of the box because we’ll play a bit longer if we like the sound; and best of all the prices fit any budget. Match all that with determination and like you said, perfect practice, then that is all one needs to keep doing: Enjoy learning.

      Best,
      Terri
      denebguitars.com

  8. Read this article with a big smile on my face, because I know exactly what you’re talking about. I started learning to play the guitar when I was 14. Fully load with passion and ambition. I practiced 1 hour before school and 3-4 hours after. Looking back, the first 2-3 months were the hardest. My fingers hurt, I struggled to play chords properly and changing chords was nearly impossible. Couldn’t play a chord that sounded like music. From then on I improved quickly and never stopped playing. To all of you, who say, you wish you could play the guitar: Just do it!

    • Hey Felix,

      “Never stopped playing.” That’s definitely how learning works.
      Hopefully anyone playing is enjoying the idea of progress, however slow.
      One needs to make up their mind that in the beginning it’s practice, at first.

      Best
      Terri
      denebguitars.com

  9. I started playing guitar about 5 or 6 years ago, coming from a non-musical background I had more trouble with the music theory side of things. It took about six to eight months to get a handle on chord changes and finger runs(being in the building industry my hands were already well hardened) It’s very strange in the beginning but my advice to people picking it up for the first time would be, focus on playing clean, don’t worry about speed and most importantly listen and train your ear to translate what you hear in a song to the fretboard and have fun!

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