How hard is it really to learn to play guitar?

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Mad Guitar GirlDepending on how long you have been playing, you may have forgotten some of the struggles you encountered as a beginner guitar player. I personally remember it being alot of fun, with quite a bit of work mixed in.

I have been watching my daughter learn, and have been trying to remember exactly how hard it was for me. I don’t really remember much other than a real challenge an a bunch of good times.

Some folks however, have a completely different experience – one of frustration, pain and great difficulty.

Recently, Gwyneth Paltrow has been in the news surrounding her role in the film “Country Song”.

In the final scene of the movie she is featured playing the guitar – something she previously didn’t know how to do.

She describes the learning experience as very painful:

[Faking it] is just not my style. I was going into such another world, and I wanted it to be as authentic as possible.

“I played all the time, and my hands were bleeding and cramping. It sucked. I cried, like, five times at various points over the four months. It’s really f**ing hard. It’s much harder than it looks.”

Granted, most of us don’t HAVE to learn the guitar by a certain date, and I certainly appreciate her will to do something that could have been faked by Hollywood magic. It goes right along with the many amazing things actors and actresses have done to make their roles more believable and realistic.

But it begs the question – especially for our beginners out there – how hard is it REALLY to learn guitar?

As guitar players we certainly know that it IS harder than it looks. We’ve all watched Vai, SRV, Hendrix, and many others and shook our heads and asked, “How do they make it look so easy?”

What is most concerning, is that some beginner guitar players might get frustrated for a reason thats completely fixable.

There are many factors to learning to play the guitar. Off the top of my head, here are a few (In no particular order):

The Guitar

You’ve got to have a guitar that fits you. The action has to be agreeable the style you are trying to play as well as you personally. To eliminate frustration, the guitar needs to be set up correctly as well. The action should be lower for beginners, as well as possibly a lighter string gauge. If you are a younger player, you might need a smaller scale guitar. Any way you look at it, a bit of planning as a beginner can go a long way in eliminating the frustration and pain of starting out.

Pick up a LOT of guitars before you make the purchase.

Your Body

Not the guitar’s body, yours!

If you’ve got really short arms, you might not want to start with a big ‘ol classical acoustic. If your fingers are small, the width and thickness of the fretboard are considerations. I hate to say it, but the body you were born with plays a big role in how you will play, and which guitar will make you happiest.

Musical Style

There are going to be a lot of opinions on this one. I personally was never forced to play any specific kind of music when I chose to learn guitar. It wasn’t my parents idea, so they really didn’t have an opinion.

There are, however, plenty of kids out there whose parents decide that the child should learn a specific type of music on guitar, and this can present some obvious problems.

The first problem is whether or not the kid likes the kind of music he/she is being asked to play. It will make the difference between practice being a chore, or something fun that they look forward to.

The second is your child’s build. As I stated above in “Your Body”, you can’t force this one. If the child is too small it might be difficult to get their hands around a classical guitar.

For most adults learning, musical style isn’t going to be a huge issue.

The string factor

The guitar is one of very few instruments where you need to make physical contact with the actual sound producing element – the string. There is no layer of separation like there is with piano, and this presents a unique set of challenges.

First, accuracy. A poorly fretted note will sound bad. So the fact that you have to make accurate physical contact to even generate one note is important. Anyone can play a single note on a piano and it will sound – well, like a note. This can’t really be said for the guitar.

One of the other factors, and a common reason for poorly fretted notes is discomfort. Some guitars are tougher to play than others, but if you are a very green beginner, its a bit difficult at first to get used to the string pressing into your finger as you struggle to get those notes to sound right with no fret buzz. Times that by 2000, several hours later and your fingers might feel pretty abused.

Stretching is another factor. Some chords are easy, A and E for example. But then we find C and F are a bit more difficult. It does take awhile to get your fingers stretched out and used to being more flexible than you have ever asked them to be before.

The opposite of this is when you have to jam your fingers so close together that it’s uncomfortable and you can barely tell what notes you are hitting.  When you are starting out it might seem like your fingers are either being stretched past their limit or crammed uncomfortably close together, or even playing a wicked game of twister!

Your Attitude

Here is one factor that is going to make or break your guitar career. There is a direct link between a player’s attitude and how far they have gotten in their craft. With a little planning and a lot of positive attitude, you can conquer ANY of the challenges I listed above.

You have to realize that the guitar is NOT the easiest (or hardest) instrument to play, and it’s going to take some time. Unless you are born a guitar genius, you’re going to sound pretty bad for a little while until you get the hang of it.

Nothing will hold you back more than a bad attitude or laziness. Not even physical attributes like hand size. Angus Young and Peter Frampton have small hands. Yngwie Malmsteen has fatter fingers and it doesn’t seem to slow him down!

Be prepared for hard work, alot of fun along the way and keep your attitude great and you should improve at such a pace that you won’t really notice all the work.


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Guitar-Muse Staff

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2 thoughts on “How hard is it really to learn to play guitar?

  • April 1, 2011 at 9:47 AM
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    Anyone and their dog can learn to play the guitar. Whether or not they will be interesting enough to listen to is another matter. Out of all the guitarists in the world, something like 0.001% are actually *good*. In other words they stand out from the rest because they bring originality and soul, something the vast majority of players completely lack.

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