The formative stages of learning guitar are a combination of excitement and inevitable frustration. At some point, all aspiring guitarists wondered how long the processing of learning guitar would take.
Although there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, the good news is there are quantifiable milestones that can be achieved relatively quickly. In this post, we’ll discuss the skill improvement you can expect to see after certain periods, providing you are consistent with your practice.
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Stage 1: The Basics
You’ve just purchased your first guitar and can’t wait to start playing it. As you pick it up and grasp the neck, a sudden realization comes over you – “I have no idea how to play this thing!”
Even the most virtuosic guitarists, who make it seem like they were born with a Fender Stratocaster already over their shoulder, have had that same realization at some point. Although it interacts with our natural creativity, playing guitar is by no means a “natural skill”.
I’m not going to sugar-coat this – the first week (or longer) of learning guitar will be painful, frustrating, and tiring. But there will also be moments when it is extremely satisfying, and those are the moments we should focus on.
As a counter-argument to Malcolm Gladwell’s popular theory that it takes 10’000 hours to master a skill, Josh Kaufman wrote a book explaining how anyone can learn a new skill in just 20 hours, and be good enough to convince others that they have been playing for years.
In my experience, Kaufman is not being farfetched when making that statement. Learning guitar initially requires three core qualities that are all within your control, and will each directly correlate to how long it takes for you to improve. These are:
If you are consistent in your practice initially, by setting aside time to play and sticking to it, you can learn the basics of guitar in 20 hours. Providing that you focus equally on developing your fretting and strumming techniques, you can learn to play basic chords very quickly.
Persistence is the skill that will help you push through the uncomfortable moments when you seemingly can’t get your fingers into the chord shapes, or you’re struggling to press with enough tension to make a sound.
Patience is required to avoid judging your ability. You must believe that if you stick to your practice routine, you will see dramatic improvements. When you play a chord correctly for the first time, pat yourself on the back and celebrate the small victories.
If any of these three key qualities are lacking, the length of time it will take you to learn guitar will be greatly prolonged. Don’t focus on the mistakes or shortcomings, just focus on the basics, and enjoy the initial stages of getting to know your new companion.
If you are persistent, consistent, and patient, the guitar will reward you by providing you with a lifetime of joy.
Stage 2: Competence
After around 20 hours of consistent practice with the proper technique, you’ll surpass the beginner stage and reach a level of competence. You’ll likely have a breakthrough, where a chord that you’d struggled to play suddenly sounds correct.
This is a sign that your muscle memory, hand-eye coordination, and finger strength is improving. You can now start to add slightly more complex practices into your routine, like playing scales and fingerpicking.
The reason I measure the progress of learning guitar in hours, rather than weeks or months, is because the amount of time you put in is directly related to the improvements that you will see.
If it takes 20 hours of solid practice to learn the basics of guitar playing, this could be achieved by setting aside an hour per day for 20 days, or you could practice for 4 hours per day for 5 days.
The progress is likely to be similar regardless of how you choose to spread out your practices.
Once you can play several chords in a sequence, and your strumming is consistent and stays in time, you can use the same “20-hour” technique to develop other guitar skills. This might include playing single-note runs, palm-muting, or alternate picking.
After a further 20 hours of practice on these skills, you will reach a level of competence that seemed unthinkable when you first embarked on the journey of learning guitar. Then, comes the challenging period, where the majority of people give up… The dreaded plateau!
Stage 3: The Plateau
In the first couple of weeks of learning guitar, you will see massive improvements in your ability. It’s easy to stay motivated during this initial stage because the progress you witness will be very rewarding.
Once the basic skills of chord shapes, strumming, and timing have all been established, it’s normal for your progress to suddenly come to a halt. This is the defining period for a guitarist, and it is where, unfortunately, many people’s determination starts to wane.
I call this period the plateau. For the weeks, or sometimes months that follow, you are likely to feel that you are not making very much progress at all. This is completely normal, and the vast majority of aspiring musicians also experience this period of frustration.
It’s vitally important, therefore, that you keep a good perspective when your skill level seems to hit a brick wall. The reason that this happens, is because when you started to learn the basics, you had no present ability level to compare yourself to.
Thus, it seemed that your progress was fast-forwarded, as you quickly became competent as a guitarist. Once the basics have been established, suddenly it’s harder to measure your progress, because you now have a current ability to try and outgrow.
The plateau lasts for different lengths of time depending on the individual, but you must keep in mind that it will pass.
Step 4: The Breakthrough
So you’ve spent 20 hours learning the basics, a further 20 hours becoming competent and seeing fast progress. Then your improvements seemed to slow down dramatically for a few weeks or so.
If you resisted the temptation to give up during that challenging period – I have some good news for you. At some point, you’ll pick up your guitar expecting to have the same struggles that have frustrated you for weeks on end, but this time it will feel different.
I call this stage the breakthrough. It is the reward that an aspiring guitarist receives for passing the initiation test – sticking with the instrument throughout the struggles and doubts.
The breakthrough, for me, came when I least expected it. After over a month of feeling like I was never going to get any better on the guitar no matter how hard I tried, something clicked, and to my surprise, the chord changes and strumming techniques I’d been failing miserably at were now falling into place.
It’s almost as if the gods of music are testing you to see if you’re dedicated enough to persevere through the hard times, and if you do, they reward you with a sudden leap in ability level.
This is when learning guitar becomes a whole lot of fun. You can now pick and choose the material you wish to add to your arsenal and start to attempt things that, when starting, you would have never thought to be possible.
Step 5: Striving for Mastery
Once you’ve got over the intermediate slump, and you become increasingly confident in your ability as a guitarist, the next stage is less tangible. This is the pursuit of mastery, and unfortunately, I can’t provide you with an estimated length of time like I could with the previous stages.
Mastery is an elusive goal that never comes. Even the most accomplished guitar players, after decades of practicing, never reach it. But it’s the reason that they continue to dedicate themselves to their craft.
Learning guitar is a lifelong journey that gives you back exactly what you are willing to put in. It is extremely rewarding and testing in places. As you move into the more advanced theory and techniques, you will grow to love the instrument more and more.
It’s important to remember the three key qualities, even when you become an “accomplished” guitarist. You must remain consistent in your practice routine, otherwise, you will experience rust, and your ability will again flatline due to stagnation.
If you’ve persisted this far, then you’re willpower and dedication can’t be questioned. However, it’s important to keep yourself motivated by setting goals that stretch your ability even further.
You need to remain patient because as we improve our abilities, there is always a new skill to acquire. Even the most virtuosic guitarists can improve in every area, and always encounter the frustration of not being capable of playing a certain lick or chord shape at first.
You should be comforted by the fact that it doesn’t take long to learn guitar to a decent standard. Sure, there will be many challenges along the way, but if you stick at it, the rewards will be magnificent!