“I never had the time before but I’ve always wanted to play the classical guitar. Now that I have spare time/my kids are settled/I’m retired I want to do something about it.”
Does that sentiment sound familiar? People over 50 – or for that matter, even those over 60 or 70 – wonder if taking up the classical guitar from scratch is a feasible idea. We must learn new skills and coordination. We must dedicate some time on a regular basis. We will face new challenges and obstacles. Progress will be slow (at any age). So is it worth it or even possible?
As a respected online tutor of the classical guitar says, starting anything can be scary at any age. His advice: just do it.
It’s not a mere gung-ho, let’s-be-positive statement. The facts are on his side. An online forum like the Delcamp forum for classical guitar lovers with its thousands of members all over the world has enough and more of older adults who began learning the instrument in their 50’s and later. Their experience has been a rewarding one, although not without its roadblocks and frustrations.
Again, among the few thousand members of the popular online school for the classical guitar, the Classical Guitar Corner, many are older adults with rich and fruitful experiences to report. (I’m a full member of the CGC, so I know this for a fact.)
Is 50 too old to start learning guitar? Not at all, it appears. If anything, many older students say that learning a musical instrument like the classical guitar expands our limits. It engages our brain in new ways and gives us structure, focus and a sense of accomplishment.
The question then becomes: how can I learn to play the guitar at 50? What’s the best way?
How can i learn to play guitar at 50?
The basic stuff you need to get started is fairly straightforward.
- A classical guitar (of course!)
- A clip-on tuner
- A metronome app on your phone
- A spare set of strings
That’s it and you’re in business. The choice of your instrument is an important decision. Depending on your physique and notably the size of your hands, you may go for a full-size guitar, a 7/8 size guitar (often called 630 mm guitar) or a 3/4 size guitar. You can splurge on a new guitar but you will probably settle for something under $200. Which will serve your purpose a good deal.
There are countless options out there. I’ve already researched the subject extensively for beginners and you may wish to read my article Buyer’s Guide to Guitar Sizes to save you time and come to a considered decision quickly.
Classical guitar tips for older beginners
In what’s about to follow (gleaned from many older guitarists and written by a 60 plus guitarist), it’s important to clarify there is no one way to learn a musical instrument. We are all different. Consider these ideas as your starting ideas and go with what makes sense to you.
Work out your learning approach
How much of an out-and-out basic approach should you begin with? Fact is your mind is more sophisticated and nuanced than a child’s. Mindlessly practicing simple scale passages cannot hold your attention for long. This is especially true for those who have already dabbled with a guitar – classical or otherwise – years ago.
To them, starting with a simple piece or two will make more sense to put their focus and effort on. A couple of simple, starter books with an easy repertoire is a good place to begin your journey. Along with a good and basic sight reading book, if you’re new to reading scores.
Invest time in a method book
Many older guitarists find that diving directly into pieces to play, however simple, isn’t that productive or enjoyable. They prefer a more structured approach with little steps of accomplishment over a time period.
There are a handful of time tested classical guitar methods that do this job effectively. Foremost among them is Frederick Noad’s classic Solo Guitar Playing (Vol 1). It has gone into many editions over the years and Amazon has the latest one here.
Solo Guitar Playing has at least a year or more worth of coaching material to last a diligent student. It starts from absolute scratch and teaches you the fingerboard, sitting position, single string exercises as well as good instruction on how to read music.
For some learners, sticking with a good method book and not getting distracted with other goodies (like YouTube videos or extra books) brings good results in the first year of learning. Personally, Noad’s book was my own choice too ages ago for its excellent introduction of guitar basics and some good musical pieces to play.
Supplement your method book with a technique/repertoire book
Some older learners say that a method book, even one as good as Noad’s, is not sufficient or comprehensive. I personally agree with those who believe that Solo Guitar Playing is lacking in some aspects of what modern pedagogy considers essential: explanation of techniques and memorization.
The solution is to add a basic technique book. You have a couple of choices in my view: Carcassi and/or Sor. These all-time great artists of the classical guitar also authored great method books, hugely popular in their time and still popular. Matteo Carcassi’s method book edited by Philippe Bertaud treats the subject matter of scales in a musical and simple manner with pieces to play based on each scale. It is a good grounding in basics. You can find it on Amazon here.
Fernando Sor The Complete Studies, Lessons, and Exercises for guitar by Tecla is the other choice. Sor’s studies, even the simplest ones, are highly instructive of technique and superbly musical. While this collection of music contains a huge amount of advanced pieces (to be tackled one day in the future!) there is enough to keep the beginning guitarist occupied and learning a trick or two.
If interested in pursuing this further, read my article on What Makes Carcassi Relevant Even Today.
Some experienced hands suggest combining the Noad book with a graded repertoire book – of the kind that reputed music schools like ABRSM and RCM put out. You can see these publications listed in my article on Guitar Grades Explained. The main advantage is the fact that the music here comes graded, so you can progress over time.
My own take is that the Noad book itself contains – if not, well known for – adequate graded material for the different positions on the classical guitar. Having said that, it’s easy to understand others’ enthusiasm for the institutional books – those are quality publications of a high standard and educational value.
Armed with this information, you’re all set for your musical journey – with either a single method book in hand or a couple of more technique/repertoire books too. This works very well in making the learning process always interesting and inspiring. Can the journey get any better than this for the dedicated beginner of mature years? In the opinion of some, yes, it can!
With the books, get yourself a teacher
I read this online from a senior student: I started at 54 and with ‘Solo Guitar’ in my hands. I was not able to read music and had to learn that as well. I realized after a few weeks, that my time on the planet was too short to make this journey “self-taught…” So I found a teacher. Best decision I ever made.
A good teacher, local or online, will save you time and effort in the opinion of many (myself included). With the pandemic, many accomplished classical guitarists are also offering their coaching services online. It’s a good time to look around and choose someone to guide you.
A good tutor can correct standard errors that are hard to self-detect, often the big limitation of self-taught players. The tutor will also put you in touch with basic techniques without too much time being spent on trial and error.
I would go so far as to say that getting yourself into a classical guitar community of fellow players will help a lot. The free forum and sub-forums at the Delcamp community readily come to mind with its ample, free resources and some genuine folks that assist.
There is some great, graded material, a good balance between technique and music. These lessons qualify in France for entry to a music conservatory. It is really a rich collection that hundreds of students have availed of.
A subscription to a paid community like the Classical Guitar Corner is a great idea too with its organized learning tools and excellent personal guidance from gifted teachers. Both these communities have many senior students, so you will feel in good company and gain valuable feedback.
Online classical guitar lessons
In addition to the Delcamp forums and Classical Guitar Corner, there are good learning resources on the web. YouTube is full of tips and lessons from ‘name’ players but they are sporadic in nature and may not fit into your learning plan. An occasional dip is worthwhile and refreshing but too much of it can leave you feeling directionless and lost.
Many older students speak well of Bradford Werner’s thisisclassicalguitar.com site. It is indeed a treasure trove full of (free) resources. There is also a systematic pdf classical guitar course just right for beginners, with video explanations thrown in for good measure.
A site like tonebase is also great for the self learner with its livestreams and masterclasses. See my review of tonebase.
I have also written a Guide to Online Classical Guitar Learning citing a handful of resources (both paid and free) that I believe are top-notch. Read this overview to understand your options if you’re interested in online learning.
How long does it take to get good at classical guitar?
You can start playing early pieces with some confidence in about 6 months’ time. Depending on your goals on what you intend to play, the time taken will vary. Going with a method book like Noad takes you through a year and a half of learning.
To get an idea of where you can get to in a year, in 3 years, in 6 years and later, do read my post on How Long Does It Take to Play the Classical Guitar Well? It assumes you can give the guitar about an hour’s dedication daily (sure, some days you will skip, but that’s fine.)
Most folks starting out their learning journey of the classical guitar have some end goals of learning this or that piece that they’d love to play. That’s a good dream to keep afloat and guide your progress.
What are your classical guitar goals then?
At your age, you know a bit about yourself. How do you learn? What drives you and maintains your interest and passion? The early stages can be the hardest of all – as in learning anything new. If you get stuck in a rut, how do you change things to get past that?
Identify your goals. Why do you want to play? Why are you doing this and what do you want to achieve? What gives you a feeling of satisfaction? Different students advance in different ways. If your desire is to play certain pieces proficiently, you will find the motive and means to achieve it through study, investigation and intuition.
Chances are an older student will be looking for personal enjoyment and fulfillment. I read this online: I have become totally immersed with learning, playing, listening to all things classical guitar. My goals have been to stimulate my brain; and to be able to play technically well and musically as far as my ability will take me.
Playing the classical guitar is a high-level skill that can be built by grounding yourself well in the fundamentals. Take it seriously and reap the rewards.
So can you learn the classical guitar at 50 or 60 or 70? Why are you even asking? Just go for it.