The most common question I hear as a guitar teacher is “How long does it take to learn guitar?”
It’s not surprising that this is the most common question I hear because everybody wants to jump straight to the point when they can play interesting things on guitar. Being able to play your favorite songs, jam with friends, write your own music or even play simple chords can be great fun.
Unfortunately, it does take some time and effort to get to the point where you can play those things.
Let’s look at the real answer to how long it takes to learn guitar. I’ve included examples from students I’ve had over the years so you can get a better idea of how long it will take you to learn the things you want to be able to play.
The short answer:
It can take anywhere from a few months to a few years to learn guitar. How long it takes you depends on what you want to be able to play on guitar, how often you practice and the quality of your practice sessions.
Let’s look at how you can cut down how long it takes to learn guitar and look at some real-life examples from my guitar students.
If you’re looking for a guitar teacher or are unsure whether your guitar teacher is doing a good job, read through this guide on how to find the best guitar teacher. The guide includes questions to ask a teacher to find out whether they’re really the best option for you.
What is Your Goal
Let’s start by taking a closer look at the question “How long does it take to learn guitar?”
That’s a vague question, so don’t be surprised if you get a lot of vague answers on other websites saying “you’ll never stop learning!” – that answer isn’t exactly helpful, is it?
Being able to play guitar means different things to different people.
If you only want to be able to strum a few chords to accompany your singing, that goal can be achieved in a short time period when learning guitar from scratch (we’ll look at exactly how long later).
On the other hand, if you want to be ripping into complicated solos and difficult rhythm parts, to achieve that goal you need to learn and master a lot of different techniques and skills. It will obviously take a lot longer than merely strumming a few chords.
So before we look at specific examples, think about what your goal is for learning guitar. What does playing guitar mean to you?
Practice Quality vs Quantity
How fast you learn guitar depends on your practice habits. If you want to learn guitar quickly, develop a strong practice habit.
As a guitar teacher, I know who will learn fast and who will take longer based on how they practice.
If a student doesn’t practice in-between lessons (a good guitar teacher can always tell), that student is going to take a long time to learn anything.
On the other hand, if you consistently practice in an effective way, you’ll achieve your goals at a surprisingly fast rate.
But there is a lot of misinformation around about how to practice guitar effectively. So let’s take a look at practice quality vs practice quantity to see what really matters.
Practice Quantity (Time Spent Practicing)
It makes sense that more practice is better than less practice. A person who practices 10 minutes per day is doing infinitely better than somebody else who practices 0 minutes per day.
Does that mean if you want to learn guitar quickly you should practice 3+ hours per day?
When it comes to learning guitar, more practice isn’t always better.
After you finish a guitar practice session, your memory of what you just practiced will start to fade away as shown in the below chart:
The blue line shows your memory gradually become weaker after your practice session. It happens to everybody and it’s why learning something new like guitar can feel so frustrating in the beginning.
Whether you spend 10 minutes practicing or a massive 3-hour session practicing, you will still end up gradually forgetting what you have just done.
But look at what happens when we split a practice session up into two halves with a break in between:
After the second practice session, the blue line does drop down again, but you might notice that it doesn’t end up as low as the first blue line from the first practice session.
This means after the second practice session, you will retain more of what you practiced.
It means one long practice session isn’t as good as two shorter practice sessions.
What if instead of a massive 3-hour practice session, you split that into five short practice sessions spread throughout the day? This is what happens:
By splitting a long practice session up into small sessions with regular breaks, notice that the blue line (how much we remember) doesn’t have time to drop very far.
After a short break, you can quickly pick up from where you left off in the previous practice session and build on top of what you previously practiced.
The blue line after the last practice session is nice and flat, which means you will easily remember what you practiced tomorrow or the day after.
The point to remember is that short and regular practice sessions are far more important than long practice sessions.
It isn’t the total time you spend practicing that matters, it is how you spread that time out.
Practicing every day without fail (even for a short time) is far better than having a massive practice session once a week.
Having a big practice session once a week is like cramming before exams – it just doesn’t work. If you really want to learn guitar in the fastest time possible, make sure you practice daily without fail.
Now that you understand how practice quantity (time spent practicing) matters to your progress, let’s look at practice quality.
Imagine somebody lazily strumming a few chords while watching a movie. By the end of the movie, he feels good because he thinks he’s been practicing guitar for two full hours.
While you could argue that he did practice for two hours, what would you say about the quality of that practice?
It should be obvious that lazily strumming chords while watching a movie is not quality practice. Almost all of that ‘practice’ was a waste of time and didn’t do anything for the person’s skills.
What makes quality practice?
The simple answer is: focus.
If you can completely focus on whatever you’re trying to do on guitar, that is quality practice.
Neuroscientists found that focus plays a massive role in memory and learning new skills. The more you focus on what you’re doing, the more you will remember and the faster you will progress.
It doesn’t matter what you practice or how long you practice for if you’re not focused 100% on what you’re doing.
The reason I stopped teaching guitar to young children years ago is that they’re unable to intensely focus for long. A young child might only be able to focus for 10-seconds before he gets distracted. That makes it really hard for them to progress.
On the other hand, an older child, teenager, or adult is perfectly capable of intense focus for up to 30 minutes before getting tired.
Key lesson: if you want to learn guitar in the shortest time possible, make sure you focus 100% during every practice session.
What you practice does matter, but the amount of focus you put in is far more important.
Tips to improve your focus during practice:
- Put your phone into flight mode or leave it in another room to avoid distraction
- Tell other people in your home that you will be practicing for x minutes and would like privacy
- Set up a dedicated practice space
- Only practice when you know you will be able to focus (eg: not when you’re tired or stressed out)
If you can remove any potential distractions and truly focus while you practice, you’ll be amazed by how much faster you will develop.
How Long It Takes To Learn Guitar Examples
So far, you’ve learned that the time it takes to learn guitar depends completely on your practice habits.
Before we look at some examples of how long it takes to learn different things on guitar, here are the key points to practice:
- Short and regular practice sessions are better than long practice sessions
- Practicing every day (even for a short time) is far more effective than practicing once or twice a week
- The quality of your practice depends on how much focus you put in
- If you’re not focusing 100% on what you’re playing, it isn’t effective practice
Now let’s look at some examples based on students I’ve had over the years to give you an idea of how long it takes to learn different things on guitar.
Example 1: Learning Chords
I had a new student who wanted to learn how to strum chords so she can play along with her singing. She started lessons with me to learn guitar from scratch.
This is a rough timeline of what we covered in lessons. Keep in mind that I encouraged her to practice daily for 30-minutes per day split into three 10-minute blocks. Based on her progress, I feel she closely stuck to that recommendation.
- Week 1: Learn how to place fingers on the guitar properly and play some basic finger exercises
- Week 2: Learn 4 basic open chords and focus on memorizing the positions for each chord
- Week 3: Practice slowly changing between each chord, strumming each one once
- Week 4: Learn an additional 4 chords, memorize them, then practice combining them with other chords
- Week 5: Learn some basic strumming patterns and use them in basic 2-chord progressions
- Week 6: Practice speeding up chord changes and practice 4-chord progressions
- Week 7: Practice strumming chord progressions along with a metronome and drum machine
- Week 8: Learn to sing over basic chord progressions
Over the weeks that followed the above timeline, the student increased her confidence with the chords, memorized new chord shapes, learned new strumming patterns, and learned to use a capo to play different songs.
Her goal to strum chords with her singing was fairly straightforward, so with some disciplined practice habits, she was easily able to reach it within a few months.
Example 2: Learning Fingerstyle
Another student I had a year ago had a similar goal to the student from the first example. The only real difference is she wanted to play fingerstyle instead of strumming chords and she wasn’t interested in singing over her playing. She did want to learn how to adapt some non-fingerstyle songs into fingerstyle.
This student didn’t practice daily but still managed to practice 3 times per week. If she did practice daily, she would’ve easily sped her progress up and reached her goal sooner.
Here is the rough timeline of her progress:
- Weeks 1-4: Learn basic finger exercises and start memorizing basic open chord shapes
- Weeks 5-7: Work on right-hand fingerpicking exercises and memorize some basic fingerpicking patterns (check out this lesson for examples)
- Weeks 8-10: Practice combining different fingerpicking patterns with basic chord progressions
- Weeks 11-14: Learn to adapt some basic songs into fingerstyle
You can see that this goal took slightly longer to achieve because it demanded that she learn more technical skills. Instead of merely strumming the chords, she had to learn to use her right hand to pluck exact patterns for each chord.
Over the next month or two, she gradually learned some basic music theory and how to convert basic vocal melodies into parts she could play on guitar.
Example 3: Play Full Rock Songs (Both Rhythm and Lead)
I’ve had many students wanting to play full songs in rock, metal, blues, and similar styles. This goal is far more ambitious than learning to strum some basic chords, so it takes students longer.
Here is a basic timeline for a student who sticks to daily practice:
- Weeks 1-4: Learn basic finger exercises, power-chords, and picking techniques
- Weeks 5-10: Practice basic riffs with and without a metronome at a slow tempo
- Weeks 11-15: Work on increasing the tempo until the student can play the riffs at the song’s tempo
- Weeks 16-20: Learn basic techniques such as hammer-ons, pull-offs, bends, slides, palm-muting
- Weeks 21-24: Work on learning full songs playing all rhythm guitar parts and bringing those songs up to full tempo
- Weeks 25-30: Learn the basic Pentatonic box shape and start basic improvising over simple backing tracks
- Weeks 31-35: Start to work through a basic solo from a song and learn it note-for-note
Some students are able to power through this timeline in under 20 weeks, while other students may take up to a year to reach this level. In all cases, it comes down to the student’s practice habits.
The key lesson to take away from the above examples is that while everything does take time to learn and master, you have a lot more control over how long it takes to learn than you think.
If you’re really disciplined and motivated to learn guitar, you can get pretty far in a couple of months if you practice consistently on the right things.
On the other hand, if you only half-watch lesson videos on YouTube, muck around on the guitar and call it ‘practice’, and only practice a couple of times a week, then it’s going to take a long time to get where you want to be.
Once you pick a goal you want to reach on guitar, find out what you need to learn to reach that goal and start practicing those things. Practice daily and don’t get frustrated if you don’t master everything on the first go. As you learned earlier, it takes multiple repetitions of a practice session before skills and techniques start to sink into your memory.
How long it takes you to learn guitar depends on what you want to learn, and how much effort you’re willing to put in to learn it.