How to Learn a Musical Instrument as an Adult
I want to be clear: I never really learned to play the guitar until I was an adult. I never understood technique or music theory and I never learned to play anything by ear. These were all skills I acquired later in life. They took a while, but they’ve been worth it, because so few things have been as rewarding as people listening to my music and telling me they enjoy it. And it’s cool to be able to jam on the guitar when you’re out and about, especially when nobody’s expecting it.
Now, I don’t know how many of you know this (probably because I didn’t make any big deal of it, which is unusual for me), but last year I recorded an album. I did all the guitar work and most of the instrumentals. I hired somebody else to sing. I think it turned out pretty good. If you get a chance to listen, I’d love to know what you think.
So, in this post, I’d like to share what I’ve learned. I’ll give some ideas of how to pick up a musical instrument (if you’re interested) as an adult, and whatever insight I can on what my songwriting and recording process.
Also, to be clear: I only say I never “really” learned to play the guitar until I was an adult because while I took a few lessons as a kid, I wasn’t serious about it. I’d take my lesson, and then, instead of practicing, I’d play video games. I was a terrible student–the worst. And even though I loved the idea of playing guitar, I wasn’t willing to put in the work. It wasn’t until college, when I committed myself to becoming a Generalist, that I pulled the guitar out of the case, and haven’t put it down since. I said to myself, “I may never get paid a single cent to make music for a living, but for as long as I live, I’m going to make music.”
How I Record My Music
We’ll start with the end in mind, which I think for most of you will be to turn your skill into some sort of creative outlet. This part is easier than most think, thanks in large part to how good the technology has gotten.
My recording process is simple. All the guitar stuff I do at home. I have a desktop with Pro-tools on it. So far as my experience with Pro-tools goes, I’m a neophyte. I can do some basic stuff (like hit record) but wouldn’t call myself a producer or anything. Besides, Pro-tools is probably overkill for what I’m doing, anyway. Most people would do just as well with Logic or something like that. As for microphones, I use a Shure dynamic, pointed at my Blackstar tube amp. All songs were recorded with my Gibson SG. Everything else—all the instrumentals and what not—were programmed. The singing was done by some guy I hired on the internet with long hair. I just sent him the tracks and what I wanted the melodies to be and let him write the lyrics. I think he did a really nice job.
There are two songs I’m most proud of. The first people tell me is irresistibly catchy (Something’s Missing), the other has a sort of old-school revivalist feel to it (Stone Ground).
Other than that, I hired somebody to help with producing. For this, I would just head to Fiverr. There’s so many freelance people on there who are all very competent at mixing sound levels and making things sound polished. I wouldn’t have been able to do this myself, but I was certainly able to chuck $50 at someone to have it done for me, which, in turn, freed me up to focus on what I do best–coming up with guitar riffs.
This is a productivity tip throughout all life, particularly business. Know what you do well, and focus on that as much as you can. Of course you want to get good at other things, and especially so you don’t get taken advantage of. Because if I didn’t have some idea of what good production sounds like, I may have hired a bad producer.
How to Learn a Musical Instrument as an Adult
This is the part I’m sure most of you care about. (Sorry for making you listen to all my songs, or am I?) So, here’s my advice. Or, you know what, before we get into that, let’s talk about mindset, even for just a minute. Because while learning a musical instrument as an adult isn’t impossible, it isn’t easy, either. You need to want to do it. If not, then you’re never going to make the time to practice. You need to have the right expectations, just like you do in the gym. Because progress, sometimes, will be slow. And often you’ll hit a plateau or a setback. But so long as you show up, and trust the process, you’ll improve. That I can promise.
So, let’s talk about process–specifically, let’s talk about how to practice. Because there are three (maybe four) principles I believe every person needs to follow if they want to learn a musical instrument as an adult in a way that is both efficient and fun. They are:
Frequency is paramount in acquiring any skill. Because if you want to get good at something, then you need to practice that something and you need to do it everyday. That doesn’t mean you must set aside seven hours a day, but it does mean you need to practice something–and preferably something you’re not good at, or would like to improve upon–on a consistent basis.
I play guitar everyday around 1 o’clock. Often I’ll play until 2 or 2:30. This is after I’ve gone to gym and eaten lunch, which means this is also after I’ve done most of my writing and business for the day, and so my mind is in need of a different kind of challenge.
Since my practice sessions are short, I keep them focused–20 minutes on one thing, 20 minutes on another thing, 20 minutes on something else. Typically I divide my sessions into technique, improvisation, and writing new material.
Think of it like this. Isolation ==> Integration ==> Creation. I isolate a technique I want to get better at. Maybe that’s sweep picking or whatever. (This will depend on the instrument and where you’re at with it; it could be something as simple as holding the pick at first.) So I spend 20 minutes on exercises to develop that technique, and I get these exercises either from my instructor or some form of instructional material.
Then, I spend 20 minutes applying that technique in some way. Maybe I’ll put on a backing track and jam, or I’ll record a riff to play over. The goal of the improvisation practice is to incorporate, organically, the technique I’ve just been practicing.
Finally, I’ll spend twenty or so minutes writing new material. Maybe I’ll use the technique I’ve been practicing, maybe I won’t. I never force this part of the process.
I’ve found this approach to be productive and doable. It *only* requires an hour of practice a day, and because you’ve restricted your practice time, you’ll hopefully be more productive at it. Of course there are other elements to be trained, as well, such as ear training and music theory, and those I’ll sometimes bring in rather than practicing a particular technique on the guitar. For example, usually once or twice a week I’ll spend 20 minutes identifying intervals or studying modes, instead of practicing alternate picking, etc. I think that’s the best way to go about something like that; that is, practicing the stuff that is outside any specific instrument-related technique, but still important to music, generally.
Like most any other skill, frequency is a key variable.
Always Use a Metronome
Early on, I made the mistake thinking I could keep time myself. Turns out, I was wrong. Which then meant I had to spend months relearning literally everything, just to develop my deeply lacking sense of rhythm. Don’t be arrogant like I was. Always use a metronome. Use it even when you’re practicing things you don’t think you need a metronome for. The challenge is to be thinking, “Is this in time?” for everything, even when you don’t have to. Because when you do have to play in time (which you will), you’ve already been thinking that way. You’ve already been feeling the pulse, so to speak.
Also, slow things down as much as you can. People are so quick to play fast, but, in doing so, bury a lot of mistakes–mistakes that will later come to haunt you when you go to record. But slowing down, often even to an excruciating level, forces you to pay attention to every nuance. Playing slow is harder than playing fast, and only by playing slow can you even play fast and still be worth listening to.
Constantly Record Yourself
I record myself throughout every part of my practice session. I record myself practicing a technique, and I record myself improvising. And I’m reviewing these recordings to hear where I’ve made a mistake after every run. It’s almost impossible to pick up on every missed note as you’re playing. And assuming you don’t have an instructor in front of you (see the point to follow) you need some sort of mechanism for feedback. That mechanism should be a recording. It doesn’t even have to be super high quality. A lot of times, I just record on my iPhone. (That said, higher quality can help.)
Aside an instructor, nothing makes mistakes so glaringly obvious. Yes, it’s terrible listening back to what you’ve recorded, just as it’s terrible seeing yourself on camera for the first time. But this is the way you’re going to improve at an efficient and continuous rate. You have to find your mistakes before you can fix them. Ignoring them won’t help, and neither will pretending they don’t exist. Record and review, record and review.
Bonus: Hire a Coach
I don’t have much to say about this except just suck it up and hire a coach, already. Trying to figure things out for yourself, especially starting out, is so difficult. Maybe you don’t need an instructor forever (I hire one seasonally), but you should hire one to get started, at lesat. Plus, with how many great musician there are on Youtube, you can find amazing help for a very reasonable price, assuming you’re willing to take lessons online, which is what I do. Literally, I just hired one of my favorite YouTube guitarists. I pinged his channel and said, “How much?”
Notice what I didn’t say: I didn’t say, “Hey dude-man, how about teach me for free?” Because that’s obscenely rude, and really condescending. If somebody has put their life into something, and you want to learn about that something, you should respect that person’s time, and either pay the rate, or move along. Few things annoy me than people expecting something for nothing. Plus, if that’s the attitude you have going in, you can’t be all that serious about learning to begin with.
I get coaches can be expensive, but cost need not be a barrier to entry. Like I said, online lessons have made coaching very affordable, while still allowing you to invest and put skin in the game, which (I believe) is an important commitment on the end of the student. You need to have something to lose if you don’t do what you’re told, even if that something is just a little bit of money.
Learning an instrument is a lot like working out. You’re going to have good sessions and bad. Sometimes you’ll feel like you couldn’t hit a wrong note if you tried, other days you’ll feel like you couldn’t hit a right note if somebody moved your fingers for you. This is just the way it is. This is just the nature of developing yourself. Stick with it. Trust the process. Get a coach.
I can’t wait to hear you play.