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We Tried It: Taking Up the Guitar as an Adult — and Discovering Unexpected Benefits

What Is Is: Picking up guitar for the first time as an adult

Who Tried It: Rachel DeSantis, Music Staff Writer

One night, in the spring of 2020, as the world was sourdough starter-ing and gardening its way through the pandemic, I jolted awake with a rather lucid thought: “I’m going to die without ever having learned how to play guitar.”

I don’t know what exactly inspired the melodramatic timing, but it was something that had bothered me for a while. I’m a music journalist who can’t play an instrument — I was starting to feel like a car salesman who didn’t have a license, or a dentist with no teeth. Subjects would often ask me if I was a musician myself during interviews and I’d always just joke, “Well, no, but I’m an excellent shower singer.”

While the desire to learn was clearly there, there was a hang-up. I’m 28, and while I know that’s by no means old, I couldn’t get over the mental block telling me that only kids could pick up a new instrument. I knew I wanted to, but I was also afraid my brain just wasn’t elastic enough to learn a new skill. The arbitrary deadline I’d made up for myself had passed, and that was that.

I put the thought aside for a rainy day — until that rainy day arrived in the form of Guitar Center, offering me the chance to take a few in-person lessons at their Union Square location in New York City. Okay!

We Tried It: Picking Up Guitar as an Adult

We Tried It: Picking Up Guitar as an Adult

The author, Rachel DeSantis, with her guitar.
Courtesy of Rachel DeSantis

I started with an acoustic guitar, and 30-minute lessons once a week for four weeks. Thursdays became “Guitar Thursdays,” where I’d lug my instrument to the office and colleagues would jokingly ask for a concert.

I liked my instructor, Hiro, instantly, as his unwavering confidence in me and my abilities was almost certainly faked, but welcome nonetheless. “I’ll bet I’m your oldest student,” I told him on the first day.

“Not even close,” he responded. “Before COVID, I had a student who was 77 years old and had two goals: one, he wanted to learn to play the guitar as good as me. And two, he wanted to become fluent in French so that he could get a French girlfriend.” (I have no clue what became of this man and his goals, but I sincerely hope he has achieved both.)

When I told Hiro that I wish I’d started lessons at an earlier age, he groaned and commiserated with me, saying he wished the same. When I asked him how old he was when he started playing, his answer made me laugh: he started when he was 10.

Both that first lesson and the lessons after flew by. I promised myself I’d practice for 15 minutes each day, as my callus-free fingers couldn’t really stand much more than that, and neither could my poor roommates, who I’m sure never want to hear the opening notes of “Free Fallin'” or “Heart of Gold” ever again.

We Tried It: Picking Up Guitar as an Adult

We Tried It: Picking Up Guitar as an Adult

Guitar Center.
Guitar Center

As the weeks went by, I learned to celebrate the small wins — a chord played without error here, and a buzz-free strum there. The few chords I was focusing on were becoming muscle memory, searing themselves into the parts of my brain I’d feared were old dogs unable to commit to new tricks. It didn’t sound good by any means, but there was sound and that was enough for me.

That’s not to say it hasn’t been hard. After one particularly tough practice session, I even took to my private Twitter account to vent my frustrations: “How has anyone in the history of the world ever learned how to play the guitar?” I wrote. A longtime friend chimed in with some sage advice: “Be a boy in middle school wanting to impress girls,” he replied. Though I do think the ship has sailed on that, I’ll keep it in mind!

When my four lessons from Guitar Center were up, I didn’t think twice before signing up for another month. While I by no means can play anything even resembling music yet, having a hobby is fun! Learning a completely brand-new skill for no reason other than you want to is fun! I find that the minutes I spend in my lessons or practicing are my favorites of the week. It’s the only time I’m not glued to my phone or letting my mind run rampant. I didn’t realize how badly I needed something that requires my complete focus, if only for one song at a time.

Of course I’ll always wish I’d picked up an instrument years ago, in the same way I still wish I’d started learning a foreign language as a kid. But there’s no time like the present — if not now, when?

We Tried It: Picking Up Guitar as an Adult

We Tried It: Picking Up Guitar as an Adult

The author pretending to play for the camera.
Courtesy of Rachel DeSantis

The Verdict: I’ll leave the shredding to John Mayer, but if you’re even sort of thinking about picking up the guitar (or any new hobby) as an adult, do it! You’ll be glad you did.