Scott McGrath on Growing Old Disgracefully With The Guitar

Adult learning is rock and roll, and the day job pays for new pedals   11-Nov-12

Amped blogger Scott McGrath, who feels more comfortable with a pair of drum sticks in his hands than a plectrum, takes on the subject of learning the guitar as an adult. Move over kids, Scott's here, and he's got something to say...

It’s not like there’s a shortage of great guitar players in the world. On Amped, some of them are 9 years old. So why even bother playing?

A lot of press was flying last Spring about adult guitar learners when Gary Marcus released “Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning”… the book was reviewed everywhere, a neuroscientist trying to figure out whether adults can learn tasks like playing instruments and learning languages, and challenging some of the old assumptions that children learn faster and better.

Well, the moral of the story might be that they do, but that older learners may have other resources. And, there’s evidence that adult brains do actually change and grow to support new skills even in older people. (He does of course argue that more immersive styles of study are most effective for latecomers).

This was good news for me as a self-taught garage band drummer for 20+ years when I finally decided to throw down the gauntlet and really learn to play guitar.

I’d been banging out sloppy chords off and on for a few years before, and buying gear far above my ability level -- but in 2011 decided that it was time to improve my playing, learn more theory, and just generally rise above the very low level of skill I was getting from books and online tutorials. Buy less, play more... that kind of thing.

So I found a local teacher, a Berklee guy, who's been very patient working with my quirky, and alas, slooooow progress with the instrument. I'll have more to say about that in future installments. But let's start with the most difficult aspect of the entire enterprise: the fact that at my age, rockstar dreams are unequivocally ludicrous, so some very big questions need answering.

"Why put yourself through this?" is the most innocent one, along with the fear that I'll probably get good just as I get too old to even play. The more painful perspective is: "what if I'm that guy ... the guy with a lot of guitars and gear who can't play?"

That's the crux, folks: staring down this kind of painful, and probably quite realistic doubt matrix. Never mind the disconcerting feature of knowing you're regularly gonna get smoked by somebody less than half your age with twice the talent. The scary part is knowing there's a bit of a hard limit on how far one can get, made worse by an ageing brain and recalcitrant fingers. And a keen awareness of mortality and its suggestions of pointlessness.

But at the same time, maybe this can be liberating. I don't have to put much pressure on myself, and I can it turns out, spend lots of time playing, working away at the rough spots, and encouraging a slower but probably just as valid muscle memory.  Like other (very mixed, mind you) aspects of ageing, there's not much to be done.

A friend told me that when she worried about going back to school for a degree in her forties, her therapist said plainly: "You're going to be 42 anyway, right?"

So I now play 1-2 hours every single day, even travel with a guitar. And while I am constantly arguing with myself about the sadness of getting here too late, I just plain love the guitar, love to play, and still love music as I always have. It's not all bad. I don't need to put pressure on myself. I've got small and simple goals.

Scott owns a Johnny Marr Jaguar

I don't have to worry much about dealing with the more brutal aspects of the music business, and I don't have to be constantly marking territory on the web to build an audience and revenue model.

Being a musician with a day job means you can play what you want, when you want, how you want, and have some cash for pedals and can afford nice guitars such as my newest, most beloved Johnny Marr Jaguar. 

I'm often amazed and just as often depressed when I see ageing rockstars sloughing through their 30-year-old hits, and hate "nostalgia rock" shows. I see a lot of bands in clubs, and have the same worries about the "ageing hipster" demographic I'm representing when out listening to a new indie band.  

But sorry folks - I'm gonna be this old anyway, can appreciate anybody playing at any age, and I'm learning to play myself. And loving it.

Short of dying less fulfilled, not sure there are many other options, so don't be a hater.

Scott McGrath is a Product Manager from Boston, MA, he enjoys playing guitar, drumming and reading Sci-Fi. If you would like to blog for Amped, get in touch with us on our Facebook page.

Even if you don't want to blog for Amped, go like us on Facebook... Or else!

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