I totally get a non-musician asking the question. It makes sense, it’s not offensive… it’s looking for a very general answer. It might give someone a sense of beginner or expert. That said “I’ve been playing guitar X years” is a pretty worthless answer.
The first three years I played guitar, I didn’t learn much. I took lessons, but didn’t practice. I could play a couple of riffs, but no full songs. I didn’t know how to improvise. I had a terrible ear. I just didn’t practice much in those first few years. Steve Vai probably put in more hours on the fretboard in his first three years than I put in over my first twenty. No joke.
A Word from Mister Vai
“I never thought I’d amount to anything in the grand scheme of things. I thought everything I could do, I’m sure everybody could do. But the one thing I didn’t realize is that I was spending 10, 15 hours a day learning how to do it.” – Steve Vai
Math Is Fun!
Let’s do some math, shall we? 1 hour/week x 50 weeks/year = 50 hours/year. That’s probably where I was for the first couple of years I played. However, 1 hour/day x 300d/year = 300 hours/year. 4 hours/day x 300d/year = 1200 hours/year. 8 hours/day x 300d/year = 2400 hours/year. If I kept at the “one hour a week” thing it would take me 24 years to get as much time on the fretboard as someone playing 4 h/day. 24 years. And according to every Vai interview I’ve seen, he put in a lot more than that (see above)… even as an average.
So “I’ve played guitar 5 years” could mean a lot of different things. You might very well be a complete beginner after 5 years… or you could be professionally gigging.
It’s also about deliberate practice. It’s not just raw hours, it’s what you do with them It’s how focused you are on getting better with that time. See my post on “5 Ways To Get The Most of Limited Practice Time” for more on that. The book “Talent is Overrated” also talks a lot about deliberate practice, and the concept behind that. It’s a great read, highly recommended.
The general concept of Deliberate Practice comes down to a few things:
- It’s specifically designed to improve performance – who’s designing it, are they qualified?
- It can be repeated a lot – it’s in the “learning zone,” and improvement needs frequency
- Feedback on results is continuously available – this is tricky with things like rhythm practice, how do you really know if you’re off – in the moment?
- It’s highly mentally demanding – no “autopilot”
- It isn’t (inherently) much fun – “if it were, everyone would be a master.” I’ve found a way to find joy and fun in even mundane practice. Once you get to that state, you’re in a good spot to improve.
So you can sit down and noodle over the same diatonic chord progression you’ve jammed over for years, and do it for hours and days without getting much better. You need to have the mindset of “what can I learn today” not “how much time can I spent today.”
So, how long have you been playing?
I won’t get offended if you say “five years.” Just keep in mind it doesn’t mean a whole lot. It might be better, at least when talking to other musicians, to talk about what you can do – “good at improvising, can’t play metal, can read okay, good ear but bad timing, big repertoire of rock but don’t really improvise, etc.”