10,000 hours and becoming a better guitarist



You may have heard of the 10,000 hours rule to becoming a master at any skill, and in this article we are going to talk about how this applies to practising and improving our guitar playing.

Simply put, the 10,000 hours rule states that in order to become a master at a subject, you have to put in at least 10,000 hours of practice. 

In this article we’ll talk about the rule, where it came from, it’s consequences and  how we can apply it to becoming better guitar players.

Where did the 10,000 rule come from?

The 10,000 hours rule was first popularised in a book called “Outliers”, by Malcom Gladwell. 

In the book, Gladwell was researching why some people become exceptional in their fields, and others remained mediocre. 

What is it that master practitioners do that makes them a great mathematician, chess player… or guitarist?

Is it talent… or something else?

In the book he firmly dispels the myth that talent is something genetic, something that we are born with.

He shows that talent comes from hard work and dedicated practice that stretches the individual and pushes their abilities.

After studying multiple people across a variety of fields, Gladwell came to the conclusion that becoming a master of any subject or skill takes roughly 10,000 hours of dedicated practice.

Practice maths: How long will it take you to master guitar?

This number allows us to answer the question that has plagued guitar players since the start of time:

How long will it take me to learn guitar?

This is a very vague question that is not very helpful. To paraphrase Tony Robbins, asking better questions gets better answers.

So we can ask the question, “How long it take me to accrue 10,000 hours of practice?”.

Let’s assume that we practice 5 days a week, and vary the amount of time put into practicing on each of those 5 days:

30 mins: 77 years

| 1 hour | 38 years | | 2 hours | 19 years | | 3 hours | 13 years | | 4 hours | 10 years |

(Rounded to the nearest year)

Something I’ve mentioned in a previous article is that part of [what determines our ability level on guitar is daily time invested into practising]({{ < ref “/blog/2021-03-09-what-determines-your-ability-on-guitar“ >}}).

The above numbers give us some guidelines that we can use to calibrate our expectations and budget our time.

If we are only practising for 30 minutes a day, then it is unreasonable to expect to become a master at playing guitar. 

We will make some improvement, but we shouldn’t expect to become a master player.

Conversely, if our goal is to become a master guitar player, we now know that we need to consistently practice for at least 4 hours a day for 10 years.

We now know how much time we need to budget for practising.

Note: If you are going to practice for 4 hours a day, you need to slowly build up to this. If you increase your practice time from 30 minutes a day to 4 hours a day overnight, you will likely give yourself RSI.

Practising that much will require building up to it slowly over weeks or even months, managing breaks and stretching or even light yoga to help strengthen and relax your tendons and nerves.

10,000 hours in practice: What should those hours be spent on?

Now, there is a bit more to becoming a better guitar player than practising for 10,000 hours.

You don’t have to go far to find guitar players lamenting that they have put hours and hours of practice in, only to find they are not improving.

In fact, practising and not improving is one of the big reasons [intermediate level guitar players seek out an instructor]({{ < ref “/blog/2021-07-19-a-comparison-of-different-methods-of-learning-guitar“ >}}), to help them start to make progress.

So there are people putting in them hours to practice…. So why do some guitarists put in 10,000 hours and become masters at the instrument, and some put in 10,000 hours and barely improve?

The difference is in what they are doing. 

In another article, we looked at [the difference between practising guitar, and playing guitar]({{ < ref “/blog/2021-03-10-are-you-practising-or-playing-guitar“ >}}), and  this is the factor at play. 

When Malcom Gladwell wrote Outliers, he had asked the above question, but with chess players,

“Why do some chess players put in the work and become grand masters, and other chess players remain mediocre?”

It turns out, the answer was to do with what he termed ‘deliberate practice’. 

It was the difference between putting time into playing lots and lots of chess games, and putting time into studying how the game of chess worked, practising different situations and analysing previous games.

This concept, that improvement at a skill comes from deliberate practice, applies across all skills and disciplines, including improving our guitar playing. 

So what does deliberate practice mean for a guitar player wanting to improve?

This means sitting down and practising with a metronome. 

If you’re playing the same old songs every time you pickup your guitar, you are not practising, you’re playing.

Practising involves a mental strain that is tiring. 

It means working through increasingly challenging material, purposely developing your technique and finding harder and harder ways to push your playing. 

It means working to a metronome, deconstructing the rhythm, isolating specific sections that are difficult to practice, making sure every note is in the correct place in time and correctly pitched for bends.

This isn’t to say that you should stop learning songs altogether. 

Parts of songs can be used as exercises in deliberate practice. 

But, the idea is that if you do use songs, they are used deliberately. 

How master practitioners split up their practice time

Gladwell found that most grand masters split their 10,000 hours in the following way:

  • 50% deliberate practice
  • 50% playing matches

In general, if you want to progress faster, then putting more time into practising will help you progress faster, but you don’t want to entirely neglect learning songs, jamming with friends and playing songs in a band (if that’s what you want to do).

How can we manipulate the 10,000 rule to our advantage?

It might be interest to investigate if any famous guitar players have followed the 10,000 hours rule.

History is littered with guitarists who have taken a dedicated approach to practising guitar and cranking up those practice hours.

When Yngwie Malmsteen was a teenager, he would skip school to practice guitar, and would even fall asleep with it.

Steve Vai famously published his 9 hour guitar work out that he would work through.

Michael Angelo Batio has said that he spent several years working on his picking technique for hours a day, to build it up to the level he reached.

George Bellas works on his playing from dawn until dusk (and sometimes more!).

10,000 hours… The goal… Or the start?

10,000 hours is an enormous amount of work to put into practising guitar, and if you put the time in, you will see the results in your playing.

But you wouldn’t put 10,000 hours in… and then stop playing.

A lot of top tier professionals would view 10,000 as the starting point.

With any skill, especially guitar playing, there is always something else you can learn, improve, figure out, or have a go at. 

Conclusion

Hopefully this article has been useful, and serves as a way to calibrate your expectations from your playing. 

The internet is filled with countless “here is the one thing you need improve your guitar playing” lessons and courses, and hopefully you can see that there are no shortcuts, the one thing we all need to improve is careful practice… and maybe more time!

It is possible to achieve great things with your guitar playing and now you know how much work it is going to take.