A year of guitar and the magic of small, consistent actions

I picked up a guitar for the first time a year ago. Because my hands are small, I followed the online advice to buy a smaller instrument and ordered a Taylor GS Mini. Even though it’s a 7/8-sized guitar, it felt like holding a coffee table in my lap.

The first few months were a struggle. Stringed instruments have always intimidated me, and the guitar was no different. It took me a few weeks just to figure out which tuning pegs went with which string and what direction to turn each peg to make the string go sharp or flat. I memorized “Eddie Ate Dynamite. Good Bye, Eddie” to tune each string, then couldn’t remember which string was the top string and which one was the bottom string.

Then came the actual playing, or “playing.” I buzzed every note, and each chord shape brought a new finger contortion. I took some online group lessons, and stretching my index and pinky fingers across four frets for the exercises was a no-go, even on the higher frets (which are closer together). I even gave myself tennis elbow from squeezing too hard on the neck. Chord changes were (and often still are) a mad scramble to get my fingers from one position to another.

Then three months later, as if I wasn’t challenged enough, I decided to focus on classical guitar. I found a local teacher and, on his recommendation, bought a full-sized classical guitar (an even bigger coffee table on my lap). I was such a newbie to all things guitar that I couldn’t start on Book 1 of the workbooks he uses–I had to start on the PRE Book 1, and even that was a struggle. Although I can read music, I had no idea where the corresponding notes are on the fretboard, so every single note required a few seconds of mental buffering. My tone was so bad my teacher joked it sounded like a trombone.

So if you told me a year ago that I would be working on this Book 3 piece a year later, I would’ve suggested maybe backing off your dispensary purchases.

Can I play it perfectly yet? No, but that’s not the point. The fact I’m working on this at all is a miracle to me. I didn’t think I’d be near this kind of music for years. My classical guitar now feels comfortable and my GS Mini feels tiny. Who knew?

I don’t practice every day, although I’m getting closer. If I take missed days into account, I average about 45 minutes of practice a day. I’m now at the point where incremental improvements are harder and require more practice time, but I’m thrilled that I got over the initial hump. Most people who attempt guitar quit within the first year, and I can understand why. Learning anything new is incredibly frustrating, and when people say you have to practice 10 hours a day to get better, it’s discouraging as well.

But improvement doesn’t require heroics, especially not at first. Even if you set lofty goals and fail, you’ll fail upward. Want to practice 2 hours and get only 15 minutes? That’s 15 minutes you didn’t have before, and my teacher tells me that even 15 minutes of practice, when done with concentrated focus, can make a big difference. Want to write 1000 words but get only 500? That’s 500 words you didn’t have before. And so on.

The key is consistency. You’ll improve faster with 30 minutes of daily practice than 3.5 hours once a week. What I’ve also found is that doing a small amount of guitar practice or writing each day makes me want to do more. A win all around.

New Year’s resolutions tend to fall apart this time of year, so I hope you go easy on yourself, reassess, and get back on the horse. Small, consistent habits aren’t glamorous, or even noteworthy, but they’re incredibly powerful.

If you want more information about building habits, James Clear has a great book called Atomic Habits and an excellent weekly newsletter (he’s much less wordy than I am, in case you’re concerned). Good luck and have fun!