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I took piano lessons for six-seven years, and became rather advanced despite having poor practice etiquette, even learning some of Bach's two-part inventions, but when I tried to learn guitar, I never really seemed to make much progress, and ended up quitting after failing to learn more than three chords.

Is it possible that a person may be able to play one instrument (like piano) but not another (like guitar)? Or, is it possible, in a case like mine, that poor practice didn't impede my ability to learn the piano but did affect my ability to learn the guitar?

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    i feel like the only thing you would need to do to play guitar is start playing it again and just never quit. It's not so much that you failed to learn it as much as you decided to stop learning it. – Todd Wilcox May 19 '16 at 7:16
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    I don't think there is a person that can learn only one instrument. You can learn as many as you want. But many people, after practicing 6-7 (and many more) years to get good at a specific instrument, don't really want (or have time/will) to spend so many years on another one – Shevliaskovic May 19 '16 at 8:30
  • @Shevliaskovic - I'm with you half way. If a player is good on one instrument, he may feel that as a beginner he's not good on the second, so is disheartened enough to stop. OTOH, as a muso, he's half way there with theory, which may spur him on, understanding how music works, but translating it onto a different format. – Tim May 19 '16 at 9:03
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    Only by looking at the heading: I know someone who can play the harmonica but neither piano nor the guitar, because his mother took a sedative called Thalidomide... – Alexander May 19 '16 at 15:30
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    How old were you at the start of those 6-7 years of piano lessons? How old were you when you 'tried to learn guitar' (without a teacher, I surmise)? – AakashM May 20 '16 at 8:19
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Depends on what you mean by "may be able". Different instruments and music styles and instruments and practice material pose different hurdles and motivation for different people. That's not specific to playing music but any skill.

The less discipline you have, the more you are dependent on upcoming hurdles and short-time rewards matching your current inclinations.

It is well possible that had you started on the guitar first that the piano would not have provided enough additional incentives for learning another instrument either.

  • I agree very much with this. The only real limitations are disabilities/injuries/etc. – Matthew Read May 19 '16 at 7:03
  • Great point about which one you start with (+1). Especially since guitar and piano are so different in both the logic of finding the notes and the manner they are physically played. I think it's harder to go from guitar to piano or vice versa than to go from say guitar to bass or saxophone to flute. – Rockin Cowboy May 19 '16 at 17:36
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If you have the drive and dedication to get over the initial awkward and difficult learning curve then I don't see why you can't play any instrument you want. When I first started guitar at the age of 15 I played for probably about 3 weeks or so and then "quit" because I was getting so frustrated and felt like I'd never be able to get it. After about 3 months I went back to it and made up my mind that I'd stick with it and I did. Now 19+ years later, I'm still playing.

I will say that guitar is a much more difficult instrument to get started with initially than piano. Even a young child can play a C major chord on piano on the first try with ease when shown which keys to press. That is a totally different beast when you try to play a C major chord on guitar for the first time. Your fingers may not stretch far enough, your finger tips hurt from pressing the strings, the notes are muted or buzzing because you're not pressing hard enough, etc. It can take minutes of tweaking and readjusting just to get ONE lousy chord to sound half-way good. Yes, this happens to ALL new guitar players.

My main instrument is drums and I've encountered people who think they can't play drums because they can't do the coordination. But those people have never actually tried to learn it. Sure the coordination is very weird at first and trying to get your limbs to play something different isn't easy. Like trying to play straight quarter notes with the right hand on the hihat and then play a double on the bass drum with the right foot but the hand automatically follows the foot. Those two lock up together and won't separate. It's definitely weird and difficult in the beginning. But with practice you do get better at it.

The key thing to be aware of when first learning an instrument is that over time through repetition your body develops "muscle memory" and this is what allows you to play the instrument with ease. The initial hurdle is hard to get over because every chord is a struggle and it doesn't ever seem like it's going to get easier. But once you develop that muscle memory it becomes second nature like walking or riding a bike and you don't have to really think about how to play a C major, G minor, etc. You can then focus your attention on making music. That's when playing becomes less tedious and a whole lot more fun.

Did you take lessons on guitar also or did you try to learn on your own? Having a teacher show you correct technique right off the bat will likely help you progress faster and your muscles will learn the right way to play. I'm completely self taught and had played for several years with bad technique that I later discovered and had to correct...and that was extremely frustrating! lol

So in summary, if you can find a good guitar teacher that will be a great help to get you going in the right direction. But most importantly you have to stick with it and practice consistently. Over time you will get it. Everyone goes through those same problems you experienced, without exception! :)

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    I disagree that guitar is more difficult to get started with than piano, or vice versa – they just require somewhat different skills initially. Sure, on piano you can very easily get single chords right, but to actually play music you need to develop rather more rythmic coordination (probably easy if you play drums, but not otherwise) than guitar, where once you can finger two chords you can just strum on with the other hand and play a remarkable lot of songs somewhat satisfyingly. At any rate, both guitar and piano are very easy compared with most other instruments. – leftaroundabout May 19 '16 at 11:27
  • I totally agree that guitar can be more frustrating in the very beginning than piano for the reasons you cited (+1). As a rank beginner on piano, it's easier to play some notes and it doesn't hurt. The initial pain and frustration involved with learning guitar often prompts would be guitarist to give up. @leftaroundabout makes a valid point in that once you get past the steep beginning learning curve and pain, & get into more advanced technique on either instrument, the new guitarist can reach the ability to expand their repertoire more rapidly than the pianist. Both take dedication. – Rockin Cowboy May 19 '16 at 17:32
  • @leftaroundabout, but you need to develop rhythmic coordination when playing guitar as well. So the difficulties that go with playing 'music' also applies to guitar. My point was that guitar adds an extra hurdle at the beginning just to get started that piano doesn't have. The first bit of time spent learning guitar is not even close to making anything resembling music. It's building up hand muscles, callouses, finger stretching, etc. just to play a few chords, in addition the right hand for strumming is totally different, and after all of that THEN you move on to learning how to make 'music'. – Tekkerue May 20 '16 at 1:38
  • @Tekkerue: I remember none of this muscle/callous/stretching stuff from my first guitar lessons, but perhaps I've forgotten. (I learned classical guitar, as I would recommend to everybody; if you start out with western guitar it's obviously a lot more physically demanding.) – leftaroundabout May 20 '16 at 8:59
  • @leftaroundabout, yes, nylon strings are easier on the hands/fingers than steel strings. Steel strings require more pressure to press the strings and cut more into your finger tips causing them to hurt, which is where developing hand muscles and callouses come in. Finger stretching should also be a factor on classical since you still have to stretch your fingers to reach the chords. If you think you have forgotten how hard it is when first learning, hand your guitar to someone who doesn't play and show them some chords. I used to give guitar lessons, so I got a regular dose of it. lol – Tekkerue May 20 '16 at 13:17
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There are two basic hurdles to learning a new instrument - the theory, and the technique. For someone who is competent at one instrument, it shouldn't be hard for them to pick up the theory of playing a different one.

However, different instruments have different technique challenges. Piano and guitar are relatively simple - it's just a question of where to place your fingers. Other instruments, like brass and woodwind, are (in my opinion) far more challenging. A piano player will probably find it easier to adapt to playing guitar than the flute.

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    Which is funny, because as a Woodwind player, I would come here and say that instruments like Guitar and Piano are much harder to learn. – SGR May 19 '16 at 14:05
  • Oddly enough, I've played piano most of my life. I own a guitar, and found it quite challenging to get to any level of competence playing it. But when I picked up a clarinet, after the 45 minutes of just figuring out how to get any sound at all out of the thing, I was able to get halfway-decent pretty quickly. (Not sure how well that translates to flute - I do know that I was able to get a sound of a borrowed flute within a few seconds, so not as difficult as the clarinet, but I understand the fingering is somewhat more complex.) – Darrel Hoffman May 19 '16 at 21:26
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While most answers bring valuable assessments, I would also add the fact that you need to accomodate with the instrument you want to play.

Piano players think their instrument differently than guitarist do, same for drums players.

So, added to the fact that you must build up your skill, supposedly try to get a teacher or understanding how instrument works, you should as well think of how you want to work with the specificity of the instrument.

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Barring physical disability, anyone CAN play any instrument.

The easier Bach Inventions are regularly set for Grade 5 examinations, so in 6/7 years, regularly prodded by a teacher but not practicing much, you made rather less than average progress. This indicates a degree of talent, I suppose!

Are you taking guitar lessons, or trying to teach yourself?

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It is my understanding that some instruments require much more skill in distinguishing notes from one another than others (at least if you want to play well). In music class in elementary school, before selecting band instruments, the teacher gave us each a test, playing two notes on the piano (with her hands hidden from me) and asking which was higher repeatedly. (There's a site that gives this test over the Internet now). I did poorly on that test, which indicated I was somewhat tone-deaf. That indicated I'd be pretty hopeless trying to learn an instrument like the violin or trombone where I couldn't tell if I was playing out of tune, but an instrument like the clarinet, where holes are either covered or not, or the piano, where you hit one key or another, would be better. The test was to help you to select an appropriate instrument, not for a grade.

You can learn how distinguish tones better. But the school wanted to have a concert at the end of the semester, and learning how to distinguish tones AND basic violin playing probably wouldn't happen in time.

You might be able to play any instrument eventually, but the learning curve will be much steeper for the tone-deaf trying to learn certain instruments.

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I can understand and relate to your frustration. My mother was an accomplished pianist and taught piano. But when she tried guitar, she gave up quickly. She kept the guitar and so growing up I had access to both instruments. I became enamoured with guitar after starting on piano so I have experience learning both.

The good news is that if you really have the desire to learn to play guitar, and can play piano, there is absolutely no reason you can't develop the ability to play guitar well. But I would suggest that in some respects, learning piano first and then trying to learn guitar, probably makes learning guitar more frustrating than if you had never learned piano in the first place.

Once you learn any instrument you tend to forget how difficult it was in the beginning. In contrast to piano, the guitar involves more physical pain with thin strings on tender finger tips! And each chord on guitar requires you to train your brain to get your fingers and hands to contort into very strange shapes that are completely different from one chord to the next (until you get past the open chords and start learning movable barre chords). Whereas on piano, you can simply move a basic finger alignment up and down the keyboard to play different chords in the key of C (and A minor) with only slight shifts in hand/finger position when black keys come into play.

Another factor involved in guitar that is counterintuitive in the beginning for piano players is the fact that it takes a coordinated action using both hands to play one note or chord on guitar. And the right hand (strumming hand if you are right handed) is responsible for maintaining the rhythm while the left hand is responsible for pressing the correct strings at the right place to make notes and chords. It takes awhile to get used to this, especially after learning piano first where your left and right hand work more independently.

So after learning to play piano, attempting to switch to guitar is potentially more frustrating because of the very different way each instrument is played.

I have a good friend and fellow songwriter who took piano as a child and composed most of her music on piano. As she became more dedicated to her songwriting, she decided to learn guitar so she could present her original music to a wider audience by traveling to open mics, song critiques etc. She gave up after her first attempt but with my encouragement she tried again a year later. Two years after re-starting guitar lessons she is playing guitar better than I am and guitar is my main instrument!

It may have helped that I installed my Custom Finger Friendly String Set for Beginning Guitarist on her guitar to minimize the pain involved in the beginning stages. She found that her background in piano was helpful from a music theory perspective and she had developed finger independence in both hands from playing piano which helped with guitar. Also, playing piano helps develop a sense of timing and rhythm that can translate to guitar. But the logic of the layout of notes on the guitar fretboard vs. piano keyboard was a source of frustration for her in the beginning.

If you really have a strong desire to learn guitar, you can do it (no doubt) but you may have to re-program your thought process and understand that it will take a great deal of deliberate, intentional, dedicated practice to get past the steep learning curve in the very beginning. That is where most aspiring guitarist give up. Piano has a steadier more even learning curve that may actually get steeper as you become more advanced compared to guitar - which has a super steep learning curve in the beginning due to the many factors previously discussed.

So I see your challenge as resigning yourself to the fact that the first 6 months of learning guitar you may not feel you are making the same progress as you did during the first 6 months on piano. And that is probably very frustrating to you! Just accept that as a normal part of learning guitar.

The good news is, that once you get past that initial very steep learning curve and develop the muscle memory to play a few basic chords and get comfortable with some basic right hand rhythm, it gets much much easier to continue to improve your skills on the guitar. If you can just get up that first hill - it's not necessarily down hill from there (still takes regular intentional practice) but it gets so much easier you will feel like it's downhill compared to the very beginning.

Be sure your guitar is set up for optimal playing ease and comfort. Consider starting with lighter strings (click the link above for the most comfortable steel string set available). It would be extremely helpful to take lessons in the beginning from a teacher who can demonstrate proper technique and help you overcome the initial obstacles by showing you more effective ways to do what you might be struggling with. If you can find a teacher that also plays piano, they might be better equipped to understand how to explain how what you must learn to play guitar differs from piano.

Getting from home plate to first base batting left handed versus right handed is the hardest part. Getting the rest of the way around the bases is much the same from one instrument to the other and your piano background will eventually become an asset to your advancement on guitar.

Enjoy your new journey. Just remember - it starts excruciatingly slowly but gets really fun once you get the momentum going! Good luck!

  • Not sure about your 3rd para. Chord shapes on keyboard/piano are not that similar, with different mixes of black and white keys to press, but on guitar, once you've cracked barre chords, the change from one to another might only be moving a few frets, and not even changing fingers, just neck position. Or did I read it wrong? – Tim May 20 '16 at 12:55
  • Black keys is why I said "slight variations" and I was not including barre chords in the comparison because barre chords are not the chords you learn in the beginning stages of learning guitar. I'll see if I can make that more clear with an edit. – Rockin Cowboy May 20 '16 at 16:35
  • A bit of fun! Major triads(root positions) on pno. have six varieties! WWW, BWB, WBW, BBB, BWW and WBB. Which is as many combinations as 3 things can have, thinking about it. Commonest - WBW and BWB with 3 chords each. – Tim May 20 '16 at 16:42
  • @Tim I get your point - but guitar chords have far more varieties when you throw in major, minor, 7ths, diminished etc. and I'm just talking first position open chords. Each major chord has a completely dissimilar shape requiring a completely different finger orientation. And each guitarist may use a different fingering to play the same shape (how do you play a first position A major chord?). At least with piano your fingers are usually aligned side by side in numerical order (or reverse numerical depending on which hand). – Rockin Cowboy May 20 '16 at 16:56
  • Often with extended chords on gtr. the original fingering is kept, and another finger added,(or taken away), whereas on pno. move from a triad to say, a 7th, and the fingering usually needs changing a lot. And there's the same problem on pno. when we get to min., dim., etc. My A? middle, ring and pinky, with index on 3rd string, 1st fret, 'cos E will often come next! Although it will depend where I came from and where I'm going next. Having said that, I rarely play the open A. – Tim May 20 '16 at 17:06

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