Why Play Guitar

How does learning to play the guitar change our well-being in profound ways?
Research suggests that guitar players’ brains work a bit differently to everyone else. Some see this as a sly nod to the oddball genius of some of the masters. On the other hand, there is some physiological evidence here. The art of learning to play the chords and read sheet music opens up new neural pathways. Essentially, a guitarist does rewire their brain in a positive way which leads to all kinds of cognitive benefits.
The benefits of playing guitar can be categorized into 5 distinct areas:
  1. Social Benefits
  2. Personal Benefits
  3. Professional Benefits
  4. Mental Health Benefits
  5. Physical Health benefits
This guide to the advantages of learning to play guitar will look at the key positive points in all five of these categories. Some will be obvious, others could be very surprising.

When we polled some of our guitarist friends on what the guitar means to them, and how playing guitar makes them feel, we expected to find a common theme or two, but we didn’t expect the same words to keep surfacing in the majority of answers we received. ‘Therapeutic’, ‘happy’, ‘creative’, ‘calm’... These words came up time and again. 
We see playing guitar as a form of mindful escapism, a way to create space between an individual and their busy mind. Guitar-playing is beneficial to your overall well-being and mental health in other ways, too, including helping you develop a greater sense of personal achievement. Paul McManus, Chief Executive for UK music charity, tells us: “At Music For All, we see the many benefits that playing a musical instrument can have on the individual. Being able to play that first song on a guitar is quite a defining moment and people feel a real sense of pride.” From the first chord you learn, the guitar is something that will never leave you. Kelly Jones from the Stereophonics explains it like this: “I always remember my old man saying to me, ‘If you have a guitar you’ll never be alone’ and I thought that was a very dramatic thing to say, but now that I’m 43 I’d be fucked without that thing. Because it’s the one thing you can rely on every day. No matter what’s going on, you pick that up and all of a sudden everything feels all right.”

1. Playing guitar is a form of therapy

The benefits of music therapy are becoming ever more apparent, with schools, charities and health organisations using playing the guitar to manage a person’s stress, enhance their memory, improve their communication and motor skills, and to help them feel more able to cope with life. Guitarists have long recognised the therapeutic benefits of playing guitar, as Clark Vogeler of The Toadies testifies: “If I'm having troubles, or something has stressed me out, playing music on a guitar resets me to zero, calms me down, and puts me in a place where I'm ready and able to deal with almost anything.”

2. It’s good for your heart

Music therapy is widely implemented in general health care in the Netherlands, so it’s unsurprising that a group of researchers from the country set out to explore the link between music practice and blood pressure. They studied three guitarists and found that each patient who practiced for over 100 minutes a day showed a significant drop in blood pressure and a lower heart rate compared to those who didn’t.

3. It enhances your creativity

Whether it’s writing original material or reworking a song for your covers band, the guitar is unlike any other instrument for unleashing your creativity. Ok fine, we’ll throw piano in there too. If you need to get creative for other areas of your life, such as writing an essay for school or pulling together some ideas for your boss, picking up the guitar and noodling around for a few minutes can create space in your brain for an inspired idea to drop in. We are all innately creative, even if at times we don’t feel it. Playing guitar reconnects us with our creativity. That in turn helps us express our true authenticity, and when we do that we’re in the Flow. Named by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, Flow (psychology), also known as ‘being in the zone’, refers to those times when you’re fully immersed in and enjoying the job at hand. Playing the guitar can help you get epic Flow, so use it the next time you hit a creative brick wall.

4. It can future-proof your brain

We’ve all seen those stats about brain decline in later life, but did you know that playing guitar can boost your grey matter? Early brain scan studies show that learning to play the guitar, among other musical instruments, not only increases grey matter volume in various regions of the brain, but it strengthens the long-range connections between them.  Sharper brain function can also help protect you against mental decline in your later years. As an added bonus, a dual study conducted by the Mind-Body Wellness Center and Loma Linda University School of Medicine and Applied Biosystems shows that playing guitar can also reduce stress. André Axell of The Great Discord certainly feels this: “A shitty day can get significantly better just by sitting down, plugging in and getting lost for a while.” Paul McManus of Music For All also believes in the future-proofing benefits of playing guitar. “We see more and more people either returning to playing music in later life or even starting for the first time. Making music is a great ‘anti-ageing’ tool as it helps with coordination, concentration and memory.”

5. Playing guitar strengthens your support network...

...if you play in a band or jam regularly with other people. Don’t underestimate how much of a wellness boost you can get from being around like-minded people. Playing guitar with others can also, in time, lead to new friendships and a richer social life.  Rachel Boyd, Information Manager for mental health charity Mind, says that, “Music can also be something we share with friends and family. Social activities can be good for our wellbeing in general, and can strengthen our support networks. Getting together with others who share a passion for music can be a great way to connect, whether that’s listening to music, studying, discussing or playing it.”

6. It enables you to express your feelings

We all have those moments when it’s hard to verbally express our feelings, but many guitarists find it easier to show their emotion, to process their feelings and to feel truly heard through playing the guitar. Kirk Windstein of Crowbar is one such guitarist: “I run through a lot of emotions while playing guitar. It's a perfect vehicle for letting out my feelings,” he tell us. “While playing, I often feel my aggression, my sadness and any anxiety leaving my mind and body.” For some of you, playing the guitar might be a hugely cathartic way to communicate your views, your feelings, passions and fears… Distilling it all into a haunting guitar riff, a blistering solo or a few simple chords – and in a way you might never be able to with words. Jeff Loomis of Arch Enemy finds resonance with this:  “I've always been a fairly shy person in general and one that doesn't talk that much... So guitar playing has always been a way I can express myself to others.”

7. Playing guitar boosts your confidence

Learning to play the guitar can have an enormously positive effect on your self-esteem and confidence. As you learn to play, and continue to improve, chances are you’ll end up playing in front of a family member, a mate, some potential bandmates or even an audience.  Playing guitar in front of others, however scary at first, will build your confidence in expressing yourself publicly and sharing your creativity. This can help you in a study or work context, too, as playing guitar to others inadvertently teaches you ‘presentation skills’, including how to speak to a crowd – even if it is just your mum to begin with. Ultimately, the more you improve at playing guitar the bigger the gains to your self-esteem and confidence. That in turn will give you an increased sense of satisfaction, helping you to feel good about yourself; an important ally in the war against mental health.

8. It helps you to feel part of something bigger

As we now know, there are several ways in which playing the guitar can improve your mental health and overall wellbeing. But perhaps the greatest way is how it connects us to each other. Paul McManus of Music For All has first-hand experience of how the guitar can be a gateway to helping all of us feel connected to something bigger: “One of the great powers of making music is that it brings people together. Music knows no barriers.” It doesn’t matter where in the world you are playing guitar right now. Whether you’re playing alone or with other musicians, know that you are part of a family. One that understands the transformational power of the guitar.