Just like other physical and artistic activities, it is very easy to unknowingly develop bad habits when learning how to play the guitar! These habits can be hard to break and can hinder your overall musical progress.
But fret not! Every bad habit can be broken, the first step is to recognize such habits. In this article, I discuss ten of the most common guitar mistakes I see beginner players make and provide tips on how to address these issues.
1. Using too much force to play
In my experience, the most common mistake beginning guitarists make is using too much force when pressing the string to the fretboard. Using too much force is especially common in beginners because some believe that pressing down on the strings and the act of playing guitar should be physically strenuous. It’s not just with guitar players either; musicians who play other instruments also encounter this same problem of applying more force than necessary to get a good sound.
The truth is, the physical action of playing guitar should feel relatively easy. I don’t mean that it’s easy to play scales, improvise, or play groovy rhythms; I mean the physical act of placing your fingers on the strings and strumming the strings should not feel like a high-intensity workout.
The typical culprit causing guitarists to use too much force is finger positioning.
Remember that whenever you play any note on the guitar, you need to place your finger near the fretwire closest to the body of the guitar (see images below). Don’t actually press down right above the fretwire, but just slightly behind it. This is the point that requires the least pressure to produce a nice and clean note.
Try it out.
The same idea applies to playing chords. Many people have difficulty with the barre chords, and their initial reaction is to press a little harder. Before you know it, your wrist and your thumb start to hurt.
Instead of using more pressure, try adjusting your finger positioning while maintaining a light and effortless touch.
2. Not getting a professional guitar setup
The second common mistake is related to the first because getting a professional setup very often results in an instrument that is easier to play and requires a lot less effort to get good sounding notes.
I’ll admit, I had been playing guitar for about five years before I even knew what a professional guitar setup was!
For those first five years I thought that playing the guitar was supposed to hurt my fingers and that it was normal to get tired after playing for only a couple of minutes. My improvements were slow because I’d often get tired quickly and had difficulty practicing more than half an hour at a time.
As you may know, more practice time clearly means faster improvement.
This all changed when I finally got my guitar set up by a professional. The difference was like night and day; my guitar was suddenly so easy to play, and I could play for two hours straight without stopping!
A professional guitar setup provides a much lower string action. The string action is the distance between the strings and the fretboard. This obviously affects how much pressure you need to press down on the strings, and even fractions of a millimeter can be felt by the hands.
Frequently brand new guitars, especially lower-end models, have high string actions. Even if the guitar was set up at the factory before being shipped out, the string action changes during shipment. The reason for the change is very simple - a guitar’s setup is easily affected by environmental conditions like heat and humidity. Your guitar may leave an American factory with the best setup in the world, but if it ends up in London, where the climate is dramatically different, the setup is going to change.
It is possible to set up your guitar yourself, but I’d definitely suggest taking it to a professional for its very first setup.
3. Going too fast
Going too fast is another common mistake. Mastering good technique takes time and trying to play through a song at tempo after you’ve learned the notes will often lead to developing very bad habits. Build up to faster tempos incrementally, try going at 50% first. At slower speeds, you’re much more capable of focusing and making sure your technique is on point, rather than just blasting off at full speed with sloppy technique.
A very important thing to remember is practice makes things permanent. If you practice sloppy technique, you’re going to permanently have sloppy technique. Perfect practice is what gets a perfect technique.
4. Practicing without a metronome
In the previous section, we talked about slowing down. This is where the metronome comes into play. The metronome is easily the most important practice tool you’ll ever have, and it may be the only practice tool (besides your guitar) that you’ll ever need.
The metronome mainly helps with three things:
- forcing you to slow down while practicing
- giving you a clear idea of your progress while practicing
- building a natural sense of rhythm within you
It’s easy to tell you to practice at a much slower pace, but the tendency is to start practicing a song slowly and then unknowingly speed up to the point where you’re more or less going at full speed by the end of the song. A metronome counters that by giving you a clear indicator to follow; if you speed up or slow down, the metronome will let you know.
The metronome also clearly indicates whether you’re improving or not. Without it, you’ll just be practicing the same song over and over again, without knowing whether you’re actually playing it faster and cleaner or not.
With the metronome, your progress can be tracked by the speed at which the metronome is going. Since you can also increase the speed gradually with the metronome, you’ll also be forced to focus on the cleanliness of your playing.
Finally, the metronome teaches you how to keep a steady tempo that is so important when it comes to playing music.
5. Practicing with too many effects
I know it sounds great to play with your reverb and delay pedals turned on and set to max, but these effects cover up mistakes and sloppy technique. The same can be said about heavy distortion effects.
I don’t mean to say that you shouldn’t practice with these effects turned on; on the contrary, you should do it often! But you don’t want to practice with them turned on all the time.
Split your practice session into 50% with effects turned on, and the other 50% with effects turned off. This way, you will be able to evaluate your technique accurately without a wash of sounds covering up your mistakes.
The same idea applies if you like to roll off the tone knob on your guitar. A nice warm and rounded tone sounds great, but it also covers up many mistakes. Occasionally turn your tone knob all the way up, and also the treble knob on your amp.
6. Inconsistent practice
A lot of playing an instrument comes down to muscle memory. For playing music and many other activities that require complex motor skills, the best way to make these movements feel effortless and automatic is through consistent repetition.
Your playing will show better improvement if you practice consistently at just 15 minutes a day, rather than cramming all your practice into only one 10-hour session per week. The key to muscle memory is really consistency! It’s the same reason why soldiers do the same drills everyday for months at a time.
7. Not learning music theory
Not taking the time to learn music theory is a mistake. People tell me that they avoid learning music theory because they’re afraid that it’d affect how they sound and they’d start playing in a much more “technical” manner. The truth is, most people avoid picking up music theory because some of the concepts can be rather difficult, and it’s difficult to find the patience to sit down and attempt to understand these concepts.
After all, it’s a lot more fun to be playing music than reading about music.
No doubt, learning music theory can be time consuming, and sometimes very frustrating, but learning music theory can very often expedite your understanding of music. The point of music theory is to explain how and why certain chords or notes sound good with other notes. Without it, you’d be simply memorizing chord progressions and scale shapes.
Think of it this way, was there a mathematical or scientific formula you were forced to memorize in school? How much easier was it to remember the formula when you actually understood the concept, in comparison to just blindly memorizing it? It is always much easier to remember things that you understand than just formulas.
Another good analogy is language. Music is a language, and if you simply just memorize words and sentences, rather than understand basic sentence construction, you’re not going to be able to express your thoughts and ideas coherently; you’ll really only be able to regurgitate things that you’ve heard other people say.
8. Trying to learn too much at once
Another mistake made by many beginning guitar players is trying to tackle too many things at once. It happens especially with my students who are highly motivated and very willing to learn. In no way am I saying that being highly motivated is a bad thing, but problems arise when many of us decide to move on to something else before we’ve even mastered the song we were previously working on.
Learning all your scale shapes and all the modes is a great objective, and eventually, if you’re hardworking and disciplined enough, you will be able to learn them all. But it is better to get really good at one or two things than to be mediocre at a hundred things.
Bruce Lee once said, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” Very relevant to playing music.
9. Limiting your musical tastes
This is a mistake that I’ve been guilty of, and it’s embarrassing to admit it because, at the end of the day, the only way to fix this is to check your own ego. If you’ve ever caught yourself saying something like, “the music I listen to is the only real music out there,” then you’re probably guilty of this too.
The truth is, all music is real music. Music itself is such a spiritual and subjective thing that everyone will have very different tastes. Don’t take the kind of music you listen to as part of your identity because that often results in us boxing ourselves into a single genre. Every form of music has something to teach us; every genre is another dialect of the language of music. Don’t make the mistake of only listening to one dialect.
Additionally, once you’re willing to start exploring other genres of music, you may be quite surprised at what kind of music speaks to you. For example, I used to only listen to straight up Alternative Rock music because it was the in thing, and I thought that Blues was for older people.
Once I got over myself and started listening to Blues, it ended up becoming the genre that introduced me to my favorite artists and jazz, and it’s also the one genre that I always go back to listening. I never felt that way about Alternative Rock. Who knew huh?
10. Getting too caught up with perfection
Only machines can play music perfectly, and even then, would you rather listen to a person play a piano or a machine? What makes us human is our inconsistencies and the little quirks that we pick up while practicing. This is why everyone sounds so different from each other; we all have our own quirks.
Oftentimes during performances, we get way too caught up in playing everything perfectly, which tenses our entire body. If your mind is restricted because of the pressure to play perfectly, your body is going to be restricted as well. Your inability to free your mind will result in the inability to have freedom of movement as you play.
For those of you who have performed before, have you ever noticed that you often play much better during performances which you don’t particularly care about?
What about those performances in which you had a lot of pressure to do well? I’m willing to bet that you made a lot of mistakes. Why else do you think you play so much better when you’re alone at home? The pressure to perform perfectly isn’t there.
Of course, it’s easy to tell people to stop being so hard on themselves and that perfection is really only reserved for robots, but trying to let go of all the pressure is really hard! A book that I’ve found helpful with this is called Effortless Mastery by Kenny Werner. Effortless Mastery covers techniques to overcome mental pressure and fear-based practicing, teaching, and playing using mindfulness techniques. The book also spends a lot of time exploring the concepts of the “flow state,” a psychological state that promotes peak performance popularized by Hungarian-American psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.
Obviously, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to practice perfectly, because perfect practice results in perfect technique. How you should see it is that performing and practicing are two different things. When you’re practicing, focus on getting everything as perfect as you can; when you’re performing, it no longer matters if you’re perfect or not. Turn off your mind and the inner critic, and just play.
The Physical and Psychological Connection
As you can see, the common guitar mistakes I’ve pointed out so far deal with both the physical and psychological aspects of playing music.
The final, and most important point to remember is that the mind and the body are one.
What and how you play often reflects the state of your mind. When you feel tense, you sound tense; when you’re in a hurry, you sound rushed. After all, music is about expressing how we feel.
With all that in mind, it is important to remember the best way to keep improving with music is to have a good time. Be positive. Enjoy your practice sessions, and enjoy all your performances, even the ones that end in disaster.
At the end of the day, music should be fun!
About the Author: Ze
Ze first began his journey playing original music and top 40s pop tunes around the country's popular venues. Eventually, through the music of John Mayer, he found a strong attraction to blues music. Ze has years of experience teaching beginners and intermediate guitarists. Currently with Liberty Park Music he is teaching Introduction to Guitar Playing for Complete Beginners, Rhythm Guitar to learn about strumming, chords and more, Guitar Essentials as a fast-track review course, and lots of Song Lessons on pop and rock hits.