Do you have any bad habits as a guitarist? Have they stemmed from the embryonic stages of learning guitar? Have you managed to solve these habits yet?
It’s easy to look back on the early days of your guitar learning journey and think with hindsight as to the things you could have, or should have done. Particularly for self-taught learners, there’s no one there to pick up on your bad habits and find a remedy for them – you probably don’t even know you’re doing them.
However, if you can learn to identify these bad habits as early as possible, you’ll get rid of them quicker and they won’t hold you back when it comes to learning more difficult techniques, styles and songs.
So, we want to give you an idea of some of the most common bad habits that beginner guitarists are likely to pick up, as well as some good habits to get into the practice of doing. Some of these are physical things you can do/not do in terms of actually playing the guitar, whilst others are more mental factors, so begin your guitar journey as mindfully as you can taking these habits into consideration when you pick up your guitar.
Play every day
Even if it’s just for five minutes to practise that major scale, or to nail a few chord transitions – try to play your guitar every day. We’re not necessarily talking an hour or two every single day – this just isn’t feasible for most people – but even when you know you can’t commit to a proper practice session, just remind yourself of that chord shape you were finding tricky, or that strumming pattern you were having trouble with. Then, the next time you come to play, you might surprise yourself with your progress and you won’t have completely forgotten it!
There’s a few really simple things you can do to encourage yourself to play everyday. For example, don’t put your guitar away in its case every time you finish playing – it then becomes a physical and mental effort to take it out when you next think about playing. Plus, it’s a faff! Put your guitar on a stand somewhere that you spend a lot of time, then you’ll feel more inclined to pick it up when boredom strikes.
Fret the small stuff
It’s embarrassing to mention really, but one little thing that I didn’t learn the importance of for a long time was fretting notes properly. By this, I specifically mean the placement of your fingers when you are pressing down on a note. For longer than I dare to admit, I was just putting my finger on the string somewhere in the middle of the fret, whereas instead, I should have been pressing it right up against the next fret (see the diagram below).
As you may or may not already know, this produces a much cleaner and clearer sound than pressing down in the middle, or the bottom of the fret, as I was doing, which makes a dull, sometimes buzzing tone (try it now and hear the difference!).
Not having a teacher meant I didn’t know this, and the videos I watched didn’t address things like this – they just taught you songs. Nonetheless, always try to think about this when you’re practising: try playing a scale getting as clean a sound from each note as possible, or strum single chords taking notice of where each finger is positioned. It can be difficult to do this with some chord shapes, for example, the A chord is one where you won’t be able to get all of your fingers in the ‘sweet spot’, or the C chord might require you to stretch a bit, but just focus on not making any unwanted sounds.
Another technique that I didn’t learn as a beginner guitarist was how to properly mute strings. Essentially, ‘muting’ is gently touching, but not actually fretting a note, so that when the string is plucked, no resonance is produced – just a dull, barely audible sound.
This comes into play much more when you are strumming chords and not wanting to play every single string. However, in my experience, I would often learn the chord sequence to a song and strum away without taking any notice of the strings that you shouldn’t be playing. If you can integrate this idea into your playing at an early stage, you’ll become a much more accomplished player, much quicker.
For instance, some open chords that you learn as a beginner, such as an E or a G, require you to strum all six strings, whereas others like an A or a C only require the top five strings. With these basic open chords, it isn’t so much about muting the unwanted strings, but aiming just for the ones you want. A handy exercise to try here is ‘chord target practice’ where you place a post-it note on the body of your guitar and try to strum the full chord without hitting any unwanted strings – and without looking. Take a look at the video below:
In some instances, you might have to mute the the low E string to avoid playing it in your strumming of the chord. This can mean gently resting the end of your finger or thumb on the unwanted string. You can still practise this with open chords: try muting the low E string by wrapping your thumb around the neck whilst playing a D or C chord.
Learn whole songs
Another huge mistake you can make as a beginner is not learning WHOLE songs. It’s definitely something I was guilty of; you’d be listening to a track you like and then you quickly search for a tab to that riff you want to learn. You learn it, you play it a few times and you think ‘awesome! I can play this song now!’, but can you really say that you know the whole song?
Don’t worry if this sounds a bit like you – it’s something pretty much every guitarist has done at some point. Of course, riffs are often the most fun part of a song to play because they’re catchy and that’s what hooked you in, but there’s much greater value in learning a whole song. For one, you begin to gain an understanding of how songs are structured and this becomes invaluable practice for when you start writing your own material.
Also, when it comes to playing in front of people, they’re going to be way more impressed if you can play a whole song, top to bottom, rather than a handful of unrelated riffs.
All of this aside, it’s a fantastic feeling to be able to add a whole piece of music to your own personal songbook. To quote Big Thief’s front-woman, Adrianne Lenker:
“Sit with a guitar and learn a new piece. I know it will be so hard to do at first, but at the other end, you’ll feel richer in this deep way—you have the riches that no one can take from you.”
Train your ear
If there’s one thing that will definitely make you an overall better musician in the grand picture of things, it’s learning to train your ear from as early a point as possible. I remember being amazed, age 12, that my guitarist friend could tune his guitar without using a tuner! How did he get to that point so quickly? The simple answer: ear training.
As a beginner guitarist, you needn’t go into this too deeply but there’s some really easy things you can do to set you on your way.
- Pick an open string note and hum it as you play it: this way, you’ll begin to get accustomed to how certain strings sound in relation to each other. Eventually, you might even be able to identify the string that’s being played without having to look.
- Use the 4/5th fret method to tune your guitar: If you can tune your low E string spot on (use a tuner to start with), you can then tune the rest of the strings without the need for a tuner of any kind. You can do this by playing the same note on a lower string and then tuning accordingly, for example:
- The 5th fret on the low E string is the same note as an open A string
- The 5th fret on the A string is the same as an open D string
- The 5th fret on the D string is the same as an open G string
- The 4th fret on the G string is the same as an open B string
- The 5th fret on the B string is the same as an open (high) E string
One way you could practise this would be to have your tuner near-by, then you can check after each note to see how close or far out you are from being in tune.
- Listen to a simple melody from a song you like and try to sketch out the ‘shape’ of the melody. Does it start on a high or a low note? Does it go up or down after that?
Ear training might sound daunting at first, but even if you consider yourself ‘tone deaf’, you can teach yourself to get better – it’s just about experience really. If you can hear the difference between a mouse squeak and a dog barking, then you can already tell high sounds apart from low ones – ear training is just a process of developing and fine-tuning this skill.
Try Mental Practice
This might seem like a weird one, but you can actually practise when you’re away from home or when you haven’t even got a guitar in your hands.
Scientific research has shown that although mental practice by itself isn’t as effective as physical practice, a combination of physical and mental practice can be just as or more effective than physical practice alone (study).
As a beginner, you might practise forming different chord shapes, just with your hand, or mentally playing through a simple riff to ingrain it into your memory. Picture the strings and the frets in your mind and try to hear the sounds as you play your virtual guitar. However, you don’t need to look like you’re playing air guitar!
Especially during your early stages as a guitarist, if you can spend time improving your skills without even holding a guitar, the next time you do pick one up, you’ll be steps ahead already.
Need to give your fingertips a break from the strings? Want to practise but don’t want to make too much noise? Do your practice sessions end up passing into mindless repetition? Mental practice might just be the solution.
An important part of any practice approach is feedback. If you don’t have anyone else there to give you pointers, you can simply record yourself, listen back, and jot down some notes on what you heard. You’ll be surprised about what you can miss when you’re in ‘playing mode’! Listening back can feel uncomfortable at first, but do it anyway – and don’t be too self-critical. Try to give yourself feedback like a friend would.
Most smartphones have a built-in voice recorder app, so don’t worry about buying any extra equipment or microphones just yet. You don’t need to record the entire practice session, either. Perhaps record the first attempt at a play through of a song (after all – that’s the most realistic version of how it would sound if you played it for someone else).
Even if you’re not giving yourself pointers, you can use self-recording as a way to track your progress. You’ll have something to listen back to when you’re feeling like you haven’t made any improvements. Often, it’s easy to miss the small changes because they happen so gradually, but over time, small improvements add up. Give yourself some credit!
Call yourself a guitarist
Ok, this one might appear a little trivial, but it matters. You have chosen to play guitar; you have made the intention and commitment to learn, develop and grow as a musician, and as a person – you are a guitarist.
‘Guitarist’ isn’t some kind of level that you reach once you can play a certain song or difficult technique, it is an encapsulating term that refers to anyone who enjoys and consistently plays the guitar.
For example, if you saw someone running in the park, you would call them a ‘runner’. Even if that person is out on their first run, or they only run once a month – they are still a ‘runner’.
So, no more referring to yourself as a ‘guitar player’ or someone who ‘dabbles’ just because you are in the beginning phases of your guitar learning. Look in the mirror and firmly assert to yourself ‘I am a guitarist’!
Guitar for Busy Beginners
If you’re reading this and thinking, ‘how can I actually implement these tips into my learning?’ then look no further. My Guitar for Busy Beginners course is aimed at people exactly like you. We start with the very basics and work our way through the anatomy of the guitar, how to achieve a clean sound, chords and strumming, all the way up to playing your first song.
Using a combination of videos, diagrams and downloadable PDFs, the course is entirely online, so you can learn at your own pace, whenever is convenient for you. You’ll be able to track your progress and re-visit any lessons you want to go over again, plus, I’m always at hand if you have any questions.
You can check it out here and even get the first two modules of the course free: