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In this lesson, I’m going to show you some of the most common mistakes I see a lot of guitar players make, including newer guitar players and those who have been playing for a while.
If you’re starting to learn guitar, these tips will help you avoid bad practice habits and have more productive practice times. If you’ve already been playing for a while, these tips will help you get rid of bad habits in your practice time and give you more productive practice time too. Some of the seven mistakes are conceptual, and some of them are physical mistakes with the guitar, so we’ll take a look at both.
The number one mistake I see with guitar players is not setting goals. I get a lot of emails from people saying that they don’t know what to practice next, they’re not getting any better, and wondering what they’re doing wrong. When I reply to these emails, the first thing I ask is whether they have set any goals for their guitar playing. Most of the time, the answer I get back is no, they haven’t set any goals.
If you don’t set goals with your guitar playing, you won’t be able to break those goals down into things you can learn and fill your practice time with. Now, your goal shouldn’t be something like “I want to be a great guitar player”, that’s way too general. There’s no way to break that kind of goal down into smaller points.
Instead, try setting goals like being able to play a particular song or playing blues leads over a 12-bar blues progression. When you set realistic goals like this, you can break them down into small steps to fill your practice time. For example, if you want to be able to play blues leads over a 12-bar blues progression, you can break the goal down into learning the blues scale, working on your right and left hand technique, learning blues licks, learning blues theory, and playing along with blues jam tracks.
Try looking at your goals like a big steak dinner. You obviously wouldn’t stick your fork in your steak and shove the entire thing in your mouth, but you would cut it into bite-sized pieces. Cut your goals into small pieces to fill your practice time.
Failing to set goals for your guitar playing leads us to the second mistake I see, which is noodling away valuable practice time. Everyone has done it at some point, whether it was with 20 minutes or two hours of practice. You can get caught up in playing things you already know and are already good at. It’s a lot of fun, but it can get in the way of reaching your goals on guitar.
Scheduling your practice time is one way around this mistake. Set aside a certain number of minutes during each practice session, or a certain number of hours per week, to noodle away and have fun playing. When you do that, you’ll keep the noodling time separate from actual practice time that you use to reach your goals.
The first physical mistake we’ll look at now is locking the wrist, playing from only the elbow, and using only downstrokes. The first reason this is a mistake is that this can lead to injuries and fatigue in your elbow. The second reason this is bad is because it’s an inefficient way of playing, making you work harder when you’re picking or strumming.
What you want to do is include your wrist to help make the motions. Because it’s a much smaller motion, it’s more efficient. At the same time, you want to start to use upstrokes too. If you’re not using them yet, start to work on them, because a lot of newer guitar players forget to work on them. Once you’ve got your upstrokes going, put them together with downstrokes, including your wrist to make the small motions.
The fourth mistake I see is poor muting, which is one of the biggest things that can make your playing sound unprofessional. I’m going to play through an A minor scale in the video without muting any strings, so listen to how all the notes end up bleeding together and not sounding very good.
What you can do to fix this is learn how to mute the strings you’re not playing with both your fretting hand and picking hand. Starting with the fretting hand, look at how my first finger is holding the note on the low E string, as well as muting the A string below it. That way if I accidentally strum against the A string, it won’t ring out.
Your picking hand can also help to mute the strings. In the video, you’ll see that my second, third, and fourth fingers are brushing against the high strings and keeping them quiet while I play the lower strings. As I continue moving up the scale, my thumb and the palm of my hand start to mute the lower strings. By the time I got to the top of the scale, my whole hand was gently resting on top of the strings that weren’t being played.
The fifth mistake I see a lot of guitar players make is not using the very tips of their fingers to come down and make their chords. I get a lot of emails from people who say their chords sound buzzy and unclear, and they’re not sure why. Most of the time, it’s because they are not coming down on the very tips of their fingers.
One way to check for this is to make an open C major chord. If I relax my fingers and move off of the tips of my fingers, you can hear in the video that most of the notes in the C chord have disappeared. As you play, keep an eye out for this. Remember to use the very tips of your fingers and that will probably get rid of the buzz in your chords.
The sixth mistake I see a lot of guitar players make is not learning how to tune their guitar by ear very well. We live in a world where there are tuners everywhere, whether it’s traditional tuner or a tuner on your smartphone. People tend to become too dependent on that, but you can be in situations where you don’t have a tuner or it’s too noisy to use a tuner. In order to strengthen your tuning skills, practice tuning your guitar and checking it with a tuner.
You can find lots of information on the fifth fret method for tuning your guitar, but let’s quickly go over it to tune the A string. Head to the fifth fret of the low E string and play that note, which is an A. Since you’re playing an A, and the next string is the open A string, they should sound the same. You can purposely put your guitar out of tune, try to tune it, and then check it with a tuner afterwards. It may take some time to train your ears, but it’s good practice and you’ll thank yourself later.
The seventh mistake I see guitars players make is not applying what you’ve been learning to real music. I can easily play a G major scale or a G major chord, but if I don’t learn to apply it to real music, it doesn’t do much good. It would be like learning the shapes just for the sake of learning them.
If you’re working on a G major scale, pull up a jam track that’s in the key of G and try to solo with it. If you’re learning new chords, find a song that uses those chords and apply those chords to real music.
It can be intimidating, and I think that’s the reason people make this mistake a lot. You’re not going to sound like Joe Satriani the first time you play along with a jam track, but playing along with music is the first step in making progress. Every time you play with real music, you’ll get better at it.
That wraps up the seven mistakes that guitar players make, but one extra tip I want to give you is to get your guitar set up by a professional. I get lots of emails from people who say their guitar is hard to play and chords still sound bad. A lot of the time, the action on their guitar is really high which makes their practice more difficult, less enjoyable, and unfruitful.
I suggest getting your guitar set up by a professional. It usually only costs twenty to thirty dollars, and it will play much easier which means you’ll enjoy practicing much more.
Hopefully going through these seven mistakes really hit home with you. Next time you’re practicing, think about these tips and apply them in your practice time so they can help you.