Getting your first guitar is pretty darn thrilling. As soon as you pick it up and strum that baby, you want to learn all you can—notes, chords, scales, bends, slides, all of it, everything!—as fast as you can so you can dazzle friends and family with your talent. Who knows. You may even have aspirations of making it onto the world stage with that guitar of yours.
In their zeal to learn to play, however, many beginning guitarists encounter potential stumbling blocks that, if not addressed, can hinder progress or halt it altogether. No matter your skill level, it's important to evaluate your playing style from time to time to make sure you have good practice habits before you get too far ahead of yourself. Bad habits can become ingrained and are sometimes hard to break. Correcting them as soon as they crop up, or better still, avoiding them entirely, is essential if you are to keep on track to becoming the guitarist you've set out to be. Here then are ten common mistakes many beginning guitarists (and some seasoned ones as well) make, and suggestions for how you can overcome them.
Mistake #1 - Neglecting to Tune Your Guitar Before Every Practice
Many beginners not only don't know how to tune their guitar properly, they don't even notice when their guitar is out of tune! There are a couple reasons why practicing on an out-of-tune guitar hurts your progress. First of all, every time you play something your brain is going to try to remember it and learn to do it again. If you play with a properly tuned guitar, your brain will remember the pitch of the notes and will learn to recognize whenever a note is out of tune, giving you the opportunity to correct it. On the other hand, if you consistently practice on a guitar that is out of tune, your brain will start to think that the sound is right and won't learn to recognize the right pitches.
Secondly, if you habitually practice on an out-of-tune guitar, hearing someone who plays in tune will make you wonder why you don't sound as good. Self-doubt may set in and discourage you from practicing. Many players give up the guitar for this reason alone.
Before you play anything on your guitar, make sure the instrument is in tune. You can buy a tuner or use the Guitar Tricks' online tuner, which can be found on the site's toolbar. Check and double check your tuning, and then check it again after you've been playing awhile. And if you don't know how to tune the guitar by ear yet, make it a goal to learn how to do so as soon as possible.
Mistake #2 - Practicing What You Can Already Play
Practicing what you already know how to play is one of the biggest mistakes that beginners can make. If you sit down and only play the stuff you know, you're merely spinning your wheels. The idea here is to forge ahead. It's okay if you want to run through songs that you have down pat as a warm-up, but when you are learning to play the guitar, you need to push yourself to learn to play new things in order to constantly evolve as a player.
If you're still playing "Back in Black" ("Stairway," "Crazy Train," "Wish You Were Here") three months down the road and still calling it practice, then you're not making progress. Play songs that you know a couple times a week to keep them fresh in your memory, but do add more and more tunes to your practice to help keep your motivation up and to avoid stagnation.
And while we're on the subject of learning songs, make sure you learn complete songs. You might be surprised to learn how many guitarists can't play a song all the way through, start to finish. Instead, they play bits of songs that trail off after several bars. Or they play the riff of a song or a couple of verses, and then move on to another part of another song. If your repertoire is nothing but a string of teasers, and perhaps unpolished ones at that, what does that say about your ability?
Mistake #3 - Avoiding Barre Chords
Learning barre chords is the single biggest leap you will make in your playing ability, and the first major hurdle you will encounter in advancing your guitar skills. You may've struggled some with a few things in your practice up until then, like learning to use your pinkie and changing chords, but every challenge prior to barre chords was relatively easy to overcome.
Barre chords involve using one finger to hold down multiple strings. If you are a beginner, you might be intimidated by barre chords because they require a lot of strength in your fretting hand. Barre chords are hard to learn to play at first. Because of this, lots of beginners try to avoid playing songs that require them. But you will never learn to play barre chords unless you play barre chords. You must devote a portion of each practice to working on them, and learn songs that have barre chords in them. Barre chords will get easier as your fretting hand gets stronger, and after playing them for a few months, you'll wonder what the big deal was.
Mistake #4 - Consulting Too Many Sources
Many beginners make the mistake of jumping from one YouTube video to the next, reading articles all over the internet and in guitar magazines, switching between various online courses, etc. This is especially true when they get stuck on something and switch learning sources in a bid to keep things easy.
With so many different paths available these days to learn how to play guitar, you run the risk of information overload. Instead of finding the answers you seek, this abundance of information can overwhelm and ultimately paralyze you. In order to get better as a player, you need to stay focused and dedicated. Find a teacher or an online course like this one with a clear, comprehensive lesson plan and stick to it. If things get tough, persevere. Don't always look for an easy out, which will only keep you stuck. Each challenge you overcome will help to make you a better guitarist.
Mistake #5 - Being Impatient
Once you discover the secret to more effective ways of practicing the guitar, it will get easier to progress more quickly as a musician. Nonetheless, it is equally important to realize that at some point there is no way to speed up the rate of your progress to a level faster than is natural. Like a seed you place in the ground in the hopes of someday seeing it develop into a fruit tree, no matter how much you try to speed up the process, there are some stages of growth that simply cannot be rushed past a certain point.
Sadly, too many guitarists don't realize the true importance of patience in the process of improving their musical skills. As a result, many become frustrated too quickly and start doubting their potential to improve if they fail to see results by some arbitrarily set deadline. When the unrealistic results are not achieved quickly, this leads to a negative mindset that will only discourage you from practicing. Once the practice stops, it's only a matter of time before your guitar ends up in the back of a closet.
To overcome this problem, realize that the journey to becoming a great guitar player is a never-ending process, and that you have the span of your lifetime to develop your musical skills. Clear your mind of any self-imposed deadlines and devote your energy to practicing as effectively as you can. This is the only true way of making progress.
Mistake #6 - Paying Too Little Mind to Tempo and Timing
Music is all about rhythm, yet many people can't keep a constant beat going. A sense of rhythm is essential for every musician. Whether you want to play in a band or just accompany yourself while singing, you must be able to stay in time or you will never sound good. Your bandmates will quickly tire of you always losing track of where you are and not being in sync with them, and anybody listening will have a hard time enjoying the music if you cannot keep a steady pace.
Following a beat is a skill that is actually quite easy to learn. The simplest tool to use is a metronome. You can go out and purchase one, or use the Guitar Tricks' online metronome, which can be found on the site's toolbar. Using a metronome regularly when practicing will develop your rhythmic ability until you can count the beat in your head perfectly while playing. Spend some time every time you sit down to practice working on rhythm skills and playing along with a metronome. Playing becomes a whole lot easier when you can follow a beat properly.
Mistake #7 - Trying to Play Too Fast, Too Soon
It may seem strange to list playing too fast as a bad habit, but this is a biggie for many new players. So many beginners pick up the guitar and expect to be able to play like Eddie Van Halen right out of the gate. But speed isn't something you should be aiming for, at least not initially. Speed is actually a byproduct of lots and lots of practice. You need to learn to control your fingers and carry out precise movements that can only be learned at slow speeds. Once your fingers start getting used to the guitar, you'll speed up naturally, without even trying. One of the most important things you need to understand is that playing slowly but correctly is much more important than playing fast but sloppy.
Playing too fast also applies to rushing through lessons without having mastered them. We get so excited at the thought of playing all our favorite songs that we go through all the essential techniques at blinding speed so we can get to the "good stuff." Unfortunately, you can't skip through what you need to know and expect to play what you want to play. When beginners first try to learn chords, they often don't spend the time needed to learn the chord properly before moving on to the next chord. Over time these small mistakes turn into very sloppy playing that will, in the end, only slow you down.
How good a guitarist you become in the future completely depends on how you practice now. Don't skip what you think is the "boring stuff" so you can get to the "good stuff" because you need the "boring stuff" to be able to play the "good stuff." Take your time when learning a song and don't try to do too much at once. Learn one bar at a time and make sure you perfect it before moving on to the next bar. If you rush through your exercises, or don't play any exercises at all, you won't be able to develop fully as a guitarist. You may not want to learn about scales, chords, or exercises when you're starting out, but ask any accomplished guitarist and they'll tell you just how important these are.
Mistake #8 - Hiding Out with Your Guitar
New guitarists will naturally be shy to play in front of others, but doing so is very important. Not only does it provide a healthy rush of adrenaline, playing in front of other people gives you a short-term goal, opens your eyes to things you need to work on, and will make you feel awesome afterwards.
Of course, you need not play gigs as a beginner or even as an intermediate guitarist. Strangers are not that forgiving. Start out with your family and move on to playing in front of your friends. The applause and compliments you get from a supportive audience, even some constructive criticism offered gently, will help motivate you to practice all the more.
Not only do you want to play for others, but you want to play with them as well. This one is a bit harder to achieve, but playing with others can be one of the most beneficial methods to taking your playing to the next level. Of course, you need to be able to play at a solid intermediate level already, but if you can find another guitarist to play with, or better yet, a whole band, you'll really start advancing.
Mistake #9 - Avoiding Theory
Many guitarists eschew music theory because they think theory will kill their creativity when actually the opposite is true. If you are feeling stuck and don't know how to progress as a player, a lot of the time all you need is a better grasp of music theory in order to make significant gains in your playing. You can only get so far without at least a rudimentary knowledge of theory. Knowing even a little about chord structures, scales, key centers and tonality and how all of these things relate and function together is a critical aspect of being a complete musician. Theory will help you make sense of what you're playing and give you a broader tonal palette from which to create and play music.
Music theory should never be viewed as a set of rules that must be followed without question. It should instead be considered an in-depth and evolving observation of how music works and the relationships between rhythm, structure, melody, harmony, etc. Music theory should be used as a tool to aid you in your playing, not as a bible to be adhered to. Even an understanding of the simplest music theory can help beginning guitarists grasp the concepts that they are trying to learn more quickly and easily, so don't be too quick to shy away from it.
Mistake #10 - Expecting Miracles
And finally, know that it takes years of practice and dedication to develop into a guitarist on par with some of your heroes. Chances are you were not born a guitar prodigy. Chances are that you will have to work, and work hard, at being a good player. So don't compare yourself to any of the wiz kids out there and become disenchanted when you don't measure up.
It's pointless to compare yourself to another player. There will always be someone who has better technique, a deeper understanding of theory, pitch perception, knows more songs or different styles than you. Nobody is master of everything. There is no single "best guitarist in the world." The players that stand out are the ones that transcend genres and create their own style. In addition to technical proficiency and skill, your goal in learning to play guitar should be to develop a musical taste and style that is uniquely you. When you begin taking lessons, you imagine a pyramid, with years of practicing and paying your dues at the bottom and working your way to master at the top. What you need to do is invert that pyramid. The more you learn about playing the guitar, the more you realize how much more there is to learn and the more capable you are of learning.
Take a minute and analyze your next practice session to consider if any of the mistakes listed here apply to you. Although there are a host of bad habits beginning guitarists need to be on the look out for (correct thumb placement, holding the guitar properly, hiding behind your gear, et al.), these ten will net huge results in your playing should they be habits you successfully correct. If you know what mistakes you are making and what habits you need to break, your practice efforts will become more effective and you will move a lot more quickly towards your goals as a guitarist.
Image credit: Guitarist little girl. (Dorothy Takacs) - Budapest, Hungary, Author Taak