Common Beginner Mistakes

-Assuming that getting the notes and fingering right, is more important than the tempo/timing.  Timing is equally if not more important than getting the notes right.

-Amps are for being heard over a drummer.  There are few things as annoying as a listening to a beginner playing by them self, loud. A general rule of thumb for playing loud  is; “if nobody tells you to crank it up, please don’t”.

-Effect pedals are fun but don’t think they’ll actually improve your playing. When you are learning, the amp doesn’t matter either.  My first teacher used an old tube radio with a Y splitter cable for 2 guitars.  As long as you can hear yourself don’t worry about having a flashy amp or pedals.  Put your money into getting the best guitar you can afford.

-The general rule of thumb for buying first Guitar is, double what you think it should cost.  Buying used will get you more for your money and save you breaking-in the instrument.  New Guitars smell nice but unless you’re rolling in dough, buying used makes more sense.

-Don’t try to learn riffs at full speed.  Building muscle-memory requires slow repetition.  Get used to cycling riffs over and over at low speed until it becomes automatic.

-Not using the most efficient fingering.  Eg. using 3 fingers to play an open D chord when it can be played with 2.  Moving the whole hand when you could just move your fingers is wasted movement.

-Play in front of people as often as possible.  Learning to recover from a mistake in a live situation is a valuable lesson.

-Makes sure you hear every note clearly.  No buzzes, mutes or trail-offs.  Practice using just enough pressure to get a clear sound.  Finger position within the fret is also important.  Always use the lightest possible touch.  Some players put way too much effort into it.  Tension is your enemy, you must be fully relaxed to play.

-Learn songs that you like and always end a practice session by playing something fun.

-Make sure you are holding the guitar and the pick properly.

-Thinking that playing chords/rhythm is easier than playing single string melody/lead.  I learned to play lead before I could play rhythm because I was more interested in being a lead player.   Starting off playing open chords, power chords or bar chords is hard if you haven’t built up strength yet.  I find  full CAGED chords that span 5-6 strings are very difficult for players just starting off.

-If a technique doesn’t seem possible or doesn’t make sense to you, try a different approach to the problem.  Ask a few different people their opinions.  Show them how you are trying to play it, there might be a simple obvious solution.  If you are taking lessons, your teacher should be able to suggest several alternate approaches.

TEN TIPS FOR BEGINNERS

1. Be prepared to practice. Do some stretching exercises. Relax, take a few deep breaths before you play.  Getting in the habit of stretching, reduces overuse injuries like tendinitis and back stiffness from sitting.  Does your job, or hobby, involve sitting, keyboard use or repetitive tasks like chopping or grinding?  Learn some hand stretching exercises.

This is going to sound stupid but don’t forget to breathe. When your brain is overwhelmed learning several new things at once and focused intensely, we tend to hold our breath.2. Have your practice area set up so that practicing is easy. Have a music stand, comfy chair/stool w/ no arms( standing up is fine too).  Don’t put your guitar in the case when you’re not using it (if possible), have it on a guitar stand, ready to be played.

Have any audio/visual jam tapes or lessons ready to play.

Videotape yourself or practice in front of a full length mirror, this helps with posture. Guitarists tend to practice sitting down but perform standing up. You should become comfortable doing both.  I try to adjust the guitar strap so that the guitar is at the same height whether I’m standing or seated.

3. Get an electric tuner. Learn how to tune without it.  Tune one string with the tuner, piano, pitchpipe, tuning fork, dial-tone, whatever, then tune the rest of the strings.  There are several ways to tune using a reference pitch instead of a tuner:

You can tune to a chord (us. C or G)

There’s harmonics, at the 7th and 12th fret (eg. an in tune low E string’s 12th fret harmonic (E) will match the A strings 7th fret harmonic (E).  The B strings tuned w/ low E 7th fret harmonic-(6th string,7th fret).

Lastly; tuning the low E,  fretting at the 5th fret, (or 4rth fret, on the G string, for tuning B string), to tune the next string higher, the most common way to tune without a tuner.

Don’t use a tuner to avoid using your ears. They are a great time saving device and I couldn’t imagine playing a gig or recording without one but they can make one lazy. Don’t assume that having a tuner means you don’t have to learn to tune by ear. A Korg tuner is about $20.A chromatic tuner is best (chromatic means it tunes all notes, not only EADGBE).

4. Practice simple songs. Playing scales, and exercises get boring real fast when you don’t have a reason to practice and improve.  Nobody, (except, maybe speed-metalheads) decides to learn the guitar with the intention of mainly playing scales.

Pick a very simple tune that you know inside out.  Nursery rhymes, X-mas carols, TV theme songs are all perfect.  The object is recognize melodies and chord changes and play them .  Don’t worry about which string or fret you start on.  Trying to figure out simple melodies by trial and error (we call this Noodling).  Humming along helps.

Scales are tools to teach dexterity and the relationships of notes.  They can help you to play solos but shouldn’t be used as solos. Learn at least one song per week.  Smoke on the Water, Wipe Out, Louie Louie, House of New Orleans are all good first songs.

5. Want to build calluses fast? Soak fingertips in salt water and practice alot! Bends, hammer-ons/hammer-offs, vibrato, and trills.

6. Tired, stressed, finding it hard to concentrate and retain info?  Don’t try to learn new things when you’re tense. Also sleeping on a problem or difficult technique helps.  Parts of your brain actually grow when learning an instrument, this takes time. Take 15 minutes before bed, to go over any material that you are learning.  Don’t worry about playing it perfectly just go through it once.  Even doing this in your head (without a guitar) helps.

7. Plan ahead. Get a beverage, ashtray (if you smoke), fan, asthma inhaler, pez dispenser, whatever creature comforts that could distract you from practicing.

8. Talk to other guitar players. Lots of people play guitar.  Tell people you meet that your want to learn to play guitar better, you’ll be surprised how happy people are to share their knowledge.  Jam with others every chance you get (try to pay as much attention to what the other jammers are playing, as to what you are).  Don’t try to play hard songs at a jam to show off what you can do.

9. Don’t expect miracles, it takes years to develop the confidence to play with a group in front of an audience.  Creating a unique style and “mastering” the instrument usually takes much longer(10,000 hr rule).

When you begin taking lessons, you imagine a pyramid, with years of practicing and paying your dues at the bottom and being a pro or master at the top.  The pyramid is actually upside down. the more you learn, the more you realize, how much more there is to learn, and the more you are capable of learning.  There are many styles and disciplines of guitar playing, it’s almost impossible to compare yourself to another player.  There will always be someone that has better technique, understanding of theory, pitch perception, knows more songs or different styles than you.  It wouldn’t be any fun if we were the “best” at everything.  Music is a subject that will always teach you new interesting things.

Nobody is master of everything, there is no single “best guitarist in the world”  The players that stand out are ones that transcend genres and create their own style.  Hendrix, BB King, Link Wray, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Chet Atkins and  Santana all have recognizable styles.  Your goal should be developing taste and style as well as technical proficiency and skill.  Being a technical genius doesn’t mean a thing if your Grandma can’t recognize you on the radio.

10. Practice visualization. When not physically playing guitar, close your eyes and imagine playing scales, songs, chords, tuning, holding the guitar correctly, hearing the strings and the relationships of notes.

When you listen to music, try counting beats and bars and listening to the chord changes.  The Chord progression is more important to a musician, than the melody is.  Try to break the song up into parts, the intro, the” head” or main riff, the verse, chorus, bridge ( not all songs have bridges or middle 8’s) and the outro. See if you can tell what key a song is in. Is the key major or minor?. Practice pitch training, try humming the notes of all six open guitar strings E,A,D,G,B,E.

Warm-down too, especially if you can feel your hands straining from a long session. Musicians put a lot of stress on their hands and most people don’t think about doing stretching exercises until they feel discomfort. Drink lots of water also, thats where the natural lubricant in your joints comes from. Be careful not to overstretch, use slow gentle movement (think tai chi or yoga).

Be aware of your posture and any hand or back discomfort and stop, if you notice anything is uncomfortable or painful to play. Try to use the lightest touch possible  while still getting a clear tone (no buzzes, trail-offs)

Make sure the guitar you’re using is properly set-up (intonation, string height), preferably with light gauge strings, or nylon(if it’s a classical). Trying to learn on an instrument with high action, heavy strings or that wont stay in tune, is not productive.

A musician is a lot like an athlete, or an actor.  A big part of what we do has to be automatic.  We have to be able to tune-out distractions and perform pieces from memory or improvise.  If you have trouble concentrating it’s going to effect your ability to perform (and create).  The frontal lobe of a musician playing is very similar to a person meditating.  There is almost no activity! Attitude and the ability to visualize techniques and passages is critical.  The hippocampus, the part of the brain that controls spatial relationships and language, is considerably better developed in a musician’s brain.  London’s cab drivers also experience this phenomenon (maps and spatial relationships are v. important to them).  Also the Medula (the nerve bundle connecting both sides of the brain to the spinal cord, is up to 30% larger in musicians. Scientists say nothing activates as many areas of the brain as playing music.

“Listening” to Music is different from hearing music. Non musicians generally recognize a song by it’s melody.  As a musician, we have to take what we hear and visualize it somehow.  Looking at the chord progression is the best way to understand what’s going on, in a song.

Also a musician has to internalize rhythm.  Playing along with a metronome and tapping your foot when you practice is a good habit.  If you ask non musicians to clap in time to a piece of music, they will clap on the beat; ONE and TWO and THREE and FOUR and. Musician will clap on the “and”; 1  AND 2  AND 3  AND 4  AND.

25 comments

  1. I’m a beginning guitarist. I’ve only been playing for about six months but I play about eight hours a day and have surpassed many of my friends who have been playing for years. The single most important thing I do is multitasking. I work on chord progressions and lead parts to songs and even scales while watching television or sitting around with friends. It helps familiarize yourself with the instrument notes and chords better than anything else can and it keeps you from getting bored with playing.

  2. I’ve been playing for 4 years, but this is still an amazing article, it does go to show that one person can never know everything about music.

  3. 10,000 hours at one hour a day is 27.7 years!

    I wish I had started earlier! I’m 55 and just got my first guitar. I went to school with Tinsley Ellis. I wish I had played with him instead of just watching!!

    Ok, gotta go practice!

    1. Any discipline comes down to Abstract Reasoning/Problem Solving. Even people with natural talent have to find effective ways to maximize their efforts. Driving a car car on the highway would be overwhelming to a novice driver.
      If you are just starting out, learn to play some basic chords/songs, pay attention to your hand position, try to develop good technique. Don’t worry about the Scales, Chord building and music theory stuff. When you listen to music, try to count bars or at least keep time.

  4. I just learned playing the guitar 2 months ago and it was hard for me..but i found it interesting so i bought my new guitar yesterday. thank you for this, it boosted me up and made me more determined to learn.

  5. Awesome article.. thanks brother. Good stuff. I have been practicing guitar now for about 4 months and there is some really good advice and tips as well as some really cool and interesting info on how music positively effects the brain.

  6. I actually agree with one commenter. The idea of playing the D chord with two fingers instead of three is ludicrous. Yes you want to be efficient with your finger movements but barring three strings with one finger requires more effort and movement than you realize.

    1. Thanks, I usually play an open A with one finger (not playing the high E, open) so the A and D work well together. It also leaves 2 fingers available if you are playing chord-melody stuff or Travis-picking.

  7. Hi! Great article! There are quite a few things I didn’t realize I was doing wrong… Just wanted to mention though, that I have quite a few musician friends, and I’ve never seen any of them clap on AND. It seems so unnatural to me. Is there a reason behind this statement?

    1. try clapping along with a song on the 1,2,3,4 or the ands. Clapping on the numbers feels jerky. The AND is the backbeat, it is just more natural. It is harder to start counting with AND, than the numbers.

  8. This page has given me all the tips I could possibly hope for, I just bought my first guitar yesterday and greatly looking forward to playing it, one thing I worry about is my motivation when I think of all the great players that are out there haha it can feel incredibly intimidating… One unique problem I have that I reckon you’ve never came across is, erm… I have polysyndactyly. A deformation of the hands so I was gonna ask — are there any techniques or anything that might make things a even a fraction easier for myself in the learning process? Thanks for any help and awesome blog. :)

    1. Thanks, I always tell beginner students to practice putting all 4 fingers in adjacent frets on an outside string (hi E -1 or low E-6, hi E is easier), you can start on any fret, if you have small hands, start someplace high like the 7th fret. We’ll start on the 5th fret but it doesn’t matter where you start) so, first finger on the 5th fret, play the note and leave your finger down, you can release the pressure though. Then play the note on the 6th fret with your 2nd finger, leave it down, next note on the 7th fret with the 3rd finger and 8th fret with the 4th finger. Practice going low to high then high to low, then try notching up one fret every time you complete the sequence. It’s a great dexterity exercise, try to do it for at least 5 minutes a day, don’t worry about doing it fast, make sure you hear the note ring cleanly. When you are moving from high to low, don’t let the finger that just fretted a note fly away, try not to watch your left hand, you can feel the frets.

      1. Thank you very much for taking the time to share your wisdom, I greatly appreciate it :) I’ll be sure to practice whenever I can, which will be a lot, Main reason — I bought Rocksmith — haha which is supposedly a great aid to teaching and I’ve been an avid player of the Guitar Hero games for years now so I’ve got all that experience (I found I lose focus when just plugged into n amp). I’ve noticed my muscle memory from those games is transferring so easily to the actual instrument making me able to hit frets I never thought I would! All that remains is fine tuning my dexterity and building finger toughness as I learn to feel my guitar and be more confident in holding it so it’s not so much this daunting machine as it a thing to be played around with. My journey is only just beginning! :D

      2. I am learning Guitar from last 6 Months and Learned 3 Tunes very well, But I am unable to find any Youtube Good Video Tutorials. Can anyone suggest me any Good Video from which I can learn it fast. ? Or any Tips you Guys can Share with me
        Thanks & Regards,
        Chris

  9. Hey man. Just been reading through your articles. I think they are well written and incredibly informative. If I had read these articles back when I first started playing guitar… it definitely would help immensely!

    I’ve just started writing some articles on beginner tips but focusing more on the ‘convenient’ tips (as some people feel there are many barriers to picking that guitar up!). See what you think: http://www.guitarblogs.co.uk

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