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10 Common Mistakes Holding Back Your Guitar Progress

7 March 2024
Tips and Tricks

In my opinion, learning to play guitar is one of the best decisions you can ever make. There is no limit to how good you can get and the possibilities for your playing are endless.

But when your learning is primarily self-guided it’s all too easy to pick up some bad habits and make some common mistakes. These can actually hold back your progress, causing you great frustration and maybe making you fall out of love with the guitar or the learning process.

In this blog I will identify the ten most common mistakes that people learning guitar make. If any of them ring true with you then it’s likely something you can relatively easily rectify with a little practice and perseverance.

If possible, I’d always encourage new guitarists to have some in-person lessons because there really is no substitute for a professional teacher looking at what you’re doing and how you’re playing. They’ll pick up on any slight issues or bad habits that will escalate and hinder you. A good teacher is worth their weight in gold so whether you have weekly, monthly or ad hoc lessons to check on progress, it’s a hugely beneficial investment.

On to the ten most common mistakes…

1. Poor Finger Selection 

This one is specific to fingerpicking, although the same issue can apply to your fretting hand.

It’s really important to play the strings using good finger selection. With fingerpicking, it’s all too common for self-taught guitarists to let the thumb and index finger do the vast majority of the work. If you can learn to incorporate your second and third fingers then it allows you to play more economically, with more ease, and faster with comfort.

So make sure that your finger selection is good.

It’s exactly the same for your fretting hand too. You want to make sure that you’re playing the fretted notes with good fingering. This means developing independence and strength in all of your fretting hand fingers.

2. Playing Songs Too Fast 

Another very common mistake is playing things too fast. In fact, we’re all guilty of this from time-to-time – perhaps it’s an ego thing? I really don’t know!

It may sound great to you, but more than likely it just sounds rushed to anyone else. There is a time and a place for playing fast but if you’re learning a specific song it’s good to know the bpm (beats per minute) that you’re aiming for and getting it up to speed at that correct tempo. Time to get the metronome out.

3. Poor Timing

Timing is one of the most important skills (if not THE most important skill) that any musician can learn but sadly it’s all too often overlooked and people just don’t practice it enough.

You have to be able to play in time. Very often you may not even know that you’re playing out of time, but the listener knows.

So pull out the metronome and really work on playing to the click to develop good time in absolutely everything that you play. Practising like this will lead to you developing an in-built good sense of time.

Whilst it’s often off the radar, it’s a fundamental skill and you’ll need it whether you’re playing in a band, solo, or pretty much in any musical situation. It’s truly a pillar of good musicianship.

4. Being Too Tense

In my experience, some people are just naturally a bit more tense than others. Their hands have a tight grip on the neck, they move more rigidly, and they aren’t breathing freely. Guess what? This all comes across in their playing.

If you notice you’re naturally a bit tense then take a deep breath or two and try to get yourself into a relaxed state before you start playing. You’ll feel better, you’ll play better and it’ll sound better too!

5. Poor Posture 

These days the majority of us spend a huge proportion of the day staring down at screens. Then when learning guitar we also spend a load of time staring at the fretboard. Poor posture is almost inevitable!

Whilst it won’t necessarily make you a worse player, it’s something to be aware of as bad posture can lead to injury, aches and pains later on down the road. No one likes being uncomfortable and it’s so avoidable.

You can try practising with a footstool as that will help you keep your spine straight, and try to mindfully avoid hunching over as you play.

6. Applying Too Much Pressure

One thing you may not be aware of, but is very common indeed, is applying too much pressure on the fretboard. And I can speak from personal experience when I say this leads to injury if not corrected.

The amount of pressure that you actually need to apply to get a note to sound out perfectly is often a lot less than you might realise.

Avoid injury by simply applying less pressure on the fretboard. The last thing you want is to have to take off months at a time to let yourself heal. Work on this by trying different amounts of pressure to find the bare minimum needed for the note to ring out perfectly.

7. Over-Reliance on TABS

Tabs and sheet music are the most fantastic resource for learning songs. But I think that once you’ve learnt that piece of music then you should put the tab away and play from memory alone.

When you’re learning with the tab, break down the song as much as you need to. That could mean learning note-by-note, bar-by-bar or section-by-section. However you do it, you’ll gradually tie those pieces together into the whole song.

This will really help you to develop your skills for memorising songs and build up a repertoire you can recall from memory, just in case the occasion calls for a song!

8. Lack of Dynamics

Playing too loudly, playing too quietly, playing at the same volume all the time? Then you’re lacking dynamics.

This one might be most appropriate for someone who has been playing a while but it’s definitely something to work on as you develop your style. Think of the classical world, they add a huge amount of emotion into a piece just with dynamics alone.

Practice playing softly, with more intensity, focus on the feel in your playing and you’ll soon learn how to apply dynamics appropriately.

9. Not Challenging Yourself

If you’ve found yourself in a bit of a rut and your guitar skills aren’t improving as much as they once were then it’s highly possible that you’re not challenging yourself enough in your practising.

Are you practising the same things over and over that you already know inside out? Unfortunately this isn’t actually practice anymore – it’s playing!

You need to constantly be challenging yourself. If what you’re practising sounds bad and is difficult then great, you’re progressing. If it all sounds good then chances are you’re going to stick at that same level. So make sure you find something that’s too hard for you now and work on that.

10. Not Practising Enough

This one has to be pretty obvious but if you haven’t got your practice plans set up to reach your goals, then you aren’t going to reach them! Be realistic both in what you’re practising but also in the length of time you’re doing it.

If you’re goal is to reach an expert level, then you’re going to need to put in a lot of hours to get there (probably multiple hours a day). But if you’re goal is to build up a few songs you can play to friends and family then you aren’t going to need to practice anywhere near as much.

Both are completely legitimate goals to have but you need to ensure your practice time is focused and realistic for getting you there. A good way to do this is with a structured practice plan setting out what you’re going to work on in each practice session.

Bonus – 11. Get Your Guitar Properly Set Up

Always make sure that your guitar is set up well and specifically for you. If it’s set up poorly, for example with a very high action, then it’s going to be difficult to play.

Find a good local guitar technician and see what they can do. You’ll be amazed at how much easier it is to play a guitar that’s been properly set up.

I’ve written these 11 mistakes because I’ve personally made every single one of them…multiple times! So by setting out what they are and how to fix them, I hope I’ve saved you many hours of bad practice, painful playing, and injury.

The best thing you can do is to recognise what mistakes you’re making so you can get into good habits as early as possible. There will of course be many more mistakes we make along our guitar journey and that’s why I’ll continue to suggest checking in with an in-person tutor from time-to-time just to keep you on the right track.

I hope that helps you continue to enjoy playing!

If you find that you’re making some of these mistakes then there’s definitely a course for you on my Academy that will get your fingerpicking back on the right track.

Author: Chris Murrin

Chris Murrin is a British guitar teacher who has dedicated his adult life to helping students master the guitar. A few years ago, in 2018, he founded Six String Fingerpicking so that he could help experienced and budding guitarists the world over to realise their fingerpicking goals.

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