When it comes to learning guitar, there are seemingly infinite choices as how to go about it. You can get a private teacher, or go to a group class or pay for online lessons. There are all sorts of free tutorials online, be they text, audio, or video. And there are, literally, thousands upon thousands of tutorials – books, dvds and audio lessons – that can help you out. If you’re a person who wants to “do it yourself” (I could say be “self-taught,” but we all know that no one is ever “self-taught” as there’s almost always other people involved in some fashion), you certainly have a lot of options.
But one major thing that you lack when teaching yourself is the feedback from either a teacher or your peers. You often have to rely on trial and error when it comes to basic things such as strumming or even holding a guitar. Truth be told, teaching yourself guitar runs the risk of developing some playing habits that can actually hinder your basic playing and make improving as a guitarist very difficult.
In order to help out those of you who are “going it alone,” I’ve listed ten common traps that newbie players fall into, plus some helpful tips (and links to articles here at Guitar Noise) to enable you to either avoid or get past them. And those of you who do have teachers, whether the lessons are in person or online, should feel free to make use of these tips as well!
Worry more about posture than looking cool
Playing well starts with paying attention to the basics. And nothing is more basic than how you hold the guitar, whether you’re sitting or standing while playing. Whenever you’re having trouble playing a chord cleanly or making a switch from one chord to another, you can often correct this by simply correcting your posture or position while holding your guitar.
Probably no on in the universe is more in tune with correct posture and position than Jamie Andreas. You should definitely check out any of her articles here at Guitar Noise, such as this one on correcting bad practice habits.
Don’t let your thumb boss your fingers around
The key to fretting notes quickly and cleanly is to keep your fingertips on the strings. Good posture and position will help you immensely when it comes to placing your fingers in an optimal playing position.
But you have to make sure that your thumb isn’t making your fingers’ job harder! Wrapping your thumb around the neck of the guitar, as you would a bat or a raquet, pulls the fingertips down and keeps them from making solid, clean-sounding notes. Let the pad of the thumb simply rest on the back of the neck and have your fingertips dictate where the thumb is positioned, not the other way around.
You’ll get a lot of helpful tips on both holding the guitar and placing your fingertips on the frets in our article called Holding Your Guitar.
Strum with the wrist, not the whole arm
Keeping the beat and playing steady, confident rhythms is essential for any guitarist, even those who only want to play leads and solos. But most beginners, especially those who’ve only seen guitarists on videos, think that strumming involves an incredible amount of energy and a wild flailing of the arms. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Strumming comes from the wrist and forearm and requires surprisingly little arm movement. Use the same wrist/forearm action you’d use to unscrew a light bulb to strum your guitar. We also call this the “sock puppet” approach, as you’ll read in many of our Strumming for Beginners articles, which you can find in our “Hot Lessons” section.
Learn to count out rhythms and stop worrying about “strumming patterns”
Many beginners use the idea of strumming patterns as a way to work on rhythm. But a strumming pattern is simply one of many ways of strumming any song, yet many newbies get to the point where they’ll obsess about the “down and up” strumming and, ironically, not learn how to play in a steady rhythm. You’ll be amazed at how upstrokes and downstrokes simply fall into place once you’ve learned how to count out the rhythm of a song. For a basic eighth note strum, the downstrokes occur right on the beat. If you’re strumming sixteenth notes, then the downstrokes happen on each half beat.
If you can get yourself to count to four (and occasionally three), there will be no strumming pattern that you can’t figure out. If you don’t believe me, check out this article on converting any rhythm into the “down and up” that beginners seem to favor.
And for help in strumming in general, you might find our Guitar Noise Podcasts to be incredibly useful. Not to brag, but they are one of the best rhythm aids you might find on the Internet. Why? Because they get you to:
Use your ears instead of your eyes
Music is aural, not visual. Professional musicians will invariably tell you that listening is the most important talent for any player to develop. Rhythm is something you feel and hear. Relying on your eyes to tell you when a chord change occurs will almost always put you behind and off the beat. Work on first using, and then trusting and developing your ears and leaving your eyes behind for a while. You’ll be amazed at how quickly you start to make more progress.
Get rid of your chord charts as soon as you can
The sooner you memorize your basic major and minor chords, the sooner you can dispense with chord charts and as soon as you do that you’ll find that you have more time to enjoy playing! There will always be new chords to learn, but do your best to memorize all the chords you’ve played as soon as possible. And the best way to do that is to practice making chord changes.
Use the correct finger (or fingers) to start off a chord change
Most beginners tend to go at chord changes one finger at a time. Take playing a C chord, for instance. Usually, many beginners will switch to C by first placing the index finger on the first fret of the B string, then the middle finger on the second fret of the D and then finally the ring finger on the third fret of the A. And only then, once all their fingers are in place, are they ready to strum the C chord.
This means that you won’t even begin your strum until after all your fingers are in place and you’ll be behind on the beat.
Try to build your chords from the “bottom up,” meaning that you want to get your fingers on the low strings first. In the case of the C, you want to lead with your ring finger and get your index finger down last. Connecting the Dots (Part 2)
Keep your fingers close to the strings
Often, a new player’s first reaction to an upcoming chord change is to move all his fingers as far from the fretboard as possible! That definitely makes it hard to get to the following chord in any appreciable amount of time. You want to try to keep your fingers close to the frets and you also want to learn to minimize the movement needed when changing chords. Sometimes one or two fingers don’t need to move all that far (if at all) from their initial position.
Work on moving your fingers as a unit
Ultimately, you want your fingers to move from one chord to another as a unit, and two simple exercises can help you get started in that direction. First, form a chord you’re working on – say, E. When you have your fingers in place, relax them but don’t lose contact with the strings. Now press your fingers hard onto the strings simultaneously, harder than you normally would to play the chord.
You’re likely to hear the notes of the E chord as you press the strings onto the neck of the guitar. After you press hard, relax again but still keep in contact with the strings. Don’t lose the chord! Repeat this ten to twelve times.
The companion exercise is pretty much the same, but you want to start by having your fingers on the strings as if you were playing the chord. Then relax and raise your fingers, as a unit, just off the strings. Keep them close enough that you can put them back on the strings at the same time.
The object of these exercises is to get your fingers acclimated to working together on the chord. Eventually, they will learn to leave one chord and arrive at another as a team. That doesn’t necessarily mean all at the same time, but certainly very close to it.
Learn whole songs
What would you say about a cover band that only played the first few bars of every tune they started? Would you pay to see Neil Young play just the start of “Cinnamon Girl?” Or imagine going to see Metallica and having them play only the introduction of “Enter Sandman.”
People listen to musicians to hear songs, whole songs. So while it can certainly be satisfying to learn a particularly difficult introduction or guitar fill or solo, don’t settle for learning just one part of any song. The art of making music comes from playing the whole piece! And, in the long run, you’re going to learn a lot more – the importance of the timing of the guitar parts (not to mention keeping time in general!), the structure of the song as well as its harmonies and chord progressions (which you’ll be able to use in many other songs), and the skill of shaping both your sound and your guitar parts to fit the dynamics of the song. And what you learn is going to help you become a much better musician as you continue to grow and evolve.
I hope that these tips have been, or will be, of use to you. Please feel free to drop a comment or email with more! After all, we’re all here to learn and to grow.