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Avoiding Bad Habits | Guitar Learning Mistake #3

Over the past 40 years of owning my music school, I think I've seen every self-taught guitarist bad habit possible… and that’s not even counting the ones I developed myself and had to overcome.

In this lesson, I'm going to talk about the most common bad habits that can be avoided or if you’ve been playing for a while, fixed.

If you put even a small amount of attention on these issues, it will save you lots of frustration and pain later on.

Developing good habits early will help make your path to playing guitar easier, smoother and more fun!

Ready? Let’s get this handled…

Here are the most common bad habits that you should avoid while playing and practicing the guitar.

Good Posture Matters

Playing guitar well can be an endurance test. What I mean is that you'll need to come back to practicing over and over to get things right.

It really helps if you pay attention to good posture while you're practicing to keep from getting sore muscles and back problems.

This is something I neglected in my younger days, thinking I was immortal. It has caught up to me.

Because this is an issue that I've learned a lot about, I created a whole lesson to help those that are interested.

You can find that here >> 

Where To Put That Thumb?

I’ve seen great rock and folk guitarists who play with their thumb wrapped around the neck of the guitar.

I wouldn’t suggest they do it any differently, but I believe they play well despite some bad habits, not because of them

I recommend a traditional left- hand and thumb position for students.

This means the ball of the thumb rests on the back of the neck, with some space between the neck and the palm of the hand.

If you start off this way, keeping your thumb firmly planted behind the neck becomes fairly easy over time and you’ll have more flexibility to stretch across the neck and the ability to finger more complex chords as you progress.

Positioning Your Guitar

It's best to keep your guitar fairly upright when practicing. If you allow your guitar to slide down at an angle while you're practicing, it is very difficult to stand and play the guitar.

This is because the position will change so much the bad habits that you built won't work in the new position.

If you do plan on playing the guitar while standing, I'd encourage you to use a strap when practicing.

 Tighten the strap for the guitar so the guitar gently sits on your lap. That way when you stand up the guitar will be in the same position.

Tension Is A Habit

It is difficult in the beginning not to tense up when you're trying something new. It's a bit of a dilemma.

When you use too much tension over time, it becomes a habit that is difficult to break.

The trick is to pay attention to the most common areas where tension builds and release the tension before it becomes too much of a problem.

No Sore Fingers Allowed!

The first area to pay attention to is to your left hand. Use just enough pressure to press down the finger to make the note on the string… and no more.

Pressing too hard will slow you down and make your fingers sore.

You can experiment with releasing the finger until the note doesn't sound to see just how much pressure you need.

I particularly like to use this simple guitar exercise called Speed Developer #1. 

Left-Hand Issues

Watch for tension in the wrist of your left hand as you finger chords and notes.

If you find your hand becoming tense and getting sore, stop for just a few seconds and shake out the hand. This can help break the habit of tension.

Smooth Strumming

Strumming smoothly on the guitar will require a relaxed right-hand wrist.

You'll even want to allow a little wiggle room for the pick. Holding on too tightly to the pick when you're strumming will create a rough sounding strum.


Fingerpicking Tension

When fingerpicking keeps the fingers of your right-hand firm but with a minimum amount of tension.

Pull the fingers into the palm of your hand and try to avoid pulling your entire hand away from the guitar. If you feel your right-hand getting sore, stop and shake it out.

Here's a more in-depth lesson on how to get a smooth fingerpicking foundation without developing the tension habit.

The Source Of Bad Guitar Playing Habits

There are two main sources of bad habits… not knowing the proper way and trying to cut corners.

The solution to the first is simple. The obvious solution to not knowing something is EDUCATION! Not much more to say about that.

The second problem is a little more difficult. That's because we are programmed in our culture to look for the quick and easy way to do something. 

While "quick and easy" works great with some things, it is often not what's best when learning a skill like playing the guitar.

When learning guitar, it's best to use a properly designed progressive step-by-step method to learn proper technique. 

Don't skip steps. This almost always causes tension and bad habits. When you feel tension, stop, relax, shake out the hand, and come back at it.

Play the exercises as slowly as you need to. Play them slowly enough to play them correctly and in a relaxed state… then pick up the speed little by little.

Be willing to slow down when tension creeps in. Use a metronome to keep track of your progress.

This is where a good instructor with a systematic approach really helps, but it is possible to make progress by yourself with quality teaching materials and by reminding yourself to slow down, relax, and be patient.

Do you have any bad habits listed here… or one NOT mentioned? Leave a comment or feedback below and join the conversation.


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  1. I always read your Post with great interest I am 60 years old and I still want to play the guitar. I have been to several sites but your is far by the best and I believe this is because you try and teach the small things which if done properly will do wonders in the future in building the skills you need.I am a left hand guitarist so most things I learn I have to change around to accommodate to play left handed. I also have arthritis in both hands so playing is very difficult.I hope you keep up the good work you do I know you will be blessed I know I have been. Thank you for teaching from the bottom of your heart. Bob t. your slowest learning student.


  3. thank you sir….i read this post and what you have saying in this post….i will follow and obey this……thank you very much

  4. I’m the beginner in guitar playing and was trying to learn strumming techniques and patterns. I had to say with my fortune, I downloaded the first video that was yours. I watched it and two more of others in same topic. But for me they can’t reach the level of yours. Therefore I started searching about you and your sites & started following. So with my luck or fortune I got my best teacher. He is none other than you. Love u guru(teacher).

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