Just started learning to play the guitar, or even some way into your journey? Finding a few things tricky or challenging? Perhaps you’re falling victim to one or more of the 5 common beginner guitarist mistakes.
We’re gong to take a look at 5 of the most common mistakes that affect beginner guitarists. This isn’t exhaustive, but to my mind these are the most perilous pitfalls. Ready? Let’s start with number 1!
1. Playing The Same Songs Over and Over and Over
This is a mistake that can easily become a habit in no time at all. What’s more it doesn’t matter what level you’re playing to, you can always fall into this trap. You’ll come across it in beginners and more advanced players who don’t have a lot of time to play their guitar.
You might learn a few of your favorite songs after picking up a few chords. it feels great to finally play a song you’ve been listening to for years.
But you have to learn when to move onto something else. You can ask yourself a question to help. Is playing my favorite song going to make me a better guitarist, or would it be better for my development to play something else?
Your answer should be the latter! If you pick up your guitar and play the same few songs over and over again, you’re not challenging yourself. Your technique doesn’t develop and you don’t get an appreciation of different chords, patterns and licks.
Be careful however. There’s a difference between playing a song over and over to perfect it before moving on and casually playing the same song over and over. There’s a goal and end point to perfecting a song. There isn’t when mindlessly noodling!
You might really enjoy playing your favorite songs, which is totally fine. You just might want to make it the last thing you play after experimenting with different songs or practicing some scales.
2. Only Strumming Downwards
Another thing that can be come a systemic problem if not addressed when a beginner is the tendency to only strum downwards. When a guitarist first begins to learn, they tend to use their fingers to strum the guitar, often upwards and downwards. The problem comes when you hand them a plectrum (a pick).
The pick feels completely alien to them so their brain has no instructions for how to handle it. On top of that you’re delicately gripping a small piece of plastic whilst striking six individual strings, all of which pose a motor challenge to the player.
After some time the guitarist gets used to using the pick to strum downwards and can achieve their goal, playing a song, by strumming downwards only. Bad idea!
For starters, it’s exhausting if you’re playing a song with a fast strumming pattern. Secondly you lose the subtlety that can be achieved by combining both downward and upward strokes.
I know that it’s frustrating learning to play with a pick. I learnt to play with a pick on an acoustic guitar and every time I dropped the pick it found it’s way into the body of the guitar via the sound hole! I’d have to fish it out and then try again. If you can persist and learn to play both upward and downward strokes, you’ll find playing much easier and you’ll be a better guitarist.
Start playing upward and downward strokes slowly and without fretting a chord. This will mean you can concentrate on your technique with the pick. Once you feel you’ve got some control over the pick you can start to fret some basic chords. Start with an E minor and progress right up to an F major.
Next pick a song with 3/4 timing. An easy songs in 3/4 timing is “This Years Love” by David Gray. You have to accentuate parts of the strumming in 3/4 timing and it gives you an appreciation of a strumming pattern. In the video he plays the song on a piano, however you can clearly hear the accentuated notes, which reflect where you should accentuate your strumming.
It’s also a great song to play live, having performed it at countless open mic nights when I first started playing!
3. Ignoring Alternate Picking
This problem has a similar root as problem 2, in that it’s usually caused by lack of experience using a pick. It’s one thing strumming all six strings with a pick, but quite another trying to pick individual strings. The matter is compounded by the fact that you need to pick single strings both upwards and downwards.
If you’re only picking downwards, you’re making the task more difficult for yourself. Let me give you an example using the open low E and A strings. Say you wanted to play the low E string, then the A string and then the low E string again.
If you downward pick the low E string, then downward pick the A string, you need to bring the pick back over the low E string to pick it again. That makes things very awkward and slows you down.
It’s much better to use alternate picking. If using alternate picking we’d down pick the low E string, upward pick the A string leaving our pick in a prime position to down pick the low E again.
In the video below I demonstrate both methods. Note how I can play much more quickly using alternate picking.
This is another technique that requires a bit of patience, however with a bit of persistence you’ll find picking much easier. First start by alternate picking open strings in order. Then come back the other way. So your first pass you’d pick:
- Low E Down
- A Up
- D Down
- G Up
- B Down
- E Up
Then coming back the other way you’d pick:
- High E Down
- B Up
- G Down
- D Up
- A Down
- Low E Up
Once you’ve got the hang of that you can start fretting some notes. You can double your effectiveness here by learning to alternate pick a pentatonic scale. This will provide a little theory too. Don’t worry, pentatonics are nothing to be scared of. In fact, they’re one of the secrets of playing lead guitar. For now I’ll just tell you what notes you need to play.
- Low E: Fret 3 then fret 5
- A: Fret 2 then fret 5
- D: Fret 2 then fret 5
- G: Fret 2 then fret 4
- B: Fret 3 then fret 5
- E: Fret 3 then fret 5
You can then play the same thing in reverse. Here’s a video showing the difference between playing with just downward picking and playing with alternate picking:
You can see that using alternate picking is much more fluid than only downward picking. It’s worth practicing alternate picking. It gives you a real advantage when tackling tricky lead parts and makes for a much more fluid play style.
4. Buying A Rubbish Guitar
I totally get that there’s an economic argument to be had here. If you’re buying a guitar for yourself or for someone who wants to get started, it doesn’t make sense to go out an buy an top end Fender, Gibson or Gretsch guitar. It’s a fact of life that not everyone is going to persist with playing the guitar. That’s especially poignant if you’re buying for someone else.
At the same time you should be aware of the pitfalls of starting with a cheap guitar. These guitars are abundant, especially on popular online stores. Avoid them like the plague. They’re usually made from very cheap materials and because they’re mass produced there are often problems.
This can be anything from sharp frets (which make playing very uncomfortable) to uneven frets (which make tuning difficult) to poor electronics (which make the guitar sound terrible).
It might be tempting to get an all-in-one starter kit for $99 that includes guitar, amp, strap and picks. But to be honest you’re better off paying a little more for a guitar and buying the amp and other accessories separately.
A lot of times if you go to a music store and buy a guitar they’ll throw in a strap and some picks free of charge. They may even throw in a practice amp. Even if you don’t manage to score a practice amp free of charge the lower end models are very inexpensive these days.
You can buy a Squier (made by Fender) Bullet Stratocaster for around $140 or a Yamaha Pacifica for around $200. Both excellent electric guitars for beginners. In the same vein you can get an Epiphone DR-100 acoustic guitar for around $150. Most people say they don’t want to spend more than $100 on their first guitar. That tends to be an arbitrary figure. Even if you up the budget to $150 chances are you’ll be able to buy a much better guitar.
5. Ignoring Pickup Selection & Other Controls
This mainly applies to electric guitars, however does apply in some part to electro-acoustic guitars too. Your electric guitar will have at least two controls. Higher end guitars will have more. They’re not there to look pretty, they do stuff!
In fact you can really affect the tone of your guitar by rolling off (turning down) some of the volume. Some guitars, especially those with humbucker pickups, have tone control for each pickup. That allows you to quickly alter your tone before switching to a different set of pickups. That way you can build a degree of harmony or contrast between pickup tone.
A really good example of when you might want to roll off some tone is if you’re using a bridge pickup for a chorus or a lead part, then want to blend in with the other instruments a little more. Rolling off some of the tone will cut down the bite of the pickup, producing a more subtle tone. How much you’ll need to roll off depends on each pickup.
But the key message here is not to get stuck with the tone and volume always cranked up, relying on effects pedals to alter your tone. You can get a wide variety of tones without a pedal just by adjusting the control knobs right beneath your picking hand.
Now you’ve explored some of the most common mistakes, you’re all set to avoid them. But don’t be too hard on yourself if you fall into one of the traps. It happens. Recognize it and move on. Don’t get too hung up on technique either. Sure you’ll need to consciously practice technique, but playing the guitar should also be fun.
If you want to play one of your favorite songs but haven’t got alternate strumming down, that’s fine. Just make sure you work on alternate strumming for a little while each day to improve your technique.
Perhaps the most important thing is the guitar. Don’t be drawn in to buying something cheap. Take a little time to find out more about what’s available. See what other people think and don’t be afraid to break that mythical $100 barrier in your mind. Head over to my electric guitar or acoustic guitar pages to take a look at what’s available.
I hope you’ve found this post useful. Feel free to leave any comments or questions below. Alternatively get in touch using my contact page.