Bad Guitar Habits And How To Fix Them

Just like any other physical pursuit - batting, knitting, scrimshaw - you need to get the music fundamentals down before you can really get down to the business of actually making music.

Ultimate Guitar

Playing music can be a creative experience, and an emotional experience, but it's also a physical one. And just like any other physical pursuit - batting, knitting, scrimshaw - you need to get the fundamentals down before you can really get down to the business of actually making music. There are a lot of little snags that you can encounter along the way. Let's look at some of the more common ones I've encountered in many years of teaching.

Fretting Hand Posture

One of the hardest chords for beginning guitarists to play is the regular first position F chord. There's something inherently uncomfortable about that combination of a first-fret barre and the need to firmly hold down the root note on the third fret of the D string. Perhaps it's because there are no other 'standard' open position chords which require barring across two frets. But you can learn a lot about your playing technique by how you fret such a notoriously tricky chord. Usually when I encounter a student who has trouble with the F, it's symptomatic of a larger problem with their playing posture. They often have the guitar neck parallel with the floor, and this puts the wrist at a very uncomfortable and unconventional angle. But there's a very simple way to fix this, and it'll make it easier to play pretty much everything else too. Here's the trick: First, without a guitar in your lap, bend your left elbow (assuming you're a right-hander) and observe the angle that your wrist is at when left to just naturally follow the contour of your forearm. Then, pick up the guitar and place the neck in your hand at that angle. You'll notice that it's much easier on the wrist. That's because you're no longer contorting your wrist to conform to the guitar: you're moving the guitar to fit with where your hand naturally belongs. This takes a lot of pressure off the wrist, makes it easier to move around the fretboard, and it even helps to give you more control over bends and vibrato. And it definitely makes it easier and less fatiguing to play for long periods.

Picking Problems

I had a student once who had been learning from a different teacher for two years, but wasn't getting anywhere with his playing. When he came to me he wanted to try a fresh approach and see where it'd take him. As I always do when I start working with a new student who's already been playing for a while, I ask them to play something for me so I can get an idea of where they're at. I expected this dude to have a few tricks up his sleeves after two years. But - with all due respect - he was terrible. There was nothing wrong with what his fretting hand was doing, but his picking was all wrong: he was picking every note as an upstroke, and for two years his previous teacher hadn't pulled him up on it and tried to correct it. All of his chords sounded wrong and he had no sense of dynamics to speak of. It took a few weeks of picking drills to train him to play with downstrokes, and part of this involved exercises with up-down-up-down picking just to give him a comfortable place to start from, but before too long we were able to retrain his picking hand to play with downstrokes as well as upstrokes, and his playing started to display a sense of rhythm that he wasn't able to get across with upstrokes alone.

Getting Rhythm

Some players have the innate ability to make you forget they're playing in an odd time signature, just because they do it so naturally. Alex Lifeson of Rush is a great example. But if you're not used to odd-time riffs, they can sound stilted and mathematical. The best way to tackle this is deceptively simple: just hum the riff. It doesn't matter if your pitch is off when you do this: what really matters is the rhythm. When you do this it seems to unlock the pulse of the riff, and you can then translate this back to playing guitar. And this doesn't just go for odd meters. It can also work for anything in 4/4 or 3/4 that you're having a hard time wrapping your fingers around. A personal example is the repeating solo figure beginning at 6:19 in Led Zeppelin's "Stairway To Heaven". I had the tablature in an old Guitar World issue but I just couldn't seem to make the notes slot into where they should be. So I sang the lick instead, and sure it probably sounded rather silly, but once I'd made that connection with the rhythm it was pretty simple to transfer that rhythm back to the guitar.

Breaking The Pentatonic Rut

There's a whole book's worth of potential tips for breaking out of the Pentatonic Rut, but here's a great place to start: break the Minor Pentatonic scale out of its two-note-per-string configuration and turn it into a three-note-per-string scale. This forces you to move out of the box position and sets up some different note relationships. In the tab below you'll see two versions of the Minor Petatonic scale in the key of A. They both contain the exact same notes, but the second version will take you all the way up to the 17th fret, and will also give you room to expand even higher. I've included a few slides that will help you move around the scale a bit more easily. And once you start to explore the wider intervals that naturally present themselves in this scale configuration, you'll enter that Eric Johnson kind of territory where pentatonics take on a slightly more exotic yet still familiar feel.

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50 comments sorted by best / new / date

    maybe you didn't fix his playing...maybe you changed the fate of the greatest ska prodigy of ALL TIME
    Veronique Vega
    Not to mention the worst guitar habit- trying to learn advanced stuff without covering the basics!
    another tip would be to find out what works best for you. as for myself, I don't do barre chords, but I use my thumb for root notes. it just feels better for me.
    I actually use my thumb around the other side of the neck for 3 or 4 awkward chords I know (although I don't use them very often, sadly). It's a thing I saw Guthrie Govan do in a video, and after trying it on a few weird shapes and getting used to it (The transitions from normal fretting hand positioning aren't as clean as I would like yet), it's brilliant for certain chords!
    It makes D/F# easier if you want both e string to play an F#
    I assume you mean for the F# on the low E, yousef213? What I was referring to, was actually using the thumb to fret a note on the high E. It's awkward to begin with, but gets better. I don't make very much use of it, but it does make 3 or 4 awkward shapes I know a lot easier! As much as anything, it's a bit of a 'party trick' (For lack of a better word) to confuse guitar playing friends of mine, haha!
    I'll vouch for that! As a guitarist of 4 years, I recently kicked back into re-learning the whole instrument from the ground up, hardcore. It really helps to nail the essentials before you try to tackle anything too insane!
    the chalky one
    Here's a bad habit a lot of people have. Never practicing anything, then wondering why they can't play. How to fix it: ACTUALLY PRACTICE!!!
    "Picking Problems" This made me remember of a friend of mine who always say "true men downstroke every note". I lol'd pretty hard at that. Seriously though, awesome article. I was missing one of those around here. I'd also say that relying all your playing on tabs is a terrible mistake that many people seem to make. Tabs can be really helpful when you're just lazy to figure how to play a song by yourself or when you're still "developing your ear" but they do not teach you how to play guitar, not even the basic stuff.
    Agreed. I try and work out the song mostly first, then revert to tab if it's giving me trouble. Even then I still don't refer to the tab exactly, I've always let my ears do the ground work first.
    I remember watching an interview of the guitarist from disturbed, and he said he would downstroke all of the notes sometimes haha
    I'd feel like a moron if I figured it was a tough guy thing to downstroke every note especially watching any video of legendary guitarists playing. I definitely went through a tough streak being self taught and not having realized for about 4 of my 6 years of guitar playing that it's good to alternate your picking.
    A bad habit is to use the pentatonic EXACTLY the way it is. Explore, find those notes that don't exactly fit in the pentatonic but sound good to you
    What about people who don't use a metronome?
    the chalky one
    Well, not everyone had to. For some people who's timing is all screwed up, and have trouble keeping the beat (Like I did) it's a good thing to use. But not everyone needs them, my brother taught himself guitar, he's been playing for four years, and he only got a metrononme about a year ago.
    As far as lead guitar goes(solos etc.) you just need to have the tune in your mind or try to play along with a recording.
    i personally prefer to play to a synth drum track with some half assed recorded bass track(in a key) if Im writing something. if Im practicing I use jamtracks or synth drums with a drone note. Ive tried using metronomes, but that click just gets on my nerves and actually manages to throw me off timing.
    Bad guitar habits: Shredding
    it's only bad if that's all you can do. If you can pull off some smooth rhythmic solos AND shred it's not that bad of a habit. It's bad for those people who can ONLY stick to trem picking the same scale all over the fretboard.
    i was suprised to find the last 'pentatonic' part, but I am sure glad I did. Excelent article.
    What about using guitar hero to improve your skills? :p
    You know guitar hero and rockband get a bad wrap cause, well it's nothing like a real guitar. I'd have to say they both improved my timing and hand dexterity, but I did play on expert and that's the only time your moving your hands around note for note. In all reality though most songs come easier to me on guitar than in those games cause their note layouts are crap, and there are no opens.
    String skipping, listening to Meshuggah and sweep picking help alot. Also, make it a habit to always play your guitar while watching movies or TV, and look up Van Halen rhythm tab for practice.
    I put bad, cheesy scifi / horror movies on while I practice a lot of the time. That gives me the choice of A. playing my guitar or B. watching a *choke* SyFy channel original movie.
    I've never had problems with timing or my fretting hand. timing i, for some reason, have never had to think about, the notes come out at the right time, feelng my way though the riff. my problem is that i am a true man, and i only downstroke. having real trouble trying to break a habit i've had since i started playing. very frustrating.
    My timing is one of my biggest faults.I only started playing again after a 8-10 year gap.Pretty rusty and i need to get some practice in as my fingers dont strech as well as they used too.
    As with just about anything you do, the longer you practice and the more feedback you can get, the worse are going to be those habits. Then again, unless you're going for the classical approach, you're gonna find that most musicians got some pretty "bad" habits with their instruments. The idea of "odd time signatures" was cute though, I've never thought of time signatures as odd, I just thought they were time signatures.
    Another bad habit is anchoring. It hampers with the movement of your wrist. When alternating between strings and doing runs that go from the 6th to the 1st string, you lose alot of sync with your left hand
    I learnt my modes at the same time as the pentatonics and I rarely ever use the pentatonics. Maybe learning the modes will will break that. The big problem for me was not practicing what I learnt. Even though my guitar 'skills' advanced, my guitar 'playing' couldnt quite catch up and when I went to the advanced stuff I had to start all over cos my playing was all sloppy.
    Minor pentatonic scale contains five notes (1,3,4,5 and 7) that you find on every minor mode (natural minor, dorian and phrygian) (and I don't want to use term "aeolian" because aeolian isn't used today at all, maybe on some folk music). Major pentatonic also contains five notes (1, 2, 3, 5 and 6) that you find on every major mode (major scale, lydian and mixolydian) (also, I don't use term "ionian" because it isn't used today at all, maybe on some folk music). So what makes pentatonics useful? You can play the pentatonic scale over every mode without having to worry about if the note you are playing doesn't fit the chord progression. Of course you should know what you are doing but scales help you do that. Also, pentatonics are used in almost every rock guitar solo. And the modes should be learned properly, they are not just scales starting from a different root, you can use them as scales and throw in the major 6th in a minor progression (dorian scale) or minor 7th in a major progression (mixolydian). But modal music really contains little to no harmony. Maybe a one or two chord vamp (like i7-IV7, dorian). Modes today are used more as scales. The music today is tonal, not modal, except some folk music.
    "he was picking every note as an upstroke" That I think it's easier to do a series of downstroke.
    Generally speaking it is. This is especially true for metal players. I think Metallica uses TONS of down picking riffs rather than alternate picking to sound more aggressive.
    I really like that last point. I've been stuck in the pentatonic rut for a couple of years... (sad I know). Hopefully this can get me out of it so i can develop as a lead player.
    Carl Hungus
    Thats true. However if you practice hard enough or have the inclination you can play those pentatonic riffs at lightspeed and make them sound a whole lot cooler. Eddie Van Halen has always used pentatonic licks as well as the modes.
    Ha I have never had timeing issues even before guitar ,my problem Is getting better dynamics.
    Good Ol' Ramos
    Very nice. That last one really struck me. I've been trying to break out of that rut, and so far, I've made huge strides. However, a simple "3 notes per measure" is far easier than what I've been doing which had no rhyme to its' reason. Just trying to see how far I can go on one or two strings and still stay within the scale. Anywho, very well done! Should help many novice players.
    That's it summed up in one artcile. A lot to learnt from these simple concepts.
    Quality over quantity. Play the guitar, don't watch movies or anything else. Unfortunatley NIKE say it best, 'just do it'!!!!