Over the course of learning to play the guitar, many of us develop certain habits. Some of which can be counterproductive or don’t really help your progress at all. Other guitar habits can be very beneficial to your learning experience and some are somewhere in between, I guess. Also, before we get into a more detail, we need to acknowledge that while there are definitely some guitar habits where we can be safely and universally agree upon are bad, and the there are others which are good. Lastly, there are some things that I would view as situational – these are habits or behaviors that may work well for one person, but are rather detrimental to another. It then ultimately comes down to your personal preference and learning style.
So, let’s look at some of the most common guitar habits. The following is not to be meant ‘all-inclusive’ or as a set-in-stone list of good or bad guitar habits. But in order not to overly complicate all this, let’s just say that the below is merely an overview of some of those behaviors that I’ve seen in my students and myself since I picked up the instrument back in the early nineties. You may or may not agree with my ‘verdict’ on each on one to the points and that’s totally okay.
Bad Guitar Habits
Playing an out-of-tune guitar
It takes seconds to tune a guitar. Don’t be lazy because this goes beyond just the time aspect – meaning, by not tuning your guitar before you start playing, you might be able to ‘save’ a few seconds or minutes of time, but believe me, you are doing yourself a disservice. Make sure your guitar is properly tuned before you start playing. Only that way you can develop a reliable confidence in your ability to ‘hear’ and comprehend pitches, notes, chords, harmonies, etc. And above all that, an un-tuned guitar just sounds shitty, at least in my opinion.
Playing Guitar Under The Influence
Personally, I don’t drink anymore, but I used to in my younger days. A lot, actually. That drinking influenced my guitar playing, there is no doubt about that. Now, the question is: in what way did my alcohol consumption my ability to learn or play things on my guitar? Subjectively, I thought I was playing better with a few beers in the belly. To some extent, that might actually be true, maybe I did play better. Alcohol helped me with nerves and anxiety which at least temporarily suggest that it helps with playing guitar. But there is a very thin line. A line that you won’t be able to notice while you are under the influence. You think you are doing great and you think you are playing better and better the more you drink. Well, the ‘you think’ part is the problem. I had my ‘a-ha’ moment when I decided to record myself during a practicing session. I listened to the recording the next day and it was a ‘sobering’ – no pun intended – experience.
I’m not your shrink or supervisor. You do whatever your comfortable with and to be clear, the last thing I want is to tell you what you should and shouldn’t be doing. By based on my personal experience, the fact is I fooled myself believing I was playing better under the influence of alcohol, but the fact is I was not. This may or may not be true for you, too.
Not Following-Through With A Task
I am so guilty of this undoubtedly bad guitar habit. I always start something but hardly ever go all the way through the end. For instance, I start learning a new song, but then I have two million other things in my head. There is a new riff I just thought about, or this new song I heard by this awesome band that I want to do a tutorial on, or finally following through with my pledge of learning a something new (something small, like a short lick or so) every day. But in reality, I start one thing and then I am quick to move on to the next without finishing the what I had started before. This, at least to me, is my biggest guitar mistake and bad habit. It’s a reflection of a lack of discipline and focus, it’s that simple.
I’ve gotten better at it, but I still have to remind and force myself to finish one thing first before taking on the next challenge.
Playing Too Fast Or Too Slow
If you’re in a band, try the following: ask your drummer to hold a certain beat, simple stuff, nothing fancy, just a back-beat to play along over. Then play a riff or melody and sync up until you’re perfectly aligned with your drummer. Then, as you instructed your drummer beforehand, he will give you a sign and suddenly stop playing for a certain amount of time (e.g. number of beats) until he resumes playing again. Ideally, you both of you will come back in at the exact same time. Trust me, if you are late or early, it’s yours and not your drummer’s fault. At least in the vast majority of instances or unless your drummer has a bad day.
It comes down to internalizing and keeping a regular steady beat, no matter what else is going on. The beat is the foundation on which you built on. If you don’t ‘understand’ or fully appreciate the importance of this foundation and framework, it will be much harder to develop a good feel and reliable feel for rhythm and timing. A band that’s out of sync is brutal to listen to. Most of us, especially the guitarist who already have some time under their belt, tend to play too fast. That’s why the occasional or regular practice with a metronome is so helpful.
Good Guitar Habits
The following is just another list of guitar habits that I feel either don’t do any harm or are can actually be very supportive of your guitar learning journey.
Holding the plectrum differently
Apparently, I am very much like the great Jazz Guitarist Pat Metheny. I would expect nothing less of myself. I assume by now you’ve fallen out of you chair and are rolling on the floor laughing. I don’t blame you, because I would do the same reading such a ridiculous statement. I’m obviously not anywhere close to Mr. Metheny’s universe, but apparently we do have one small characteristic in common. We hold the guitar pick in a weird way. Below is a photo of what I mean. To be clear, do I know 100% that Pat and I hold the pick in the exact same (weird) way? No, but based on what I’ve heard and seen, it seems that we are more or less doing the same thing. He does it better than me, obviously.
What’s the point here? The point is that even if you hold your pick in a slightly differently compared to the regular way, you’ll be fine, unless you do something completely crazy, like holding the pick between your thumb and pinky.
Practicing guitar while listening to music
What I mean by ‘listening to music’ is you have some source of unrelated background entertainment going on, while you are supposed to be focusing on guitar. Look, we don’t need to start a debate here. I know of people who are just conditioned that way, they need a constant source of background stimulation, the radio, iTunes, TV, you name it. If they don’t have that, they get uncomfortable. It helps them to stay focused on whatever else they are doing. So, yes, I acknowledge that these people exist and they do well that way.
However, I think it’s fair to say that well over 90% of my students and guitar friends would disagree with the above notion. Having music playing in the background while you are supposed to practice your instrument is normally not something I would support. To me and most others it is too much of a distraction and not conducive to a productive learning environment.
Playing and practicing guitar while watching TV
Guilty as charged. I’ve been doing that all my life and I will continue to do that. It has helped me tremendously. HOWEVER, not as a substitution for your focused regular practice, but rather as supplemental (additional) playing time to fiddle around in order to improve your flexibility and dexterity. So essentially, while you are watching TV you can practice a scale or chord sequence. Something very repetitive that doesn’t require you to pay full attention.
Again, I must emphasize that you can’t do this instead of your regular, laser-focused practice. Playing guitar while watching TV doesn’t have to be a bad guitar habit. It actually can be a good guitar habit, if you give it the right priority.
Keeping your guitar reasonably clean is a good guitar habit. Because if you don’t clean your guitar it can affect your ability to play. Same is true not just for cleaning, but guitar maintenance in general, including the regular replacement of strings. I am all for keeping your guitar clean, doing a regular setup routine and ensuring that my instrument is in a safe place when I don’t use it. I think anyone would agree that these are recommendable things to do for any guitar player.
A couple of points on this. I know people who obsessively clean their guitar and change their strings every five seconds. Like everything in life, it comes down to reasonable judgement and finding a good balance. Yes, keep your guitars clean and in good shape – but treat them for what they are: tools to make music. Making music with a guitar is a mental and physical effort. You need to touch your guitar, you need to work it, work with it. Just like you would use a hammer to ram in a nail, you want to use your guitar to make music. It will get dirty, sweaty, hey, maybe even bloody. Good, that means your instrument becomes part of your DNA, and in an esoteric sense, vice versa. So treat it well, take care good care of it, but don’t look at your guitar as would look at your new addition to your collection of sports trophies. You don’t need to scrub or polish your instrument every day. Once every few weeks will do.
And to my dear guitar students out there who are going through my free online beginners guitar course, as I told you before: cleaning your guitar doesn’t count toward guitar practicing time. You can and should clean your guitar, but not to take away from your practicing time!
So, that’s it. Of course, there are tons of other common guitar habits. The list above, as mentioned before, is not all-inclusive and merely a reflection of my opinion. Anyway, what do you think about all this? What are your guitar habits, good, bad or indifferent? Share your thoughts below.