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Why 11 guitar mistakes? Why not a nice, even number like 10? Sure, most blog posts would stop at 10, but this one goes to 11.
Here, I’d like to outline 11 common mistakes that I continually see new (and some experienced) guitar owners make, and how to avoid them. You’ve got plenty to work on and practice without these hurdles tripping you up and slowing you down.
1. Not getting the guitar set up properly
If you bought your guitar new, you might assume it came professionally adjusted–feeling and sounding its best. In fact, the opposite is usually true, especially if you ordered the guitar online and had it delivered. Your guitar probably needs a thorough “setup” by a pro in order to feel and sound its best. What the heck is a setup, you ask? You can read my blog post explaining guitar setups here.
Due to the sheer volume they move, guitar manufacturers and online retailers don’t have the time to give every outgoing guitar personalized attention. The manufacturers (e.g. Fender, Gibson, Ibanez, etc) have a very quick process they run through to get the guitar “in the ballpark.” Then, the guitar is subjected to the rigors of shipping and climate change which, best case, knocks the guitar a little out of whack.
If you instead buy a guitar on-site from a music store, insist that they include a “full setup” (and have them put on a fresh set of strings) as part of the sale price. Most are happy to do this for you.
2. Using strings that are too heavy (too thick)
Whenever I pick up a beginner’s guitar, I’m always stunned at how heavy/thick the strings are. When asked why, they usually have no idea and say they’re “just using what came with the guitar” or are “using the strings the store told me would sound the best.”
Forget about having thick (or “heavy” in guitar lingo) strings while you’re learning and instead install the lightest strings possible. Lighter strings make practicing easier and less painful, and you can gradually move up to thicker strings as you build hand strength and calluses.
After all these years of playing, I still use “ultra-light” strings on my acoustics and electrics. Don’t let anyone talk you into using heavier strings because “it’ll give you better tone” or other nonsense.
3. Not changing strings often enough, or ever
As a beginner, changing your own guitar strings can seem intimidating at first. However, it’s a necessary part of guitar ownership so it’s important to learn how to do it, then do it regularly. Even if you rarely play your guitar, you should still change your strings at least every 6-8 months. Change them more often depending on your climate, how much you sweat, and how often you play.
I’m always amazed when I encounter a guitar with strings that haven’t been changed in many, many months. I also occasionally encounter guitars where the strings have NEVER been changed–even after several years. Years! The strings are severely rusted and will no longer stay in tune, yet the owner is actively playing on them.
Playing on REALLY old strings not only diminishes your playing enjoyment, it can cause premature wear of your guitar’s frets and fretboard.
Wipe your guitar strings after playing and practicing, and you can prolong their life. I demonstrate 2 methods in this blog post on how to wipe your guitar strings.
4. Using the wrong type of strings
Another string-related mistake: using the wrong TYPE of strings for a particular guitar. Strings sets fall into two major categories: steel-string sets and nylon-string (aka Classical) sets.
“Steel” is just a generic term we use for convenience. In a “steel-string” set of guitar strings, all the strings are metal. “Nylon” or “Classical” guitar strings are a modern take on the early gut strings. “Nylon” is a generic term here as well. In a “nylon string” or “Classical” set of guitar strings, the lower 3 strings are metal, and the upper (skinnier) 3 strings are nylon.
You should never put a steel-string set on a “Classical” guitar. You can put nylon strings on a steel-string acoustic guitar (but it’s not recommended), but not the other way around. A Classical guitar neck can not handle the higher string tension created by a set of steel acoustic guitar strings.
Need help cutting through all the marketing hype that clutters guitar string packages? I wrote a blog post on how to choose the right guitar strings.
5. Holding the guitar incorrectly
Many new guitar players come to me struggling to play a specific chord (or chords), and right away I spot an issue: they’re holding the guitar wrong. As if the chord itself isn’t difficult enough, they’re putting themselves at an ergonomic disadvantage that makes it even MORE difficult.
I’ll be writing an in-depth blog post about the proper way to hold your guitar in various sitting and standing positions, but for now I encourage you to check out Nate Savage’s YouTube videos:
6. Ignoring the environment (humidity and temperature)
I always say that the degree to which you should worry about the environment’s effect on your guitar is proportionate to how much you paid for your guitar. If yours is a cheap “starter guitar” (anything under $150), you can worry less about potentially ruining it if money’s not an issue for you.
On the other hand, if you bought a decent mid-priced or higher guitar that you hope will last for years, spend a little extra to protect your investment with some sort of in-case dehumidifier or humidifier (depending on whether you live in a very wet or dry climate, respectively). Your guitar is happiest in a relative humidity of 45% – 55%. Buy a digital in-case hygrometer first to see what the humidity reading is inside your guitar case after it’s been in there 1-2 days, then decide if you need to remove or add moisture, or do nothing at all.
I wrote an in-depth article on humidity here if you’d like to learn more about how to keep your guitar safe.
You should avoid extremes of temperature as well. Your guitar is happiest in a temperature somewhere between 68F – 78F… give or take a few degrees. Do NOT leave your guitar in an extremely cold or hot car.
7. Unintentionally scratching the finish with belt buckles, metal buttons, etc.
If your guitar is already pretty beat-up and you’re not concerned about scratching it, you can ignore this one. However, many people get pretty upset when they discover that they’ve unintentionally scratched the glossy finish of their new guitar with a belt buckle, metal shirt buttons, jean rivets, etc.
So, if you’re fond of your guitar’s finish, be aware of what you’re wearing before you pick it up to play it.
8. Not cleaning the guitar properly
Never use standard household cleaners, furniture polish, etc. on your guitar. If a cleaning product is on the shelf in a grocery or department store, it’s probably unsuitable for your guitar. Only use cleaning products specifically made for guitars, by well-known guitar companies such as Music Nomad (my #1 choice), Ernie Ball, Gibson, Martin, etc.
Nothing you see on the shelves at a grocery (or similar) store should be used on your guitar.
Unless you’re playing on stage and sweating all over your guitar every night, you really don’t need to clean your guitar very often. If you only play for a few minutes each day in the comfort of your home, a good cleaning a few times a year (or less) is usually sufficient.
Want to learn more about what you should and should not use on your guitar? I’ve written a couple good articles on the topic of cleaning:
9. Setting the guitar where it can fall or be knocked over easily
Oh… the things I’ve seen: broken headstocks, broken necks, cracked bodies, chipped paint, and much worse. This is one of the most common guitar mistakes I see that is responsible for damage.
A proper guitar stand isn’t going to save your guitar from every possible situation, but it definitely lowers the likelihood of the guitar falling over. Avoid leaning your guitar haphazardly against the edge of a table, a couch cushion, etc. This is a recipe for disaster.
If you’re on-the-go, there are a number of portable guitar stands, and some will even fit inside your guitar case (depending on your case’s design). If you’d like some recommendations, just let me know in the comments below.
10. Buying the wrong kind of guitar amp, or buying an amp that’s not necessary
If you bought an electric guitar, buy an amp designed for electric guitar, and one that is designed for the style of music you want to play–one that will produce the kind of music/tones you ultimately want to make. Whether it’s Heavy Metal or Country Twang, be sure the amp you buy is the right one for that style.
Next, don’t buy an amp that is too small or too big. Avoid the cute, battery-powered “amps” that run $20 – $40. They’re novelty items, and you’ll be disappointed. At the opposite end, don’t buy a monstrous guitar amp–even if you imagine yourself one day playing live in clubs. Cross that bridge when you get to it, and for now buy a good starter amp. These usually run $100 – $200.
If you bought an acoustic-electric guitar (an acoustic guitar that can be plugged into a guitar amp), you don’t need an amp at all, not at first. In-store sales people will usually try to sell you an amp anytime you buy an acoustic-electric guitar. Just say no. Your acoustic guitar is going to be loud enough acoustically (unplugged) for most situations you’ll encounter as a beginner. In fact, it can get loud enough by itself to disturb neighbors. You really don’t need an amp for your acoustic-electric guitar until you get to the point of performing live outdoors, or in decent-sized venues. So, wait a couple years on that one.
11. Over-stressing about dings and scratches
Of course, you never want to purposely damage your guitar, but on the other hand being overly paranoid and protective isn’t healthy or practical. Guitars are meant to be played and are designed to withstand a certain amount of abuse and cosmetic damage while retaining their sound quality and playability.
If your guitar gets dinged or scratched, it’s natural to be upset (especially when it’s someone else’s fault). Take a deep breath, relax, ensure there isn’t any serious damage that needs professional repair, and then play on. Veteran guitar players believe these mishaps “add character” and give the guitar an interesting history. They affectionately refer to such damage as “mojo” or “battle scars.”
The source of joy that a guitar provides should come (primarily) from the sounds it produces, not how it looks.
Have you made any of these mistakes? Maybe you’ve made a few I didn’t list here? If so, let me know in the comments section down below!
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