5 Reasons to Pick Up a Guitar

5 Reasons to Pick Up a Guitar

Many people wish they could play a musical instrument, but just never seem to get around to it. Some of you may even think you’re too old to start learning. Of all the instruments out there, the guitar has got to be one of the most accessible. It’s also relatively easy to get started with. It might take a little bit of effort, but there are lots of benefits to be had. Here are just 5 reasons you should pick up a guitar today.

1. Relieves stress

We have more than our fair share of stress in our lives.

We already have more than our fair share of stress in our lives.

We all know that stress is bad for you. We also all have more than our fair share of it in our day to day lives. There’s a lot of evidence out there to show that playing a musical instrument is good for you. In fact, making music can actually lower your blood pressure and decrease your heart rate.

When you’re learning a guitar (or any instrument for that matter), all of your focus is on what you’re doing at that particular moment in time. It’s like a form of mindfulness. You’re no longer thinking about your day to day problems, you are, quite literally, concentrating on the task in hand. There’s nothing better to do after a bad day at work than pick up your guitar and play your troubles away!

2. Develops co-ordination

Playing guitar helps develop coordination

Playing guitar helps develop hand-eye coordination.

A key part of playing the guitar is hand eye co-ordination. Strumming with one hand whilst fretting notes with the other all helps to develop good motor skills and muscle memory. This can also benefit you in other areas of life where good co-ordination is required. It can be particularly useful for the very young.

Children, for example, can really reap the rewards of playing guitar as it can help speed up their overall development and give them skills that they can use throughout their life. That isn’t to say that you won’t enjoy these benefits if you are older. Age is irrelevant when it comes to playing the guitar. You’re never too old to learn.

3. Improves your memory

Learning guitar just might improve your memory.

Learning guitar just might improve your memory.

Playing guitar can benefit your brain and your memory. When you learn new scales, chords and songs, your grey matter gets a really good workout. The more you absorb new information into your brain, the easier you’ll find it to retain that information. Just like the motor skills we mentioned earlier, this benefit is not limited to playing your instrument. Musicians can find it easier to pick up new skills in other areas, learning a new language for example. On top of all this, playing guitar can even help improve your IQ!

4. Gives you a creative outlet

It’s great to be able to express your emotions and show your creativity through guitar playing. Music is as much about emotion as it is about technical ability (more so in some respects). Having a creative outlet to get lost in can really help improve your overall quality of life. If you have somewhere positive to channel your feelings, it can really help lower your stress levels (see reason 1).

Being artistic can also help when it comes to ‘thinking outside of the box.’ People come up with all sorts of interesting ideas and solutions to problems when they’re concentrating on something creative, such as playing an instrument. If you’re struggling to overcome an issue, go play your guitar for a bit. You might just have a Eureka moment!

5. It’s fun!

If nothing else, play guitar for the sheer joy of it

If nothing else, play guitar for the sheer joy of it

This is probably the most important reason to pick up a guitar. It’s really enjoyable to play music, no matter what the genre. The sense of accomplishment you get from being able to recreate one of your favorite songs is immense. Jamming with other musicians is also great fun, whatever your ability. When you listen to music, your brain actually releases a chemical that makes you happy (dopamine). Imagine how happy creating your own music can make you. Science aside, the guitar is probably one of the most fun instruments you can play (apart from the Ukulele maybe!). After all, who doesn’t love a good old sing along?

Why Haven’t YOU Picked Up a Guitar Yet?

Have you always wanted to play guitar, but have been putting it off for one reason or another? If so, tell me about it in the comments section below. Maybe I (or other readers) can help address some of your concerns (lack of money, time, etc).


Certain scientific and medical claims were made in this article, so I think it prudent to provide a few sources to back up those claims:


Written by 4Guitar.co.uk

Guest Contributor

4Guitar.co.uk aims to provide quality articles, in depth and impartial reviews, as well as guides to all things related to playing the guitar. Go visit them over at http://www.4guitar.co.uk/



What One Piece of Gear Would You Love to Have?

Community Discussion: What One Piece of Music Gear Would You Love to Have?

The comments at the bottom of this post contain affiliate links, meaning, if you click through and make a purchase, I may earn a commission. This is at no additional cost to you. Learn more.

I’d like to do something a little different and fun this week: a community discussion topic. In the comments at the bottom of this page, I’d love for you to tell me/us:

If money & circumstances were no object, what ONE piece of music gear would you love to have, and why?

A few basic (but loose) rules:

  • Yes, you can time-travel. So if you want to go back and grab a 1940’s era Martin, go for it.
  • It’s okay if there are multiple parts that belong together like a “full Marshall stack” (head and two 4 x 12 cabs).
  • Feel free to go into great detail, if you’d like.
  • This is meant to be fun, so don’t worry too much about these rules 😀

Of course, the catch is that you only have 1 shot at this, so choose wisely. Imagine I’m some kind of music genie, and I can grant your ONE wish when it comes to music gear.

I can’t wait to hear what your dream gear is. Go!


9 More Common Mistakes Made by New Guitar Owners

9 More Common Mistakes Made by New Guitar Owners

6 Ways Guitarists Can Reduce Hand and Finger Pain

6 Ways Guitarists Can Reduce Hand and Finger Pain

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Last Updated: Dec 11, 2017

In another blog post I talked about switching to ultra-light guitar strings to help alleviate finger and hand pain. That sparked emails from readers asking if I have any other hand-saving tips. In fact, yes, there are a few other things you can do to make playing guitar less painful.

Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor, so when it comes to hand pain that is the result of a medical condition (arthritis, repetitive strain injury, etc), I can’t guarantee that the suggestions in this article will eliminate your pain. But, they just might. Or, at the very least, they may reduce your pain to a manageable level.

1. Lower your action (string height)

String Height or "Action"

String height or “action” is measured from the top of the metal fret to the bottom of the guitar string.

I’m always amazed when I pick up someone’s guitar and discover that their strings are a mile above the fretboard. I can barely press the strings down, and I’m an experienced player! Even more amazing, they have no idea that it’s a problem, and that it could be better. If you’re finding it extremely painful to play your guitar, one of the most important things you can do is lower your action (string height). Don’t attempt this yourself unless you know what you’re doing. Take your guitar to a qualified guitar tech or repairperson and tell them you’d like “the lowest action possible without causing string buzz.” If you’d like to learn more about action (string height) or guitar setups, I wrote a couple articles for you:

2. Use lighter strings

Another thing I commonly recommend to people suffering with excessive finger or hand pain is to use the lightest guitar strings in existence. However, they’re a little difficult to find because the string manufacturers don’t advertise them. So, I compiled a definitive list of all the lightest electric and acoustic guitar strings for you in this article:

“Fingers Sore from Playing Guitar? Lighten Up!”

You don’t have to stick with them permanently, but at least give them a try. Once your finger or hand pain subsides, you can move up to heavier strings if you’d like. I, however, now use ultra light strings exclusively on my acoustic guitar–and I absolutely love them. I suffer from arthritis in my fretting hand, and these strings have helped immensely.

3. Press closer to the fret

This is one of the most common technique mistakes I see: Pressing the guitar string closer to the fret will require less pressure. Less pressure = less pain. Pressing as close to the metal fret as possible (without muting the note) requires less downward pressure than if you press down somewhere in the middle of the fret. Not only is this just good fretting technique, it translates into less finger and hand soreness. You’ll be able to play longer before having to take a break–a necessity if you’re trying to play through full songs.

4. Warm up

Because of my arthritis, I now have to warm up first whenever I set down to play guitar. If the pain you feel in your hand is in the tendons, joints, or muscles, then you should be warming up before you play (after you’ve seen a doctor, of course). If you’re not yet having these kinds of symptoms, warm up anyway. It’ll help you prevent injury in the future. Essentially, your “warmup” can be whatever you want it to be, as long as you’re playing very slowly and carefully at first, and playing things that aren’t too taxing on your joints, tendons, and muscles. Keep yourself playing at a very slow speed for 10-15 minutes, and resist the urge to speed up and start jamming. Only after 10-15 minutes of taking it slow and easy should you begin to increase speed and difficulty. You’ll feel the difference, and you’ll play much better if you warm up first.

5. Stretch

Okay, admittedly this one’s a case of “do what I say, not what I do.” To be honest, I rarely stretch before I play, even though I’ve been advised to do so by doctors and other guitarists.

Fact is, spending just 2-3 minutes carefully stretching your fingers, wrists, forearms, and even shoulders before playing guitar is a very good idea, especially if you’re dealing with a medical condition that interferes with your playing. It’s also a good idea to occasionally stop and stretch during your guitar practice.

Here’s an excellent how-to article on stretching: Keep it Loose: Stretches for Guitarists

6. Try finger caps

Silicone finger caps, like these, may help guitarists who suffer with certain medical conditions

Silicone finger caps like these may help guitarists who suffer with certain medical conditions

Firstly, I’ve neither tried these nor am I endorsing them, and I wouldn’t normally advocate putting something on your fingers. However, there are some (rare) medical conditions that may prevent some people from playing guitar, because they bruise easily. If you’re one of those trying to manage such a medical condition, finger caps like these may finally allow you to play guitar. If you try (or have tried) them, please let me know in the comments below.

Final Thoughts

I can’t even begin to guess how many ex-guitarists I’ve met over the years who tell me they gave up guitar due to finger or hand pain. Some quit while they were still learning–before they could really get very far. Others were more experienced players who eventually quit because they developed arthritis or some other medical condition. It’s a real shame–I hate hearing that hand pain caused someone to give up the guitar. However, you do have options, and I hope that something (or a combination of things) from this article help you get back to playing. Of course, if you have pain in your hands that will not go away, it’s time to visit a doctor.


Are you currently suffering from hand or finger pain when you play guitar, and have you tried anything to alleviate it? Let me know in the comments section down below.

Got Sore Fingers From Playing Guitar? Don't Give Up. Lighten Up!

Fingers Sore From Playing Guitar? Don’t Give Up. Lighten Up!

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Last Updated: May 10, 2019

Got sore fingers from playing guitar? You’re not alone.

For new guitar players, sore fingertips can be pretty demotivating. In fact, I’ve met people who quit guitar after just a few months of trying, simply because the pain was too great.

There’s also another category of hand pain guitar players might experience: pain in the muscles, tendons, and joints. I wrote about this in another article on hand pain, and these can be the result of pre-existing medical issues such as arthritis or an injury, or it’s possible you’ve somehow injured your hand while playing guitar. Whatever the cause, when a guitar player comes to me asking what they can do about pain in their fingers or hand, my first recommendation is almost always the same:

Switch to really light guitar strings.

And not just standard “light” strings–I’m talking really, really, exquisitely light guitar strings. They’re not well advertised, so I’ve decided to track them all down for you and put them into this blog post.

These light strings are what I recommend every new guitarist start with. Once you’ve built calluses and hand strength, or your pain has subsided, you can move up to a heavier gauge, if you’d like.

For Electric Guitars


Dean Markley



Ernie Ball





For Steel String Acoustic Guitars


Curt Mangan


Dean Markley

DR Strings



POLYWEB vs. NANOWEB: The difference between these is tone and feel. NANOWEB coating is going to sound and feel more like traditional, uncoated strings. They’re crisp and bright, and the coating is so thin you’ll barely notice it. POLYWEB has a warmer… “played-in” tone and the coating will be slightly more noticeable under the fingers.

Ernie Ball





John Pearse





Will My Guitar Tone Suffer?

If you’re worried about your tone, don’t be, because big names like Billy Gibbons, Tony Iommi, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Peter Frampton, and others all use these really light string sets. You can be picky about your tone later, after you’ve built up your finger calluses or your hand pain has subsided.

Potential Drawbacks of Really Light Guitar Strings

Your first priority should be your health and comfort, and this is where really light guitar strings truly shine. However, they aren’t without their faults, so you should be aware of some potential tradeoffs before you run out and buy a 12-pack. The keyword here is “potential.” You may not actually experience all or any of these.

Potential Tuning Issues

It’s a fact that lighter guitar strings can be a bit more work to keep in-tune than their heavier counterparts. This isn’t always the case, but something you should be on the lookout for if you decide to switch.

Potential Intonation Issues

Since the strings are so thin, it’s easier to apply too much pressure when you press the string down. This can cause the note to go sharp a bit. So, despite your guitar being in perfect tune, your notes might sound sharp while you’re playing. Again, not guaranteed to happen, but just something to be on the lookout for. If it’s a problem for you, you may be able to fix it by simply using a lighter touch (which, it just so happens, will also help with your pain).

Potential String Breakage

Naturally, since the strings are really light, you’re more likely to break the thinner strings if you get crazy and bend a note too far. If that happens, this is another issue you can probably fix by simply being less aggressive.

Potential String/Fret Buzz

The thinner a guitar string is, the larger it’s vibrational arc. That leads to the potential for it to rasp against frets while it’s vibrating. This is why it can be harder to set up a guitar to be buzz-free if it has really light strings vs. heavier gauges.

Reduced Volume (Acoustic Guitars Only)

With acoustic guitars, it’s a fact that lighter strings will result in slightly reduced volume and “body” when playing purely acoustically (not amplified). This is one instance where the “better tone” argument holds some weight. Fatter/heavier strings do actually give an acoustic guitar a bit more volume and resonance.

However, as I said: your health and comfort should be first priority. In reality, the minor reduction in volume will be barely noticeable to you. Focus on your health first, then later you can move to heavier strings if you wish.

Final Note: You May Still Have Some Soreness

I’d love to tell you that switching to super light guitar strings will eliminate all finger and hand pain for you. They won’t. When it comes to building toughness and calluses on your fingertips, you’re always going to have some soreness during your first few weeks (or months) of playing guitar. And when it comes to other hand pain (due to arthritis or other medical issues), you really should consult a doctor if the pain doesn’t subside.

Also, be sure to check out my other article on this topic: 6 Ways Guitarists Can Reduce Hand & Finger Pain.

What’s Your Story?

Have you been struggling with sore fingers from playing guitar or some other type of hand pain? How do you deal with it? What have you tried? Have you ever tried lighter guitar strings to see if they helped? I’d love to know in the comments below. Also, if you know of some ultra light strings I didn’t include, please let me know and I’ll add them to the lists.

Guitar Neglect: If You're Not Gonna Play It...

Guitar Neglect: If You’re Not Gonna Play It…

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Car's loaded, now it's off to Flagstaff, AZ for the weekend!

Car’s loaded, dog’s happy, and we’re off to Flagstaff, AZ for the weekend!

Recently, we decided to escape the summer heat for awhile by heading north to Flagstaff, AZ with the dog for the weekend. It’s much cooler up there, and Flagstaff is also home to the Lowell Observatory, Northern Arizona University, and a few good microbreweries, restaurants, etc. Pair all that with the fresh mountain air and nature and, well, suffice to say it’s a popular weekend getaway for us Phoenix residents.

So, we booked an AirBnB for ourselves, loaded the suitcase and dog into the car, and hit the road for a laid-back weekend away from the stresses of life in the big city.

Our AirBnB was a private room within a larger house, and when we arrived we found that we first had to go through an external, garage type of room. Like a garage, the room was somewhat open to the elements. There was no temperature control and the room contained the water heater and washer/dryer for the home, as well as miscellaneous junk like cleaning supplies, old tools, old cans of paint, a guitar…


No one would intentionally leave a guitar out in the garage, in a cheapo cardboard case, right? I hope this is an empty case, or a REALLY cheap, crappy guitar.

No one would intentionally leave a guitar out in the garage, in a cheapo cardboard case, right? I hope this is an empty case, or a REALLY cheap, crappy guitar.



Why is there a guitar out here? This room is subject to below-freezing temperatures in the winter and temperatures in the high 80’s (sometimes low 90’s) in the summers. Not to mention that humidity in Flagstaff, AZ can range from 15% to 90%. These are all dangerous extremes for guitars–especially acoustic guitars.

Worse, it’s in one of those cheap, cardboard guitar cases that doesn’t actually provide any real protection.

Hmm, maybe (hopefully) it was just an empty, derelict guitar case. Yeah, I was sure that must be it. Whatever it was, I couldn’t worry about it right then–we needed to get unpacked and settled in our room, and the dog needed to go to the bathroom.

So, we went about our business unpacking, getting settled, and emptying the dog, but because I’m the Guitar Answer Guy I couldn’t get the mysterious guitar case out of my mind. I saw it every time we came or went from our room. I’ve seen too much guitar neglect and abuse over the years, so I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a guitar inside that cheap case and, if so, what kind of guitar it was.

I couldn’t take it anymore, so I went to find out.

As soon as I moved the case away from the wall and chairs I knew: it wasn’t empty. I got that sinking feeling. What was I going to find inside? A cheap starter guitar, or an expensive vintage jewel that was now damaged beyond repair?

I opened the case, and this is what I found:


Inside, I found an Epiphone FT-350 in pretty good shape, probably from the 1970's. A guitar of this quality, while not ultra high-end, should NOT be left out in a garage where there is no climate control.

Inside, I found an Epiphone FT-350 in pretty good shape, probably from the 1970’s. A guitar of this quality, while not ultra high-end, should NOT be left out in a garage where there is no climate control.

A little research revealed that this was an Epiphone FT-350, released in the 1970’s. Nowadays, these turn up occasionally for between $150 – $350, give or take, depending on the condition.

While I was relieved that it wasn’t a valuable vintage guitar, it wasn’t exactly a cheap, crappy guitar either. It’s a very decent guitar on the lower-priced end of the spectrum. The FT-350 has a solid rosewood back and sides, spruce top, mahogany neck, and bound rosewood fretboard. With a little common-sense care and maintenance (like, not leaving it in the garage in a cheap case), the FT-350 can be a sturdy workhorse guitar that’ll last a lifetime (or two).

To just toss a guitar like this into the corner of a garage in nothing more than a cardboard case, well, it just ain’t right. It makes The Guitar Answer Guy downright angry.

Seeing this sort of thing always pains me, and it has less to do with the guitar itself and more to do with the principle of the whole matter. Oh sure, I do care about the guitar, but that’s secondary to the true issue. When I see a guitar totally neglected or abused, I get the same feeling as when I see perfectly good food (or other resources) being wasted.

You see where I’m going with all this?

If You’re Not Gonna Play It…

If you have a guitar (or any musical instrument, for that matter) that you’re not playing, and don’t think you’re ever going to play it, please don’t just toss it carelessly into a dark corner to rot and die.

The world is filled with people who would LOVE to have a decent guitar, but can’t afford one. They may be aspiring to become professional musicians, or may be suffering in some way and need a musical instrument to help bring some light and joy back into their life. Whatever the case, you have a few good options:

1. Donate it

Call your local schools, shelters, Goodwill, etc. You might even search the web for “musical instrument donation” and see what opportunities there are in your local area. Here are a few other ideas:

2. Give it to someone, anyone, who will appreciate it

Revolutionary concept, right? If you’re just not feelin’ it and don’t think you’ll ever play that guitar, surely you can find someone who would love to have it. Ask your neighbors, co-workers, friends, family, or whoever else you can think of. Give that guitar to someone and you just might be seeding a very successful music career.

3. Sell it

If donating the guitar is too much trouble for you, and you can’t find anyone else who wants it, the next logical thing to do is sell it. In fact, these options are not in any particular order. If selling the guitar is your first choice, great. Do it.

4. Trade it in

Most music stores will take guitars as trade-ins to help you buy a new guitar or piece of gear. Of course, the age, condition, and desirability of your old guitar will determine what they’re willing to give you, if it’s worth anything at all.

5. Want to keep it? Then please store it properly

If you want to keep it so you can one day hand it down to a child, grandchild, etc. then you’ll need to store it properly. Otherwise, you run the risk of it being worthless within a few years. At the very least, keep the guitar inside the house, preferably in a good guitar case (suggestions below). By doing these two basic things, the guitar stands a much better chance of surviving until you hand it down.

Acoustic & Electric Guitar Cases I Recommend

Note: Double-check the size and shape of your guitar before buying any case. The 4 I’ve listed below will fit most “standard” acoustic and electric guitars, but not all of them.

Epiphone Dreadnought Acoustic Guitar Case

Epiphone Acoustic Guitar Case

Learn More
SKB Hardshell Acoustic Guitar Case

SKB Hardshell Acoustic Guitar Case

Learn More
Musician's Gear Electric Guitar Case

Musician’s Gear Electric Guitar Case

Learn More
SKB Shaped Electric Guitar Case

SKB Shaped Electric Guitar Case

Learn More


What do YOU do With Unplayed Guitars?

Do you have a favorite charity for stuff like this? Let me know in the comments below and perhaps I’ll list them up here in the main blog post so they’re more prominent. Or, maybe you’re an avid ebay-er or just love buying, selling, and trading guitars?

I’d love to know what you think about all this.

Guitar Setups: What They Are and Why You (Might) Need One

Guitar Setups: What They Are and Why You (Might) Need One

How I Backpacked With a Guitar and Made Money

How I Backpacked With a Guitar and Made Money

I’ve always been a guitar lover, but until a year ago, I never would have thought I could travel around the world with my guitar and make money. For the past five years, I had been a corporate robot and decided that I wasn’t getting any younger. I wanted to see the world and have an adventure.

The process to make this bold move was no easy feat. I had to sell my apartment, my car, and all my belongings that wouldn’t fit into my backpack. My guitar was never an item that I wanted to part with. It had been my constant companion, stress reliever, and mood lifter over the years.

After my guitar and I had been on the road for about six months, money started to get tight, but I wasn’t ready to run home with my tail between my legs. I decided to get to work and see what kind of money I could make with my git.

Guitar Lessons

No matter what city I was living in, I could always find a budding guitarist who needed a few lessons. I had the disadvantage of not being in one place for long enough to grow a following, but it put food on the table (or a few German beers).

When I was shopping for a student, I would check out the local equivalent of Craigslist and put up a posting. MeetUp.com is also a great way to make connections and build your network. Once I even posted “Free Guitar Lessons in Viktoriapark, Gratuity Appreciated.” I had over 20 people come!

Playing on a Street Corner

There is a strategy to finding the perfect location, at the perfect time, and finding the perfect clientele.

There is a strategy to finding the perfect location, at the perfect time, and finding the perfect clientele.

Ah, the traditional method of plopping down on a busy corner and playing your heart out. I learned the hard way that there is a strategy in finding the perfect location, at the perfect time, and finding the perfect clientele.

I tried and failed many times, before being successful and having a couple wads of cash to shove in my pocket. Here are a couple quick tips that I’ve discovered:

  • Drunk people are more free with their cash if they can sing-along.
  • There is an unwritten rule on stealing someone else’s corner, but smiling and playing a foreigner always worked for me.
  • Kids dancing draws a crowd. Playing songs that cater to families is an instant win. Parents love to have cheap entertainment for their children.
  • Monday mornings are the least lucrative. Your street traffic is grumpy, because they have to return to work.
  • On the flip side, Friday afternoons when people are leaving work for the weekend is prime money making time!
  • Make eye contact with people. Wearing sunglasses or a hat allows people to ignore you.

Put Yourself Out There

Eventually, I went to a local print shop while I was in Budapest and had business cards made. I placed these next to my case, or handed them out when I met people. This was incredibly successful, because I had locals e-mailing me for gigs, lessons, and even guitar questions!

It’s all about who you know. Once you make a friend with a bartender (depending on the city), you can usually get some gig time! I say depending on the city, because some cities are much more musically inclined than others. The entire country of Ireland is filled with great musicians, meaning higher competition.

Play in Random Places

Once I was stuck in the London Gatwick airport along with hundreds of other travelers due to weather. You could almost cut the stress and anxiety in the air with a knife. People were cranky because their travel plans had been ruined, kids were crying, and arguments were heard throughout the terminal.

Since playing the guitar is my own natural stress reliever, I decided to pull out my instrument and play a couple songs. I kid you not, in about 30 seconds, the mood of everyone in the terminal started to lift. A few toddlers started dancing, businessmen started tapping their fingers and toes to the beat, and everyone was in a happier place.

I probably made some of the best money that day, because I sensed the need for music and bring a little cheer into everyone’s day.

As I write this article, I look back on what my life was like a year ago. I never thought that I would be a wanderer, a traveling musician, and an entrepreneur, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. Am I making less money than I was at my 9 to 5 staring at a computer? Absolutely. But, am I happier and richer from my experiences? Absolutely!

Colleen Kinsey

Written by Colleen Kinsey

Guest Contributor

Colleen has a passion for fitness, traveling, and guitars. She enjoys jamming, teaching, and getting others involved in music. Her website, Coustii, focuses specifically on guitars and ukes. Colleen loves to travel and uses her guitar as a conversation starter on the road.

Reader Question: Should I loosen guitar strings before shipping?

Should I Loosen Guitar Strings Before Shipping?

7 Simple Mistakes Self-Taught Guitarists Make - and How to Fix Them

7 Simple Mistakes That Self-Taught Guitarists Make – And How to Fix Them

Being a guitar instructor means I often get to witness novice players doing some pretty weird things. I don’t mean pig’s blood and a chicken foot type weird–I mean “where on earth did you get that” kind of weird.

Many of these errors in a guitarist’s technique or conceptual understanding come about by a simple misunderstanding early in their period of learning. Because guitarists often begin as self-taught practitioners, these mistakes go unnoticed up until the point they get a guitar teacher.

Fortunately, most of these quirks are harmless and are quickly corrected, but a few can be really hard to shake.

These mistakes tend to restrict a guitarist’s progress for years because they are so deeply ingrained – their earliest guitar habits being the ones that are the hardest to unlearn.

Even today, with all the glorious educational resources that the internet provides, there is still a margin for error and misunderstanding.

Self-taught players tend to be more at risk because they’re unable to easily verify what they have learned or ask questions to clarify their understanding. They then carry this misinterpretation for months or perhaps years, stunting their progress.

Sometimes a random conversation with another musician years later can lead to a breakthrough:

“Oh my god, so that’s what [x] means!  I’ve been thinking it meant [y] for years now.”

To be fair, none of us are immune to this. Simply put, misunderstanding (and hopefully correction) is just as much a part of the learning journey as anything else you might encounter. Part of learning is making mistakes then modifying behaviours to correct them but sometimes the lack of awareness that these things are actually mistakes can leave us befuddled for a long time.

Here are some I have encountered.

#1 Thinking that “up the neck” means towards the headstock

Up the neck vs. down the neck

I have a student right now who still struggles with this, when asked for his rationale he explained:

“The head of the guitar is the headstock which is attached to the body. Human biology would suggest you move from the body UP to the head.”

Now that is some solid reasoning! I can’t argue with the logic but it’s just plain wrong – and he knows that (now) but it remains a hindrance. There’s always an awkward pause as he first heads across the neck in the opposite direction to which was intended, then rights himself, missing vital beats.

Players who have this confusion should try to shift their focus to what their ears are hearing rather than what their eyes are seeing: when the notes sound higher in pitch, you’re moving higher up the fretboard.

#2 Playing only upstrokes (or downstrokes)

Playing only upstrokes on the guitar

This can be an unconscious habit rather than a mistake but is no less difficult to shake. Often the guitar player won’t even know they are doing this until it’s pointed out to them by an instructor.

Interestingly, in my experience this tendency towards picking in only one direction does not reveal itself when the student is strumming. In fact, some students seem very comfortable strumming chords with an even up-and-down motion.

Weirdly, the “all upstrokes” (or all downstokes) habit only kicks in once the guitarist focuses on their lead playing techniques like scales or licks.

I suspect this comes about through the student’s intense concentration on their fretting hand, leaving the picking hand with little brain power or motor skills to get it’s act together.

I’ve seen guitar players who play quite well despite their singular picking direction and, if you are one of them I bet you’re asking “If I can play just fine doing it my way, then what’s the problem?”

Well, although you cope just fine right now, the problem will come later when you want to go further and faster.

Imagine Eddie Van Halen playing Eruption using only upstrokes or Hetfield and Hammett chugging through their muted gallops in “downstroke only” mode. Is that even possible? Nope, I don’t think so.

Unlearning this, then learning to move your pick in both directions (alternate picking) is the only way to lay the groundwork for good picking speed and fluidity of playing.

A good fix for this is to omit playing of notes with the fretting hand completely and spend a few minutes with 3 picking-only exercises:

Begin by alternate picking each of the thickest strings, moving to the next string after one down-up motion. Next try down-up down-up on each of the two thickest strings, finally try full alternate picking on one string.

Once you’re comfortable with the non-note version of this then hold down a chord and repeat, applying a little picking-hand palm muting.

TIP: Filming your picking hand with your phone identifies points where you revert to your previous bad habit (in fact filming yourself is a fantastic way to document your progress and identify weaknesses in your playing at any point in your development.)

So get out your phone and iron out the bumps.

#3 Not realizing that scales extend beyond box shapes in both directions

I was guilty of this myself for years. Somehow I had concluded that if the note wasn’t in my scale box shape, it couldn’t be in the scale.

A simple example is the G major scale box shape (shown), my younger self would argue that because the F# (2nd fret, string 6) is not shown, it absolutely couldn’t be a note in this scale. The same would go for the E note on the open 6th string or the A on the 1st string at fret 5.

Not realising that scales extend beyond box shapes in both directions

Of course, this is incorrect as both appear in the box shape on the 4th string as the 6th note and 7th note respectively. I just didn’t make the connection that these notes could also be played an octave lower on the 6th string.

This severely limited my understanding of my fretboard and scales for longer than I care to admit. If you are finding yourself “locked-in-the-box”, here are some exercises that should help:

  1. Take the notes from your box shape and map them to a single string version, draw this out on paper once per day (this will help solidify your recall)
  2. Practice these “horizontal” versions and use them to link your box shapes
  3. Learn the repeatable 2 string pattern for scales (example shown below)

Repeatable A Major pattern

Scale box shapes are designed to provide a small usable piece of information that you can get your head around fairly easily, but keep in mind there’s more to them than that. You’ve been shown a small piece of what is actually a much larger entity.

This is likely done to keep things simple. If you were shown every note in the scale everywhere on the fretboard it would freak you out (too much, too soon) so take it one step at a time and just be aware that there’s life (and more notes) beyond the box shape.

#4 Not realizing chords belong to a family that all sound good together

Many guitarists complain to me that their process for finding cool chord progressions involves a lengthy and frustrating fret by fret search for the right “next chord.”

Again, I feel their pain because decades ago I stumbled through the same long drawn-out process. And yet a few simple nuggets of information would have saved me so much time. Here’s just one:

The major scale contains 7 notes and from each of these notes a chord is made. This is our family of 7 chords which sound good together – I call them a family because they are all related.

The tonality of each chord is already set: chords built from the 1st, 4th and 5th notes of the scale are always Major. The 2nd, 3rd and 6th are minor and the 7th is diminished.

So them’s your choices. No more mystery!

This happens with all scales – I just picked the Major scale as an example. For more on this, see this post: The Very Basics of Music Theory for Guitarists.

#5 Thinking a chord shape makes the same chord when it starts on a different string

This is crucial to iron out when you start playing barre chords otherwise it causes all kinds of problems and confusion.

Many chord shapes exist that look the same visually but make completely different chords depending on which string they begin.

An easy example is the major barre chord shape. This shape when it has it’s root on the 6th string (called a Root 6 or R6 chord shape) forms a Major chord. But play the same shape at the same fret beginning on the 5th string (a Root 5 shape) and minor chord is formed. e.g at 5th fret: A Major (R6) and D minor (R5)

Thinking a chord shape makes the same chord when it starts on a different string

So if you’re the type of player who plays a Root 5 barre chord with your index finger also fretting the 6th string, I’d encourage you to stop doing that. Not because it’s musically wrong but because at a glance you’ll think you’re playing a Root 6 shape when it’s actually a Root 5 shape.

Some other examples would be an R5 Major chord shape becomes a Maj7 shape when rooted on the 4th string. e.g. at 5th fret D Major and G Major 7 and a Root 6 minor chord shape becomes a Sus2 chord when beginning on the 5th string (e.g. at 5th fret: A minor and Dsus2)

At this point it’s not crucial that you know all these chords just that you know that moveable chords shapes form the same chord type when you move them up and down the neck but change when you move them across strings.

#6 Practicing without a time-keeping device

These days remedying this is as simple as downloading an app but I am still constantly surprised by how few guitarists include a time-keeping device (notice I didn’t say metronome) in their practice.

I’ve seen guys nail classic guitar solos note-for-note yet their rhythm playing sucked. And they sucked because they didn’t spend time on the basics.

Solid time-keeping is an essential discipline and just as vital as the licks, chords and scales you are learning, so you should bring them all together during your practice – if you’re playing anything, that thing should be on and marking time.

I use the phrase time-keeping device because personally I have a beef with metronomes. I think practicing with drum grooves is far more useful for developing your internal feel and phrasing. However, if a metronome works for you then you should work with one.

#7 Thinking that jamming is just for highly skilled players

Thinking that jamming is just for highly skilled players

Ask a guitarist why they began playing the guitar in the first place and they’ll tell you stories of how the guitar “spoke” to them when they heard a particular song (mine was Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits). Or that they went to a live show and saw how crazy the girls were about the guitar player or that the guitar is simply the instrument that they find solace and peace when playing.
I guarantee none of them will say “so I can play in my bedroom alone” and yet few intermediate guitar players seek out an open mic or jam session to further their skills.

Regardless of your abilities, playing live with other musicians is something you should treat as another aspect of your development and an integral part of your guitar apprenticeship. There’s a huge brotherhood of musicians at these jam nights that will support you and from whom you can learn so much.

Playing live at a jam is less about your guitar playing abilities and more about learning to listen and becoming aware of where you fit in a live musical landscape. Learning to be in the moment, to only move forward (there’s no stopping the band if you make a mistake) and to create musical ideas on the fly.

You’ll learn more here in an arena of practical application than years tucked up with Songsterr and YouTube.

Of course, this idea is intimidating to most people. But it’s indisputable that beyond a certain point, you simply cannot grow any further as a musician without taking this step.

You should view it as a coming of age experience like your first day of high school, your driving test or losing your virginity. All these events were a little scary but you got through them and life is better now because you did.

So take a step into a bigger musical world and get yourself to your first jam!

What have you noticed?

What unusual guitar playing traits have you discovered noticed about yourself or others? How hard were they to put right? What do you still struggle with? Tell me in the comments below.


Phil Roberts

Written by Phil Roberts

Guest Contributor

Phil is an online guitar instructor and performer in New Zealand’s only Jimi Hendrix Tribute Show. His free course Supercharge Your Six String helps you maximize your existing guitar skills, improve your recall and learn 3x faster.