When it comes to playing guitar, or anything else, the best way to have no bad habits is to only have good habits. Since that is highly unlikely, if not impossible, here is a bit of practical advice from someone who has had all 4 of the bad habits we will explore.
Ted Mortimer, a local guitarist, wrote a song called: “One Bad Habit”; what a great line and a good song as well. It is about his darling wife, who is also the singer in the band.. Apparently Ted has had a few bad habits of his own, like the rest of us!
Break These 4 Bad Habits And Your Guitar Playing Will Sound Better And Be Easier
Maybe you don’t have these four bad habits, but maybe you do and don’t even know it! If you are like me, you tend to rush ahead without learning much and then try to figure things out. Not a bad approach, but gradually I figured out that such an approach leads to a lot of bad habits that are hard to unlearn.
How long do you think it takes to form a new habit or break an old one? Here is the answer that makes sense to me:
“It takes 66 days to form a new habit, and, as long as there is no physical addiction associated, and you need 66 days to break a bad habit.” This is from research done at London University in England.
Of course, there are lots of other bad habits when it comes to playing guitar. It’s a bit like peeling an onion: remove one layer at a time until you get what you want. So, be patient with yourself, keep at it for 66 days or 132 or 264 or however long it takes and you will be free from your limiting habits.
Bad Habit Number One
Bad timing. Playing with bad timing means you speed up, slow down or do both while playing. A friend of mine is rather “famous” for his very annoying habit of gradually speeding up during a tune until you are literally racing. He is an awesome guitarist otherwise, but it makes playing together a real challenge.
The cure is really pretty simple: practice with a metronome. You don’t even have to pay for one; there are free apps for desktop computers and smartphones. It isn’t as if you have to always use one, but, when you are in your own “Music Room” practicing, use the metronome.
I remember playing with some excellent bluegrass musicians at a jam; we were flying along and when the song ended I was a couple of beats out of sync! The song ended and I was still finishing; embarrassing! The leader of the band kind of scowled at me and grumbled something about it. I had the bad habit of speeding up and dragging, which caused me to lose time and fall behind without even noticing. My only excuse is that it was also pretty noisy.
Playing with others at jams is such a great way to develop good timing habits. If you are lucky and you have a solid bass player you can lean on the steady thump-thump-thump to keep you in time. Listen and learn from those who are more advanced. Watch how they keep their rhythm going at a steady beat.
Bad Habit Number Two
Bad finger positioning. For example: playing your G chord with your ring finger on the first string. Sure, there are some excellent guitarists, like Dan Crary, who somehow manage to play their G chord without their little finger on the first string, but it is only for strumming and probably because they just learned it that way in the beginning and never changed it.
Why is this important? Playing your G chord “correctly” is important if you ever want to play fingerstyle or quickly change chords from the G to C, for example.
Some people quickly give up trying to use their little finger on the first string because it hurts or because the little finger is weak and won’t do what you want it to. It does hurt at first and is an unruly child in the beginning, but it can be strengthened and trained, like any other part of the body.
Changing chords from G to C quickly is very easy, if you play the G chord with your little finger on the first string. Changing from G to C quickly requires a great deal of movement if you play the G chord with your ring finger on the first string. Just try it a dozen times and it becomes very obvious.
Bad Habit Number Three
Not using a humidifier. This one is truly inexcusable. It is so obvious and easy to remedy that you don’t even need to practice it! All you need to do is shell out $15-20 and use a little bit of water.
I know a guy who bought a brand new Martin acoustic guitar. He loved it and it had a nice, dry tone that suited his style of playing. One night he showed up at our jam with a new, less expensive guitar so I asked him about it.
He told me all about how the Martin was a piece of junk that wouldn’t stay tuned, was hard to play up the neck and was starting to have a buzzing sound on the second string. Hmmm…
I asked him if he used a humidifier and he just looked blankly at me, frowned and said: “No” in a manner that came across like: “Why would do that?”, as if he was some kind of sissy or something to do such a thing.
Another friend, a luthier who makes beautiful guitars, has the same bad habit. Luckily for me, he asks me to test his new guitars once they are finished. He gave me the same look when I pointed out that one of his gorgeous guitar necks was bowed and suggested that he use a humidifier.
Incredibly, he took the guitar and modified it so the action was better, rather than invest in a $15 humidifier. He still doesn’t use one to this day (and neither does the friend with the Martin). I don’t want to bother them about it, so I just let it be. Too bad though, such a waste of time and money!
Here in Vermont many of us heat with wood, which makes the problem even worse. Put it this way: if you plan on keeping your guitar and want it to stay in tune, be easy to play, sound good and not crack, buy a humidifier and use it.
What is the ideal humidity level for a guitar?
From my own experience and talking with a luthier the best humidity level to keep a guitar at is 40-50%. Below that level bad things start to happen:
- The fretboard shrinks (leaving tell-tale signs along the edge where the frets will begin to protrude). Eventually the fretboard will crack, if it gets dry enough.
- The neck bows, causing the action to change and the strings to have that buzzing sound.
- The neck twists, causing notes to be out-of-tune up the next.
- The top or back of the guitar will crack.
- The bridge starts to separate from the top.
You can buy a hygrometer online or at a hardware store cheaply. Keep it somewhere near where you keep your guitar and pay attention to the humidity level. It isn’t hard to do and it will help you know what’s going on. Why would you buy a nice acoustic guitar and not take care of it?
Bad Habit Number Four
Hugging your guitar when you play. OK, so maybe this is not such a bad habit, but it is one that I had and couldn’t believe the immediate difference when someone showed me a better way of holding my guitar.
You see, I had been taught by a very good Irish guitarist at a workshop that I should hug my guitar so I could connect with it and feel the vibrations when I played. That made sense and I started doing it all the time. A weird thing happened though: my jam-mates continually complained that they couldn’t hear me.
I bought different strings and tried playing harder, but they still complained. Eventually I came across a beautiful, like-new Gibson Songwriter Special for a hugely discounted price and bought it. It was much louder than my previous guitar, but people still complained, though not quite as much.
Aha! Bryan Sutton points out that by hugging your guitar you dampen the sound because it is absorbed by your body. Try strumming a big loud G chord and moving your guitar next to and away from your body. The first time I did this my wife, who was just sitting in the same room, was startled and looked up to see what was going on. The difference was that dramatic.
So, there you have my 4 worst bad habits for playing guitar and how to fix them. Take a minute to add more to the comments below!
You’re spot on about the humidifier. My guitar sounds like a complete stranger to me if I don’t keep track of humidity, especially during the winter. Thanks for the tips!