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Roberto Capocchi, guitarist: Blog

An article by Jamie Andreas - The 5 Biggest Mistakes Guitar Students Make

Posted on July 1, 2010 with 9 comments

The 5 Biggest Mistakes Guitar Students Make


The 5 Biggest Mistakes Guitar Students Make
By Jamie Andreas

1 - Practicing Too Fast

Virtually all guitar students practice everything at a speed that makes it impossible for their muscles to work in a relaxed fashion. Unknown to students, their muscles are in a state of chronic tension during the whole time they are practicing.

This tension stays in the muscles due to the power of "muscle memory". Because of this, the student will be placing a severe limit on their guitar abilities. Everything will feel difficult because the hands, arms, and body have a level of tension during movements that simply does not allow for smooth action.

The real secret is a super slow type of practicing that I call "No Tempo Practice". It has the power to unlock the professional level ability in any player.

2 - Not Paying Attention to the Body During Practice

We play the guitar with the body. That is the central fact that cannot be ignored. Students who have "natural talent" tend to pay more attention to what their body feels like when they practice and play. The majority of students are busy thinking and worrying during practice, and have no idea what the muscles they are trying to use really feel like. So, they allow crippling tension to be present during all the movements. Advanced players never allow this, and they are always on the lookout for body tension.

We must pay absolute attention to the whole body during practice, especially the shoulders, arms and hands. Shoulder tension is the biggest cause of finger problems. However, playing the guitar does require effort. One of the keys to making progress is learning the difference between necessary effort and unnecessary effort.

3 - Lack of Knowledge of How the Body Learns

There is an entire science of how the body learns new movements. It is called "motor control learning", or just "body learning." It is important to understand that there are definite laws of how the body learns new movements. When we follow these laws during practice, we will be successful; it is as simple as that!

The reason people struggle with guitar is because they have never been taught these laws, or principles of body learning. Anyone can learn them, use them, and be successful with guitar.

4 - Beginning at the "First" Fret

All guitar methods begin by teaching students to play at the "first" fret. This is wrong because the first fret is the hardest place to play. It causes great tension (even strain) in the arms and hands of a beginner. Also, the frets are furthest apart at the first fret, forcing the untrained fingers to strain in order to stretch into difficult chords and notes.

All of this immediately points the student in the wrong direction, away from developing true guitar ability. Because of the extra burden placed on the fingers, hands, arms, and shoulders, the majority of people who try to learn guitar fail.

The first place a student should learn to play in order to develop perfect and relaxed control of the fingers is higher up on the neck, where a beginner can learn to move the fingers in a relaxed way and without strain. Gradually, the student can move down the neck fret by fret, learning to be relaxed at each fret.

5 - Fighting the Energy of the String Instead of Using It

Once all these bad things have happened (and they happen to some degree in virtually all students) the student will actually be learning to "fight the guitar", not "play the guitar."

With every note that is played, the body will tense more and more, and that tension will be locked into the muscles, and be considered "normal" by the student. Some students with a lot of stamina will learn to play up to a point, but they will not play anywhere near as well as they could if all these bad things were prevented from happening.

Great players, who have learned to relax while playing, are actually using the energy of the strings as they play in the same way that a great diver uses the energy of the diving board to gain spring and power, or as basketball players use the energy of the basketball to control how they dribble the ball.

In all these cases (the guitar, diving, and basketball) force is being applied to a flexible medium. An expert in all these fields knows how to make their body "one" with the object they are applying force to. Then, they combine their own energy with the object in order to achieve their goal.

The unskilled player of any sport or any instrument is not becoming one with the object they are using; instead, they are fighting it. An unskilled guitar player is actually fighting the strings instead of using the string's energy.

This is why great players make it look easy, because it IS easy when you are using the energy of the string itself to help make the necessary movements. Other players look like they are having a hard time because they ARE having a hard time. They must learn why and how they have made it so hard. When they do, they can begin to undo all their playing problems and start to enjoy the wonderful feeling of playing the guitar easily. Anyone can do this. Anyone can become as good as they wish to be on the guitar!


Check out more about Jamie and her work at

1999-2010 Jamie Andreas for All rights reserved.



February 13, 2012

Mind-boggling read! I'm now starting out in Facebook Marketing & attempting to learn how to best capitalize on social media marketing for local business.

Keep up the good work!


October 5, 2010

Fighting against what your subconscious wants to do seems to be one of the hardest things to do, and when you don't play well you tense up to compensate, which is definitely something i'm trying to work on.

Diego C.

September 30, 2010

One of the things that I found very helpful when studying the principles was to use a mirror. There are just certain angles that your eyes can't make out while seating down with the guitar. Let's face it, the mirror is a reflection of yourself, right? Therfore, I believe using a mirror in the early stages of your practice will help anyone become a better player.

Josh Stevens

September 23, 2010

The one good thing i can say about learning to play the guitar wrong, is that I learned how to play it. "5 of the biggest mistakes guitar students make." I made all 5 of them. 4 of the 5 have a lot to do with undue tension building up, therefor one can assume its incredibly important to relax. Strange how difficult that is.

I also think that frustration is another mistake beginners might make. Maybe I'm talking to my self here, but if you get frustrated, take a break. You don't learn well when your frustrated. Plus, people tend to tense up when they're angry.

Ben Sailors

September 22, 2010

I thought the part about naturally talented people being the way they are because they pay attention to what their body is doing. It was also interesting when he talks about how people who have been playing a long time make it look easy, because when you have the right technique it is easy. Cool stuff for sure!

Austin Alexander

September 17, 2010

From reading this, it seems that all 5 of the mistakes result from lack of body awareness. Ignorance of this can cause unwanted tension, making it difficult to play. I think that body awareness can be strenuous at first, but a continued attempt can make it seem like it's second nature.

Roberto Capocchi

July 12, 2010

Body awareness is not a talent. It must be cultivated. If there is a talent in that regard, it's only the tendency to tune in to your body rather than to ignore it. Carefully practicing sports, martial arts, or yoga are great examples os activities that increase your awareness. And of course, there are disciplines that focus on that, such a Alexander technique.

However, people are experts in compartmentalizing subjects, and can learn to achieve a relaxing, expansive feeling in yoga class, and still be locked with tension when they play. So it s up to the student to make the connection, and up to the teacher to coach them. How can we invite increased body awareness into our daily practice? Try these ideas:

Do other physical activities where body awareness is key, and where it is traditionally coached during class, from the beginning, such as yoga, dance, or martial arts. Sometimes, try having a practice session soon after doing this, and you might notice a difference in your body. This might be the result of your body actually working and feeling different after those activities, or it might be that your body is the same, and you are feeling it differently.

Start your practice sessions with some full body motions, because obsessing about the fingers right away makes you tune out the rest of your body. Invite bigger movements into your playing. Steel warm-up exercises from dance class!

For enhancing body awareness in other modalities, breathing is a common tool. Use it in your musical practice. You can play through a piece as you focus on your breathing and find you restrain, or quit, your breath at some points. Smooth it out. Singers and wind players notice this, but all instrumentalists should. Do not let your musical feeling negatively influence your breath. Vocalizing the articulation of the notes, using solfege, or counting out loud all force you to breath better, but aim to develop the ability to notice your breathing. You will find that once you are aware of your breathing, increased body awareness follows easily.

Focus on constantly rotating your attention throughout your whole body as you practice, noticing what feels relaxed as well of what feels tense. Get to know the “usual suspects:” shoulders, neck, legs, and lower back, but keep rotating your attention so that tension doesn't just move around.

Tune in to problem areas. For example, play a note, relax your shoulders, play the next note, relax your shoulders, keep at it for a few minutes. That action will become part of your auto-pilot if you take the time to program it.

Withdraw effort. It takes effort to play the guitar, but less than we think. It takes more effort when we start, and as we become better coordinated, it should feel easier. But we hold on to the original level of effort out of habit. In order to find our current level of effort, we must risk crossing that line. A common example is how much pressure one needs in order to hold down a string. Try playing a note many times while gradually diminishing the left hand effort, and you might be surprised how far you can go before it buzzes.

Roberto Capocchi

July 11, 2010

“Slow down and count.”

Percussionist James Doyle once told me he thinks one could make a living teaching music by only saying those words. He was half-joking, of course, but it is amazing what those two things can accomplish.

About slowing down: I have never seen a music student who would slow down enough. We all interpret the idea as taking 10% off the speed or, at most, cutting the speed in half. And only for a run or two, then back to the rushing. Every time a student successfully performs a passage at a comfortable speed, if I ask them to do it again they invariably play it faster the next time.

So let's all just set this straight. A little slower means half speed. A bit slower still, quarter speed. Seriously.

Think of it this way: when you're having trouble playing at a certain speed, the most common scenario is that you are leaving something out – a finger lift, a breath, a preparation. Once you have drilled it into the auto-pilot, you will e able to speed it up again easily. But while you are playing, how long does it take to think: “relax the second finger before lifting it, lower the hinge-bar and prepare the right hand thumb on the third string?” I'd say close to as long as it takes you to say it out loud, at least in the beginning. So if that set of actions is what helps the middle of a fast run, either you play all the notes that slowly, or better yet, you stop, add those actions, and resume. Try doing that with a difficult passage for a few days, without pushing back up to speed. Say the seeps out loud. Once you can observe your fingers doing those steps automatically, take a day to gradually bring the passage back to a slow steady tempo. You might need to make a couple of adjustments, such as doing simultaneous preparations with bot hands, rather than one then the other. After that, take a couple of days to bring the passage up to a modest realistic speed. In less than a week you might turn a passage that has been taunting you for a long time into a good friend.

And if while practicing an exercise or drill, you find a detail that can improve your playing, slow down. Practice “no tempo.” Just because you've been able to play it faster before, you are not obliged to keep up that speed. Exercises are there to improve your playing, not to impress your friends or yourself.

We'll et back to the counting part later...

Roberto Capocchi

July 1, 2010

Jamie has some great insight, and she writes in a direct, clear style. I'll be posting some of her material here with her permission, and commenting on each point she makes. Please chime in!