Playing fingerstyle is challenging. If you’re new to the technique, you’re bound to make a lot of mistakes. That said, some mistakes are more harmful than others.
In this post, I’ll discuss 5 fingerstyle guitar mistakes you should do your best to avoid.
1) Playing Fast
One of the biggest fingerstyle guitar mistakes virtually everyone makes is playing fast. If you take anything from this post, it should be that the less you play fast, the faster you’ll improve.
But what is fast playing really? We all know that playing speed is relative, meaning that what feels fast to a beginner might feel moderate or slow to an advanced player. When I say “playing fast,” I mean playing faster than is completely comfortable to you.
So I can’t give you an exact tempo or anything. But here’s what I personally do to avoid fast playing: I start with the speed at which I can play a passage perfectly, with no mistakes and very little threat of making mistakes, and then I go even slower than that.
You’ll find that there’s absolutely no harm in going too slow, but lots of harm in going too fast. Slow speeds allow you time to think and choreograph optimal finger movements.
If you repeat these optimal movements many times at slow speeds, you’ll gain the ability to play faster without sacrificing quality. However if you begin by going too fast, you’ll end up practicing the wrong movements. As a result, you’ll never gain the ability to play fast.
Always remember that we’re impressed not by fast playing but by fast and accurate playing. If you start with speed, you won’t develop the accuracy you need.
2) Neglecting Technical Work
Technical work is all about training your playing mechanism. A technically proficient player can barre, hammer-on, pull-off, pluck strings, arpeggiate chords, and so forth without issues.
Unfortunately, some players neglect technical work and spend most of their time learning riffs or full songs. While this type of practice has value, it’s not as time effective as pure technique training in the long term.
Imagine two players, Bob and Leia, who are beginner guitarists. They each spend about an hour each day practicing guitar, but Bob focuses on learning songs and Leia focuses on building her technique.
In the beginning, most onlookers are going to be impressed with Bob’s progress. In a matter of days, he’ll probably be playing through simple songs, even performing for friends. Meanwhile Leia won’t have much in terms of a repertoire, so she might feel less impressive than Bob.
However, if we fast forward in time (let’s say a few weeks or a month), Bob’s progress will have largely stalled out. He’ll have some songs under his belt, to be sure, but his actual playing quality won’t have changed much.
Leia will be in the opposite situation: having built a strong playing mechanism, any piece of music she learns is going to really impress an audience. Every time she plucks a string, frets a note, or strums a chord, she’ll do it better than Bob.
So although you may be tempted to learn like Bob in order to see immediate results, I recommend you take a path more like Leia’s, which is a bit like learning to crawl and then walk before trying to run.
If you’re interested in fingerstyle playing, you’ll probably love my new ebook, Fingerstyle Fitness
. It’s a technical training booklet that offers 10 simple exercises to develop advanced chops.
3) Focusing on the Fingers
Fingerstyle guitarists differ from other guitar players in that they pluck the strings with their fingers (or nails) instead of using a pick. This means they need to coordinate precise finger-movements in both hands at the same time.
As a result, many fingerstyle players concentrate on their fingers instead of the music itself. This is understandable, but it can really limit your progress. In fact, it’s one of the biggest fingerstyle guitar mistakes. My view is that focusing on the sounds you’re making is a much better way to practice.
This should make perfect sense if you think about it. After all, the reason we play guitar is to make music, not to move our fingers. I find that insisting on the right sound basically forces your fingers to “figure it out” on their own. And as far as I’m concerned, if you have the right sound, you have the right fingering.
I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t learn the basics of right-hand notation. You should be familiar with p, i, m, a, and all the common plucking patterns. However, you don’t want to get so hung up on fingerings that you compromise the music.
Be sure to honor your ear above all else; if you do so, you’ll be surprised at how well your fingers respond.
4) Thinking You Lack Natural Talent
We tend to see some skills as the products of hard work and others as having more to do with natural talent.
Take juggling as a skill compared to one’s ability to solve math problems. Many people look at juggling as an impressive but ultimately learnable skill. That is, virtually anyone who puts in time and effort can become a juggler.
However, many people see math skills in the opposite way: being good with numbers requires more than hard work—it takes natural talent. That means if you’re a normal, non-mathematical person, you’ll basically never get much better at math, even if you’re fairly dedicated.
One of the greatest fingerstyle guitar mistakes is having the false belief that it’s largely about natural talent. If you’re convinced that you don’t have such talent, you’re not likely to do the hard work that fingerstyle demands.
However, if you see fingerstyle like most folks see juggling—as a challenging but attainable skill—you’re more likely to build the technique over time.
The key point here is to avoid creating needless mental obstacles for yourself. So much of learning guitar is mental in the end. If you develop a healthy learning mindset, you’re putting yourself in an excellent position to master fingerstyle before long.
5) Relying on Right-Hand Patterns
If you’re just starting out with fingerstyle, you might be mostly thinking in terms of right-hand patterns. For instance, one song you learn uses p i m a throughout, while another uses p i m
, and the like.
This way of seeing the right hand has pros and cons. The pros are that it’s helpful as a way of isolating or simplifying the right hand, and it’s also great for technical training. Cons there are too, however.
One major con is that these patterns become a crutch for the right hand. If you start relying on these patterns, you’re going to have trouble learning music that uses 1) complex plucking patterns, or 2) little to no right-hand repetition. The truth is, most advanced music isn’t easy on the right hand.
This is another case of trading off fast, easy progress for long-term, more difficult work. Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t learn basic right-hand patterns. In fact, you should learn all of them. But you should see that as a first step rather than a final destination.
What you should really be aiming for, and what any advanced fingerstyle player has, is total independence of the fingers of the plucking hand. Once you have that, you’ll be able to pluck any string comfortably with any finger, and you’ll always have multiple fingering options at your disposal.
With this sort of right-hand freedom, you’ll also gain the ability to improvise fingerings on the spot. Over time, each finger develops a mind of its own and can find a way to play the notes you’re seeing or hearing.
In my view, the best way to work toward this is through frequent sight-reading. If sight-reading is an unfamiliar concept to you, be sure to check out How to Sight-Read for Guitar
Fingerstyle guitar is hard to master, so don’t be too hard on yourself if you’re struggling. The secret is to keep at it and have faith that you’ll get there with enough time and effort.
Best of luck with your playing!
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Want to streamline your fingerstyle guitar progress? I just released my new ebook, Fingerstyle Fitness
, which presents 10 easy exercises to quickly develop your fingerstyle chops. Grab it today!