I don’t typically like to focus on the negatives. Learning the guitar and juggling it alongside all of your other commitments is difficult enough, without me dragging you down with a list of all of the things you’ve potentially been doing wrong.
However, I have recently started coaching a number of new players, and in my initial conversations with many of these guitarists, I have seen a recurring trend.
Specifically, I have spoken with guitarists who have been consistently putting in hard hours of practice, but not progressing at a pace that correlates with their hours of effort.
In almost all of these cases, this mismatch was the result of mistakes that these players were making in the way they were spending their practice time.
So with that in mind, I thought it would be useful and instructive to put together a list of common mistakes which might be hampering your progress. After all, there is almost no situation more frustrating than putting in a lot of work, and not getting results.
As such, whilst it might be uncomfortable to confront some of the mistakes you have made – or are still making – recognising them will put you into a much better position for future success.
Before we dive into the 10 mistakes that I see most commonly, I think it is worth covering a few initial points to save later confusion and avoid repetition.
In short, all of the advice outlined here assumes three things:
The first of these is that you currently do have a practice routine and are playing regularly. If that is not the case, then the first essential step for progress is to start practicing consistently.
The steps required to set up an effective routine are detailed and go beyond the scope of this article.
In brief however, I would recommend trying to practice at least 3 or 4 days a week for an amount of time in each session that is at the upper end of being manageable. You want to push yourself, but you also want your routine to fit into your life comfortably, without placing too much stress on your other commitments.
The second and almost contrary assumption is that your practice time is not unlimited. In other words, you don’t have the liberty to practice without discretion. You have 30 minutes, an hour or maybe 2 at most per day, and so have to be discerning with your time to get the most out of your practice.
The final point I have taken for granted when creating this list, is that you are looking to develop as a blues guitarist. Of course, many of the points here apply in other genres, and it is not to say that you have to exclusively be playing blues for this article to be of interest.
Having said that, many of the points are blues specific and will be much less applicable if you are only occasionally dabbling in the blues.
Lastly, if you look through this list and find that none of it applies to you – but you still feel that you are not progressing quickly enough – don’t be disheartened. Learning and developing as a guitar player is a process of months and years, not days and weeks.
So if you feel confident that you are doing everything right but you are still frustrated with your progress, it may just be that you need to adjust your perspective.
Appreciate the progress you have made, and focus on making consistent steps forward, no matter how small they might seem. These will all add up and transform your ability as a guitarist over time.
Now, with that final caveat out of the way, let’s get into it!
Here are 10 mistakes you could be making that are killing your progress:
1.)Your goal is unclear
This might seem obvious, however the vast majority of guitarists I speak with either have no goal, or one that is very poorly defined.
If you are practicing without a clear goal, everything else becomes more challenging. It is difficult to stay focused, remain motivated and most significantly of all, to know if you are actually making progress.
The process I always encourage players to go through is to imagine that you are 6 months in the future and are thrilled with your playing and progress.
What is it that you can do in that future scenario which you can’t do currently?
I find framing the question in this way is useful, as it immediately focuses your mind on the one or two things that are most important to you. It also encourages you to vocalise your goals and think through them in more detail.
In my experience this process alone resolves a lot of the other issues outlined alone. You quickly realise what you want, what success looks like for you personally, and what you can leave by the wayside for now.
Crucially, going through this process helps give you clarity on what you want.
It is easy to feel like you should include different elements in your practice routine because you read about them or saw a video on YouTube. Yet those ‘shoulds’ might conflict or be totally irrelevant to what success looks like for you.
To run through goal setting in depth goes beyond the scope of this article.
Once you have defined what success looks like for you however, I would recommend using the SMART goals framework for establishing a path to get there. This is simply an acronym stating that your goals should be:
- Time bound
If you keep those points in mind when structuring and working through your routine, it should keep you on track and prevent you from running into trouble with one of the further points outlined below.
2.)Ignoring the fundamentals
If you want to play the blues, there are a few fundamental concepts that you need to know. It doesn’t matter whether you have ambitions to become a professional musician, or whether you just want to play Stevie Ray Vaughan songs alone in your house – you need to feel confident on these fundamentals.
From a lead guitar perspective, you need to learn all 5 shapes of the minor pentatonic scale, and be able to move those around into different keys.
When it comes to rhythm guitar, you need to know the structure of the 12 bar blues, and feel confident with a variety of dominant 7 chord shapes that you can move around the fretboard.
Getting to grips with these ideas and consolidating them at a deep level will enable you to:
- Improvise and solo freely over jam tracks and with other musicians
- Quickly work out the structure and musical contents of a huge range of famous blues songs
- Learn blues songs and improvise over them more quickly and confidently
- Attend a beginner friendly blues jam night or join a local blues band
Of course, there are many more ways that you can develop as a blues player. However really nailing these fundamentals will do so much to advance your skills as a blues guitarist.
They will also provide you with a strong foundation on which you can build and target more advanced ideas.
If you don’t feel like you have a solid grasp on these ideas, then here are a number of free articles that will help:
- A beginner’s guide to the minor pentatonic scale
- How to connect the 5 pentatonic shapes
- An introduction to the 12 bar blues
- Dominant 7th chords – what they are and why they matter
When you are working through these topics, take your time and be thorough.
If you only learn 2 shapes of the minor pentatonic scale, you will be stuck in those 2 shapes and will lack the confidence to move around the fretboard. Likewise, failing to consolidate the 12 bar blues will prevent you from having the confidence to join a local jam night.
If it takes a year to get totally comfortable with these concepts, so be it.
It is much better to consolidate ideas at a deep level than it is to rush through them and fail to understand or be able to execute them properly.
3.)Getting tangled up in theory
In my experience, music theory is without doubt the area that causes guitarists most confusion. Almost every guitarist that I work with wants to learn music theory, and most of them also feel that they should learn theory.
The mistake that guitarists make however is treating music theory as if it is just one large topic. Yet this isn’t the case. Music theory is a whole world which contains hundreds (or potentially thousands!?) of different topics and concepts.
Many of these are too advanced or simply irrelevant if you are a non-professional musician that is mostly focused on the blues.
It can be difficult to assess by yourself which topics fall under this category. In my opinion however, you can do a good job of navigating this landscape by asking yourself the following questions:
- Is this concept used with any frequency in the music that resonates with me?
- Does the concept I am studying rely on other pieces of theory which I don’t yet understand?
- Can I see any path for utilising this concept in my playing?
- Is focusing on this topic to the exclusion of other potentially more useful concepts?
To bring this to life with an example, I once worked with a player in the past who was diligently studying and practicing concepts like the super Locrian scale.
To understand and use this scale requires a detailed understanding of intervals and modal scales, as well as how to target certain notes over particular chord progressions.
Yet the same guitarist couldn’t confidently play all 5 shapes of the minor pentatonic scale. Nor could he comfortably solo or improvise with them.
In a blues context, the super locrian scale does appear in the solos of guitarists like Robben Ford, who fuse blues and jazz in their lead playing. As such, it is not without utility.
Hopefully though, this example illustrates the problems of this approach. The player had ignored some essential ideas and was dedicating significant portions of practice time to concepts that he didn’t full understand and was unable to use practically.
4.)Overlooking useful theory
Perhaps the worst part about the confusion surrounding music theory, is that it causes some guitarists to overlook it or dismiss it all together.
Yet this too is a mistake, as there are certain topics that will do a huge amount to develop your understanding of music.
When approached in a practical way, these topics give you freedom as a player. They stop you from feeling trapped in certain sections of the fretboard and they help you to understand the composition of scales and songs.
So if you can play songs and improvise a bit, but you don’t feel totally confident in what you are doing, there are a number of concepts that will transform your confidence.
I have added these in below, along with links to articles on each of the topics in brackets. They are as follows:
- Intervals (An introduction to intervals for guitar players)
- Chromatic scale (The chromatic scale: what it is and why it matters)
- Contents of your fretboard (5 steps to unlock your guitar fretboard)
- Construction of chords and chord progressions (Understanding the basics of guitar chord theory)
- Major scale (Getting started with the major scale)
- Modes (An introduction to playing the modes on your guitar)
If you want to dive deep into these topics and access more detailed resources, then there are dedicated courses on all of them inside The Blues Club.
Whichever route you take to learn these concepts however, they will take time. These are not small topics and understanding and applying them requires study and patience.
Knowing these pieces of theory however, will transform your confidence as a guitarist. You will be able to navigate around your fretboard freely and play more intentionally.
You will also be able to jam, improvise and play with other musicians without worrying about playing the wrong chord or scale. It will totally alter your experience of the instrument.
5.)Never playing in a musical context
As just noted, you should be learning theory to improve your skills as a guitar player. This sounds obvious, however players often fall into the trap of learning and practicing ideas without trying to apply them in a real musical context.
This typically manifests itself in one of two ways:
The first of these is that guitarists endlessly practice scales and arpeggios, without ever trying to use them to create music.
Practicing these pieces over a metronome is essential to learning and consolidating them. However if you never try to use their contents to create licks or phrases when improvising, you will struggle to create musical sounding ideas.
The second is that guitarists know a lot of licks and phrases, but have never tried them over a song or backing track. So whilst they might play and practice a lot and even ‘improvise’, they are doing so outside of a musical context.
Both of these situations are problematic.
In the first, you know how to say the individual words of a language, yet you are unable to turn these into full phrases. In the second, you can form full phrases, but only by yourself. You don’t have any mechanism for speaking and interacting with other people.
As you can hopefully see, failing to apply your ideas in a real musical context compromises your progress and is likely to lead to frustration and demotivation.
To prevent this from happening, always try to play in a musical context:
Use scales to improvise over backing tracks. Play rhythm guitar to one of your favourite songs. Join a local band.
Everything that you learn – including theory, techniques and pieces of musical information like scales and chords – should be with the aim of helping you create music. So keep that in mind when you are assessing your current routine and focus points.
6.)Not learning songs
I am a huge advocate of learning songs, regardless of your current playing level.
As noted in the previous point, we should always endeavour to make music. Yet it is very difficult to turn scales, arpeggios and even chords into music without having any reference material.
To extend the linguistic analogy from the previous point, this is like trying to craft an engaging and interesting story, without ever having read or been told a story yourself.
Whilst you might be able to muddle through and figure a few ideas out by yourself, it is much easier to learn from someone else’s example.
To bring this directly back to blues guitar – learning the solos and songs of other guitarists will help to show you how they create licks and ideas. In this way, you are not starting from a blank slate, and can instead build upon and adapt the ideas that you learn in your own playing.
So if you know your scales and arpeggios, yet you can’t solo or improvise, start learning some songs. This will give you the vital reference material you need to build your repertoire of chords, licks and riffs.
7.)Ignoring blues technique
In my experience, when guitarists think of progression, they often think about complexity.
For a lot of players, progressing on the guitar is about playing faster, and learning more complicated scales and theory.
It is for this reason that so much of the instructional material online is focused on moving beyond the minor pentatonic scale. Guitarists want to feel that they are moving beyond such ‘basic’ concepts and are working on ideas that are more complex.
Of course, part of your progression as a player should involve the study of more complex material. However I see a lot of guitarists make the mistake of focusing only on learning more complex material, and not on improving their technique.
In the blues this is a costly mistake, as the fundamental elements of the blues are simple. Most classic blues songs are based around some variation of a 12 bar blues progression, and the minor pentatonic and blues scales define the sound of blues lead guitar.
As a result, I would argue that a large portion of your focus should be on enhancing your execution of techniques like bending and vibrato. These are fundamental to the blues and will transform the sound and impact of even the simplest of licks.
To see this in action, you need only to listen to the more minimalist approach of guitarists like Albert, B.B. and Freddie King, as well as Paul Kossoff and Peter Green.
None of these guitarists are flying across the fretboard or playing a wide range of exotic scales. Rather, they are adding life to their phrasing through bending, vibrato and dynamics.
If you want to develop these techniques, then inside The Blues Club you will find in depth guides on how to do so.
The first step however is to treat these techniques as significant areas of your playing that are nuanced and require consistent work.
It is very easy to feel that you can bend or play vibrato, and then move on. However really developing these areas of your technique will do a lot to make your lead playing more vocal, expressive and bluesy.
8.)Failing to dig deeper
In a similar vein, it is easy to quickly move on from any new idea or technique, without understanding what it is and how to use it.
I see this often with guitarists when they learn new songs. You can learn hundreds of different songs, but if you don’t dig into them to understand what is happening, the benefit of learning the song is confined to the song.
Let’s say for example, that you learn the opening solo to The Thrill Is Gone, by B.B. King. If you just learn this lead part without examining it, you will only able to apply those licks within the context of The Thrill Is Gone.
Conversely, if you take a moment to analyse what is happening, you will see that the whole solo is structured around the first shape of the minor pentatonic scale. As a result, you can then move it into different keys and totally different musical contexts.
When you take this approach then, you can get a huge amount of mileage from every idea that you learn. This is true not just for note and chord choices, but also of techniques.
So if you struggle to create musical ideas of your own – even if you know how to play a lot of different songs – start examining what is happening in a bit more depth. It will immediately help you start creating musical ideas and develop those that you have learnt from other guitarists.
9.)Being too ambitious
If you want to make progress on the guitar, you need a healthy dose of ambition. This will help to keep you motivated and will push you to develop at a faster rate than if you set yourself more modest goals.
If you are not careful though, unrealistic ambition can wreak havoc on your progress. It typically does this in one of two ways:
The first is if you try to tackle material that is technically far beyond your current level. This normally happens with songs. Guitarists hear a song that they love and try to learn it, regardless of its complexity.
Instead of being enjoyable, this normally causes frustration and demotivation, as every step of the learning process will feel like a struggle.
If you think you might be guilty of this, try to pick a song in which most of the sections are comfortable, but where one or two push you technically. In this way, you will be able to get the song under your fingers relatively easily, but the size of the challenge is sufficient that you keep progressing.
The second way ambition can kill your progress, is if you spread yourself too thinly. I typically see this with players who try to take on lots of different styles or techniques at the same time.
They try to learn fingerpicking, slide, acoustic blues and how to solo like Gary Moore, and they try to include all of these elements within their practice routine.
It takes a lot of work in each of these areas to make significant progress. As such, what inevitably happens is that these guitarists make a little bit of progress in each area, but not enough for them to feel satisfied.
If you feel like you are in this position, then I would recommend simplifying your approach and focusing on just one or two areas.
Ideally you would also choose areas in which there is crossover.
For example, almost all slide guitarists play using their fingers. So if you want to learn slide and fingerstyle, it makes sense to tackle those two areas together. In this way, you get more from your practice and ensure you don’t split your focus too much.
10.)Never making mistakes
Last but certainly not least, a lot of guitarists hamper their progress by continually holding themselves to an unrealistic standard. These are the players who wince, curse and throw their hands up in despair whenever they make a mistake.
This of course is normal. It is uncomfortable to make mistakes in any context, and it is no different with the guitar.
However, if you struggle with your mistakes to the point where you get frustrated or angry every time you hit a wrong note, it is likely to be hampering your progress in one or both of these ways:
Firstly, you are most likely breaking the flow of your playing with some regularity. If fumbling a chord change in a 12 bar blues progression causes you to stop and restart the whole progression, then you are limiting the opportunity of establishing a smooth flow in your playing.
Additionally, you keep yourself confined within your comfort zone. This I find is especially true of lead playing and improvisation. Guitarists are so adverse to playing a wrong note or phrase that they exclusively stick to familiar licks and sections of the fretboard.
Of course, this approach can function for a while. However it will soon become restrictive and lead to stagnation and frustration.
If you feel that you are inclined to this kind of mindset, then I would recommend adopting different mindsets for different sections of your routine.
Typically, I like to think about adopting either an experimental mindset, or a performance mindset.
In the former, you have as much freedom as you want to make mistakes. You are not trying to play the best solo of your life; you are trying to craft new ideas, take risks and get to grips with new material.
This is essential if you want to expand your musical vocabulary and develop as a guitarist.
In this section you are not trying to create a full and coherent solo or chord progression. You are trying to develop ideas and learn from your mistakes.
Conversely, in the performance mindset, you want to take these ideas and combine them into a coherent performance. Here you are trying not to mistakes, and so are testing your accuracy and precision – both of which are also essential skills to develop as a well rounded guitarist.
In this way then, not only do you develop a broader set of skills; you give yourself the permission to make mistakes in a whole section of your routine.
If you demand a lot from yourself, this can help to relieve some of the pressure and make your practice routine more enjoyable and relaxed.