When you start playing any instrument you're going to find it hard. We encourage you to embrace that reality because starting out on any instrument is a scary thing! When it comes to playing the guitar, there are cetain things that make you easily identified as somebody who hasn't spent the time on all aspects of their playing. These identifiers apply not only to beginners, but to people who have been playing for years as well! If you're a beginner - that's awesome! If you've been playing for a while - that's awesome too! Here are 9 things that could be making you sound like a beginner.
1. Your guitar is out of tune
Get into the habit of checking your tuning - especially if you are playing live! More importantly, get used to what each string sounds like when it's in tune. Train your ears to recognise how your strings should sound so that you can quickly notice when your guitar is out of tune. You can do this by tuning your guitar by ear to the notes E, A, D, G, B, and E on a piano or on a YouTube video.
2. You don't listen to yourself or other players
A big part of being able to play well is listening to how you sound. If you can't hear yourself - or you simply don't listen - you can't truly know how you sound. As a guitarist you will always need to make micro-adjustments to your bends, vibrato, tuning, string muting, and all of the other techniques that you use. These can only be made if you can hear yourself and you listen to what you're playing. Furthermore, if you're playing a song by one of your favourite bands or artists - make sure you pay attention to how they play the song. Do the guitarists in Iron Maiden play fast vibrato after the power chords in Run To The Hills? If they don't, you shouldn't either.
3. Bad vibrato
As a lead guitarist, vibrato is one of the most important techniques for expressing yourself and playing with feeling. There are a lot of different approaches to playing with vibrato, and the correct approach often depends on the style of music you are playing. The most important thing is that you stay in tune. This means that the note you are bending to is either microtonal (small vibrato), or it's a semitone or two semitones higher on the fretboard (wide vibrato).
Some songs will suit a slower vibrato, and others a faster vibrato, but your vibrato should never be so fast that it sounds like your strings are bouncing. Spend a lot of time on your technique, and make a real effort to listen to players with great vibrato and try to copy them. Players like Jimi Hendrix, David Gilmour, Zakk Wylde, John Mayer, and BB King have different styles, but all of them have great sounding vibrato!
4. Bending out of tune
Like with vibrato, it's really important that your string bending is in tune. This comes down to making sure that you know the note you're bending to. When you bend a note, you should always be bending to another note in the key or scale that you're playing in. When you're practicing, play a note and work on bending the note two frets lower up to it. For example, play the 7th fret on the B string, then play the 5th fret on the B string and bend it until the pitch is the same as it was when you played the 7th fret. The more you practice this the better!
5. Strings ringing out
Making sure unwanted strings don't ring out can be difficult when you're starting out. With a combination of only picking the strings you want to hear and muting with both hands, there's a lot to be aware of when you're playing. The best thing to do is take everything slowly. Pay attention to exactly how everything sounds and make changes to the way you are playing if unwanted strings are ringing out. When you're playing power chords, make sure you're only playing the strings you want to hear, and ensure that the other strings are muted with your fretting hand so that they can't ring out if you accidentally strum the other strings.
6. Playing out of time
Whether you're playing rhythm or lead, making sure you're in time is super important! If you make the effort to work on your timing by playing to a metronome it will absolutely pay off when it comes to playing with a drummer! If you're focusing more on lead playing, don't think that you can get away with not working on your timing. You want your alternate picking to be tight, you want your note choices to fall accurately on chord changes, and you should be able to start and finish your solos perfectly in time.
7. Not warming up
Before any live performance or recording, it's absolutely essential to warm up! You should spend at least 15 minutes going through warm-ups and exercises so that your hands are nice and loose, warm, and ready to play. There's nothing worse than getting to the first tricky section in a song and not being able to play it because your hands are still cold. Don't rush onto the stage at the last minute; take 15-30 minutes before your show to warm up.
8. Playing too fast
Guitarists love playing fast, but most beginners don't practice playing slowly first. This means that when it comes to playing fast, strings ring out, there's a lot of noise, and nothing is very tight. If you want to play fast you have to be prepared to go through the process of playing slowly to a metronome and building the speed up slowly.
9. Not playing with other people
If you're putting in loads of practice time, that's great! But as soon as you're confident enough to play in front of other people, you should make that a part of your practice routine. Playing with other musicians is an experience that can't be replicated on your own, and if playing in a band is something that you're interested in doing then you should aim to practice with your bandmates as often as possible. Going home and practicing the same songs separately is completely different to playing together with a band. Jamming with other musicians will help you identify flaws in your playing that you won't recognise when you're playing alone.