-By Eric Dieter

The first 6-12 months on guitar can be a bit of a rollercoaster. Some skills certainly come easier than others. As a guitar teacher for over 15 years, I think the biggest frustration that students face is getting a nice, clear chord to come out of their instrument. While there is no substitute for in-person lessons, let this brief checklist serve as your automated customer support. 

How’s Your Posture?

Make sure you are sitting correctly! The guitar should be on your left leg, not on your right leg, and the left leg should be propped. If you find this uncomfortable, use a strap, but make sure it’s high enough to keep the guitar off of your lap. The neck of the guitar should be roughly at a  45 degree angle to the floor, NOT parallel to the floor. Your right elbow should be above the guitar body slightly, not making with it. Lastly, avoid tilting the guitar towards you to get a better view, this is going to mess up your technique!

Is Your Right Hand Moving Correctly?

Sometimes students (especially young boys) like to crush the strings with the pick. This isn’t necessary and will quickly make an otherwise-correct chord sound nasty! Also, make sure your pick is avoiding the appropriate strings. That means consult your chord chart and look for any “X” markings above the string, telling you to not pick that string at all.

Is Your Guitar in Tune?

I know, it seems obvious. But to this day I am still startled by how infrequently students tune their guitar. Changes in humidity, temperature, and location will knock your guitar out of tune. Just because you tuned 3 days ago, that doesn’t mean your instrument is still in tune today. “Close enough” doesn’t count either! Make sure you can use a tuner and be certain that your tuning is as precise as you can get it.

Is it a GSO?

Very often I meet beginning guitar students that found a guitar in their attic, were gifted a guitar from friend, or picked one up really cheap at some sale. Most of the time, you get what you pay for. Very often I found that these cheap “instruments” are more Guitar Shaped Objects…toys… and not really guitars. These GSOs are more suited for pretend playing than serious practice. If you think you have GSO, bring it to a qualified guitar teacher and have it looked over soon… before you waste time fighting with a toy!

Are Your Riding the Fret?

The fingers of your left hand should NOT actually be sitting on the fret. If you are actually touching the fret, it will either create a buzz or muffle the guitar string. Instead, think of it as tailgating, leaving just the tiniest space between your finger and the fret. Conversely, avoid leaving too much space. This tends to happen most often at the first fret. There’s a lot of wood there. Ignore most of that wood. Get right up on that next fret like it’s driving too slow in the passing lane!

Are You a Powerful Guitar Beast?

Perhaps you are using too much muscle. I see this often. As students get tense and/or a little frustrated, they squeeze too hard. Over-squeezing your guitar can happen 2 different ways:

Bending the Note out of tune. If you look down the neck at your strings while you are holding the chord, make sure all strings are still parallel to each other. If one string is being pulled toward the floor (i.e. a bent string), this note will be out of tune. This tends to happen when the finger joints clench too hard, like the squeezing of a stress ball. 

Over-fretting. Over-fretting is the term I use when the string is mashed really hard into the wood fingerboard. This is just brute force, so ease up there, killer! You only need to squeeze enough so that the string makes solid contact against the next fret. You do not need to squeeze the string until it hits wood. In some cases, this extra squeeze pulls the string tighter, resulting in out-of-tune chords.

Are You a Delicate Guitar Flower?

The opposite problem tends to happen in the 3rd and 4th fingers; too little pressure. As the ring finger and pinky finger build strength, they tend to be inconsistent with fretting power. Make sure all fingers are appropriately squeezing the notes. If a finger is too loose, it tends to not only muffle the string it’s supposed to be playing, but can also muffle a neighboring string if it’s not using good technique.

Not Enough Lift

You can tell you don’t have enough lift when your chord “looks correct” under your fingers, but one or two notes don’t sound at all. Lift is the amount of height your fingers have. Your fingers need to come in from ABOVE the instrument, not from the side. Your left hand should be making a “C” shape, and your fretting fingers need to make little hooks: they need to play one string and hook over the next skinniest string. 

Too little lift is typically the most common problem I see with late beginners and early intermediate students. They understand what frets need to be played, but don’t have the correct angle on their fingers. The trick here is to make sure the second knuckle joint on the fretting finger is bent ABOVE the strings, not straightened out toward the floor, or…heaven forbid… behind the neck of the guitar. 

Strum the chord one string at a time. The moment you hear a *click* instead of a note, the culprit is the finger on the previous string.

Get Help!

While I’m certain this quick troubleshooting guide will solve most chording problems, I also know that students tend to overcomplicate some things, while completely ignoring others. There really is no substitute for great in-person guitar instruction, so find someone that can fill in the missing pieces for you. Guitar is wonderfully complex instrument and the best thing you can do is meet with a qualified instructor to help you diagnose and resolve these problems in a way that works best for your body and your style. 

About the Author

Eric Dieter is a professional guitarist and guitar teacher in Lancaster, PA. He has appeared on dozens of international albums as a session guitar player and tours with the synth-pop and prog-rock band. Eric has studied guitar at Millersville University and Berklee College of Music. Additionally, he holds a degree in psychology and a certification in hypnosis, making him uniquely qualified to train the minds and hands of aspiring musicians. Contact Eric if you are looking for guitar lessons in Lancaster, PA.