Hitting Wrong Strings? Tips on How to Improve

Here's a question one of your fellow students asked recently. Not only have I been asked this many times but I suspect quite a few people are thinking it without asking. I decided to spend a little more time than usual writing a response.

Q: I keep hitting and pressing the wrong strings. Any tips on how I can improve it? I’m doing the Speed Developer exercise every day and it’s easy to play when we have to hit the same string. It becomes a problem when I’m playing something more difficult like a melody. - Shivanshu

A: This is an issue that’s taken me years to come to grips with. I'm hoping I can save you and other students some time and stress by relating what I've learned.

First I slowly came to realize I was thinking about the learning process in the wrong way. It's not actually a “problem”. It's just the natural course of learning a skill. 

Playing even simple guitar involves learning to coordinate your hands together as well as getting them to do what your mind is telling them to do (And that's actually a simplification). It takes time and correct repetitions to get it right.  By thinking of it as a problem I was creating unnecessary stress and trying to “solve” the problem instead of patiently and meticulously working through it. 

So the first tip is to work at seeing it as a natural learning process.

This means letting go of expecting to get it right.  When it doesn't go the way you would like (i.e. you hit a “wrong” note) try to see it as just feedback.  And what is the feedback? Several possibilities… but I'll talk about that in a minute.

Let me say that this perspective itself usually takes practice.  Be patient with yourself. Don't expect to get this overnight. Just keep working at it. You're laying a foundation for learning that will serve you well.

When you play something during practice and it doesn't go the way you'd like (which is normal) the feedback is likely one of the following things…

1) I need to play it more slowly

2) I need to break it down into smaller parts and work on the parts.

3) I’m close but I need more repetitions

In some cases I’ve missed some steps and I need to go back and work on a specific technique or easier material and build up to it.  However when you're working step-by-step through a system like The Beginners Journey that's not likely the case unless you skipped some of the lessons.

If it’s #3 there’s nothing to do but keep at it. Usually I find it’s # 1 (practice slower) or #2 (break it down). 

So let's go with either #1 or #2... Or both.  Then you would take what you're working on and slow it down until you can play it right. Use a metronome to check your speed.  Then play it faster little by little until it's at the tempo that you want. 

What if you still can't play it right no matter how slow you go?  Then it’s time to break it down into smaller pieces. 

An example would be if you're playing something that is 4 measures long, start with the first measure and play it at a slow tempo. Then work on the second measure. Put the two together so you get the transition from one measure to the other. 

Continue in this way until you can play the entire 4 measures. Then start picking up the tempo as we discussed earlier.

This can take minutes, days or weeks. Does it matter how long it takes? No… As long as you can muster up enough patience to stick with it.

Here’s a quick summary:

  • Play through the lesson or exercise... Listen!
  • Ask yourself, ``What do I need to do now?”
  • Did you skip or skim through earlier lessons. If so consider going back.
  • Otherwise choose one of these three strategies.
    • Play it more slowly
    • Break it down and work on part of it.
    • I’m close. I’ll continue practicing it.
  • Proceed with the path you’ve chosen and make more decisions as you continue on.

This works best if you have an organized practice routine. It's easier to muster up patience when you’ve set yourself up to work on it regularly and as part of a holistic program.

Here’s an example from my own experience…


I was playing an exercise and it wasn't going smoothly. I slowed it down and realized the problem was mostly in my picking hand. I was fumbling when going from one string to another while picking up and down.


I tried slowing it down but there was still too much going on. I was still trying to pay attention to my left hand because  it was a new exercise. So I simplified the picking. 


Instead of alternate picking (going down/up) I changed it to down only.  That made it easier to go from one string to another.  With a little more practice I could play it slowly without fumbling.


I chose to spend a little more time working with down-picking only and increased the speed a little at a time.


I chose to spend a little more time working with down-picking only and increased the speed a little at a time. 


Then I added the alternate picking back in. Alternate picking will allow me to go faster in the long run.  To do this I had to slow it down again.  


As of this writing this is where I left off. I'll start picking up the speed little by little each practice session.

I know progress is not a straight line and I'm prepared to go back a step or two if I start fumbling during a session.  With anything difficult I’ve found I usually regress at some point. 

Nothing to worry about. I've done this enough times to know I can do this if I keep at it.  And I will keep at it.

Remember: This is where you’re at. If you could play it faster and correctly you would. 

To get to that place (fast and correct) you start slower or break it down.  When you slow it down or break it down you have more time to figure out what’s going on.  Pay attention. Experiment to find what works. Simplify to isolate the issue.

You’re training your mind and your body to work together to get the results you want. It’s a worthy pursuit 🙂

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Comments on Hitting Wrong Strings? Tips on How to Improve

  1. Patricia says:

    This info is very encouraging, Thomas. I really get jumbled up trying to pick up and down, (or master finger picking methods) and tend to think that I shouldn’t use a more basic method is going to be bad for me. But I can see from this article that you have to have a starting point, and in time, build on it. Many of our lessons are above my skill levels, even on the SLOW play alongs………but I have kept going back and working on it. Sometimes, with all the info presented every month, I think I am going nowhere…………and then the next month, I see that I AM progressing….even though I might not feel that I mastered a skill. I an learning so much from these courses by just keeping at it…..somehow skills keep building, and an understanding of music theory seems to appear out of the woodwork for me. Thank you for sharing your skills…………..especially for TEACHING students a lot more than how to play one song! This is the best music course I’ve had and I love the time spent with my guitar!

    1. Tomas says:

      Thanks, Patricia. You probably know this but I want to mention it. The Guitar Gym is meant to be challenging, but if you’re finding much of the material you’re working on too far above your level you may want to go back to lessons that cover that. For example, if you’re struggling with changing between chords smoothly go back through the lessons in the 4th and 5th Adventures that deal with this. If barre chords are the issue go through lessons in Barre Chords for Everyone. You don’t have to go through an entire course again. Just pick out specific lessons. I’m happy to suggest lessons if you let me know what you’d like help with.

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