Guitar Playing Tips | Eliminating Bad Habits & Reducing Injury


As far as guitar playing tips go, understanding proper form should be at the top of the list! Here, North Wales, PA guitar teacher Nathan D. shares the basics…


As a multi-instrumental musician, I am constantly checking my form to prevent strain or injury. Hours of improperly played guitar, piano, violin, and even clarinet can make one’s fingers and elbows throb, and the impact of playing drums too hard with poor form can cause major injury to wrists all the way to your shoulders. All of this can even lead to multiple pricey and time-consuming surgeries to fix repetitive stress injury and carpal tunnel, not to mention the countless hours of rehabilitation and re-learning to play (properly this time, of course). Wouldn’t you rather be practicing to become proficient at your instrument?

I come from a family riddled with arthritis and spine problems, and my bones constantly crack and pop when I move. However, the more I play, and the more I play correctly, these pops and cracks seem to fade away.

So what to do? First of all, always remember to warm up slowly, then build up speed. This goes for any instrument. I also routinely do yoga and other stretches to benefit my hands and wrists. Always go slow and hold for several breaths while trying to increase mobility, and stop immediately if something hurts! See a doctor if something is chronic or recurring. In general, ice new injuries, and heat chronic ones (but only under the advice of a doctor!).

With guitar being my main instrument, here are my guitar playing tips for proper form:

Head –

  • Relax your neck, don’t slump to look down at the guitar for too long.
  • If playing with a strap, take a break if your neck starts to hurt, or sit and place the guitar on your leg for more support.
  • Take a break to stretch or do some head rotations when you’re fatigued.

Shoulders –

  • Keep relaxed, but put your shoulder blades slightly together to prevent your upper spine from curving.

Lower back –

  • It is tempting to slouch over to look down at the guitar, but don’t!
  • Keep your back straight, but not stiff.

Arms –

  • Use a seat without arm rests; they will get in the way and force you to use bad form.

Legs –

  • Rest the guitar on whichever leg is comfortable for the style and position you’re playing on the fretboard. Feel free to switch after some time. Don’t let the guitar go “flat” on your leg.
  • A foot rest (even a stack of thick books) can help eliminate some back strain and help place the guitar in a better playing position.
  • Keep your feet flat; trying to play on your tiptoes will cause you to shake your leg and hit wrong notes.

Left (or fretting) hand –

  • Thumb should be placed in the middle of the neck, behind your 2nd (middle) finger.
  • It can be bent or straight, depending on your flexibility. Vertical is usually best for learning chords.
  • Thumb can be moved over the top, but only if your fretting fingers are properly straight.
  • Use the same parts of your fingertips on the strings.
  • Keep nails relatively short on this hand, usually if the tip is slightly thinner than the thickest string this will give you good playability.

Right (or picking) hand –

  • Have about ¼-inch of pick showing as you’re holding it between your thumb and index finger. Using the front of your index finger or the side (while curling it around) has both advantages and disadvantages.
  • Don’t curve your wrist, sideways or vertically. Keep it straight but a little relaxed.
  • Your picking motion should come from your elbow; too much wrist can cause injury over time.
  • No “anchors”; don’t place your fingers on the guitar while picking. The bottom of the back of the forearm, near the elbow, is placed on the edge of the guitar, however it is comfortable to strum or pick without curving your wrist.

Most importantly, have fun! Keep yourself encouraged to play and come back!

NathanDNathan D. teaches guitar, bass, drums, and more in North Wales, PA. His specialties include rock and heavy metal styles, but he teaches every genre. Learn more about Nathan here!



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Photo by Eva Rinaldi Celebrity and Live Music Photographer

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4 replies
  1. Tom
    Tom says:

    Hi there,

    Thanks for the great article!

    Its good that you are getting rid of your joint problems. I too had aches from playing but thanks to tips like these I am too improving!


  2. Mike
    Mike says:

    Thanks for a great article. I went on an Alexander Technique course nearly 2 years ago, which has helped me to become more aware of my posture when playing. Thanks for the reminder though; it’s always best to keep it in mind! 🙂


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