Smoothing Out Bad Habits in Your Playing That Are Holding Back… and Replacing them with Good Ones

“I’ve been playing for 27 years and my playing still stinks because of my bad habits. How do I get rid of these bad habits?”

I get some version of this question a lot.

The research suggests you can’t actually remove a bad habit. At the right (or wrong) moment or stimulus, it can be triggered. Habits are faithful and reliable in that way.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is: You can replace the bad habit with a good one and achieve a similar result.

But how do you do this?

I’ve built up loads of bad habits over the years and have a lot of practice in performing this replacement process.

Here’s how it breaks down:

1. Sniff out the bad habit

The way you break a bad habit is to first make the habit something that you are conscious of. But not just the habit itself. The particulars of how and why this habit occurs. 

And that takes some zooming in. You gotta be a curious detective to dig into the details and see what the bad habit is comprised of.

Sniff out the bad habit. Sometimes this will be obvious. Sometimes it’ll take some digging. But that’s where you start.

There is also a difference between an underdeveloped skill and a bad habit. And that distinction is important when you are attempting to correct bad habits.

If you can’t play something or keep tripping up because you haven’t yet mastered a certain motion, you want to take a different (albeit similar approach). I recommend doing some Nanosynthesis and Myelinogenesis.

But if you keep messing up a good thing because of some stubborn bad habits, you can usually spot it using this rule of thumb:

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For the most part, everything you are playing feels relatively easy, unconscious, and perhaps even effortless. I can play a bunch of high-speed legato all around the neck and it feels rather easy to do with my fretting hand.

However, it sounds awful. Some of the notes, some of the time, are simply not cutting through. Furthermore, there is just a whole lot of noise.

These are bad habits.

They are the sort of thing that give you an illusion of competency.

They are things you can do that don’t feel like a struggle.

It means that I have attained a certain level of competency with a skill that makes it feel familiar, comfortable, and even fluent; but the sound itself leaves much to be desired.

I have to zoom in and see what’s going wrong. Because whatever it is that is going wrong is something that has become more or less unconscious to me.

I see this happen with my sweep picking all the time, too.

I seem to be able to sweep at high speeds, but the space between the notes isn’t even, and the notes too often bleed together as if I were playing a chord. This is another area where I have fooled myself into feeling like I’m competent, but my playing is, in fact, riddled with bad habits.

Key: Look for where you feel comfortable and capable, but when you listen back to the recording, something sounds off. Or even awful. That’s where bad habits are lurking, and we can sleuth them out.

2. Diagnose the details

Start by slowing way down and watch what you’re doing.

Because this can sometimes cause you to play entirely differently, I recommend recording yourself playing at your typical speed that you’re comfortable with, but play it back in slow motion.

Or, you can play at the typical speed, but then stop the moment you notice a mistake.

(Keeping in mind that you could very well be failing to notice mistakes along the way; any mistake you can notice for now is enough for us to start making some cleanup progress).

Stop, then zoom in to diagnose what’s going on. If at all possible, pinpoint the very moment where things start to sound off.

What is happening with your hands? Your pick? You arms? Your wrists? Your neck? Your shoulders?

Check in on each of these. There are countless things that could be going wrong at any moment.

  • Maybe your fret fingers are landing in the middle of the fret instead of right behind it…
  • Maybe when you pick, you are picking too far away to be ready to pluck the next string in time…
  • Maybe your back or shoulders are tense, and you’re hunching over, and this constricts your breathing and strains your hand, which makes you slow down…
  • Maybe you are scraping your picking wrist along the strings and it’s causing excess string noise…

Maybe your guitar just ain’t in tune so it sounds like you’re standing next to someone tone deaf trying to sing “Happy Birthday…”

…and it’s making the whole room fluctuate from going too sharp to too flat and the cacophony sounds like torture for your nephew, who just turned five and who can’t wait to get his greedy little mitts on those mouthwatering cupcakes.

You gotta pay attention to anything that might be the source or particulars of the bad habit. Sometimes this is obvious. Sometimes it’s not. But it’s always there.

3. Identify the replacement habit

Now that you have seen what’s going wrong, it’s time to make it right.

At this point, you need to identify what the good habit with be (or at least the better habit. We don’t always know what would be best, but we are often keenly aware of what would be better).

Usually, you can take what you were doing wrong (once it’s been identified), and tweak it and test different approaches until things sounds (and feel) good.

This is a fairly vague suggestion. But that’s what it takes. Find what works, and then move onto the next step.

4. Exaggerate the motion to lock it in

Take the correct motion (or better habit), and start to exaggerate it.

This is helpful whether you are working to correct bad habits or working to install new ones from scratch:

When you are attempting to master something that is new to you, find something tiny you can work on, and exaggerate that intended, correct motion.

Here’s an example from my own playing:

For me to master legato without having to use a pick, I have noticed that hammering onto a target string while descending is something that fails almost half of the time.

So, in one motion, I am hammering on as heavily and precisely as I can. And I am taking the time to seriously exaggerate that motion, to help lock it into my motor function memory, so to speak.

I also notice that I am making a lot of noise while doing this, so the notes aren’t cutting through as clearly as they could be.

So after locking in this exaggerated motion, I am now going to target a separate motion and exaggerate it: muting the strings that I am not playing using my picking hand (either my fingers, the side of my hand or fingers, or palm).

I will then work on both of these exaggerated motions simultaneously.

The reason to exaggerate the motion (or combined motion) is manifold. It helps your mind notice it and pay attention to it properly.

You are making the invisible problem visible. You are making it stand out.

This allows you to dissect what’s going on and figure out how to optimize it.

But another thing you are doing when you exaggerate the motion is you are preventing yourself from slipping into unconscious habits.

Because as long as you have unconscious, incorrect or suboptimal techniques that are causing noise or slowing you down or leading to poor timing or synching issues or even injury… you will continue to do it automatically.

The danger is that you have, in some sense, mastered (or made automatic) something that you don’t want to master. 

By exaggerating the correct motion, you are training your brain to start to pay attention to it, even when you go unconscious and are no longer directly focusing on improving that particular motion or technique.

The more obvious you make it, the more obvious it will become to you.

Until you can properly clean it up and make the correct movements unconscious and automatic, instead.

This takes some serious attention to detail, especially if you’ve already been playing for a considerable amount of time. It means that you might have built up a lot of bad habits already.

But this can pay off surprisingly quickly, so long as you are bringing your full attention to the task at hand for a little while. 

Exaggerate the motion to make it obvious enough to remain an object in need of addressing.

This will ensure that you are more likely to work on it from there on out.

You can’t practice something that you aren’t even thinking about practicing. We are shining the spotlight on what it is that we need to practice by exaggerating it. We are making the subtle more salient.

Follow these steps and you’ll gain two things at the same time:

1. Stop the bad habits from wrecking your playing

2. Install good habits by exaggerating the new behavior

Use the process. And as always, I look forward to hearing about your progress!



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