The 8 Laws of Guitar Etiquette: Tips for the Store, Relationships and More

Ask any spouse, partner or family member of a guitar player - or any music store employee - about what bothers them the most, and they’ll come up with a host of gear-related behaviors that test their patience.

Whether you’re at home, at a shop or playing a show, there are definitely ways to go about things that will turn people off to your playing instead of endearing them to it. We’ve all been guilty of these at some point, so here’s a refresher to help prevent you or someone you know (feel free to share this) from becoming “that guitarist.”

1. Stores are for checking out gear, not showcasing your shred.

As the video below illustrates, nowhere is guitar etiquette more crucial than in a store. If you view stores as playground escapes where you can spend hours feeling powerful by plugging into gear you don’t intend to buy, then I suppose this is music to your ears.

But if you consider someone walking into this store with the intent of being able to hear herself really check out a specific piece of gear she was after, she’d be drowned out by a mashing cacophony of players thinking only about themselves. And that highlights exactly what etiquette is all about: acting with an awareness of other people.

If someone is checking out a guitar, don’t sit next to them and play louder and faster. Find your own space and let them have theirs.

If you must go nuts, wait until they’re gone. Take a deep breath. Feel that nagging sense of entitlement and one-upmanship slip away. Good. There you go.

2. If people didn’t pay to see you, their conversations come first.

I am a constant perpetrator on this one. This can take so many forms - continuing to play while someone is trying to carry a conversation with you (ahem, spouses/partners take note), playing loudly at a party when people don’t really want you to be the center of attention, noodling around between songs at band practice while your bandmates try to talk - but it all boils down to the same thing.

Our noodley explorations or regurgitations of covers are more rewarding and less annoying to us than the people around us. It’s hard to admit, but true.

Unless someone asks for it or you are a walking jukebox with jaw-dropping chops, save your playing for later. The only problem is that the worst offenders think they are that person.


3. If it’s not your gear, put the settings (and the items) back where they were.

No one likes to turn on an amp in a store and find it dimed or set to wild EQ settings. No one likes to pick up a guitar, strum a familiar chord and realize that it’s in some exotic tuning they’re not familiar with.

Same goes for pedals. If you’re sharing a pedal for a gig or practice, use tape or a pencil mark to indicate where the settings were before you fiddle with it. If you borrow a guitar or pick one up in a shop and it’s out of tune, make the world a better place and tune it. Which brings us to our next point…

4. Play in tune.

Yes, I consider this a matter of etiquette. Playing out of tune offends, disgusts and even nauseates the more harmonically sensitive. It’s two steps away from a crime against humanity. Don’t do it.

There’s no excuse to be out of tune. There just isn’t. Buy yourself a Boss TU-2 or a TC Electronic Polytune and take two minutes to tune up every time you pick up the guitar.

I like to go with the dental hygiene paradigm here. Like brushing, tuning needs to be a regular habit of maintenance. Negligence here leads to cringe-worthy “music-making” that makes anything you play embarrassing, regardless of how fancy your fretwork is.

5. When sharing a stage, respect the other acts who still need to use it.

If you’ve played an open mic or a festival where many acts are all sharing a single, smallish stage on a strict timeline, then you’re familiar with how stage etiquette can impact others in this situation. Time and space are the two keys, and you save both by starting to move your equipment offstage as soon as you last song is over in as few trips as possible.

Even if you just move it all off to the side, the other act can get going while you finish packing up. This, of course, is directed to those among us who have only themselves and maybe a loyal friend or two to help, not acts with dedicated techs or venue employees who handle this.

If acts going on after you have set up a pedalboard or amp line before you set up your own gear on stage, assume they have things placed purposefully and set-up correctly. Set up around them if possible. If they had the same consideration towards you, they will have kept their stuff out of the way to begin with.

6. Stick around to support the other acts after you play.

If you go on earlier at an open mic, a festival or just a three-act weeknight show at a hole in the wall club, support the other acts by staying to see them perform. Even if they didn't show up early to see you, staying to see them models the sort of support that all musicians want/need. If you absolutely can't stay, let them know as they start setting up and wish them the best.

Not only will this help you build a network and get to know your fellow musicians, but it also acts as a form of nourishment, of inspiration, of understanding your musical context. Any good writer will tell you that if you want to write, you need read as much as you write. The same is true for musicians.

As much as you're woodshedding and writing new material, you need to watch other acts and dissect how they approach things. Music is culture of reinterpretation, blending, borrowing, mashing, and yes, sometimes stealing. Get out there and absorb all you can.


7. Unless you live by yourself on a farm, there are times when you shouldn’t play (loudly).

I know we all love to play when the spirit moves us. Inspiration often hits late at night for some reason. So does the need for catharsis after a long night on the town. Nothing feels better than having the silence of a midnight house or apartment frame your playing.

Unfortunately, if you have a sleeping roommate or partner living with you, that probably isn't a great idea. You might have a tolerant roommate or partner, but if you have kids, it's definitely a no go. And if you have neighbors, well, you can rant all you want about American liberty and doing what you want with your property, but we'd like to think that you can still enjoy your gear and your freedom without burning bridges.

One word: headphones. If your amp doesn't have a headphone jack, you can pick up a Vox Amplug for under $40 and get as loud as you want using various effects and amp models. If you must play acoustic, I suppose it would be a great chance to practice dynamics and play pianissimo.

8. Don't hide your gear purchases.

I might be on a slippery slope here, not only because this is coming from someone with acute gear acquisition syndrome (GAS) who works for Reverb, but let's be honest: transparency about your gear lust is generally the best way to go. If playing music and scouting gear is a huge part of your life, then it should be something you share freely with the people in your life. Let them accept it as a part of who you are.

The dark side to this emerges when music becomes a way to block out or hide from other things in your life, when getting a piece of gear becomes a requisite for happiness and an end in itself (rather than using the gear). I'm not saying music shouldn't be an escape from time to time - that is its restorative power - but hiding purchases is a road to more stress than the music you're playing can relieve.

You can always sell gear, drop birthday/holiday hints and save up over time if you can't quite stretch it financially right this very moment.

If you know someone who desperately needs to hear these words of wisdom, please share. And if we missed a few that you can think of, please add them in the comments below.

comments powered by Disqus

Reverb Gives

Your purchases help youth music programs get the gear they need to make music.

Carbon-Offset Shipping

Your purchases also help protect forests, including trees traditionally used to make instruments.

Oops, looks like you forgot something. Please check the fields highlighted in red.