5 tips to get out of your guitar playing rut
Published on 02 February 2021
Let's paint a picture... You pick up your guitar, plug in your amp, crank the volume and... Play the same riffs, the same licks and the same chords that you always play. Don't worry, it's not just you. Learning to play the guitar is tough, let's make no mistake. It takes time, energy, effort, passion and creativity. However, it's easy to feel like your playing has plateaued when you're not making progress at the speed you'd like to.
Do you think your guitar heroes experienced this? Do you think Eddie Van Halen was sitting in his room struggling to play the same things over and over and wondering why he wasn't getting any better?
Well, we do... But he pushed through it, probably time and time again until he became the charismatic shred machine that changed rock history.
This happens to absolutely everyone at some point or another. It's comfortable to stick to what you know and it's uncomfortable to challenge yourself, even if you know that's what it takes to get better. So, we thought we'd share a few tips for getting yourself out of that rut and back rocking!
Listen to something totally different (and learn it!)
The first tip we have for you isn't necessarily a difficult one but it is an important one. Part of the reason your playing feels stale is probably that you've been trying to nail the same sound, band or artist's style for as long as you can remember. It's great to love Jimi Hendrix's playing but that doesn't mean you have to sound exactly like him (none of us do!). So instead of doing your usual and plodding through what feels familiar, take yourself out of your comfort zone and learn something totally new.
Have you ever tried staccato rhythm chops like a certain Mr Rodgers? How about some country chicken pickin'? Don't limit yourself, sometimes all it takes to reinvigorate your playing is fresh perspective and a new challenge.
Use a looper
Don't worry, this article is by no means going to tell you more gear means you'll play better. Exceeeeept maybe a looper. Many players associate loopers with Ed Sheeran type singer-songwriters but the reason these artists rely on them so much is that they allow them to achieve a full band sound by themselves.
Not only does this vastly improve your timing, but it also gets you thinking. How does the bass part in my head fit into the percussion groove I've just created? How does the rhythm fit into that? These are the thoughts that will cause you to look at your axe in a whole new way and that change in your point of view is really valuable. On top of that, loopers are a fantastic tool for improving your lead playing. Simply build up a rhythm with a few chord changes and work out how to solo over the top of it. Not only does starting from scratch like this help your playing but it also keeps things fresh and totally unique to you.
Play another instrument
There's no better way to gain a new perspective on the guitar than by totally abandoning it for the night and playing something different. If you have a keyboard in the house then that's a great starting point for experimenting with something new. Different chord shapes, fills and rhythms will soon begin to come to you and the great part is, they're totally transferable to guitar.
J Mascis, the frizzy-haired sound machine behind Dinasaur Jr's chaotic yet brilliant guitar sound started his musical life as a drummer and quite possibly as a result, is one of the most innovative and inspiring guitarists on the planet. There's real merit in trying your hand at something different while keeping in mind how it will apply to the fretboard. If you don't have another instrument at home, why not pick up your guitar and work out a few bass parts? Or even mirror a vocal melody to figure out how it relates to the guitar? Creativity is key so get after it!
Learn a different part to a song you know
Do you have a riff that you absolutely love and play relentlessly? Course you do, all of us do. Can you play the rest of the song though...? By that we mean not just the rhythm parts, or the lead parts but ALL of it? Don't worry rhythm players, we know that sounds daunting but take it from us, we meet lead players all the time who can shred at lightning-fast speed but struggle with simple rhythms - it's all relative.
Deconstructing your favourite tracks and digesting them piece by piece is such a useful exercise. It doesn't just get you into the habit of pushing yourself to learn parts which don't come naturally, it also helps you to understand the relationship between them. Make a point of paying attention to how the lead and rhythm parts are built around each other and how they work in line with the bass and drums. Once you understand this, we can bet that those scary parts you didn't even approach learning start to fall into place a lot quicker.
Change your tuning
Last but not least we have a surefire way to add a bit of life to your playing. Tuning. We chat with so many guitarists who almost never experiment with different tunings, aside from the odd drop D. We can't stress enough how great this is for thinking about your guitar differently. Put it this way, how can we rely on our go to licks and riffs when none of the notes sound right anymore?
Now, don't get it confused, this takes some getting used to but certain tunings, DADGAD for example just sing as soon as you dial them in and are loads of fun to play. Have a mess about with some different tunings, write some riffs and get it into your head - you don't need to play in standard! For a little inspiration, try learn a few tracks in alternate tunings and you'll soon start to get a feel for what shapes and patterns work. It may take a few attempts but it will really help to open up your instrument and give you new ground to cover if you put the work in.
Playing the guitar is a pursuit of passion and it should be fun, interesting and inspiring all at once. If you do find yourself stuck in a rut and struggling with where to go next the most important thing is that you don't beat yourself up about it. There isn't a player on the planet who hasn't experienced what you're feeling - all it means is that it's time to start pushing yourself again. Have a go at a few of our tips, or even set your guitar down and take a break to clear your head.... It's not going anywhere! The important part is to make sure you're enjoying yourself, everything else will come naturally.