My Guitar Playing Rut (and how I escaped)

Written by Rob in 'Practicing'

We all have days where nothing seems to be working, right? One of those days where no matter what you try to play, it just wont sound right…

Sound familiar? Unfortunately this happens to all of us at some point or another. I’m sure even Joe Satriani and Yngwie Malmsteen have off days (not Petrucci, though- he’s an inhuman shred robot!).

stuck in a rut with your guitar playing? here's what to practise next

…but what happens if this ‘off day’ lasts for more than one day?

Even worse, what happens when the ‘off day’ lasts for a week or more? When you’re trying again and again to play the same stuff, but getting nowhere? Before long, your guitar playing isn’t progressing at all.

Then, you’re stuck.

This is how I was until very recently. I’m always trying to improve, learn new things and generally get better at guitar. I think we all should be- all the time, but sometimes we just hit a brick wall.

Do you know what the worst part is? I thought I was doing fine- but I was very wrong!

This was me and my guitar playing rut. Maybe you’ve been in this situation before? Maybe you’re in it now? In this post, I’ll show you how I got out of this situation, and how you can do the same.

What Changed?

So, what made me realise that I was stuck? That I wasn’t really getting anywhere with the guitar anymore? Well, it’s simple…

I tried to learn a song.

Not just any song, a completely new song that I hadn’t learnt before. More than that, I had been asked to learn the song by someone else. This means that, for once, my playing was being judged by someone else- someone who knew what they were listening for.

Well, my eyes were opened.

The song wasn’t particularly difficult, and I should have been easily able to play it. The problem was, though, that I was out of practise. My practise routine just wasn’t effective enough.

But Surely I’d been doing everything right?! I played guitar every day, I’d been learning new songs, and playing with others at jam sessions etc. Everything you’re supposed to do to practise guitar.

So, how come I was stuck?! Wasn’t I doing enough already?

How I got Stuck

I thought everything was going fine- but that was the problem! I hadn’t been pushing myself and I’d just been going around in circles!

Yes, I was practicing every day, but I realised that it was all the same old stuff. Nothing new was being added to the mix- and when I tried to improvise, it was all the same old licks that would come out.

I was actually in a very similar position to what many guitar students face at some point or another. I didn’t feel like I was improving, and I just didn’t know where to go next!

Those of you with a guitar teacher, having regular lessons, are probably the exception, here. A good teacher should be able to guide you out of these ruts and show you where to move on to. I, just like the rest of you, didn’t have that option.

These are almost no-win situations. At best you’ll never get any better, and probably get bored; at worst you’ll actually get worse at guitar doing this!

So, either way it’s a bad place to be in! I needed to get out of this rut, and fast!

How I Escaped

I’ve seen questions like these countless times on music forums and other websites, and the standard, stock advice is: listen to some new music.

Yes, that’s very good advice. Many times we’re only musically stuck because we’re not taking on any new influences. I’m not sure that’s the most helpful thing to do, however.

So, I didn’t just start listening to new music, I started to learn to play it.

There are still tonnes of songs out there that I love, but haven’t learnt to play. Why should that be the case? I can’t learn them all at once, but almost every song has something that you can take from it- something new to learn.

Especially if you learn songs in different genres to what you’re used to playing. You could also try learning other instrument parts on guitar- saxophone, violin, oboe (whatever you like the sound of..).

More than that, I wanted to learn these parts exactly.

It can be very tempting to say “It’s close enough to the original”, or “I’m playing it in my own way” or “this is my interpretation”. This works great if you’re in an originals band covering a song. Then you can play it ‘in your own style’.

BUT that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn the original note-for-note (or that it wont help)!

So I changed up my practise rountine to include these new techniques- and that’s when things really started to happen!

  • I started learning new licks from other guitarists
  • I got to push my technical ability beyond just what I was comfortable doing
  • I could much more easily see what I needed to work on
  • Working out the songs by ear was great practice (and more fun than boring listening exercises!)

This was also a bit of an attitude change for me. I had to admit to myself that I wasn’t as good as I really wanted to be. I wasn’t as good a guitarist as I should (or could) be.

That’s a tough thing to admit to yourself, but without admitting your faults, how can you start to improve them?

How You can do the Same

The lesson is: if you think you’ve mastered it, then you haven’t mastered it.

I don’t say that to put you off playing guitar- far from it! I just mean that there is so much out there! If you think you’ve learnt everything, then you’ve definitely missed something!

That’s really what being stuck in a playing rut is: you can’t see where to go next. Whether it’s because you don’t know what comes next (if you’re a complete beginner), or you think you’ve learnt as much as you need (as I naïvely thought…).

Either way, you’re stuck in a rut.

So, don’t just ‘listen’ to something new, learn to play something new (either by ear, or by tab). I mean, can you already play every song by all of your favourite bands (both rhythm and lead parts)?

If not, there is room for improvement. Work on that.

After that, it’s time to search out new music. There is plenty out there, especially if you keep an open mind. It doesn’t even have to be guitar-based, if you don’t mind finding/reading the sheet music or figuring it out by ear!

And don’t play this stuff so that it’s “OK, close enough”, imagine you were to play it like that live. Does it honestly sound good enough so that if you heard it like that from a live band, you would be happy with it?

That should be your standard.

If it’s not that good, you still have things to improve.

As I said, I’m not saying this to dampen your spirits! I’m saying there is plenty out there to get your teeth into!

Can’t find any new music that you like? What about a new scale? Find the tabs/music/diagrams for a new scale, and search out some backing tracks for it. Even a new chord- where would it be used, how do you play it all over the neck? What scales go with it?

Don’t allow yourself to get stuck in a rut, like I was!

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