31 Ideas for a Guitarist in a Rut

Guitarist in a RutEvery guitarist lands in a rut once in a while. While disciplined diligence might allow some people to work their way out, there’s always an easier path. Try some of the ideas below, and you might skip the giant staircase in favor of the hidden elevator.

Keep in mind that your plateau is in your head. It’s not any lack of ability or talent that’s holding you back; it’s your mind. So the key to climbing out and blossoming again is to put your mind in a new place and see what it does.

Create

1. Compose. The best way to make yourself feel productive is to produce! Make yourself some deadlines and create musical ideas often, whether they’re 2-measure licks or 2-hour symphonies.
2. Start a journal or blog. Even if you’re working on some mundane finger exercise, you’ll probably have some thoughts about it. Keeping a practice journal is a great way to track your progress and keep your current goals visible in the future. I did this in 2007 with From the Woodshed.
3. Make crazy noises. Make sounds on the guitar that you’ve never made before. If you hear something interesting, latch onto it, milk it, and maybe you’ll have a song/riff/lick idea.

Learn

4. Learn real solos or guitar parts note for note. If you’ve ever done this, you’ll know about its enormous benefits. Grab a program like Amazing Slow Downer to make it easier to get every nuance in your fingers.
5. Learn more songs. If you’re worried that your abilities aren’t improving, forget about it for a while and spend some time expanding your repertoire. Keep a list of all the songs you know, and add all the easy ones you can.
6. Try learning by ear. This is an essential skill in the long run. Some guitarists will learn everything from tablature, which is just the result of someone else learning by ear. Pick something easy if you’ve never done this. Pick out one note at a time; it’s a slow but rewarding process.
7. Conquer a new skill. Spend two hours on some mindless exercise while watching a movie or something. You’ll come out of it with a noticeably improved set of fingers. See what you can do with them.
8. Take up a new style. Choose a random genre X that you’ve never tried to play. Search for “how to play X guitar” on YouTube.
9. Take lessons. Ask around for a great local teacher. I teach guitar lessons in Seattle and online via Skype.
10. Look into classes at a local music school. Many community colleges and other affordable schools offer music courses, at least in music theory, often specifically in guitar.

Read a Book

11. Buy a book from the Deft Digits Store. Powered by Amazon, the Deft Digits Store contains a selection of instructional books and DVDs which I recommend above all others.
12. Try 101 Guitar Tips.
13. Try the Guitar Fretboard Workbook.
14. Try Music Theory for Guitarists.

Change Your Environment

15. Practice in a new setting. Move to a different room. Go outside. Take your guitar on a trip.
16. Listen to something different. Try an internet music service like Last.fm or Spotify, click through the genres until you find some sub-sub-genre you’ve never heard of, and listen for a few hours while you work, away from the guitar.
17. Exercise. It reboots your mind.
18. Sing. It’s your natural instrument. Look up some vocal exercises, or just belt something out.
19. Switch to lefty/righty. Some of the guitar’s greatest masters (Jimi Hendrix, Albert King… Michael Angelo Batio) unlocked their music by flipping a right-handed guitar over to be played left-handed. It’s awkward, but you might discover something new.
20. Take a break. If you’ve been practicing constantly, try stopping for a while. You might come back like a slingshot.

Change Your Gear

21. Take up a new instrument. Bass and ukulele are pretty easy switches from the guitar. Keyboards and percussion are also pretty useful.
22. Buy a new guitar. Why not?
23. Sell a guitar. And then buy a better one with the money.
24. Get a setup. Any guitar can feel and sound so much better with a little professional tweaking.
25. Try new effects. Buy a new pedal or a multi-effects box. You might spend weeks tinkering with it.

Put the Pressure On

26. Join a band. This is the best musical kick in the pants you can ever give yourself. You must uphold a commitment not only to your audience to perform well, but also to your bandmates to prepare for rehearsals and behave like a professional musician.
27. Go to a jam session. There is less commitment involved, but it gets you in front of listeners and meeting other musicians.
28. Busk. Find a street corner or park bench and play with your case open.
29. Study with someone. Whether it’s a teacher or a fellow student, promise them that you’ll improve between study sessions.
30. Perform for someone. Tell a family member or group of friends that you’ll play for them. Now you’ve got to prepare!
31. Write a tune for someone. Tell your favorite person that you’re going to write a song for him/her. Do not disappoint.

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  • Loren

    I can’t agree more with #4, regardless of the context. It teaches impeccable rhythm and overall chops to be able to cop another guitarist’s style. It doesn’t mean you’ll become a clone (as long as you mix it up), but you’ll pick up a lot of neat tricks and nasty licks that way. I often recommend this to people just starting out. Pick simple songs and learn them into the ground until you can play along flawlessly with the rhythm guitarist. Then pick up the tougher licks and so on. Great post, Joe!

    • Joe

      Why, thank you Loren.

      For anyone worried about becoming a clone, I emphasize that it takes a ton of work to do so. It’s not a risk in the sense that it might happen by accident. I don’t think anyone could be called a clone without actively trying to be one. Refusing to cop licks for this reason is like refusing to take up chess for fear that becoming a master will prevent you from being a well-rounded person.

  • I most appreciate that you acknowledge in the very beginning that disciplined diligence is the way to get out of it, but this list is for when that discipline and diligence just aren’t there. I find myself stuck in a rut more from a lack of energy than anything else (which is the opposite of discipline and diligence). Since guitar is “just a hobby,” work, family, etc. all take their toll. By the time I’m ready to play I just don’t feel up to it. That’s where these tips come in. Thanks for the blog entry!

  • 20lbCat is the son of Dog

    Nice birthday present there, pal. Muchas Gracias.

  • Max

    Thanks a lot! Very helpful.

  • Very useful stuff here – shame I’m at work or I’d do some of them right now – wait – let me listen to the latest sub dubstep drone sensation – might learn something!

  • Gregg

    Great advice. I have been playing for 47 years, most of it professionally, and believe me, even though I can physically do nearly anything on the instrument because of all that time spent, it is quite common to get in a rut, or lose enthusiasm for the instrument, for a period of time. All those points listed above will work for you at some time or another. Songwriting seems to work for me best…or playing early in the morning ( before coffee or before your brain is fully on…hah). A great discovered musical idea that is unique, can really light a fire under your butt to play better and more often. I sometimes go take a lesson or two from a peer who plays much differently than I do, if just for a different POV. Great site.

    • Joe

      Thanks! I imagine this list could be personalized for anyone. All the stuff above has worked well for me, keeping me out of ruts. (I’ve never really felt like I’ve been in one for more than a day or two.) Anyone could take this list, cross out the boring stuff, and add their own ideas, creating a reliable source for continued development.

  • I find that changing my environment (even if it is just moving around in my room) gives me a boost of motivation.
    Another thing that gives me back my motivation is when I try to think outside the box and learn something completely different, like new theory and try and implement it into my playing. The only problem, though, is that I hardly ever know WHAT to learn. I know that many people would suggest that I find a teacher (and I have one), but there must be some way to put together some sort of curriculum for music theory?

  • Joe

    If you’re looking for a ground-up approach to theory, I have three books to recommend. Music Theory for Guitarists is probably most applicable. I copy pages for my students regularly. The Guitar Fretboard Workbook focuses on mental mastery of the entire fretboard, but inevitable teaches quite a bit of theory along the way. And for the sledgehammer approach, there’s Tonal Harmony, probably the most popular textbook on music theory. Good luck!

  • Improvise, improvise, improvise, improvise.

    This is the single greatest thing a guitarist can do to “get out of a rut”. It is music at the speed of thought, or, music that *transcends* thought. Guitarists spend way too much time in their heads.

    Many times I see guitarists “in a rut” because they spend way too much time thinking or playing other people’s stuff. That’s why I disagree with 4, 5, and 8. I also disagree with #2, because if you want to play music, then play and don’t just write or talk about it!

    Many of these things here can be summed up by just learning how to improvise. You mention hendrix, and he was a god when it came to improvising. He was notoriously sloppy, but sheesh, he could play anything over anything, and no one cared whether or not he hit the notes “perfectly” he just expressed himself in the moment, which a lot of guitarists don’t know how to do because they spend more time playing other people’s stuff “note for note” instead of playing their own stuff.

    For me? When I get in a “rut”, or a “slump” it is not just with playing, it would be with everything in my life at that moment, and I just don’t feel like playing. Then I do some improvisation when I feel up to it and everything is fine.

    • Joe

      Hi Haniel, thanks for commenting!

      Not every one of these will work for everyone. But now that you bring it up, I’m surprised and embarrassed that I didn’t mention improvising in the article. Maybe it’s because I’m so used to improvising all the time myself (lots of jazz and blues), and the best way to get out of a rut is to change something that sparks a new inspiration. I often feel like I’m playing the same tired ideas over and over when I’m really focused on improvising. That’s when I go learn someone else’s solo, a new song, or a new style. I’m looking for new ideas that I can process and reuse in my own way.

  • Awesome advice brotha… thanks a million.