Every 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.
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.
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.