We all get into ruts from time to time. Usually ending up in a ruts is the result of doing the same things over and over again while practicing. The sneaky thing about getting stuck in a rut is that it happens gradually, so we don't usually notice it until we've been there for awhile. At the highest conceptual level getting out of a rut is usually as simple as doing something (anything) differently. Here are five great ways to break out of a rut and start moving your playing forward again:
1. Learn (or write) a song in a new genre - This is one of the easiest ways to get sounds into your ear that are different from what you're used to. Love rock and metal? Learn some country, or some swing, or some jazz, or some funk. Joining a cover band was incredibly helpful for me on multiple levels, but especially this one. There's no way I would have learned to play even half the songs I've learned in the past few months if it weren't for the band, but I'm having a lot of fun and expanding my musical boundaries at the same time.
2. Play music that wasn't written for the guitar - Guitar music has a certain sound to it because it's typically composed on the guitar. There are certain patterns and shapes that are very easy on the guitar, so lots of guitar music tends to center around these patterns. It's human nature, really, and we can break out of it by playing non-guitar music. For non-guitar music I love Bach. He wrote pieces for the cello and violin, for example, that are often difficult to play on the guitar because the music doesn't cater to any of the usual fingering patterns that we're used to. That's the point, though, to get away from those comfortable patterns. Horn lines from jazz standards and vocal melodies are other examples of ways to get away from guitar music for awhile.
3. Stop playing scales - This happens to almost every guitar player at some point. You're working on your technique and you go into the proverbial woodshed with some scale patterns. When you come out, you've got better physical skills, but now all your playing sounds like a scale. So stop playing scales for awhile. Try to create a solo using the rule that no more than two notes in a row can be neighboring scale tones. Study the accompaniment and try to think of your solo as moving from one set of chord tones to another instead of just picking out a scale and letting your fingers take over.
4. Teach someone - If you've never taught anyone before then you don't know what a huge benefit teach can be to your own playing. I remember the first time I taught someone how to play. I was explaining the right way to do things and I caught myself thinking, "I don't do that... I don't do that either... wow, I really need to go back and work on this stuff." Nothing shines a light on the difference between what you know and what you do like teaching someone else to play.
5. Take a break from the guitar - If you've been hitting the guitar really hard for the last few weeks or months, for hours and hours a day, you might just want to take a break. Take a couple of days, or maybe even a couple of weeks, and just go do something else. Read a book. Visit some friends. Get some sleep. I find that a bit of time off helps my body to naturally start to erase bad habits, and there's a freshness when I come back to the instrument that just I can't get by just putting my head down and practicing harder. Note: taking a break is only recommended as a means to get out of a rut for those of you who are putting in lots of time. It is not meant to be an excuse or a procrastination technique.
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