Slump Busting: A Personal Manifesto

It has long been my ideology that learning from other guitarists through their ability to overcome learning obstacles is the most beneficial practice. This article, a firsthand look at how I overcome plateaus in learning guitar, is meant to be disputed.

Ultimate Guitar

If you're anything like me, then a graph of your learning ability when it comes to guitar is riddled with plateaus. Every guitarist peaks at certain points in their lives and feels as though learning is just impossible. This feeling of desperation can last days, months, or an eternity until that one moment. This moment may consist of a song riff, or a video on YouTube, or a little mistake you made by accident when jamming to your favorite Beyonce track (thats just me...? Moving on). 

This article is intended to be disputed by other guitarists, because it has always been my ideology that the best learning is done from those who have had the same problems. In other words; in the comments section if you have an issue with any of the following, please explain your take on it to benefit the other readers.

There are now, with the internet so readily accessible, three easily disputable types of guitarists as I see it. However, it should be noted that these are the people who stick with the instrument for longer than a few months or years. These are the guitarists who define themselves by the instrument. I am ready for the negative feedback as the following digs my grave:

The Virtuoso

This person plays guitar because they want to be the best. It starts with a genuine interest, and the output is often amazing. They find their niche among technically savvy music theorists and anyone with an ear for complex wonderments of musical mishap. Their downfall (simply because for every virtuoso there are hundreds of guitarists in this category who will never make the cut) is their dissatisfaction with not being the best. This is not necessarily a downfall, we should all strive to be the best; however if being the best is your only goal you may be missing the point of music. Some examples include Yngwie Malmsteen, Ewan Dobson, and just about every YouTube shredder. These are phenomenal guitarists (Ewan is one of my favorites), however their motives are somewhat clear through their speech and some of their songs. 

The John Mayer

This classification of guitarist has two subsections: The John Mayer, and The Wannabe John Mayer. The John Mayer is (I won't use the word sellout... I won't use the word sellout... I won't use the word sellout) a genuinely talented and soulfully passionate guitarist who, instead of making the music they love, makes music that will sell. There's really nothing wrong with this either - getting famous is no easy task. If you're a good musician and passionate about what you do, why not make some money off it? It beats the hell out of washing dishes. The John Mayer Wannabe is the actual sellout. These players live and breathe music to attract the opposite sex. Imagine the cliché liberal arts student strumming by a tree singing his favorite pop tune to a small crowd of naive freshmen. 

The Porch Rocker

This person one day stumbled upon a guitar and here they are, ten years later, still playing on their front porch for their own benefit; maybe playing an open mic once in a while, or jamming with a band occasionally. Regardless, every time they hit a sour note their dirty ol' egg sucking dog bellows a howl. The music is always enjoyable to them no matter how bad they play simply because they're able to play it and couldn't imagine not being able to. If they are to get famous, they will always play the music that calls to them, and if that isn't good enough for the record company... Well then a cover album will be their safety net. The Virtuoso and The John Mayer claim to be, and even sometimes are, The Porch Rocker. Sometimes The Porch Rocker loses their way. In order to be the true Porch Rocker, however, one must keep on guitarin' till the day they die for no other reason than because they can. 

You may be asking me why I bothered with that overly long winded introduction for seemingly no reason. I am guilty of being all of these types of guitarists from time to time. Perhaps we all are. There comes a point, however, where the guitarist you will become is slowly-defined. I would love to think that I am The Porch Rocker, however I am still learning.

What each of these guitarists has in common is one thing: slumps. When we learn, we often level off once we find comfort in our skills - whether this is a product of our environment and an inability to pick up and play every day, or dissatisfaction with ourselves that causes us to put down the instrument. There will come a point where you do not learn and play the same riffs and songs over and over again. Your improvisation will seem boring to you. Perhaps the tone of your setup becomes bland to you and you don't have the money to switch amps or guitars. Whatever the issue is, you have plateaued and are thus possibly reading this article.

Think of developing musical ability like the development of life. When guitarists begin, and break out of that briefly trying "awkward stage," they soon become a sponge. Think of a beginning guitarist like a baby. At first it needs to learn to walk and talk which is a frustrating time full of pissing off those forced to deal with them (perhaps babies aren't my forte). The early guitarist will show off every new riff they learn even though they haven't quite learned it yet. However, this should be nurtured as I would assume a child should be nurtured because this leads to the sponge phase. During the sponge phase, guitarists (again, speaking from my own personal experiences) learn that all of the music they've ever listened to is utter crap. As they discover the joy of discovering, their playing reflects their evolving taste. Often, a guitarist (even more often, a Virtuoso) is seen as an idol to the new guitarist. For me, I had to learn every Metallica song. I had to learn every riff that Kirk Hammett ever played in his entire life. The guitarist over time might find that the music they love in this phase is also utter crap as I did, however this is the most important phase in our learning. During this phase, the guitarist's skill rises exponentially, and the beginning shape of their archetype is defined. Think back, if you experienced a phase like this, to what you listened to during this time. This will be important later.

The next phase is the awkward and horrible "puberty" phase. This is where a guitarist finds out who they truly are. For me, this phase landed perfectly when I first began college. All of a sudden, I could be that cliché liberal arts student strumming by a tree singing his favorite pop tune to a small crowd of naive freshmen. I am not proud - however this was also an important time. This is when I began really experimenting with songwriting. The vast majority of the originals I experimented with were horrific, but this phase was necessary in order to find my niche. As it turns out, I am not a showman. Maybe you are, maybe you aren't, but that isn't me. I became much more comfortable playing alone or for a few friends with the occasional open mic. I would play with a few bands before coming to this realization and learn certain important lessons about playing with groups of people with conflicting interests. In the end, I made my way out of this phase by finding good friends to jam with and learning how to harmonize with other guitarists. Learning to learn from and teach others while simultaneously creating is one of the most beautiful things a guitarist can do. I became an exponentially more advanced player at the end of this stage simply from jamming one on one with other guitarists and learning to leave well enough alone in terms of my shady tree and naive groupies (tons of groupies. Tons and tons of groupies. I swear).

After this phase, once a guitarist approaches adulthood (literally and figuratively in my case), the real slumps begin. I thought I had encountered them before, but never like this. I would put in solid practice (not just jamming or playing a song) for ten minutes every other day instead of my usual half hour plus most days. I am just breaking out of one of these slumps now, having been in one for the past four months.

Thank you for hanging on this long. Here are my tips:

What I have realized, since graduating college and moving on to the dreaded real world, is that I simply do not jam with friends anymore. This is a product not only of laziness, but of the atmosphere that I am still adapting to. A few weeks ago I jammed with a childhood friend and the experience was orgasmic. This one short and not particularly pretty jam session shined the light at the end of the tunnel that was my slump. Never stop jamming with others. You will pick up something new every time.

Currently, I am trying to learn to sing and play. This, I feel, should have been accomplished during the sponge phase, however I have always been more geared toward solo guitarists. I play in a style similar to Andy McKee and Trace Bundy. In learning to sing and play, I haven't been so frustrated or physically challenged in about two years... And I love every second of it. Joe Bonamassa once stated in an interview that whenever he has a slump, he focuses on something out of his element. In this particular interview, he mentioned focusing on fingerpicking when he ran out of picks one weekend. This resonated heavily with me and is the first thing I think of when I find myself in a slump.

Several days ago, I happened upon the song, "Rain" by Vinnie Moore. In high school, when I first started playing, this was a song I had always wanted to learn but lacked the skills. I made a point to learn the song not for the sake of being able to play it, but to learn Moore's style in this particular song and adapt it to the style I play. This was a huge process; not because the song was particularly difficult, but because adapting two very conflicting styles of guitar playing is a serious project. In the last several days I have challenged myself with this task. I have luckily had a lot of time on my hands in the past week or two to devote to guitar.

If I'm being honest, I now despise Metallica. I have respect for Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield to some extent; however it is not music I listen to. Re-listening to Vinnie Moore broke the dam on all of the old riffs and songs I used to play. In realizing that I remembered most of them, I was able to expand them and recreate them as my own. The beauty of guitar is that you can take something you hate, and adapt it into something you find beautiful. My advice is to take a song you've played a million times, such as every Metallica song ever, and work on it. Make it your own. Expand it.

Those are my best tips on breaking this slump. I should mention that during a slump, I often work on the more intellectual aspects of guitar. I force myself to learn scale and chord theory and different voicings and patterns for the basics. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; however in doing so I tend to forget that, while music can be very much-so intellectual, it is by nature a creative outlet. My best advice is to never forget that the guitar is an expansion to one's personality and inner psyche. When one plays only for the sake of learning the technical aspects over a very long and drawn out period of time, it is easy to become bored and overwhelmed. When given the option, I will always choose to learn something to expand my creativity versus my theory. This is a personal preference. In this article, I perhaps shine certain ways of playing in a negative light, however you must understand that there is no wrong way to play if you're simply an enthusiast as I am. Whichever way you play, the best way to defeat a slump is to simply understand what a slump is and break out of your general comfort zone.

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