Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. We've all done this at some point, but those of us who have trouble improving at the guitar are likely doing it every time we pick up our instruments, figuratively banging our heads against the wall over and over again to no avail.
First a non-musical example. I'm trapped in a room and I need to get out, so I try breaking through the wall, but it doesn't work. On the second day, instead of trying to find a different way out of the room I try to break through the wall again. Ten years go by. Every day I try to break through the wall and every day it doesn't work. On the first day of the 11th year I notice that there's a window on the other side of the room, which I open easily and crawl through. Ten years I've been trapped in this room and I've never noticed this window before because I've been so focused on trying to break through the wall.
This sounds stupid and every one of us would swear that we could never be so blind, but many of us (including me) do this all the time. For years I had problems with accuracy. No matter how easy or difficult a piece of music was, I would make mistakes lots of them. Obviously the answer was to try harder (whatever that meant), but the harder I tried the worse things got. Over twenty years after I first picked up the guitar (twenty years twice as long as my supposedly ridiculous example!) it occurred to me that maybe something was fundamentally wrong with my approach to improvement. I began examining the assumptions that I'd built up about what I should hear and feel while playing the guitar. Turns out some of my assumptions were wrong.
For example, I assumed (incorrectly) that whatever tension that I had always felt in my hands, arms and elsewhere in my body was supposed to be there. This was not a conscious assumption, but it was there nonetheless. I began watching YouTube videos of really good guitarists and asking myself if it was possible that they felt the same level of tension that I felt while playing and determined that it was highly likely that they did not experience the same level of tension. I had a whole lot of work ahead of me in trying to figure out how to reduce unnecessary tension (and let's not even talk about the twenty years of bad muscle memory to overcome), but I was happy because I had at least defined a path to improvement and I had something real to focus on.
Change did not happen overnight. My hands literally felt like I was turning them inside out for the first couple of weeks while I was practicing to reduce tension. The good news, though, is that removal of incorrect assumptions can generate improvement at rates you may have never thought possible. A few weeks later I had broken through (or maybe I should say I went through the window) and my accuracy started to improve rapidly. I improved my accuracy more in six months than I had in the previous twenty years.
Challenging assumptions can be a powerful improvement tool, especially in areas where you've been working for a long time and have not seen any results. The longer you work without improvement, the more likely it is that you've got a false assumption.
What are the assumptions that you've built up over time? How should playing the guitar feel? Should your hands tense up like hardened concrete? Are your practice sessions productive or do you waste a lot of time? Are you focusing too much on one aspect of playing (speed maybe?) and neglecting others (rhythm, tone, vibrato, phrasing). Start answering these questions and you'll start improving.
This is the second of three problem-solving prerequisites at WhyISuckAtGuitar.com. For a video version of this lesson and other free lessons please visit www.whyisuckatguitar.com.