You know a lot of exercises, but find it hard to use them in actual music (especially while improvising)? You find yourself playing always the same few licks when you try to solo? Surprisingly, both these problems can be solved at the same time! Keep reading.
When you learn to play an instrument such as the guitar, there are some areas of musicianship that appear obvious that you have to practice: technique, speed (if you're into that), scale/chord knowledge, etc. At the same time there are some areas of musicianship that DO NOT seem obvious. These are the areas that most people take fro granted as they should be "natural". For the present article I need mention only one: rhythm.
Everyone is convinced they have good rhythm. Everyone is convinced that rhythm is natural, and it's a matter of "feel." And that's why nobody practices it (or at least, practices it enough). Fact is, not mastering your rhythm - meaning, being able to control in detail the timing of the notes you play - is reason number 1 why most people have problems implementing "exercises" into actual real-life musical situations. They simply try to play the exercise as they learned it and more often than not the exercise will NOT fit the rhythm - groove, feel, call it however you want - of the song they are soloing on.
What can be done about it? Well, the very first thing is to learn how to manipulate rhythm by displacing the accents in a phrase (whoa, that was a mouthful). This allows you to do two important things:
It makes "old" like sound "new" because now their rhythm is different, and
It helps you "fitting" the exercises you know into songs that may have a different rhythm.
Now, I could explain how to do that forever, but I think that the best way to learn it is by a direct and simple example, so you can HEAR what I am doing. If you play the video below I will show you a very simple example and some suggestions on how to apply this to everything you do. It's so simple and you will use it so often that you will wonder how could you live without it. :-)
Now that you have seen the video, I suggest you take up your guitar and start playing some of your "go-to" licks. Yes, the ones that you dread playing because you have played them too much. Then determine if you are playing them in "threes" or in "fours," and learn them the other way as described in the video.
The beauty of this approach is that you do not have to learn anything new to sound fresh: you can play the very same things you were used to play and they will sound different. Or, as one of my past teacher said: "Don't learn 1000 licks. Learn 10 and find a 100 ways to play each one of them!"