Overcoming a Playing Rut

For many guitar players, there are few things more irritating than getting stuck in the proverbial rut. I know that feeling all too well, and hopefully through my misery and hair-loss, you can save a few bucks on therapy.

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For many guitar players, there are few things more irritating than getting stuck in the proverbial rut. Of course I'm talking about the feeling of near-helplessness and utter frustration that cripples progress on the guitar for days, weeks, and sometimes even months at a time.

It feels a lot like wading through quicksand: the more you thrash around and struggle, the deeper you sink, and before you know it, you're in over your head. I know that feeling all too well, and hopefully through my misery and hair-loss, you can save a few bucks on therapy. I'm guessing that you're reading this for one of two reasons:
  • You're currently struggling to climb out of a rut;
  • You're looking to proactively avoid this headache in the future.
Either way, here are 8 ways that you can beat the funk... er... get it back.

1. Keep Practicing

The first thing that I would suggest, much to the chagrin of any frustrated player who finds himself in a rut, is to just keep practicing. Believe me, I know this is the last thing that you want to hear especially if you're currently struggling to make progress, but you might be closer to a break-through than you think. I can't tell you how many times I've been ready to give up, only to find out that I was a measly 10-minute practice-session away from the moment when everything suddenly seemed to click. Before trying anything else, batten down the hatches, grit your teeth, and give it one or two more days. The results may surprise you!

2. Put Down the Guitar

Contrary to my last suggestion, try putting down your instrument for a few days. I'm not sure why this tends to work so well because it just seems so contrary to everything that we've been taught as musicians. For some reason, we tend to assume, "I really suck at this, so I just need to keep practicing." This approach obviously has its place, but sometimes what we really need is a break.

In my own experience, I've found that this is most effective if I avoid playing, touching, or even THINKING about the guitar at all. If necessary, preoccupy yourself and fill your would-be practice time with something else entirely. Do whatever you have to do to avoid your guitar. When you finally decide to return to your instrument, spend a few days reconditioning your muscles, then pick back up where you left off. Sometimes your brain just needs a chance to organize and make sense of new information.

Keep in mind that if you do this too frequently, however, it could actually inhibit progress, further compounding your frustration. Personally, I find that a few days each month, a week every few months, and then a day or two along the way as needed works very well for me. Do whatever it is that works best for you.

3. Introduce Some Variety to Your Practice Session

They say that variety is the spice of life, and in my own experience, it can help squash even the most stubborn fits of stagnation. Even something as simple as a change in practice environment can make a world of difference. If your place of practice is full of visual and auditory distractions, find a calm and quiet place to practice. If your practice room is too bright, find a room with softer lighting. Don't be afraid to put down the pick for a day and use your fingers, or turn off the amplifier and play acoustically. The most seemingly-insignificant details of your practice routine can be just enough to pull you down into a slump or pull you out of one, so try to keep it fresh!

4. Micro-Manage Your Practice Sessions

Normally when someone accuses me of micro-managing something, it's not necessarily a good thing. Admittedly it's not one of my more attractive qualities, but in the case of overcoming a slump in my playing, it's actually proven quite conducive. Micro-managing your goals as a guitarist will help you make progress more quickly, and help you feel less overwhelmed. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

Instead of telling yourself, "I suck at playing fast," tell yourself, "my alternate picking and string-skipping could use some work." Being self-critical isn't necessarily a bad thing as long as you know how to use it properly to help meet a particular goal. This requires that you pay special attention to your playing. When you play a passage of music, what is it specifically that you are struggling with? What technique is being used in that passage? Is your picking hand causing the problem, or is it your fretting hand?

When I struggle with a passage of music, I slow down my metronome until I can play the passage flawlessly. I gradually increase tempo until I find something that doesn't sound right, or that I can't play well, and then I identify the technique being used and search for etudes that target that specific technique. If you can manage to split the process into smaller, bite-sized pieces, it doesn't seem as intimidating.

5. Take Lessons, or Seek Another Perspective

When I bought my first guitar, I was determined to teach myself how to play. For years and years I refused to darken the doorway of an instructor's studio, and if I could go back and change anything about the way that I approached learning to play, I would force younger-me to take lessons. With all the time that I spent yanking out fistfuls of hair, I could've been making leaps and bounds of progress under the guidance of a knowledgeable teacher.

For many people, progress stops as a result of some mechanical or technical error, such as improper sweep-picking technique, for example. In such instances, an instructor can point out weakness in technicality that are preventing further improvement.

If, for whatever reason, lessons by a qualified instructor are unavailable, a fresh perspective from a fellow musician can be just as helpful. As my dad used to say, there's more than one way to skin a cat. By examining an alternative approach to a problem, you can more easily make judgments about your own methods. You might discover that there's an easier, more efficient way to play a passage, or more musical way to think about a phrase.

6. Explore Some New Music

I love metal as much as the next guy, but I also listen to classical music, jazz, bluegrass, and acoustic pop. I listen to a lot of different music, and many of the bands and genres that I listen to would've never made it onto my playlist had I not been desperately seeking some new tunes. In fact, it was through desperation that I discovered Guthrie Govan's music. His methodology and technique revolutionized the way that I think about the guitar, but I might never have discovered his work had I not been frantically seeking musical inspiration to help me out of a rut.

7. Learn to Play Another Instrument

When I decided to learn how to play the guitar in middle school, I had already been playing trombone for about three years. Almost immediately after having picked up my first six-string, I noticed that my trombone playing began to improve significantly. Suddenly, scales made more sense, improvising became easier, and I became a much better musician overall.

Learning a new instrument can help you become a more well-rounded musician. Creativity and the ability to problem-solve are imperative when it comes to making progress in almost anything. By learning a new instrument, you'll be able to solve problems in your playing with a more out-of-the-box approach. For many people, piano is a great place to start. Keyboards can be purchased rather inexpensively, and a lot of guitarists find that learning to play the piano helps them understand and visualize things like scales and chord construction, for example.

8. Buy a New Guitar Gadget

I almost always treat the most stubborn of ruts as an excuse to buy myself a new gadget. I've purchased anything from new method books, instructional DVDs, and chord charts to funky picks, a Spider Capo, and even a violin bow. While this can get pretty expensive pretty quickly, it's a good way to add a little variety to your practice routine, which can help you overcome a rut. If anything else, it can put you in a better mood, because let's face it: you're probably sucking the joy out of every room you wander into.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, or a one-size-fits-all approach to overcoming a rut, but in my own experience, these methods have proven pretty successful. Remember: progress on the guitar isn't the result of magic or luck. These suggestions are not replacements, but supplements, rather. Nothing can replace hard work, dedication, and an organized practice schedule. My hope is that by adding these methods to your practice arsenal, you can more easily and quickly find a way to overcome the slump. Good luck, and happy strumming!

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    7th is awesome, I play piano for 13 years, guitar for 2 and recently I started learning bass and drums. When I become bored od guitar I jump on drums, after that piano maybe, really helps with 2nd point without totally quitting music for a few days
    I'm totally with you on that one. It's great to have rotation of instruments to play. Sometimes goofing around with one instrument can inspire you to try something on another. I can't even count the amount of times I've played something on guitar and immediately gone to try something similar on bass or piano. It's just good fun.
    In my experience, #6 has always been very valuable. When my output falls low or seems bland, I bury myself in orchestral film scores. Most guitar based songs are made for stomping your feet while singing along. Film scores are made to depict the events of a film sequence and/or the tenor of the events. In the John Williams piece "The Conversation" from "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," for example, two sets of instruments musically depict two species alien to each other meeting and achieving mutually willing and benign contact. That's really specific. This sort of thing helps me again and again to create music that can more effectively depict the subject matter of a song rather than simply tow my stylistic and genre lines while leaving it entirely up to a vocalist to tell the listener what the song is about. Everyone in the band is playing a part of the same song, so let's [i]really make the song a mutual campaign. I might be making this sound a lot bigger than it actually is and again, this is just my personal experience. Still, I would suggest it to anyone looking to enhance the personality of his/her music.
    Dom Hawthorn
    Such a good list!! Another one I would add is to look back on videos of yourself playing from a few months ago. It can show you how much you've improved over the past few months and that your practise is really paying off, and assures you that you are actually getting better and not just been stuck in the same place forever kinda thing, which it can feel like when you're stuck in a rut.