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Getting Beyond Your Plateau

Last lesson we discussed how we can become better guitarists through practicing and creating and re-creating music.  We discussed putting in the time and actually applying what we learn to new tunes and techniques.  As musicians that practice and expect to get better, there are times where we seem to be at a stand still.  Nothing that we do will move us to the next level.  This period in our development is called a “plateau”.  There are some very good ways to get through this rough and frustrating timeframe without throwing your guitar out the window or smashing it against a wall.  Both of those ideas are fun and seem like the right thing to do at the time, but these actions are expensive and generally stop any type of progress.

Generally speaking, we reach plateaus in our technique.  We practice for 3 hours a day and we cannot get that sweep maneuver past 110 BPM.  We improvise extensively, but yet we are unable to control our speed or we continuously land on wrong notes.  Our hands start to become jelly and everything that we play, even the things that we could play perfectly before, become a jumbled mess.  It is probably the worst feeling in the world to a guitarist.  We are unable to communicate with our instrument no matter how much time we put in, and worse yet, the more we practice the more we sound like garbage.

Do not fret (pun intended!), fellow pickers!  Here are some ideas which may seem absolutely ridiculous but they work.

1). SLOW DOWN.  Start over with the technique that you have been working on for 2 months straight.  Take your metronome down to 50% of your fastest speed or lower.  Now, stay there for a week before you slowly start ratcheting up the speed again.  Then increase this speed very slowly.  Much of technique is mind-muscle memory.  Many plateaus can be broken by slowing down your muscles so that your mind can catch the idiosyncrasies in your technique, alert your muscles to it, and you can make the necessary adjustments.  At Guitar for Life Studio, we call that ISOLATION.  We want to isolate the issue that is holding us back and discipline our mind and our muscles to change this problem.  Once that occurs, you automatically will relax and you will progress past your plateau.

2). LEARN SOMETHING NEW OR RELEARN SOMETHING OLD.  Yes, stop practicing that lick that has dumbfounded you and given you nightmares for a month.  Go buy a new magazine, book, or an instructional DVD and start over.  If you are a metal shredder, learn a country lick.  If you are a jazz cat, learn a Metallica riff.  Although this is new, it actually will give your brain a break.  It is a well known and taught fact that to play quickly and effortlessly, your body must be relaxed and all tensions need to be relieved.  This holds true for your brain, too.  You may never use this newfound lick, but your mind knows this and does not feel the stress of NEEDING to get it down.  If that sounds weird, go back to a tune that you haven’t played in a year.  Practice that again for a week.  I bet that you nail it by the end of two or three practice sessions.  Why?  It is because of mind-muscle memory.  You KNOW this tune!  You may not have gotten it up to speed at the time, but when you revisit it, you do not have to spend the time actually cementing the learning process.  You already have done that!  Now, without pressure, you can sit back, re-learn the tune, and feel the success of accomplishment.  See!  You HAVE improved over the past time period.  Now go back to that tormenting lick and kick its arse!

3). CREATE USING WHAT YOU ALREADY CAN PLAY.  Many of us are so involved with getting better technically that we forget that we are to be CREATING or RE-CREATING music.  If you cannot break the 140BPM speed barrier, set your drum machine at 120BPM and write a riff.  Spend a week using your brain and theoretical knowledge building on that one riff.  You don’t get it?  Ok.  Let me give you an example:

a). Write a riff using your open E (6th string).  It can be a rhythmically crazy pedal tone, or it can be chordal.  Make it 8 bars long.

b). Write a melody over the top of it.  Only use 3 notes;  Yes, only three.  OK, maybe 4.  But only include notes in the E chord that you would like to infer or follow the chords using the root, 3rd or 5th that are there and do not play anything but 8th notes.

c). Now, harmonize in 3rds, 5ths, 6ths, 7ths…who cares?  Use your mind and your ears.  We have taken the technical ability out of the equation.  You are only using 8th notes at a speed you can already play at.  We are still thinking and we still need to make this melody sound good.

Now you have created something, used your mental abilities, maybe learned some new theory, and actually increased what I call your “listen-ability factor”.  You have stopped flooding your mind with endless notes and technique and wrote something that could be construed as a song!  I am telling you, the first time that you do this, you will be surprised at the reactions you get from friends and family who have heard nothing but spaceship noises coming from your guitar for 2 months!

4). Last but by far not least, TAKE A VACATION! Everyone needs a break, even you.  Put the guitar down for a week and go to some concerts.  Watch some t.v (Ok, maybe not.  That could actually be detrimental to your brain).  Read a book about your favorite musician.  Go on a trip to a place that you have never been to.  This will give your brain and muscles not only a much needed break, but if done correctly, you will return inspired and relaxed.  Both of those things will spill over into your playing and you will easily break down your barriers.

These are just a few thoughts.  Please talk to your teacher if you are having a plateau busting horrible time.  Feel free to email me at guitar4lifestudio@yahoo.com or post a note.  Sometimes just saying that you are having an issue is enough to unlock your brain and muscles and move on.  There is ALWAYS someone there for you!  Use us!

Until Next Month…Happy Pickin’ People!!!


Daniel Faustmann is the owner of Guitar for Life Studio (www.guitarforlifestudio.com) in beautiful downtown Waukesha, Wisconsin.  He studied theory under Troy Stetina at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.  He has played in countless rock and metal bands locally, and currently is working on his new project, “Still”, that will have their debut released in early 2010.  If you are interested in lessons, or just want to talk guitar, he is addicted to your progress.  Send an email to guitar4lifestudio@yahoo.com or check out the webpage.

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  1. Absolutely great information. Thanks for sharing it with us.

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