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Breaking Out of Ruts

Playing ruts can be very frustrating! You can go weeks and months without feeling like you have progressed. This can lead to discouragement and kill your enthusiasm for playing the guitar. The goal of this article is to help you break playing ruts fast and efficiently so that you can continue progressing on the guitar.

There are many types of playing ruts. Here are some common problems and solutions for them:

  1. I can play a lot of songs, but not much else
  2. My technical skill/speed is not increasing no matter how much I practice
  3. I keep playing the same licks when I improvise
  4. I can’t write any good songs/solos anymore and I feel creatively tapped out

1. I can play a lot of songs, but not much else

A very common playing rut that a lot of guitarists experience is that they can play any song they like, but they are not getting any better technically or musically on the guitar. They want to expand in their playing but don’t know how or where to start. This is a very common problem for beginners especially. Most people who play guitar just want to learn their favorite songs for their own enjoyment. Taking that next step can be intimidating!

The answer to breaking this rut is simple. It is time for you to sit down and spend the time to learn some serious guitar technique, theory, and all of that good stuff. Before you as a player can move on to the next level of playing, you must first ask yourself how serious you want to be. If you aren’t willing to spend the tedious time it takes to learn advanced techniques, you won’t progress far past where you currently are. I ran into this problem when I was a sophomore in high school. I could play a lot of songs, but that’s all I could do. As soon as I went out and got some guitar lessons and started to work on technique, things changed pretty quickly. Over the next few months, my playing exploded to levels I couldn’t have ever imagined. The only true way to break a rut like this is to get serious! You can learn all the four chord songs in the world, but you will eventually have to really learn how to play the instrument.

2. My technical skill/speed is not increasing no matter how much I practice

This is the most difficult and annoying type of rut to break. It happens to all of us many times in our careers. You can practice until your fingers bleed everyday and not make any progress. It sucks! Breaking out of this kind of rut is really hard and not fun. There are two ways to break a rut like this.

First off, you need to challenge yourself with something new! Stop doing the same exercises over and over again. If you keep playing the same stuff, you will get bored of it. Maybe you should take the time to learn some different styles of music. You could try to learn a few walking bass lines or some funk vamps. Be open to new ideas. Did you ever realize that you can learn something from everyone? No matter how much more skilled you are than them or vice verse. If you take the time to be creative and try out different things, you will break the rut.

Another great way to break a technical rut is to learn a new technique. Maybe you are the fastest picker and your sweeping is flawless, but did you ever think that maybe you legato and taping are not that great? Or maybe you are a beastly legato player and your sweeping is great, but you can’t alternate pick to save your life. That’s how I used to be. As soon as I finally sat down for a month and tackled alternate picking, I finally got it. As soon as you take the time to rigorously learn a technique that gives you a lot of problems, you will break the rut. It is paramount to constantly be challenging your fingers to play difficult things. It is that struggle that will bring the results.

In the rare case that you are just some sort of technical god and can own anything conceivable on guitar and there is nothing left to conquer technically, maybe you need to work on something like song writing or phrasing? Maybe your style or vibrato is not very good? The point is that there is always something new to challenge yourself with. The more you challenge yourself, the faster you will break a technical rut!

3. I keep playing the same licks when I improvise

Stylistic ruts can also be very frustrating. Having a style can definitely be an asset. Many of the greatest virtuosos are masters of only one style. Having an identifiable style is what separates one guitarist from the next. However, if you feel like you need to expand your style, there are several things you can do.

First of you need to spend a lot of time practicing your improvisation. I recommend using jam tracks of various styles. Try to force yourself to be creative through limitation. By constraining yourself, for example, to only playing a solo with 2 notes can really help you spur your rhythmic creativity. Force yourself to only use one scale, or play at a consistent note value like straight 16th notes. Try doing a whole solo with only slides on one string. The more ridiculous the constraint that you place on yourself, the more wild and creative ideas you will probably come up with.

Another great way to break this kind of rut is to listen to music totally different than you normally would. For example, if you are a metal guy, you could probably learn a thing or two about melody writing from listening to pop music. Maybe you want to try some cool chords in your solos, so then listen to some funk of jazz. The point is that by listening to music that you may not really like or that maybe weird in your opinion, you may find that you come up with some cool licks.

Finally, you can also learn guitar solos off of records and try to borrow a few licks from other players. Learn a few cool licks and then try to make some of your own variations. Turn on a jam track and then try them out. See what is cool. You never know until you try it!

4. I can’t write any good songs/solos anymore and I feel creatively tapped out

Creative ruts are also very difficult. These are of particular annoyance when you make part of your living by writing music and you have deadlines to fulfill. In my personal experience, nothing beats this faster than getting yourself excited. You have to find something that motivates you, whether it is something like fear, time pressure, a big payday, or getting a chance to live a dream. There are many things that can motivate. You need to get inside your own head and find something that excites you! This can be hard to do, but if you can get yourself psyched up, you will probably find, like I have, that creativity can really flow from within pretty quickly!

Another idea you can try if you are creatively tapped out is to listen to lots of different music. Like I stated in the previous example, by listening to something out of your box, you can often find unique influences that will inspire creativity in you. On the opposite side of this is to go completely without listening to music or playing guitar for a while. Give yourself time to refresh and renew!

Conclusion

Playing ruts maybe difficult, but the good thing is that they are all temporary. Even more exciting is that the ability to break them is entirely within your head. Hopefully this column has given you some ideas or inspiration. I wish you the best of luck breaking them in the future!

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  1. Jon McCorkle says:

    Hey.

    I look up to you alot man and all the stuff u said on your website. Now only if i could afford your book :)

    Everything u have on this site from phrasing to how to be a better person is right on!

    I hope more people find this site out, and good luck my man.

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