Call it a rut, call it a plateau, call it whatever. We've all been there. You've probably been there numerous times. Aside form the most obvious way to get to the next level, which would be to take some lessons, I'm going to go over a few things you can do to advance your playing. Let me start by telling you how I got out of my last rut.
A few months ago I started playing in an acoustic trio with a couple of excellent players. Mike Walsh of the band Hess, and Chris Kalkbrenner. As I was improvising with them I realized that I could no longer just rely on my ear for improvising. I'm mainly a rock/metal player and most of the stuff I was used to playing over was fairly simple (a riff or a few diatonic chords). We knew that we would have to be able to play a few jazz tunes, and jazz was my week spot, so I had to search for my old chord sheets and books. I also had to get my scales and arpeggios down even better than I thought I had them. When chords and keys are flying by, relying on my ear doesn't cut it. Working more with jazz has helped me to focus on each and every chord when soloing, and it's expanded my fretboard knowledge even greater. Playing with the trio hasn't necessarily turned me into a jazz master, but I have grown more comfortable with it, and I've come to appreciate it a lot more.
Now the payoff is that by playing over those complex progressions, playing over the riffs and simple progressions has become even easier and I feel a lot more expressive now. So my first suggestion to you is to try playing a new style. If you are a jazz player, try out some metal. You might be surprised at how much technical proficiency and speed it takes. I think the next style I personally might delve into is country.
The next thing I'd recommend is to try a different instrument. You could be thinking, "How is learning to play the French horn going to help my guitar playing?" The answer is simple. It's all music! It doesn't matter what instrument you try. You're still going to have to pay attention to time, expressiveness, dynamics, technique, etc. As a guitarist, the first instruments that pop into your head to try might be piano, drums, or bass, but playing a brass or woodwind instrument could help too. For instance, they could help your phrasing sound more natural and musical. Guitarists can play notes non-stop. (A lot of them tend to take advantage of that.) When you have to rely on your lung capacity for a phrase you tend to put a little more thought into what notes you're going to play. This could translate to your phrasing on the guitar.
I'm by no means a drummer, but messing around with them helped my rhythmic sensibilities greatly. I've noticed over the years too, that the drummers I've heard play guitar on the side are actually pretty good. One reason is that they tend to focus more on their rhythms. I've dabbled with the piano too, and you might be quite surprised at how fast you can come up with a catchy melody. Every time I sit at the piano I'm intrigued by the fact that I come up with phrases and melodies that I never would have come up with on the guitar. This is most likely because my brain gets locked into patterns.
Another problem I've run into over the years is getting into ruts where I feel like my phrasing and playing in general is stale. I'd start falling back on certain types of licks or phrases, and get down on myself every time they came out, which used to be pretty often. One of the ways I've been able to beat this is to catch myself when it happens and say, "all right, what else could I have done there?" Another thing to do is to try to stay a step ahead of your self. When you are about to play one of your fallback licks, tell your hands to do something you've never tried before. It sounds hard to do, and it is, but when you pull it off you'll be impressed with what comes out.
For those of you that practice constantly, and have had no success with what I just recommended, you might have success trying something more drastic. Don't practice. Take a day or two off. Maybe more if you're feeling really burnt out. As long as it's not a huge period of time, you won't lose too much ground technique wise. However, when you come back to it, you'll have a fresh mind and approach. There have been plenty of busy weekends where I haven't gotten to play, but when I pick it up on Monday fresh new ideas come pouring out.
Now if you really think about it, ruts are a good thing. You will always come out of them as a better player. Everyone is hit with obstacles, and when you get over them you gain more experience, knowledge, and skill. If all else fails, look into taking some lessons. Tom Hess and Mike Walsh have written great articles on the subject. Tom's article is Choosing A Teacher" and Mike's is "Are Lessons And Music School Really Worth It?"
Above all, think back and don't forget about why you started playing guitar in the first place. You'll get back to enjoying it again soon.
Mark Carozza is a Berklee College of Music graduate with a Bachelor's Degree in Professional Music. His former teachers include Joe Stump, Jon Finn, George Bellas, and Tom Hess.
He is a professional guitar teacher and the bassist for the band Hess.
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