Ever been in a guitar-playing rut? I mean a real honest-to-goodness, old-fashioned, string-bashing, amp-smashing rut -- when even your old-reliable cherry sunburst Les Paul is letting you down? When every riff and lick you play seems as stale as two-week-old pastry? In this article, we'll explore some of the common causes of playing ruts and some ways you can break through them on your way to the next level of guitar-playing proficiency and creativity.
One of the most common causes of playing ruts comes out of our tendency as guitarists to learn, memorize and file new riffs and runs. We learn something new and once it has been mastered, we play it back the same way -- every single time. Our ability to phrase licks in different ways is sometimes forgotten in the rush to learn new material. This is especially true if you play in a cover band and you are rewarded for playing music as close to the original records as possible. You tend to forget how much you can change the feel and meaning of your playing by altering the way you phrase each lick.
Another cause of playing ruts is listening to the same music or styles of music over a long period of time. Heavy metal fans may regard pop and jazz records as too wimpy, and overdo the Megadeth, Pantera, and Motorhead. Instrumental guitar lovers tend to tune out the vocals on records, losing a great source of inspiration for their guitar playing. Jazz guitarists may dismiss rap as non-musical, cutting themselves out of new ideas for rhythm and production that can be creatively applied to many music styles.
Another common cause of playing ruts is simply playing too much for too long. You may have this nervous feeling that going more than one or two days without the instrument is sure to destroy all the progress you've made on those Paganini caprices. Or you may practice five or six hours a day, dedicating your life (and selling your soul) to the false God of Technique. You can recognize this coming when you cut on the power to your amps, plug into your favorite guitar, play through your favorite preset on your favorite multi-effects processor, and the resulting sound is so bland and unmotivating it makes you want to quit and take up the accordion.
A fourth less common cause of ruts is playing with the same group of musicians for an extended period of time. As helpful and encouraging as people can be, they are also capable of establishing your limits as a guitarist for you -- something you may wish to avoid at all costs. When you find yourself resenting the music that you are having to play most of the time, you can find yourself suck in a rut that extends to your private practicing or composing time.
Don't worry, help is on the way.
When I was trying to make the swimming team in high school, I was told to lift weights to add bulk to my upper-body. The regular bodybuilders in the gym used to complain about how they were beginning to lose strength, even after extending their workouts to more than three hours a day! The owner of the gym used to insist that the only remedy for over-training was complete and total rest. Sure enough, after two weeks of non-movement the over-worked bodybuilders were fired up, and they attacked the weights with a fresh, unbridled enthusiasm.
The same cure can work wonders for a guitar-playing rut. A lot of guitarists play for hours on end, until their hands, tendons, and nerves are screaming for some relief. Physical pain, even just a little, can influence your playing to a much greater degree than you realize. Instead of stretching yourself to play new licks and runs, you may be dropping back and playing the tired, worn-out, memorized licks that drive you crazy. It's time then to step back and consider putting your guitar down for two weeks, three weeks, or even a month. It may seem like the last thing you want to do when you are busy recording tracks for an album or writing songs to meet a deadline, but the renewal you will feel after an extended rest will more than compensate. Your creativity and energy will both be at 110% when you finally pick up the guitar again and start playing.
Due to traveling commitments, I have been away from the guitar between two and six weeks at a stretch, and I can tell you that my playing seemed to improve the longer I was away from the instrument. It doesn't make any logical sense, but you can improve your playing by not playing at all! Burn out is common in many areas in life, and music is certainly no exception.
Another sure-fire way to bust a playing rut is to treat your guitar as if it were not a guitar. For an hour or two, imagine your guitar as a trumpet, a piano, or Aretha Franklin's vocal chords. If you chose the voice, try playing and phrasing as if you were singing, not playing an instrument. Remember to breathe like a vocalist would (pause or stop playing, I know it's hard!), and bend the notes the way a great soul singer might. Put on some great vocal records and try to mimic the vocals as closely as possible; make your guitar actually speak and sing. Drag out the wah-wah pedal and use it to simulate the mouth opening wider or narrower.
If you choose to emulate a piano, you might go so far as to put the guitar in your lap, a la Jeff Healy and play with your hands on top of the neck, as if you were playing a piano. Or turn your guitar into a horn; pick out three non-contiguous strings and limit yourself to just those, in order to simulate the three buttons on a trumpet. Playing horn licks is also a great way to learn lines which are not standard issue for all guitarists. Be careful! You may find yourself out of your playing rut after just one hour of experimentation.
It stands to reason that every musician is quite literally the sum of his or her influences. Keeping in mind we are influenced by almost everything we hear, whether or not we pay attention, all guitarists would benefit by the infusion of new sounds and rhythms into their playing. When you have been in a rut for a while and everything sounds rehashed and familiar, get some reggae, techno, classical or free jazz CDs and play them while you change strings on your guitar collection. After listening passively, you can plug in and try your hand at accompanying or soloing with the records. Don't just pick a guitar sound that seems to complement what you are hearing; as long as you are alone in the house, use your grunge sounds to add 'sweetness' to those Vivaldi concertos, or to append fire to Bob Marley's Jamaican jams.
Doing this type of thing on a regular basis will help you avoid ruts in the first place. It's likely that you may not immediately see how you can incorporate what you are learning into your current musical projects, but down the road, when you least expect it, new ideas will come from taking the time now to expand your horizons. Force yourself to listen to music you can't stand, all the while asking yourself, "If I liked this junk, what would I like about it?" Listen with a guitar in your hands if you have to; maybe in the process of trying to drown out the offensive mess, you will discover some new aspect of your playing you never knew existed.
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards have to do this every now and again to keep the batteries of the Rolling Stones recharged and ready for the next world tour. They both need to invigorate themselves with playing and recording with other musicians to keep producing music at the standards they have set for themselves. You may not need to break up your band permanently, but it may be possible for you to have some creative partners on the side that urge you to explore other areas of your abilities. If you have an outlet for all the things you are capable of doing, then all the projects and activities you are involved in will be done with the highest possible interest level. You may find yourself permanently hooked to life without the band; at that point you'll be certain that the band was what caused your rut in the first place, and it will be time to make the big break.
Use several of the above cures, if necessary, to end the despair of a playing rut of any length. Your interest in the guitar and your music is sure to be quickly back on track. If not, I know a good accordion teacher...