If you’re stuck in a guitar playing rut, it may give you some comfort to know that nearly every guitar player in the world, no matter how great, has felt the same at least once during his guitar learning curve.
What separates the successful guitar players from the ones who never become good on the instrument is how they dealt with this guitar playing rut, or plateau. That is, a period where you don’t seem to be improving at all.
Some guitar players simply quit. They think they have reached the maximum of their abilities, or else that it’s going to take a really long time to see any improvement on the guitar and just give up.
Then there are guitar players who don’t give up, but keep doing what they’re doing.
I was one of these. Thankfully I didn’t give up when I was in such a guitar rut, but since I didn’t make any changes except for practicing more, it took me a long time to get unstuck and reach a breakthrough in my guitar playing.
If you’re stuck on guitar, there is one word screaming at you: Changes.
If you weren’t doing something wrong, you wouldn’t be stuck in a rut in the first place.
In this article I will take you through two important aspects of learning the guitar and help you find for yourself what changes you need to take to get unstuck in literally a few hours.
1. What you’re learning
Probably the main reason people get stuck in their guitar playing is that what they’re learning is not in line with their musical goals.
For instance, at one point I was really stuck badly on the guitar. Today, I can easily see why.
I was spending more or less, 50% of my guitar practicing time playing chromatic exercises, 20% practicing the same scales over and over again (occasionally learning a new one, but not how to use it) and the other 30% noodling aimlessly on the guitar, with my mind wandering to other places.
No wonder I got stuck! I wasn’t learning the things I needed such as getting creative and improvising on those scales, improving my knowledge of the fretboard, and other weaknesses that were limiting my progress and keeping me stuck.
These guitar exercises go through different areas of playing and should help you identify which weaknesses are holding you back.
2. How you’re learning it
Have you identified at least one weakness that’s keeping you stuck?
Now we’ll take it to the next stage and look at some bad practicing habits that slow down your progress and keep you stuck in a guitar playing rut, even if you’re learning the right things:
- Learning too many notes at once:
Let’s say you have 8 bars of music in front of you.
A very common, but inefficient way of practicing is playing those 8 bars over and over again.
In reality, it’s very unlikely that all those 8 bars are hard for you to play on the guitar. One bar may be harder than the others, and just one beat from that bar, may be even harder than the rest of that bar.
If you practice all the 8 bars over and over again, you’re giving that troublesome bar equal importance to the others you find easy.
You need to zoom in as much as possible, first on the most troublesome part of the bar, then on the whole bar, and then put that bar in the context of the rest of the music.
Only then you should be playing the whole 8 bars again, and when you’re doing so, if you notice that there’s another specific part of the music you’re not getting completely right, once again, stop, zoom in on it, and fix it.
- Using the metronome wrongly:
The metronome is a useful tool that helps us check whether we’re playing in time or not.
Never using a metronome will lead to a bad sense of timing. When you for instance, join a band or record in a studio, other people will start noticing your inaccurate timing, while you probably won’t. (I’ve personally had a humiliating experience with this. Thankfully I’ve learned the right lessons from it and use it as an example in my book on developing an ideal guitar practicing mindset)
However, while I learned the right lessons about preparing yourself better instead of giving up, I also started using the metronome all the time like a freak.
And I did develop a strong sense of timing which prevented future humiliations.
But my progress on the guitar would have been way faster had I only used the metronome at the right time, instead of all the time.
Let’s go back to our 8 bars of music.
You’re zooming in on the one bar that’s giving you trouble and correcting what’s holding you from getting it right.
Do you need a metronome at that point?
No. You need to focus on the technique and play the notes as slow as necessary, at times slower than the slowest tempo marking on your metronome.
It’s only after you can play that bar correctly that you switch on your metronome and check whether the rhythm is right.
Repeat the troublesome bar for a few times at a slow speed, and then start speeding it up to reach the tempo you can play the other bars.
Make sure the timing is right with the metronome.
Then, switch it off again.
Now you want to integrate that bar in the context of the rest of the music, especially the preceding and the following bars. You may need to lower the speed again, and you need to keep your concentration on executing the notes/chords correctly.
Switch the metronome on again and check whether you’re not only playing the right notes, but also at the right time.
So on and so forth, as much as necessary.
Use a metronome. But let the example above guide you to using it only where it benefits, your learning process.
- You’re tense:
Tension is an extensive topic when it comes to playing the guitar. There are whole books and studies on it.
The reason it is taken so seriously is that unnecessary tension in any part of the body is an obstacle to playing the guitar.
The study of tension goes beyond the purposes of this article, but the first step to eliminating unnecessary tension in your guitar playing is being aware of it.
Start playing something that you find hard, or moderately hard and practice it for a few minutes. Then stop and analyze different areas of your body – starting with your breathing. and see where you have to relax while you are playing.
Just being aware and starting to eliminate the most obvious tension will in itself help you get out of a rut. If you think you have a serious problem with tension, I would also suggest you look deeper into the topic and spend a significant amount of your practice time working on eliminating it.
The above are not an exclusive list of inefficient ways of practicing, but simply changing one of these bad habits, let alone all three, will immediately start taking you out of the guitar playing rut you’re in.
Conclusion: You may get stuck again. Don’t panic!
If you’re stuck in a rut in your guitar playing right now, I hope the above advice will help you get out of it as quickly as possible.
However, by time, when your skills will have improved and your goals become even more ambitious, you may get stuck again.
This is completely normal.
If it does happen, remember what you did to get out of it this time and repeat the process again. It will actually be easier.
And always remember – if you’re stuck, it means you need to change something.
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