It doesn't seem to matter whether you've been playing for three months or thirty years. There are seasons when growth and creativity flourish at an unbelievable rate, and there are times when it seems as if you are just plain stuck. You can't seem to shake bad habits. You're not making any ground on technical improvements. Nothing you do feels fresh. Understanding new concepts is frustrating, and you're not at all sure what you SHOULD be working on, because it feels like there are way too many things that you NEED to work on. What's worse is that every song you listen to by another artist represents something that you're not doing or can't do.
If you live in this place too long as a guitarist, stagnation or apathy kicks in, and the following questions may start to creep in to your head:
What's the point? What good is it to practice if I never improve? Why do I even play at all? This isn't fun! Shouldn't music be fun? Shouldn't guitar playing be fun?
Yes, it should! Those of you who have kept up with my other lessons and articles know that I'm all about disciplined and structured practicing as well as tracking your progress and setting goals. This can and does produce great results in certain seasons of playing, but when you're in a rut, conjuring up the discipline and setting aside the time to really dig in just doesn't work. You may not even have the time necessary to make the improvements you want to make.
Okay, enough depressing talk!
I have found that most guitarists that are "stuck" have at least this one thing in common: they have no creative outlet that carries some degree of accountability. You might be thinking: "I'm stuck because I've been working on the same blasted scale for 5 months and can't seem to play it cleanly. How is having a creative outlet going to help me play that scale better?" If you're going to get un-stuck, you have to re-examine your definition of musical growth. Growth as a musician happens through all kinds of experiences. If you're trying to measure your improvement solely through private practice time, you WILL get stuck because the creative application isn't there -- and it doesn't just stop with creative application. You must have creativity with accountability. This means that you are surrounding yourself with great people...great collaborators. These are your peers (not your formal teachers, although you will learn from them) that are gifted in such a way that pushes you to do things you are uncomfortable with musically.
I had a student years ago that had been playing for about two years at the time. He was decent with his chords and leads but was flustered because he couldn't seem to get strumming down, especially when singing. We went through tons of drills. I put him on a rigorous practice routine and after several months of lessons, he was only getting more discouraged. Then, he started playing with a few friends from school - a drummer and another guitarist. I never met his friends, but they must have been pretty inspiring. They did something that no amount of private practice and guitar lessons could do. They provided a context for him to stop thinking about how he couldn't strum and just let him play. Since he was playing with other rhythmic instruments on a regular basis and creating his own music, whatever mental blocks that existed with his strumming just fell away. Of course, he still had a ways to go with his strumming, but the moral of the story is that he improved steadily. Also, his confidence was boosted in the process.
I recently had a huge season of improvement due to this idea of being accountable to others. Last year, I did a recording project with a band on the East Coast (I live in Colorado). I played all of the guitar on the project and ended up mixing the album. As I was recording the parts, I thought to myself: "I'm sure glad I won't have to play any of this live, because there's no way I could do it." I incorporated a lot of newer techniques that I had been working with into many of the guitar solos, and with the magic of modern recording, I could easily take as many cracks at each part as I wanted. Months later, the phone call came: "Hey Chris, we're doing a CD release party in a few months and we want to fly you out to play with us. Are you up for it?" Gulp! Of course I said yes, but I went into panic mode since I realized that all that guitar work I had labored over in the studio needed to be represented live!
Over the next month and a half, I suddenly had a very clear direction laid out before me in regards to what I needed to work on. I had to take all those techniques and ideas that I was only moderately comfortable with and make them look effortless to an audience. Because I had a band that was counting on me to deliver, I was motivated to do so. I probably put in two hours a night perfecting my solos, working with my gear, honing my sound, and adapting my studio magic to practical rockin' guitar playing. By the CD release party, I was playing things I never dreamed I'd play in a live music environment, and in the process, there were all sorts of "by-product improvements." For example, I had to figure out that new delay I hadn't gotten around to figuring out. I HAD to figure it out to get the sound I needed for a certain song. I actually got to build a pedal board specifically for the gig and learn more about live effects switching, patch programming, and other great gear stuff. One of my strengths as a guitarist has always been composition. I love to sit down with a song and create calculated and cool guitar parts. In the process of memorizing my compositions I had recorded in the studio, I stumbled on a whole bunch of new licks I could add to my improvisational playing. So, because I put myself in a position where I had to rise to an occasion, I learned. I improved. I wasn't stuck!
Many guitarists work themselves into a situation where they don't have direction or situations that stretch them, so they find themselves practicing the same old stuff. The more frequently you can expose yourself to new experiences that put you in a situation where you MUST rise up to get the job done, the more you will improve and the more versatile of a musician you will become.
There is a definite hurdle to get over once you make the decision to get yourself out there and have musical experiences that stretch you. You need to stop focusing on your struggles as a guitarist. Focusing on what you don't do well doesn't get you anywhere. I'm not talking about identifying an area that you want to improve on and then devoting time and discipline to improving on it. This type of practicing can be an awesome way to improve. I'm referring to when you feel like you've already tried and tried to improve on technique "x" or concept "y" and don't feel like you're getting anywhere. When you reach this point, take a break, step back and start leaning on what you excel at as a guitarist. Once you've identified your strengths, lean on them and use them as a foundation for you to grow in other ways.
Here's an example from my own playing: For a long time I've wished I could pick more cleanly at faster tempos. I've worked really hard at this and sometimes I feel like I'm making some great progress, and other times, I feel like I'm going backwards. In the past, discouragement over not improving in this area has bled in to every aspect of my guitar playing. Some of those same self-defeating thoughts crept back in to my head. Then I came to a point where I started to realize that exploiting what I CAN do well on the guitar really does make up for what I don't do as well. I started to dive into my strengths with music technology and combined that with my guitar playing. As a result, I have met tons of great people, and had the opportunity to work on many amazing projects that have made me a better guitarist. I'm still not the picker I want to be, but through working with great songs and talented artists, I understand how to fit my playing in to a much wider variety of musical styles. I've improved in my chord vocabulary, learned and applied some great licks and scales, and developed technique in other areas. If I had stood still and continued to focus on my weakness as a guitarist, I might never have improved in all of those other ways. This doesn't mean I don't focus on cleaner picking any more. I still work on that all the time, but my shortcoming in that area does not keep me from capitalizing on what I know I do well.
Take a moment to make a list of strengths in your playing. As you're making this list, resist the temptation to compare your playing to other guitarists. If you do this, everything may feel like a weakness. Instead, think about what you light up about when you go to play your guitar. What naturally or effortlessly flows out of you when you play? It could be anything no matter how simple. Is it singing melodies along with a basic progression? Is it coming up with guitar solos or even just new licks? Maybe you love to learn and perform acoustic fingerstyle compositions. Now, take the one thing you wrote down that stands out to you the most and go do something with it. Write a song. Find some people to play with and try out some of your new licks. Go play at a coffee shop. Heck, go downtown and play at an intersection. Take what you love to do, and make it a goal to share it with people.
I think that so many guitarists ultimately feel stuck not because they are not improving, but because they make their music about improvement. Again, getting better is great, and should and will happen, but improving can't be the ultimate goal. Making great music that speaks to others and yourself needs to be the true goal. Keep practicing in perspective. Create musical experiences for yourself, and always say "yes" to situations that may stretch you as a player. If you do, improvement WILL happen! There is one more key area that can help you improve and keep you from feeling stuck.
Teach! Aside from the fact that teaching has built in accountability to other musicians, teaching guitar to others is one of the best ways to ensure continual improvement, and everyone can do it. Beginner and intermediate players tend to get themselves in a rut where they are always thinking of themselves as 'just students.' When you only know a few chords or scales, and are still having trouble playing your first song, what could you possibly teach anyone?
Good teachers teach not only what they know, but also what they are in the process of learning. Whether you're getting paid to do it or not, it is beneficial to teach someone else what you are working on because it drives the concepts or techniques you are teaching / learning deeper into your being. Over the years as a teacher, my motto has become: "If I haven't taught it, I haven't learned it."
I started teaching (very informal) guitar lessons only six months after I started playing guitar. I wasn't a 'good' guitarist, but I recognized early on that I could still teach my younger brother something. I could still show a friend a new song I'd learned so we could jam together. I could get a group of us together and compare what we were learning on the guitar with one another. By the time I had been playing for one year, I had a few people paying me to teach them. It felt great! It still feels great to pass on what I have learned or am learning on the guitar, because it's a huge win / win situation. I improve by teaching, and my students improve from my teaching.
Regardless of your perceived proficiency level, make it a personal goal to become a guitar teacher. Then, always look at yourself as both a student and a teacher. In any subject matter, the best teachers always consider themselves to be students.
When I first started teaching for pay, I used what I now call the "pass-along method." I was taking private lessons from a local guitar store. I would take great notes and practice really hard after every lesson. Then, I'd turn right around and teach three or four of my students what I had just learned from my teacher. I wasn't great an answering my students questions (because I too was a new guitarist), but I found that teaching the concepts that were fresh on my mind and hands was great for both of us. Even though I was teaching in a more "hand-to-mouth" fashion back then, I still use this method today.
So, there you have it. Take a moment to read over the bold face sentences above and start moving forward with your music!