For this week's blog we have a special guest writer, the newest teacher on board at TMTG and also the awesome lead guitarist from Esimorp I hope you enjoy the great insight that Ric has into breaking a guitar rut, I sure did!
Before joining a real band (you know, one that plays in more places than just the garage or practice studio), I took lessons and trained for nearly 10 years as a “lead guitarist.” When I finally joined a band, the one I joined already had a much more experienced and established lead guitarist. That gave me the role of “rhythm guitar.” I was a teenager then, and consequently - as I’m sure you can imagine - I was bored out of my mind for the large majority of songs.
Whether you’ve been playing for 20 years or one month, you’re bound to run into a - or another - dry spell sooner or later. Sometimes it comes from writer’s block, sometimes from playing material that doesn’t fit your tastes, or sometimes you just feel like you’ve plateaued. I just had a pretty big dry spell not too long ago. In part 1 of 2 we’ll look at what we can focus on in our practice and playing to break the rut and get some enthusiasm back.
1) Hone a new technique.
First things first. If you’re bored with guitar and you only have a handle on 50% or less of guitar techniques, then it’s time to pick a new or unfamiliar one and get it up to performance level. Here’s a list of ideas, with fundamentals underlined:
You don’t have to be able to do everything in the book, but you definitely want a good palette to work with. Mastering 8 or 9 of these can take you quite far. Having 10 to 12 at your disposal though will set you up to play almost anything.
2) Learn and/or construct chord inversions.
You’ll need some knowledge of chord theory for this one (which you can learn from this TMTG blog series), but that knowledge is essential for any intermediate to advanced guitarist. If you’re playing stuff heavily-influenced by blues, rock, or pop, I’d wager that you’re playing a maximum of 5 chords in most songs and that some of them might even use the same chord progression and rhythm for their entirety. Maybe that really tickles your fancy. For many people, playing G D Em C in their standard open voicings with four beats to each chord for three or four minutes straight will probably start to get a little stale after a while. However, if you’re attaching 3 or 4 different inversions of those chords to various parts throughout the song, you can really define and shape the sonic structure with your playing - even if the rhythm stays the same.
3) Develop your dynamics.
Loud or quiet? Hard or soft? Fast or slow? Unless you’re in a punk band, expect the sound guy to pull you out of the mix at least once if you go full throttle on power chords for a whole set. Knowing when to play and when to not play is highly important. As a solo performer or a member of a smaller band though, knowing what to play and how (i.e. method, not technique) is equally important. When you practice, gradually strip parts back until they’re barely there or take notes away until you only have the ones which are absolutely necessary to hold the structure of the song. Then build your way up - add notes, strum more frequently, dig in with your pick. Being able to both really drive a song and pull back while still contributing breathes life into a performance.
4) Employ rests.
There are only 12 notes you can play across a few octaves on guitar within the confines of standard Western music theory. Similarly, you have a pretty finite number of note values (i.e. whole, half, quarter, eighth, etc.) which you can explore before you reach the physical limits of human potential. One of my favorite bits of musical insight - from someone much wiser than me - is that what you don’t play matters just as much, if not more, than what you do. Rests can direct attention to the vocals or other instruments, add suspense, or build atmosphere in your music. You’ll find that they will often be what distinguishes a solo, song, or performance.
5) Spice up your timing.
Syncopation is one of my absolute favorite things in music. Few rhythms content me more than this bad boy:
Likewise, when I first learned triplets, it was love at first… sight? ...listen? ...play? Both syncopation and triplets can really inject some personality into your playing. For beginners, this will mean moving away from exclusively strumming quarter and/or eighth notes - which is good practice anyway. If you’re starting to feel too comfortable with syncopation and triplets, explore some other time signatures. For beginners to intermediate guitarists, this will likely mean learning songs in 6/8 and 3/4. For more advanced players, it might be time to check out 7/8, 5/4, 9/8, or even compound meters such as 3/4 + 4/4. Still bored? Smash a couple of these ideas together. Triplets with rests and offbeat accents in 5/4 sounds a bit terrifying actually. I suppose if you’re a thrill-seeker it’ll be right up your alley.
6) Play with feel.
This focus is easily the most abstract, but it’s also arguably the most indispensable. Music conveys emotions and ideas both more fully than words and across language barriers. There’s a real magic there that can be easily lost. I’m not sure if there’s a genre which illustrates this more perfectly than blues. Why can one guitarist play a handful of notes over 3 chords and touch your soul, but when another guitarist uses those same notes and chords it’s suddenly boring or derivative? The answer is simply feel. The former has a deep and personal understanding of those notes and assigns meaning and purpose to them. The latter can play a pentatonic scale and some cool licks. For more of a challenge, try altering the feel of certain guitar parts or songs.
7) Expand your tone palette.
There’s no denying that pedals are inspiring. Adding a new effect to your signal is almost certainly the fastest and easiest way to hearing new sounds come out of your guitar. Despite that potency, I’m putting this last because it’s honestly the least helpful focal point in breaking a rut. I know that sounds hypocritical coming from a guy with a massive pedalboard. Don’t get me wrong, effects greatly enhance guitar parts when used well, but does the music those effects inspire still hold your attention when you take them all away? If you pursue knowing how to separate the good guitar parts from the great ones, at least for your tastes, you will capitalize on the inspiration you find in effects. In the end, a guitarist shouldn’t be dependent on effects for ideas. Your music should still be able to stand on its own.
I hope you find some of these useful in taking your playing to the next level! I'll be back next week with some practical exercises you can do to push you even further. Cheers!
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