In part 1 last week I wrote about how a new focus can freshen up your playing and practicing when you feel like you’re bored and/or plateauing. This week I’m back for part 2 with some of my favorite exercises to break out of a rut.
Here we go!
1) Go to a different part of the fretboard.
Most players tend to use a handful chord patterns, scales, etc. over the same few frets and strings. Your favorite melodies and chord shapes play a major role in defining YOUR sound. However, it’s easy to feel stuck there. Play some notes or clusters that you’ve never played before. This might also include some stuff that just doesn’t make sense or that sounds AWFUL. That’s ok for practice. One of my favorite exercises came from the March 2007 issue of Guitar Player Magazine. It involves playing the mirror opposites of common chord fingerings. While many of these mirror chords sounded horrendous, this exercise encouraged me to explore new fingerings I would have likely never even considered trying previously and inspired at least one or two solid guitar parts.
2) Break your genre box.
Whether it’s blues, rock, jazz, or modern church music, everyone has their comfort zone when it comes to music style. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I see countless complaints all the time about how this or that genre is uninspired. That means it’s time to explore outside your box. My most enjoyable and creative breakthroughs all came after listening to and/or learning a new style - flamenco, ambient, electronic, funk, classical, math rock, etc. You don’t have to master the style by any stretch of the imagination. Simply learning a few songs and some of the theory behind a style different from your own will force you to think about music in strange new ways. Those new scales, chords, rhythms, and phrases will seriously energize your creativity - not to mention the increased dexterity, feel, and ear training you’ll develop along the way.
3) Use every melody you can find.
Pick a song, any song. Match the melody with your guitar. Then embellish it some. Then warp and manipulate it to your hearts’ content with different time signatures, rests, syncopation, or even a modal change. Then create some harmonies and embellish and warp those too. With each new melody you use, you’ll refine your ability to write melodies and harmonies, you’ll make your playing more interesting both to play and to hear, and you’ll become better at playing with other musicians. I don’t know about you, but I think that sounds like a great time.
4) Follow a good, creative drummer.
Think of the craziest drummers you know. Get on their playing like white on rice. By that, I mean that what comes out of your guitar should sound like those drum heads are made from six strings and fretted chords. You can even develop a right-hand vocabulary to synchronize with their kit (e.g. palm mute for hi-hat, open for snare hits, alternate pick on rolls, etc.). This practice almost singlehandedly broke me out of my rhythm guitar rut I shared at the beginning of my previous post. If you need inspiration, look to some of the guitar and drum work from Paramore and My Chemical Romance. Who said rhythm guitar had to suck? They’re dead wrong.
5) Pick up a new instrument.
Every instrument has its own feel that naturally lends it to certain parts or styles over others. Every time you pick up a new instrument, you’ll hear new sounds through its tone and playability. New sounds mean new music. The extra fun part is trying to then mimic those sounds with your guitar. Bass, mandolin, and banjo are all pretty sweet choices for a guitarist looking to expand to a new instrument. They keep things relatively simple in terms of new skills required. Vocals and acoustic guitar (or electric guitar for you guys who primarily play acoustic) are also really solid if you want something even more familiar. Finally, there are various styles of electric to select, such as Telecasters, hollowbodies, shred machines, baritones, 12-strings, etc. For more on this, be sure to check out this post all about the benefits of learning other instruments.
6) Jam with new people.
The longer you play with people, the more you realize that some people really bring out the best in you, and some might not. That’s chemistry. It happens. That’s okay. Those few that get you to your “A” game time after time are bandmate material. Cherish them and have the time of your life. However, every person - and I mean every person - who plays music has something to offer your playing through even the most basic collaboration, such as a jam or open mic. You don’t have to start bands with everyone, but even simple, repeated, casual playing here and there will expose you to more ideas than you’ll know how to use. This even happens with my students from time to time, which brings me to my last exercise to freshen things up:
7) Teach someone guitar.
One of the biggest reasons I love teaching lessons is that I get to hear new people’s creativity blossom as they start to learn their instrument and develop their own unique style. It never fails to inspire. I know that’s a bit mushy, but it’s the truth. Teaching not only forces you to really examine and expand your own technique and understanding, but you also continuously receive completely new perspectives on music. It’s like that moment you ask someone for help on a word search, and they find it almost instantly after you’ve been stuck searching for 20 minutes or longer. Teaching offers a cornucopia of new musical material.
There you have it, folks. Whether you’re stuck in a rut now or waiting for your next one, I hope some of these ideas can help you rediscover and expand your creativity and expression. Rock on!
Until next time,