Digging Out of the Hole You’re In: Breaking Out of Playing Ruts

Posted on by Dave Eichenberger

We’ve all been there before: when we’re uninspired and everything we play sounds, well, the same. Playing ruts, or more accurately named plateaus, are problems every instrumentalist faces and has to work through. In this article, let’s look at some ideas on how to break through the imaginary wall holding your playing back. I’ve been behind some pretty big walls in my playing life, seemingly more than most musicians I know, so I know what it’s like. I’ll be talking more in abstracts than concrete musical examples this time, so stay with me.

Problem: I always end up playing the same thing.

This is a common one, and one that’s seemingly easy to break free of. If you always find yourself playing the same thing, it’s most likely that muscle memory has taken over and we’re recalling stock licks in the same places. Why do we do this? Well, at some point, we thought it sounded good. This is reinforced by other people telling us that we rock. Possibly audiences are cheering for us when we play exactly what is expected. This is great for our ego, but not so good for our development as a player.

What kind of music would you play on this? Now, decide to play something else.

Simply put, if we find ourselves playing the same thing over and over, it’s time to decide not to do that anymore. For example, when playing over a simple Am shuffle, most guitarists go right for the fifth fret and play those licks we all grew up on. This sounds right, and it certainly rocked when our heroes did it. By deciding to abandon those licks at the fifth fret (for now), we are open to doing something unexpected.  If we select an unfamiliar position for this key, say, the 10th fret, all of the stock licks won’t quite work, and what we’re left with is using the most powerful tool we have: our brain.

New licks are waiting to be discovered in unfamiliar territory, and you are just the guitarist to do it! Now we aren’t relying on what we know works, or what our heroes did. We start out tentatively playing and trying to find the right notes to replicate the old licks. At some point we will realize that we can leave the old licks where they were, waiting for us to return to them. We discover new combinations of notes we never thought of, and never heard before. When you start playing over a chord progression, decide on the most obvious thing you would normally play, and then don’t do that. This is the beginning of how new music is made.

Problem:  Everything I play sounds like (insert guitar god here)

When we’re learning, it is natural to be attracted to a certain style and a certain player. We learn their songs and licks, buy the gear they use, and in some extreme cases even dress like them (yes, I have seen this). What happens is that we lose our unique musical identity along the way. We’ve all seen players grab a worn Strat, put some initials on it, wear a hat with a feather, get an embroidered strap and play heavy Texas blues.

There must’ve been some magic in that old black hat they found…

Let us not mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself. Influences are great and this is how we learn. However, there was probably a point when Yngwie Malmsteen stopped copying Ritchie Blackmore and developed his unique style.  Eric Clapton had to stop copping every lick from Albert King in order for him to become Eric Clapton.

But how do we start doing that?

How about listening to a new style of music? For awhile I was transcribing keyboard solos. Keyboardists play very differently than guitarists. Transcribing Jon Lord and Tony Banks will certainly get you to approach guitar in a different way. If Allan Holdsworth only listened to guitarists, he would not have developed a style that is so original.

Grabbing influences from other styles and instruments, and combining them with our own unique life experiences,  will certainly change the notes we play.

Problem: My sound never changes, and I’m bored with that.

This may be the easiest to solve. You know those other knobs and switches on the guitar? Use them. Switch the EQ on your amp to something that you might never think you would use. Change the type and thickness of strings on one of your guitars. These are all cheap or free.

Bored of the clear, clean sound of your Strat? Hot Rails will cure that.

For just a little money and knowhow, we can add switches to the guitar which split the pickups or bring them out-of-phase.

Try exploring the P90 pickup sound with a set of Phat Cats in your humbucker-equipped guitar.

Of course I’m going to suggest pickup changes. If you’re used to humbuckers, try P90s or single-coils. If you’re used to actives, try passives and vice-versa.  Sometimes a pickup swap can open up a whole new world of creativity because the sound is different than what we are used to. Don’t discount types of pickups either – somewhere in the world, someone is using a single coil to play death metal and jazz. It is all about finding your own way, right? And the best part about it, is that it is fun. 

How do you break out of playing ruts? Do you have suggestions of guitar techniques to rejuvenate someone’s playing, or have ideas of great music to listen to? Post these in the comments to share with other readers.

Written on February 10, 2013, by Dave Eichenberger

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  • crusty philtrum

    I look further than the fretboard for new ideas …. get away from the guitar and go out and live a little …. get new experiences out there, see new things, meet new people etc. … then go home and play some of the new experiences. Being around the guitar too much ends up with the guitar being the only source of inspiration, which can end up like living with a bucket over your head. Get some life and then express it on your instrument … after all, music is about expression. New life sensations will bring new things to express.

  • Yeah, being the gear fetishists we are, we forget that our life experiences make our music what it is.

  • JenkinsMcDoogle

    I was inspired by Devin Townsend to try open c tuning and i love it. Not only has it taken me out of my rut, but I’m exploring parts of the fretboard I’ve never been confident to access before. I cannot put it down!

    • New tunings can certainly help! I just never had enough guitars around to keep in particular tunings, and I *hate* retuning guitars.