Stuck in a rut?

So you can play OK now, you know a few scales, your hands are working well enough and you can even improvise and jam with friends or riff around by yourself at home. That's great and you've come a long way but maybe it's just not doing it for you any more, you feel like you're playing the same old stuff all the time. You're stuck in a rut.

It happens to all of us, congratulations it's part of the journey and you'll get through it eventually but in the mean time here are a few hints to help make that happen.

The Thing

For beginner to intermediate players it generally comes down to one thing.

Your hands are in control, not your ears.

You've developed patterns of movement based on scales or riffs or shapes that your hands and fingers have become used to making and so they just go there, as if they had a mind of their own. In a way that's a good thing because it means that you've practiced enough to free up your hands and move on to the next level but in the mean time you need to build some more skills to take advantage of the ones you already have.

Three More Things

So there are three things that will help your ears wrestle back some influence in the battle over your hands. The first and most obvious is skilling them up, learn to listen more intently and then apply what you hear to your instrument. How to do that?

Your Ears

Training your ears is the probably the most mysterious skill for early players, it feels like some unattainable magic. It's not, you just have to learn how to do it.

  • Pick a simple melody, nursery rhymes and folk songs are great, things like amazing grace or ode to joy, three blind mice, twinkle twinkle, and learn to play it. They'll generally use a major scale and the last note, sometimes the first but nearly always the last, is the root or tonic note of the scale. Try to play the tune without resorting to a video lesson or tab.
  • Then listen to some cbg players, my videos may work, other people playing the same instrument as you, but it's important that you can recreate the actual sound that you're hearing on your instrument. Just get a few riffs at a time, be satisfied with incremental improvement. Trying to play Layla on a 3 string fretless is theoretically possible but don't start with that one.
  • Then move on to classic guitar riffs, things like Smoke on the Water, Seven Nation Army, I Shot the Sherrif....

Your Brain

Theory is important. It helps to explain what you are hearing and can really help you get out of that rut. When you understand how it's supposed to work, and you're working on training your ear, you'll recognise the theoretical stuff and start to join the dots. Learn the theory.

  • Start by learning the note names. flat third, major seventh etc. Naming the notes will make finding them much easier.
  • Write stuff down using standard notation, not TAB. It's hard and time consuming but we know that it helps. Write it down.
  • Learn chord theory and note function, it's all in your notes, don't skip through it.

Your Hands

So you may be hearing the most amazing sounds, you might know how to find and place these notes on your instrument, you may understand how it all fits together but if your hands can't make it happen your stuck. If you haven't yet subscribed here then just do it, there's no replacement for solid instruction when it comes to technique. If you have already then...

  • Make sure that at every lesson you check the Before You Start and the Outcomes sections at the top of the page. You need to be both ready to go and clear about what it is that you're working on.
  • Be patient. These skills just take time, you'll want to move on, you'll feel like you can do certain things but they need to be mastered before building on them.
  • Be prepared to take two steps forward and one step back. If you're really struggling with a particular technique then go back to the previous lesson, or even the one before, and make sure that you've mastered it. If you're struggling to play independent thumb and fingers then maybe your thumb's not quite solid just yet.
  • Ask for help. Use the comments section or the YouTube channel to get in touch and we'll get it sorted.

A rut is normal, something that we all struggle with and depending on your level of expertise there'll be different ways out of it. For early players though these few things have been shown to help so stick with it and you'll get there.