5 Ways to Bust Out of A Guitar Playing Slump

Diagnosis: You have lost your mojo. You’re uninspired. You feel like you’re not making any progress. Treatment: Take the following 5 tidbits of advice and call your band leader tomorrow morning to tell her you’re not quitting after all. 

A slump. We’ve all been there. Some of us more than others. Some us unknowingly to ourselves, but apparent to others. Anything you play sounds “meh” at best and no matter which one of your 25 guitars you grab to find some inspiration, none of them give you the “tone” you are seeking. Plug into a vintage Marshall? That doesn’t do the trick either. “This is horrible! I just can’t seem to play in any semblance of a way that I want to!” And so the quest be able to rid yourself of this incomprehensible, awful, life-altering Charlie Brown cloud that hangs over your musical prowess commences. “But I can’t make it stop!” you say. Repeat after me: you can and it too shall pass - nothing lasts forever: Further proof that all the wisdom you will ever need can be obtained from song lyrics. 

Recently, I was faced with a slump of my own that was causing me so much stress that I didn’t even want to pick up my instrument because it just wasn’t fun anymore. Thankfully, three of the most awesome people in my life gave me the advice, inspiration, and confidence to get past the psychological wall I had built around myself. To those three people I am eternally grateful, and I hope that I can help some of you the same way they helped me. 

Let’s get on this case of the guitar-playing Mondays right away! Here are 5 ways you can get out of your guitar-playing slump. 

Don’t Play 

Yes, I know that sounds like absolutely disastrous advice, but hear me out. If you are in a slump, a lot of the times it’s because you have been playing and practicing so much that you have not allowed your brain to retain and actually process what you have been working so hard to learn. In fact if you don’t allow your brain to make the neuroconnections necessary, you aren’t going to absorb what you want to as efficiently or effectively. With that in mind, take a day or two away from your instrument, and do things that are going to help that part of your brain get some rest and recharge itself. Go for a walk, read Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, watch Napoleon Dynamite, do some colouring, make tie-dyed t-shirts to sell during your retirement, or cuddle with the family pet, but for the love of all that is holy, do NOT pick up your instrument or do anything related to guitar playing for that day or two! For some very stressed out folks, or if your slump is a post-touring/album-creating one, this may need to be extended to a week! Distance makes the heart grow fonder as they say, and in this case, time away from your instrument will help. 

Go Back To Your Roots 

Sometimes we get lost. We chase a passion or a dream that is fleeting, as opposed to the one we originally sacrificed everything to achieve. I know this better than many people, as I co-authored an entire memoir that I have watched someone else take full credit for. During that entire writing process, I strayed from some of the things that I had held near and dear to my heart, including some of the guitars and music that first allowed me to fall in love with the instrument. What did I do when my disappoint was seemingly at an all-time low? I went back to what made me love rock’n’roll in the first place. The records I first heard when I was a child: those brilliantly simple girl-groups from the Motown era, Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Pat Benatar, grunge and all of its flannel and Doc Martens, Joan Jett, Guns’n’Roses, and Cyndi Lauper. I listened to what I had loved so much and what I wished I knew how to play when I first picked up the guitar when I was 16. I looked through all of my old lesson notes that my guitar teacher had written out for me, and I felt like I had been wrapped in a giant warm blanket. Sometimes a reminder of why you started is just the motivational kick in the rear end that you need. 

Get As Far Away From Your Roots As Possible 

This contradicts everything I mention above, but let me explain it before you click on some random cat video instead of reading the rest of my article. Sometimes the inspiration you need is to listen to something completely different than what you’re used to. Love metal? Throw some old school country or rockabilly on. A classic rock fan? Some jazz might clear your head. Into funk and r&b? Put on some thrash metal. Why? If you’ve ever worked out you may have heard a personal trainer refer to muscle confusion. This is the regular practice of changing things up in your training program. It helps you bust through fitness ruts. It can do the same for your ear as a musician. It will also prevent you from just playing what you already know over and over again. Try it. 

Play Something Different 

Perhaps you are struggling with sweep picking (like I do), or maybe it’s those darned one and a half step bends that have you singing the blues. Either way, if you are like most people, when some part of your technique is giving you trouble, you hunker down and repeat, repeat, repeat. Sometimes that ends up having the opposite - and unintended - impact on your playing. Here’s an example. I am always seeking to improve my lead guitar abilities, so I was focusing on one specific solo that I wanted to master. I played it over and over and over and….until I couldn’t stand to hear it anymore, and it was getting worse instead of better! “How is this even possible!?!?” I yelled into the void. I was desperate for nailing this one set of sixteenth notes that had been plaguing me. I picked up my guitar and instead of playing the solo again that particular day, I went through a lesson on playing syncopated rhythms for pop and dance style music. I had fun, and I was nailing this new rhythm that I had learned. When I sat down the following day to practice my solo, I was amazed at how my improved confidence and relaxed approach allowed me to make significant progress and nail the solo too. This is part of the muscle confusion I referred to in listening to something different. It works when you play something different too. Most recently my friend Steve Booke sent me some Stylus Picks to try and I have to say, I've only used it once and I saw a nice little improvement to my alternate picking technique. After seeing master shredders Angel Vivaldi and Scale the Summit's Chris Letchford a few months back, I picked up Vivaldi's Synapse TAB book (featuring the guitar TABS from his killer new record Synapse) and Letchford's Guitar Technique 360 and have perused those volumes to try and play something that is completely out of my comfort zone. 

Allow Yourself to Admire Others Without Comparing Yourself To Them 

This is probably the most difficult on the list. It’s so easy to see a guitar hero of yours shred their way through a song and sit there thinking “I can’t do that”. Often, this demoralizing statement can cause your slump to start. And maybe you are right, you can’t play like your hero. But I like to add two words to that statement that turns it into an empowering one. “I can’t do that right now.” I am not a full time touring or recording musician. I dedicate the bulk of my waking life to my teaching career. If your guitar hero watches you do your job or the thing that you are a 20-year expert at, don’t you think they’ll feel like they can’t do it as well as you do? We all have the things that we dedicate our time/livelihoods to. Stop comparing and start appreciating. I found that for me, once I put into perspective that music is to be enjoyed and not used as some sort of competition on an on-going basis, it relieved me of the pressure I was putting on myself, which is the worst kind of pressure for my personal slumps. You are a better guitarist than you think you are. Admire your heroes, but don’t compare. Shameless self promotion - I wrote an entire article about being your own guitar hero and you can read that here. This is the same article my friend used on me after hearing I was allowing “the man” to get me down. (Yes that was a School of Rock movie reference!) 

There are a lot of other ways that I have used to get out of a guitar-playing slump, but the five above are the ones that have worked the best and most often for me. As an added tip, If you haven’t heard of the books The Inner Game of Music and Zen Guitar, please check those out. I highly recommend them and they have gotten me through many a mental guitar-playing debacle. I’d love to hear what other strategies work for my fellow axe-slinging guitar gods out there! Please comment below and let’s help each other out! How do you break out of a slump?