How To Get Out of a Guitar Rut

We’ve all been there.

A few weeks ago you were flatpicking up a storm and didn’t think you would ever stop. Now, you don’t even want to look at your guitar, let alone pick it up. You’re stuck in a guitar rut.

This often happens after you hit a plateau in your playing. You’ve seen great improvement after putting in a lot of time behind the box, but you’ve reached a certain level and you don’t really know how to get beyond it. So you keep playing at that level for a while, then everything starts to feel the same, and you get bored. Your practice sessions become shorter. Then, they become a chore.

Guitar playing was not meant to be a chore!

Don’t worry, you’re just BOOBed, as some pickers like to call it. That stands for Burnt Out On Bluegrass. There are ways to deal with it, and we’re going to list a whole bunch of them below.

It’s totally natural for the passion to ebb and flow. You have to remember that becoming an accomplished guitarist is not a race. Yes, we’d all like to get better sooner, and the more we play the better we’ll get. But you’ve probably got a lot of years, and your guitar isn’t going away. Neither is bluegrass.

17 ways to get out of a guitar rut

1. Take a break

If you’re burnt out, you probably just need some time away from your guitar. It may just be a few days. It may be a lot longer. But keep that guitar around, somewhere where you can see it, and one day it will call out to you. Again, don’t sweat about how long this takes. You can’t force it.

2. Get out and play with others

Playing solo in the privacy of your own home is a great way to work on the things you need to work on, but it will wear on you eventually. Go find a local jam, or just call up some friends who play instruments—doesn’t matter which instrument—and go make some music together.

3. Switch instruments

Not permanently. Just for a while. If you’re a guitar player, you’ll probably never be as good at mandolin or ukulele, but that’s OK. They’re fun to play. They’re fun to learn. They help you appreciate the people who play those instruments regularly. And on those foreign fretboards, you will come to see patterns and recognize relationships that will give you a new perspective when you decide to go back to guitar.

4. Switch genres

Forget about flatpicking bluegrass. Play the blues for a while. Learn some jazz chords. Irish rhythm guitar can be a whole lot of fun. Don’t believe me? Listen to John Doyle backing up Liz Carroll.

5. Switch styles

If you don’t want to switch instruments or genres, you can switch styles. Are you always picking leads? Then work on nothing but rhythm for a few weeks. Or drop the pick entirely and try fingerpicking some of your favorite bluegrass songs.

6. Listen to music

You can always focus on listening for a while. You don’t need the guitar in your hands to get better. Spend a week doing nothing but listening intently to good acoustic music on the headphones. Listen for the guitar. Think about what they’re doing. I guarantee that by the end of the week you will want nothing more than to pick it up and get playing.

7. Go see a live show

This can work even better than listening to recorded music. Nothing serves as a better reminder of why you’re doing this than a great live show. And it doesn’t matter if your favourite bluegrass musicians aren’t coming through town. Great live shows are everywhere. I once took a guitar-less vacation to Portugal, and took in a fado gig where this guy was tastefully backing up the singer on a nylon-string classical guitar in front of about 30 people. He wasn’t famous, but he was amazing. I couldn’t wait to get home to play.

8. Play along with recordings

It’s not all about practice and drills and exercises. Stop trying to perfect your technique or ramp up your speed. Just put on some of your favorite bluegrass recordings and pretend you’re in the band. Connect your iPhone to your speakers, put your entire bluegrass playlist on shuffle, and play along to whatever comes up next. Do it for an hour or two.

9. Change keys

Pick one of the tunes you play best and learn how to play it in at least three other keys. I know, I know, it’s going to slow you down. We flatpickers get a little obsessed with speed, but don’t worry about it. You’ll lose some speed but you’ll gain a lot of musicality. And one day you might find yourself playing it just as quickly in one of these new keys as you do in your favorite key.

10. Change tunings

DADGAD or Drop D tuning can force you into all kinds of new ways to pick bluegrass fiddle tunes. If you can’t remember ever playing “Soldier’s Joy” using anything other than C shapes and a capo at the second fret, you certainly won’t get bored figuring out how to make it sound great in Drop D.

11. Play in a different time signature

You know how “Blue Moon of Kentucky” starts off in three-quarter time and then kicks into 4/4 time? You can really do that with any song. If you have a solid guitar break for a 4/4 song, think about how it would sound in three-quarter time and then go play it. See what different embellishments you can come up with in three-quarter time.

12. Play an electric guitar

OK, not the most affordable solution if you don’t have an electric guitar, but if you do then spending a few weeks with it could get you interested again and give you some new ideas for your bluegrass playing.

13. Buy another guitar

Again, not the cheapest option. But if there’s one thing that’s sure to get you picking again every chance you get, it’s bringing a new box home. This works even better if it’s a different body style or tonewood than your regular axe.

14. Learn new songs

Sometimes the solution is simpler than you think. You probably have a repertoire of go-to songs that hasn’t changed much lately. Find a bluegrass album you’ve never heard before, give it a listen, pick one of those songs and learn it. Or set your music player to “shuffle” and commit to learning the first five bluegrass tracks it lands on that you don’t already know.

15. Go busking

This is a good one. Tired of the same old, same old? How about spending an hour alone at a busy public promenade belting out every bluegrass song you know? Open up your case on the ground in front and you might make a few bucks. You’ll certainly improve as a performer and get over any stage fright you might have.

16. Come up with a flatpicking arrangement for a song outside the genre

Remember that Top 40 hit you couldn’t get away from in your senior year of high school? How would it sound flatpicked, bluegrass-style? Learning those melodies on your acoustic guitar and then adding some bluegrass styling can be a lot of fun.

17. Take lessons

Guitar teachers know things, and they can show you things about your guitar that you never even realized. They might show you something mechanical about your technique that will change your life and make you want to do nothing else but play. Or maybe your mechanics are fine and they’ll teach you a bit of theory that makes you see the fretboard in a whole new way. Either way, guitar playing will become an adventure again.

A lot of the ideas listed above involve music. That’s intentional. You don’t have to spend every evening with the guitar in your lap to become a better musician. If you can get away from it for a time while still doing something musical, you’ll see the benefits when you come back.

Above all else, remember that you’ve come farther than you think. You probably won’t realize it until you’ve taken one of these detours listed above and then returned to flatpicking. But when you do realize it, take a moment to appreciate it. Measuring yourself against where you used to be, rather than where you want to be, is the surest way to remind yourself that you will get to where you’re going.

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