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Inspiration Licks (Or 10 Ways to Get Unstuck)

February 11, 2010
Everyone has stuck-in-the-mud days. Even after buying the best instruments, many joyful hours of practice every day, studying with the best teachers and listening to the masters, we’re still not guaranteed an endless flow of brilliance. It’s okay to have an off day. In fact, it’s important to give yourself a break and rest. When you notice that you’ve been down a little longer than you’re comfortable with, however, it might help to have some inspiration licks figured out for yourself to keep at the ready. As a jazz guitarist, you already know that a stockpile of vocabulary and phrases comes in handy when you’re in musical conversation. It is similarly handy to know the things you can do for yourself when you need a boost up to that good place where your creativity lives and works.

Play Interval Games
Try playing your way out of a puzzle while you’re practicing. Take a solo over an entire chorus using only the interval of a 4th (and 5th if you want to allow for the inversion). Or, if you’re hitting a wall with a melody you’re writing, try limiting yourself to 3rds ascending and 6ths descending. It doesn’t matter what you choose, just that you engage in a thought process that your ears might not have guided your fingers to habitually.

Switch Axes
I played a duo gig recently, and although it was all going well enough, I wasn’t feeling particularly happy with my sound, my ideas, or my physical comfort level. For the next gig—same room, same players—I brought my nylon-string guitar instead of my big hollowbody jazz box. From the first down beat, I was a much happier player. It was fresh, fun, comfortable, and sounded killer.

Revisit
Listen to that Bill Evans solo again, the one that gave you goose bumps and kept you up all night transcribing once back in 1998. Recognize any of your own more recent playing in there somewhere? Hear anything new that you hadn’t noticed? Just enjoy it and marvel at it this time. Listen to your own recordings from a few years back. Did you like it then? Do you like it now? Grab your guitar and expand on that; make it better this time.

Switch Teams
The other day I went nuts over the Simon and Garfunkel recording, “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright.” I grabbed my little guitar that stays faithfully near my computer and I figured out the chords. It wasn’t as big of a time commitment as, say, transcribing a Bird solo, but it surprised me with all of its quirky modulations and harmony. Find another style that you enjoy or want to learn more about and jump in. You’ll find a gem that you can’t predict until you are right there in it, but it will be valuable to you as a player.

Rearrange Your Space
Your guitars need to be played. Make sure you can see them. Switch them around from time to time, so when you’re watching Law and Order reruns you’ll just have to jump up and play that steel-string you sort of forgot you had. Keep them safe and humidified, but make them appealing and accessible. Set your recording gear up in a friendly and comfortable way, too. Keep it simple. Whatever you need, make that the best corner of your home for you. Go there and sit down and turn all the switches and play something there every day.

Change Your Strings
It’s hard to resist playing something fun on a freshly strung guitar. I’ve written a tune or two that way. Maybe it’s time for something different, like wound strings instead of flatwounds or vice versa.

Watch and Listen
To Live Music Hit a jazz club and just take it all in. Focus on different instrumentalists as the set goes on. Be the drummer, be the bass player, etc. If there is no guitar player, imagine how a guitar player would contribute to the group. Go to a string quartet concert; go watch a bluegrass band. Input like this most certainly plays a role in your creative output when the time is right.

Walk Around
Get up. Sometimes that’s the hardest part. If you live in a city, take yourself to a rural scene for a change. If you live in the country, visit a nearby city. If you’re tight on time, just take a walk in your neighborhood, but get moving. Listen to the rhythm. Be ready for a melody to emerge. Pay attention.

Stay Put
It’s time to practice, write and record. If you work on a schedule, then get in there and grab a guitar. It’s not time to do anything else. Remember, you go where you aim. If you’re serious about playing and want to grow as a musician, you will naturally gravitate toward the guitar anyway. But for those times when you’re stuck and not doing it enough, get on a schedule and stick to it.

Don’t Be a Stranger
Call a friend and get together to play, someone you trust to have a stimulating conversation. Exchange ideas naturally. Stop into a store or a café and shoot the breeze with someone. Reach for that metaphor, that description, that punch line. Keep the level of creativity high. Then, leave them wanting more as you rush home to play your guitar.


Jane Miller
Jane Miller is a guitarist, composer, and arranger with roots in both jazz and folk. In addition to leading her own jazz instrumental quartet, she is in a working chamber jazz trio with saxophonist Cercie Miller and bassist David Clark. The Jane Miller Group has released three CDs on Jane’s label, Pink Bubble Records. Jane joined the Guitar Department faculty at Berklee College of Music in 1994.

janemillergroup.com