Over the past few years, my focus has changed from the macro to the micro— largely due to the work I’ve been involved in (re-recording classic rock band’s versions of their own songs, as well as reconstructing new versions of old classics). Subtle shifts of texture and tone become the hallmark of a player’s sound and style. It’s because of this microscopic effort that I’ve come to appreciate how very small changes can add up to new and complex sounds. It’s also become clear that when I find myself in a stagnate time in my playing, a few minute shifts are all it takes to get me back on my feet and inspired to create new music. Getting into a musical rut is a near-universal problem, so this month I decided I’d share some simple rutbusters and how they helped me.
1. Change Your String Gauge
Probably the subtlest of changes is deciding on a new gauge of string. While most would be hard pressed to identify the string gauge of a player in a blindfold listening test, a blindfold playing test is an entirely different matter. Consider that most guitar techs measure string height in thousandths of an inch. A few thousandths here or there can make a huge difference on the feel of the action. Therefore, shifting your gauge of strings from just .009 to .010 feels significant to your hands and you compensate by playing differently.
I won’t go into the endless details of string gauges of the stars but look at players like Brian May and Billy Gibbons who get monster tones from very light strings, while SRV did the same with extra-heavy gauges. When I moved from .011s to .010s on my Strat, a whole world opened up for me. I was less fatigued when playing, I bent notes easier, and complex runs that weren’t possible before opened up under my fingertips. To simplify the results, I went from being limited to bending and holding onto notes to adding color and spice to my playing in new ways—just from a simple gauge change. And that particular rut was busted!
2. Play Like You Sing
Do your fingers tend to fall into the same places on the fretboard? Ever notice on old acoustic guitars there’s a lot more wear in the first few frets of the guitar? As humans, we tend to fall into comfort fairly easily. To bust out of this rut, just try singing a melody and playing it back on the guitar—simple as that. I like to start with small phrases and mimic them, then over time turn it over to call and response. Sing one phrase, answer back with a complimentary phrase on the guitar. As you continue to do this, you may get comfortable enough to sing and play the notes simultaneously (George Benson has made it a hallmark of his style…give it a shot!). This is a fantastic way to rearrange the association of going where your hands want to and changing it to where the notes need to be played. Depending on how good of a singer you are, this could be musical or not.
3. Bust Out the Capo
What I like about the capo is that it has dual-fold rutbusting power. Not only are you shifting to another key, you are also changing the tension of the strings radically. This forces you to play in new keys and also opens up tonalities that are not standard. Even shifting just a fret up to F does something emotionally, because you now have six new notes as your baseline. There have been studies done in classical music about how different keys tend to bring out different emotions (A minor is the saddest of all keys?) and I tend to believe this. Along with the shift in emotion and tension is a third benefit—reduced fingerboard access. While having one less fret to play on is hardly a big deal, it changes radically when moving the capo up to the seventh fret. You may even find that you like having the capo on for songwriting (hey, what a novel idea). I’ve written many songs using the capo to change up what I was too comfortable with and ended up with great results. There is no doubt this rutbuster will open new doors for any player.
4. Listen by Looping
It’s difficult to really hear what you’re doing unless you record. But with recording, you get a document of your performance that tends to be more of a block for us—the fear of the red light, the pursuit of the perfect take, the obsessive editing in Pro Tools. That shouldn’t deter you from listening to your own playing. Luckily, it’swaymore fun and inspiring to get a looper pedal and start building your music in layers. Throw down a riff, loop it, and start playing over the top. You can sit back and listen to that last solo, erase it, and start all over again. This opens the mind to experimentation a lot better because it’s almost like watching and listening to somebody else in real time. I’ve found the difference between recording myself in the studio and using a looper to be vastly different. Nearly every time I’ve worked with a looper, I’ve gotten new results that were off-the-cuff and “unsafe”—and they opened up my playing to new levels.
5. Put It Down
It’s been said 1000 times before, but sometimes the most obvious way to bust out of a routine is to break it. If you’re frustrated with your lack of progress, it may be time to do something else. When I was younger, I used to travel constantly with my guitar, taking it on vacation and playing it whenever I could. It ended up taking up so much time on my vacations and nothing great came from all my practice, except losing out on the other fun I was supposed to be having! It’s not a bad idea to do an about-face and pay attention to something else for a week or two. When you come back to the instrument, hopefully you’ve gained some inspiration from nature, TV, or whatever experiences you had during the break. Take that inspiration, use one of the other rutbusters in combination, and you’ll find yourself re-inspired. Works every time.
I hope these give you food for thought. Remember the reason you got involved with the guitar in the first place and loosen up a little. This is supposed to be fun. It’s not a contest, but a lifelong journey for most of us. We all have those dark times when inspiration is hard to come by, but there is always a way around it. I’d like to hear what other rutbusters you’ve used—it will help next time around for me too!
Steve Ouimetteis a lifelong guitarist, gearhead and studio fanatic. He runs Steve Ouimette Studios and writes music for video games, film and television. You can find him online atsteveouimette.comandfacebook.com/steveouimette. BTW, he rarely Tweets…
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