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Tone Tips: Stuck in a Rut?

Tone Tips: Stuck in a Rut?
When our author isn’t feeling inspired on the guitar, he picks up his Warwick Streamer bass to work on his 4-string chops.

If your playing is feeling stagnant, there are cures for that.

Greetings, guitar nerds! A question I’m often asked is how to break out of a rut. We all occasionally get a little stagnated. Sometimes it’s our playing, sometimes it’s our writing, and sometimes it’s both. I’d like to offer a few suggestions for breaking out of a rut.

Try a different instrument. Paul McCartney has said in interviews that he picked up the bass reluctantly, when Stu Sutcliffe departed the Beatles. But once he realized how much power and control the bassist had over the music, he was hooked! I’ve been having a blast with my new Warwick bass, and I’m finding myself always looking forward to tracking bass on my songs. Locking in with the drums ignites a completely different approach and thought process for me. I’ve never done it before, but think I’d seriously enjoy doing a tour as a bassist. I mainly play with a pick now, but I’m excited to work on my right-hand technique more, since there are so many tones to explore by using different finger styles.

I spent quite a bit of time touring Spain with Robi Draco Rosa, and I was completely blown away by some of the flamenco guitarists I came across while there. The guitar is like a completely different instrument in flamenco, and with the right-hand technique being so foreign to me, I was fascinated watching and listening to these masters. Of course, there’s classical guitar, too, which is also a completely different animal. There really is no excuse if we’re ever bored or in a rut, because we can always seek out a good instructor and tackle a completely different style.

Your smartphone is a rut buster. In my column last month [“Don’t Lose the Spark,” November 2019], I talked about using the recorder app on my iPhone for archiving ideas, wherever I may be. Whether I’m walking down the street or driving in the car, before I go to sleep or when I wake up, I’m always thinking of musical ideas. And I’d most likely lose them all—whether I’m humming or playing them—if it weren’t for the recorder app on my iPhone. My phone is full of ideas, so I always have a catalyst to work from if I’m not feeling inspired in my studio.

Lesson up. Sometimes, tackling a new song or technique is all it takes to bust you out of a rut. If you’re like me, however, many of the downloadable courses available online feel like they’ll require a huge time and energy commitment. (It’s why I made a few lessons for YouTube that were limited to five minutes.) Shorter and more specific lessons can seem less intimidating, and therefore easier to start and to tackle. Not only that, the shorter lessons are often correspondingly less expensive.

Whether in a full band, an acoustic duo, or at a jam or open mic, just getting out and creating with others can be so liberating.

I have released a few lessons through JamTrackCentral, but I’m also a customer. I’ve bought lessons from Lari Basilio, Mateus Asato, Guthrie Govan, and others. What I like about JTC lessons is that they offer inexpensive, targeted lessons that feature the artist teaching a concept or one of their songs. The downloads usually include notation and tab, a full-song mix, audio playing examples, slow and fast video, and a jam track with the lead guitar removed. The short-lesson format works for me, and the JTC lessons seem like the kind of thing you could learn over a couple of private lessons with a great private instructor—just the right size to not overwhelm.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed when trying to pick up something from one of the million or so lessons on YouTube, take the advice of my pal, session great Tim Pierce. Just nick one lick or concept from each video. If you can take away just one cool thing from each lesson you watch, you’ve added to your musical vocabulary in a positive, quantifiable way.

Play with others! “My band days are behind me.” I hear this from other musicians often and I always find the statement to be a bit sad. As we get older, work and family commitments can and do invariably intensify. But it’s such a great release to get out and play. Whether in a full-band, an acoustic duo, or at a jam or open mic, just getting out and creating with others can be so liberating. It shouldn’t feel like a chore. And if it does, something is wrong.

I’m not talking about lugging around a full Marshall stack and shooting for rock stardom at whatever the cost, unless that’s what you want to do, of course. (If you haven’t yet seen the rockumentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil, I highly recommend it.) I’m just advocating for the occasional jam session. Music shouldn’t exist in a vacuum, and I can guarantee you’ll be a happier person if you can find a way to play with others in a non-stressful situation—even if you think your band “glory days” are behind you.

Until next month, I hope these tips help keep your passion for guitar and music alive and well. And as always, I wish you great tone!