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Staying Hungry

In a rut? Are you still hungry?

I recently found myself in a spot. There I was, sitting in my home studio, tracking away, and suddenly I just stopped playing. I hit a brick wall on several fronts: musically, creatively, and tonally. I came to three very quick and harsh conclusions: First, when I write songs and record the demos, I spend very little of that time actually holding my beloved bass. Second, because of this I feel my creativity slips when I don’t get enough time to play. Third, my tone wasn’t where I heard it in my head. All of these combined to make a deadly cocktail, but after I walked away from every thing for a few minutes, I came to some realizations on how I might address these problems. I’ll share these ideas with you, in case you find yourself in similar troubled waters.

When I stepped back from the instrument, my brain was working overtime. It is really hard to work out of a rut when you don’t know where to begin. Your brain can be your best friend or worst enemy when trying to break away from a hard situation. You almost have to “check out” to find your way. It’s like how the best licks happen when you aren’t thinking of music, but feeling it. My quick fix was to walk around the block to ease my head.

After much thought, I realized on this particular day, I wasn’t "hungry." Not sandwich hungry, but musically hungry. Like the hunger you felt when you pressed your nose up against the music store window, dreaming of that magical first guitar. Like the hunger you had when you dashed home from high school for band practice with your friends. Or the hunger that compels you to keep pushing into new, unexplored sonic territory. For me, on this occasion, my hunger went away. As a result, I decided I never want to be full—I always want to stay hungry.

Break Out of the Box
It’s easy to get stuck in your ways. Let’s say you play a bar gig every weekend. Maybe you always play the same guitar solos or play your parts exactly the same way. There’s nothing wrong with consistency, but are you pushing yourself to get better? My fingers reach for the same licks some days, and when I’m recording, sometimes I plug in the "tried and true" tones. These techniques work, but what am I missing?

If you tour for a living, it’s hard to find legitimate practice time on the road, so we’ll scratch that as a possible solution. The upside of the equation is that you spend a lot of time on the bus, and if it has Wi-Fi, you can surf the web to find practice tips for any style and instrument. Take some notes and tackle them when you get home. This can help get some new ideas flowing.

If you’re like me and play several instruments, make sure you take time to play your primary instrument. After my studio frustration, I turned off the recording gear and fired up my bass amp. I just sat and played. It felt so good to explore my bass without a deadline or having to learn a song. And as a bonus, I came up with a great lick that I tracked that night. Two birds with one stone!

Trade Your Tone
Now to one of my favorite topics: tone. On stage, I have a sound I like, but I also get the chance to try different basses to see what works and what doesn’t. Does it matter to Joe Concertgoer? Not really, but it sure matters to me. We all run the risk of getting bored with our tone. If that happens, you won’t be inspired to create new music. Lack of inspiration cuts yourself off before you even start. In my band, our guitar player tries new things every few weeks—a pedal here, a new guitar there—and small tweaks to his tone spark creativity like mad. The proof is in his solos.

There are several arguments for and against changing your tone. Some cats have a signature sound and they run with it their entire lives. Other musicians are constantly changing their sound and forcing us to keep pace with their vision. Just when I think I have "the sound," one of my heroes will dial in something different, forcing me to go back to the drawing board. In the studio, it’s a treat to explore new sounds and we should look forward to that opportunity. Again, the Internet lets us stay abreast of new recording techniques and makes it easy to research how our favorite musicians dial up their tone. (Keep in mind that even with identical gear, you won’t sound like your favorite player because it is his fingers on that fretboard that creates his signature sound. Instead of trying to copy a great player’s tone, use it as a springboard to develop your own.)

Maybe you feel none of your efforts are working. You’ve scoured the web, dug up and listened to old albums, and even joined a self-help group. How about turning off the computer and going to your local music store? Think of how you felt before you owned an instrument. Spend an hour trying all kinds of gear—yes, even the guitars you think you hate, but have never played. Nothing on the web will replace the feeling of a guitar or bass in your hands, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll take home something new. Just remember why you started all this in the first place, and that regardless of your age or musical ability, you can still be hungry.

Steve Cook
Steve Cook has been touring extensively for the past 15 years, and has performed and recorded with such diverse artists as Steve Cropper and Sister Hazel. His current projects include touring and video production with Bucky Covington (Hollywood Records), as well as recording music for TV in the US and Canada. He also writes a weekly blog, which you can read at