A few people have asked me for advice on breaking out of a rut. They’ve been playing for a few years and have have gotten pretty good, but feel like their guitar playing has hit a brick wall and don’t know how to go any further.
This is a pretty common problem which I can totally relate to, because I’ve been there myself! And what got me out of that rut (and helped me stay out of it), was understanding how music works by learning theory and harmony, and getting to know the guitar neck well enough that I could apply it with little to no thinking.
I’ll give you a concrete example: the Minor Pentatonic Scale.
If you’ve been playing guitar for a few years, you probably know the minor pentatonic scale. It’s the first scale most of us learn. But we learn it as a shape on the fretboard.
What happened with me was I started messing around with that shape, learned a few solos, and pretty soon I could more or less improvise with it. I could move it around depending on the key, or play it an octave higher. Things were sounding pretty cool.
But I got to a point where everything started sounding the same. I was always playing the same licks and I didn’t know how to takes things any further.
Fast forward to now and things are quite different. I know the pentatonic scale, not as a shape on the fretboard, but as a group of five notes. I also know where to find those five notes anywhere on the guitar.
I’m no longer just fiddling around within a shape. I’m listening to the music in my head, and my fingers can find the notes instantly anywhere on the neck. I don’t even have to think about it, it’s like singing whatever comes to my head. Total freedom.
Now, I don’t want to give the impression that I can play anything so effortlessly. Some things I can, some I can’t. Some keys are more comfortable for me than others (please don’t ask me to play in Gb…), and there will always be room for improvement.
But there was definitely a moment where things clicked for me, where everything just opened up. I stopped seeing the fretboard as a collection of chords and shapes. Instead it’s more like a sea of notes which I can pick and choose from , the only limitation being what I hear in my head.
This is what you should strive for. It’s not something that’ll happen overnight, and it takes a lot of time and practice. But by the time you know all the notes on the fretboard and can see scales and chords in this way, I can gurantee you’ll have forgotten ever having been in a rut.
You can start by learning the notes of the C Major scale on each string. Start with the first string and go up and down the scale, from the open E, all the way up and back down. Force yourself to be aware of the notes your playing while your doing this. Say them out loud as you’re playing them if you have to.
When you get reasonably comfortable start improvising just on that string. Make it intereseting by recording yourself or using a looper to provide a background. A simple C chord will do (or an Am if you prefer the darker side of things.)
Then do the same with each string on the guitar. Let’s say it takes you a week to get each string down…that means in six weeks you’ll know the notes of the C Major scale all over the fretboard! This exercise alone should help you start seeing things in a new way. It definitely did for me.