Tips For Getting Over Your Guitar Playing Plateaus

When you first pick up the guitar, you spend considerable time learning the basics. Once you get those down and feel comfortable with your instrument, you move on to songs and various techniques and styles of playing. Your abilities seem to grow in leaps and bounds for a good long while as you cruise along on your journey to becoming a guitarist of some merit. And then, out of nowhere, BAM! You run smack into a brick wall. Suddenly, no matter how much you practice, it ceases to yield the desired results, or any results at all. Progress comes to a grinding halt.

The dreaded plateau, that state where you feel like you're spinning your wheels, is actually a normal occurrence. Most musicians, at some point or another, are forced to face it. And more than once. If you were to graph the learning curve for the average guitarist, instead of a smooth straight upward line, it would instead resemble a set of stairs—risers interspersed with long flat spots. The danger in these stagnant periods is that they can lead to a loss of interest in playing. Plateaus are when many students give up because they’re convinced they are unable to learn any more. That they've reached the limits of their abilities. That where they are is all there is. What a plateau is actually telling you though is that for the time being, you've gotten all you can out of the approach you are currently using. You need to switch things up.

In his book Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment, best-selling author George Leonard, a pioneer in the field of human potential, describes the stages of learning and what exactly sets the masters apart from the dabblers. Leonard claims that learning and accomplishment are based on hitting and overcoming a series of plateaus, each of which may have the occasional setback. With dedicated practice and a lot of hard work, you can break through to a new level, which is yet another plateau. Mastery, he says, is based on loving the practice of what you're doing and accepting that there will be long plateaus, occasional setbacks, and if you're lucky, rare breakthroughs.

So what is the secret to pushing through a plateau to get to the next level of playing? Well, first, you need to commit to your music for the long haul. If playing guitar was easy, everyone would do it. And don't fool yourself by believing that the majority of virtuosos are born with an innate talent. Good guitarists work hard, every day, to achieve greatness. Now let's take a look at some other ways to work through these blocks.

Keep going. The single most important thing is for you to keep practicing and keep learning. Don't give up in frustration or out of boredom. Just keep going, even though you may feel like you are fighting the same battles over and over again. Much of the process and activity of learning lies unseen in the brain.

Be patient. Breakthroughs almost always come to those who persevere. Just because a concept takes a while to learn doesn’t mean that something is wrong or that progress isn’t being made. Certain things just take time.

Oil the engine. Take in some live music. Buy that new CD you’ve been wanting. Get a songbook of your favorite band and start working through it. Read a music biography or check out a documentary of your favorite artist. Grab a guitar magazine or two. You'll find some new songs to learn in them as well as great articles and tips. You might even pick up a guitar magazine that focuses on another style of music entirely, one you've never played before. Do whatever it takes to keep yourself interested and motivated while you push for a breakthrough in some area of your development.

Approach from a different angle. Let’s say you are working on barre chords and you’ve done the exercises day after day, week after week, with little improvement. Put the exercises away for a week or two and work instead on songs that don't include barre chords. Take a break from whatever it is that has you stumped and then come back to it fresh.

Make progress in other areas. Don’t let one single area of your development slow and eventually stop your overall progress. Just because you haven’t mastered one concept doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t move on to other things in other areas of your playing. When a stream of water hits a rock, it gets diverted. You need to do likewise and change course when you hit a wall.

Abstinence. Put the guitar away for a day, a week, or even a month. You might take it a step further and also avoid listening to music as well. When you take a break from playing guitar and music in general, you will usually start jonesing to play again. Deprivation has a funny way of making us want something all the more. Then, when you resume playing, you will come to your practice with renewed energy.

Try a different style of music. Let's say your favorite style of guitar playing is rock. Learn to play a jazz song, a blues song, a country number, a reggae song, or a classical piece. Step out of your comfort zone and try something new.

Learn some guitar theory. Sometimes some of the biggest breakthroughs and rut busters come from learning some guitar theory. Your playing can only go so far if you don't have a clue as to what you're doing and why. You don't have to go hardcore here, just learn some of the basics of guitar theory. They will have a huge impact on your playing. Knowing no theory at all is like wandering around a maze on a moonless night. A little knowledge can shed a lot of light and completely reinvigorate your playing.

Here is a cool video from JamPlay.com where instructor Randall Williams discusses some of the basics of music theory

Focus on technique. Another great thing to do to catapult your guitar playing to the next level is to focus exclusively on your technique. Take a week of practice sessions and devote them entirely to doing nothing but working on technique. For instance, you might work on alternate picking one day, then hammer-ons and pull offs, tapping, sweep picking, fingerpicking and string skipping. Don't work on any songs or anything else for that week. Just practice technique.

Learn some new scales. If the only scale you know is the minor pentatonic, it's time to broaden your horizons. There's a whole big world of guitar scales out there to challenge your fingers and give you some new tools for creating killer solos. When you think about it, a guitar solo is just a melody that uses one or more guitar scales that work well over the chord progressions. So if you want more variety in your guitar solos, learn some new scales. Also be sure to learn multiple fingerings for these scales. Different scale fingerings will give you different melodic ideas. The other cool thing is once you know multiple ways to play the same scale on the guitar, you can link them together and cover the entire fretboard in the key. This is one way to create those long fretboard-burning licks. And don't limit yourself to practicing scales forwards and backwards. Practice scales in thirds, fourths, fifths, etc. Keep things interesting.

Learn some new chords. Challenge yourself to learn 3 new chords every week. In a month's time, you will have 12 new chords under your belt. In a year you will have added 144 new chords to your music vocabulary. The key to learning these chords is that you must find a way to incorporate them into your playing. If you learn a new chord and have absolutely no way of using it, it's like learning a new word and never speaking it in conversation. It won't take long before you forget the word and the chord. Learn it. Use it. Retain it.

Work on rhythm and time signatures. Even if you aspire to be the next Jimi Hendrix, you still need to know how to play rhythm guitar. That's because in order to be an effective lead guitarist, you must know how to follow a rhythm. Don't limit yourself to sticking to common time or to using only eighth and sixteenth notes. A wider rhythmic pallet will enable you to create more interesting rhythm and lead guitar parts. Learn the basics of rhythm and time signatures. Listen to a wide variety of musical styles and expose yourself to music from different cultures, which often has more complex and elaborate rhythms. Once you have started to experiment with different time signatures, try composing pieces in these meters.

Use a metronome. If you don’t routinely practice with a metronome, it’s time to dig it out from the back of your closet and practice everything with it. If you already use a metronome, then turn it off for a week and practice everything without it. Another option is to use your metronome as a measuring stick. Let's say you're working on a new scale. Set up your metronome and practice the guitar scale with it. Note the tempo that you are able to accurately play the scale. Make it your goal to increase this speed by one, two, or three beats per minute. Do this every practice session. Just make sure it's a realistic goal and remember that speed is a by-product of accuracy. Don't get speedy before your time or you'll just be practicing your mistakes.

Here is a link to a free online metronome

Dissect your phrases. Spend some time working in more detail. Take apart each phrase of a song and discover what you need to do in order to make it fit better into the whole. Once you’ve finished working on one phrase to your satisfaction, go on to the next one.

Mix things up. If you play mostly with a pick, focus on fingerpicking. If you play mostly fingerstyle, spend some time flatpicking. If you mainly play rhythm, switch it up and play lead. If you mainly play from sheet music, try using your ear. Revisit old pieces instead of forging ahead with something brand new. Change gears.

When you hit a plateau in your playing, it helps to remember that musicians of all levels can and do experience stagnation. Press on and don't lose heart. Progress lies within the things you don't yet know. Feeling stymied is a result of the things you do.