We all wind up there at some point in our guitar journey.
You’re playing guitar every day perhaps, perhaps you even spend time on finger exercises, but you’re just not making progress.
It’s important to know that that doesn’t make you less of a musician, but it does mean you might need to change your approach.
My 6 tips for getting unstuck when learning guitar are:
- Putting scales into context
- Listening to new music
- Learning some new licks and techniques
- Learning new songs
- Going out and playing with others
- Enjoying yourself
We’ll get into more detail about what this means and what might be holding you back as a guitar player along with sharing some good resources to help out.
With any luck, by the time you’ve finished reading this article, you’ll be back on track to improving your skills.
Are you really stuck on your guitar progress?
I like to think not. Most often it’s just a matter of pushing in the wrong direction.
As a guitar teacher, the problem I most often find students facing is the idea that they’re not making progress, more than not making actual progress.
What I’m getting at is that a lot of practicing any craft has to do with your mindset toward practice. Are you result-driven?
Do you beat yourself up for not achieving the goals you set out for yourself as a guitar player?
Are these views on what progress means to you holding you back?
Philosophizing aside, it is possible to become “stuck” with progress, but in my experience, it’s mainly been a matter of how you look at your journey as a musician.
So let’s take a look at some of the possible causes of what leads to being stuck and how you can approach them.
What could be the causes of your not improving on guitar?
Not practicing regularly enough
This is often the most common reason that students become stuck with their guitar progress.
It’s great that you spent 7 hours practicing non-stop that one time this last month, but that doesn’t amount to effective practice.
This is most often the case with guitarists that have a teacher that gives them a schedule of homework and practice to do each week.
Oftentimes, the advice is that it’s better to practice for ten minutes every day than ten hours one day a week. This advice is often not followed, unfortunately.
As far as the mindset necessary here, the point is that you’re not going to achieve noticeable results if you don’t adopt a disciplined approach to your learning.
Practicing things that come easy
We both know that’s not true though, and most commonly, people will practice what they’re good at because it’s easier than working on your weaknesses.
The downside here is that you might reach a point where the skill you’ve developed the most is now held back by the fact that to further the technique, you need to have built on another skill as well.
We can take alternate picking and hammer-ons for example. Most good guitar players will tell you that while picking and hammer-ons are considered opposites in their approach, they need to be developed together to achieve greater techniques.
Speaking from experience as someone who wanted to shred, I spent a lot of time working on my hammer-ons and pull-offs.
So my legato was really well developed, but when it comes to playing solos that require fast picking, I struggled because my right hand was out of sync.
It’s not to say that my legato technique was held back by my lack of good alternate picking, but to be a more well-rounded guitar player, I needed to improve on that skill too.
And in fact, my legato was held back, because some licks require a pick to match up with the pull-offs to give that articulation.
Either way, whatever technique it is that you’re avoiding simply because it’s your weak point, go and spend some time on it.
You’ll find that it unlocks new aspects of your guitar playing that you never imagined.
Remaining in your comfort zone
This one is closely linked to the previous issue.
Staying in your comfort zone is a little different from practicing what comes easy in that you’re not really practicing at all.
You’re spending time doing what you already can do, it’s complacency.
Remaining in your comfort zone is only enjoyable when you’re not thinking about what a waste of time it is.
When you’re maybe doing a tapping lick that you could do in your sleep and you might have some fans to applaud it, but deep down you know it’s the thousandth time you’ve done it and it’s no longer enjoyable.
Remaining in your comfort zone expands outside of guitar playing, but as far as guitar goes, it’s one of the quickest ways to wind up putting your instrument down for good.
So how do we break out of our comfort zone?
We start asking questions about what we don’t know and actively seek out challenges. For me, that was learning new techniques and studying deeper into music theory.
For you, it might mean a return to the fundamentals.
Not starting on the fundamentals
Or worse, you never even started at the fundamentals.
Oh man, how this can hold a player back…
I had a friend who wanted to play guitar and she spent time learning some chords, but she never went further than that, and moreover, she never even learned how to hold her guitar properly and it held her back.
Now, as a teacher, I’m a little pedantic about good posture.
When you’re Van Halen, you can play your guitar sitting like a croissant, but until that day, you sit up straight and don’t lay on your guitar.
That’s just a small example of fundamentals and aside from holding your guitar, there are many things to look at that always need to be worked on.
From hand positioning, to how you hold your pick, to your understanding of basic music theory to the building block exercises you do as a beginner.
Now, for some who are self-taught musicians (like how I started out) knowing where to start and even what the fundamentals are can be difficult as it is, but luckily, you’ll find most of the answers with a quick search.
Avoiding music theory
Finally, you might be super fast, you might be coordinated, and your timing might be unchallenged, but if you don’t understand the licks you’re playing, you won’t be able to create your own music.
It’s important to learn music theory because everything you’re doing revolves around understanding music.
And while it may be called theory, almost every aspect of music theory that you learn can be put into practice.
The nice thing about developing as a musician is that it tends to creep up on you anyway, but there’s great value to be found in devoting some time to music theory alone.
The thing is that because of how complex the journey to musical skill can be, it can be difficult to know what to start on first. Luckily, there are some good resources on it and I’ve linked a fantastic video here:
Learning the guitar is not a linear process
People often forget that as skill grows, the learning curve dips and levels out a lot.
As you get better, you will undoubtedly become a greater musician, but you’ll likely not even realize how far you’ve come.
It can be especially frustrating when you put in the time and the same amount of practice and the results seem to be a matter of diminishing returns.
At this point, you can be proud that you’ve gotten so good that you struggle to find a challenge.
For the rest of us… it’s important to remember that learning guitar isn’t a matter of running down a checklist. Skills are interdependent and build on each other constantly.
I like to think of learning guitar as growing a tree.
The roots are the fundamentals and the branches are skills built on top of these fundamentals.
You can’t only develop one side of the tree because then it will become lopsided and its growth will be hindered.
You might develop bad habits and have to do some pruning along the way, and you may come back to things over and over. Strengthening the base so that the rest may grow.
6 tips to get unstuck when learning guitar
Focusing on practice instead of noodling, finding weak points, getting a new teacher, playing with other people, etc. whatever you can come up with
1. Start putting scales into context
it’s one thing to practice a bunch of musical exercises and memorize scales, but it’s another to put them into context and understand how they fit into the music.
Some things like the chromatic scale aren’t suited for this, but if you’ve learned a major scale, get a backing track in that key and practice improvising on it.
The point of this tip is that you shouldn’t confuse discipline with sacrifice. Learning scales isn’t about rote memorization, it’s to give you the recipe to make beautiful sounds without the stress of not knowing where it fits.
Start implementing your exercises into songs and you’ll find it much more enjoyable to practice them.
2. Listen to new music
Part of being a better musician is expanding your tastes and experimenting from time to time. All great musicians did this and you’d be surprised just how effective it is.
If you’re someone who started out learning to play blues, you’re likely learning mostly blues-applicable things. This makes perfect sense, but it could be holding you back.
Try listening to classical music and see how musicians of that genre understand music and composition. When you come back to your main genre, you’ll find your playing expanded to something more intricate and sophisticated.
3. Learn some new licks and techniques
If you’re feeling stuck, one of the likely reasons is that you’re still playing the same musical licks in different songs. Learning a new lick can take so little time and yet open you up to many different harmonic implementations.
If you’re not sure what a lick is, it’s a short pattern of notes that form a small melody when played together:
One thing that’s important about this tip is to dissect the lick and ask yourself where it could fit into other songs. It might be a matter of shifting it around for different keys or slightly changing some notes to play on a different position of a scale. Regardless of how you implement it, make sure you’re doing so consciously.
4. Learn new songs
This is similar to listening to new music, except it goes beyond listening. It’s one thing to listen to and ruminate on different music, but it’s something else entirely to play it.
This might also be a matter of getting out of your comfort zone. A lot of musicians tend to learn a few songs and stick to that their whole lives and they just stagnate for it.
Don’t be that guy. I’d say a good goal to set is to learn at least one new song a month. The added benefit is that you’ll have a greater repertoire each year.
5. Go out and play with other musicians
Go out and get together with other musicians and jam. This is an important step in being a musician because it forces you to be in a position where you have to think on your feet.
Playing live with other people is a lot less comfortable than sitting on your bed in your room practicing, but it’s fantastic for building your confidence as a musician.
6. Enjoy yourself
Finally, don’t forget to make your journey through music enjoyable. Even when you’re challenging yourself, remember to have fun and enjoy the process.
Hello there, my name is Ramiro and I’ve been playing guitar for almost 20 years. I’m obsessed with everything gear-related and I thought it might be worth sharing it. From guitars, pedals, amps, and synths to studio gear and production tips, I hope you find what I post here useful, and I’ll try my best to keep it entertaining also.