Breaking Out of the Box?

Nov12

Everything begins somewhere. At one time in your life someone or something inspired you to take up playing the guitar. You bought or borrowed (or were bequeathed) an instrument and began what probably seemed an impossibly arduous task: learning the language of music. Everything was new and exciting. You memorized chords and scales.

You finally nailed down that complicated sounding riff that made your friends say, “Wow! I didn’t know you could play!” Maybe you joined a band or played the “coffee house” scene. You met and jammed with other musicians and picked up even more tricks of the trade.

Perhaps songwriting was more your forte. You had a knack for telling a story or relating a feeling and could successfully translate your ideas and emotions into music. There is little that compares to the sensation of performing something that you wrote, something that means a lot to you.

But at some point in your musical life you may find yourself hitting a wall. Your favorite songs don’t excite you anymore. In fact, you get bored playing the same stuff over and over. Even playing before people is more a chore than an enjoyment. Everything you write sounds the same. To quote B.B. King, “The thrill is gone.”

It’s ironic that, in spite of the fact that the guitar is such a versatile instrument, so many guitarists inevitably find themselves stuck in a rut. We noodle with the same lead lines based on the same scales; we rarely vary our strumming patterns.

Writers especially fall prey to relying on tried and true patterns. Pick a key: say, C major. Okay, our first chord is C, so we’ll move on from there to F or G and before you know it you’re thinking, “Gee, this sounds familiar.”

Part of this situation is inherent. We tend to play the songs we enjoy over and over and we are wary of changing an arrangement too much. We tend to write songs in formula: intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle eight, instrumental verse, outro (big finish). There is nothing wrong with this. But in order to learn and grow, we need to move beyond what we already know. Often, it is not that the music has little to offer, it’s simply that we’ve forgotten how to learn. We’ve lost the sense of newness and wonder that drew us to our guitars in the first place and have basically shut ourselves in little boxes marked “metal,” “blues,” “jazz,” “country,” “alternative,” etc. A lot of people do not realize that much of what they have learned in one style of music can be utilized in another style as well. It’s simply a matter of picking up the nuances of the new genre, and that can be best achieved by familiarizing yourself with as many types of music as you can.

There are lots of easy and practically effortless things that anyone can do to stretch his or her musical mind. Some are obvious, but the obvious things are usually the last things one thinks about. Some of these ideas, especially those involving specific playing techniques and song writing, we will explore in depth in future columns. But for now, let’s go over a few ways to bring that spark back to your playing, writing and performing.

Go Out To a Show

The easiest way to kick-start yourself is to simply throw yourself into the music. I’m not saying to take out a mortgage or sell your car to see the Eagles, just go to your favorite club and see a local group. Go to an open mike night. See someone you’ve never heard before and enjoy the experience. If you always go to blues bars, try a jazz club instead. If you consider yourself a metal head, take in some reggae. If you don’t happen to live in an area where this is possible then:

Change (or Don’t Change) Your Station

If you listen to one station all the time, then listen to another at least one day a week. This is probably the best way to expose yourself to different music. Conversely, too many people spend most of their driving time fooling around with the knobs, trying to find a song that they know they like. If this is you, then keep your hands off the dial and listen to whatever you’re given. If nothing else, this will keep your passengers from having anxiety attacks. And speaking of passengers:

Meet More People

They don’t have to be musicians. Everybody has different tastes and opinions when it comes to music. Find out why someone likes (or doesn’t like) a particular style you are unfamiliar with. It’s always useful to have a knowledgeable guide in uncharted territory.

Use All The Resources Available To You

Internet sites such as Guitar Noise are wonderful tools with which to explore music from the comfort of your own home (or office). They make it easy to find all kinds of information about the instruments and music that interests you. Take the time to explore everything that a website has to offer. And don’t forget your local guitar shops. Making good friends there can reap lots of benefits when it comes to advice. There’s also an abundance of DVDs, videos and books suitable for every level of expertise. Most books these days come with audio CDs so you can listen while you learn.

Make Something Old New Again

Just as there is no end to the ways you can rearrange a song, there should be no limit to your ways of approaching one. We will delve into a number of these ideas in upcoming columns. Try using a capo or an alternate tuning method. If you always play an electric guitar, give an acoustic or a classical guitar a shot (and borrow one and check it out long before you buy one). Those of you who have always shied away from fingerpicking should give it a try. See what your favorite lead sounds like on a different tone or effects setting or even with a slide. Granted, not all of these ideas will work and some might even sound fairly dubious, but they are merely to get you to take that first step toward coming up with something new. Every first step leads to other new thoughts and experiments. I guarantee that you will find it worthwhile.

Please feel free to email me at dhodgeguitar@aol.com with any questions, comments or ideas that you would like to see covered in the future. Or simply post them on the Guitar Forums here at Guitar Noise.

About David Hodge

Since joining Guitar Noise in November 1999, David has written over a thousand articles, lessons, interviews and reviews. He also serves as the site's Managing Editor, supervising all content in addition to the continued writing of his own lessons and articles. In April 2013, David joined the writing staff of Answers.com, heading up their Guitar Pages. And if that wasn't enough to keep him busy, David contributes to regularly Acoustic Guitar Magazine. He is also the author of six instructional books, the most recent being Idiot’s Guide: Playing Guitar.

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