Guitar Plateau: How to Jumpstart Progress When You’re Stuck | Hub Guitar

Guitar Plateau: How to Jumpstart Progress When You’re Stuck

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So you’ve been playing awhile now. Months. Years. Decades, maybe. And now you’re stuck. Progress halted, and maybe long ago.

“I’m just not getting any better,” you say to yourself.

That’s no fun. One of the greatest joys of playing the guitar is the hopeful feeling that you’re getting a little bit better each week. And just maybe, some day, you’ll feel fully in control of this noise box. Let’s see if we can get you unstuck.

In teaching private guitar lessons, the biggest motivation for experienced players seeking lessons is that they feel stuck. They’ve reached a plateau, and aren’t sure where to take their playing next.

In this article, we’re going to talk about some of the common causes of “hitting the wall”, and some strategies you can use to address each problem.

Cause #1: You Aren’t Practicing Enough

The first thing you should do if you’re not happy with your guitar progress lately is ask yourself if you’re practicing enough.

Even if you’re still putting in the same amount you always have, maybe you need more time or effort. When you reach a certain level of playing ability, 30 minutes a day is no longer good enough to make big progress.

Maybe what got you where you are now won’t get you where you want to go.

Stepping up the time you spend in the practice room will almost always make a difference. And you need to show up, consistently, every day, and do the work.

Cause #2: You Have No Outlet

What is your musical outlet? Do you rehearse with a group of friends? Do you write music? Do you record music? Do you go out and perform?

Your musical outlet is the final step in an eternal feedback loop pushing you towards higher levels of guitar playing. Without that step, your results will not be the strongest.

Cause #3: You Haven’t Left Your Comfort Zone

The problem

If this is your problem, you may already know it. Whenever you pick up the guitar, you can’t stop yourself from playing familiar songs, chords and licks that you’re already pretty good at. There are other things that you want to be better at, but you can’t bring yourself to practice them. Maybe you know what you have to do, but you don’t want to suck again, starting all the way at the beginning in a new topic when you’ve already learned a lot about the guitar.

The solution

Get out of your comfort zone. Identify what your weakest areas are, and spend at least half of your practice time fixing them.

Learning guitar can be roughly divided into a few categories: fretboard knowledge, guitar technique, ear training, rhythm, improvisation, reading music, and repertoire (solo or band).

Here are some signs of weakness related to each:

  • Fretboard knowledge: you don’t understand how to play the same scale or chord in another place.
  • Guitar technique: your fingers feel clumsy, and can’t seem to produce the correct notes or sounds.
  • Ear training: you can’t repeat melodies that you hear. You can’t figure out how to play the sounds you hear in your head.
  • Rhythm: everything you play just doesn’t sound right. And you sometimes don’t know where the beat is.
  • Improvisation: you know plenty of scales, but couldn’t figure out how to play a guitar solo for the life of you.
  • Reading music: whether it’s a chord chart in your band practice, or standard notation, you can’t play it, or your reading is very slow and choppy.
  • Repertoire: there are only a few songs you feel somewhat comfortable with, if any. And you can’t remember how to play any of them without the sheet music.

Is one of these areas your sticking point? Maybe you can play a lot of patterns, and improvise your own solos, but your time is a little weak. Whatever it is, the weakest link is the one that defines your maximum output. The truth is, no matter how many ideas you have for improvising, no matter how fast you can play, and no matter how many techniques you’ve mastered, if your time sucks, you suck, too. So find out what it is that’s holding you back. Get out of your comfort zone. And don’t be afraid to focus mostly on one area at a time.

Even if you’re weak in all of the areas listed above, if you took a few weeks or months to sharpen yourself in one way, your ability would improve considerably and you could move on to doing work in a different area.

Cause #4: You’re Bored or Uninspired

The problem

Inspiration visits upon (and abandons) all of us, from the beginner with a brand new instrument to the accomplished player who has been playing professionally for 20 years.

One difference between the novice and the master is that the master has learned to attend to his duties with or without inspiration. Sometimes it fades away for a few months or longer only to come back more than ever. And this makes sense. If you’re not feeling inspired at work, what would happen to your job if you stopped showing up? Everyone in the world wants to quit sometimes. But some people do, and others don’t.

The solution

The first thing you need is the discipline and commitment to practice despite your boredom. Don’t expect the angel of inspiration to carry you all of the time.

The second thing is to make sure that you’re practicing something that will actually make you better. If you’re stuck in your comfort zone, you’re not getting better. And not getting better is boring.

Once you’ve checked for more fundamental problems, it’s time to get your interest revved up again. Can you think of anything you’ve always wanted to be able to do, but never could? Maybe you’ve wanted to write a song, learn a classical guitar piece, or write down all of the notes in your favorite guitar solo. Whatever it is, as long as it’s within the reach of your level, commit to doing it. And put an achievement cap on it. Writing a song is a project only finished when you send a recording to your friends. The classical guitar piece has to be recorded and posted on YouTube or Facebook. And the finished guitar solo has to be uploaded to a transcription or tab website. Join the community. Put your neck out.

Cause #5: You Think You Suck

The problem

You’ve been playing for more than a year, and you can’t see how you’ve made any progress. Maybe you’ve been playing longer—5 or even 10 years. You don’t feel like you’ve come very far.

Well, a lot of people think that. But they don’t let it stop them.

The solution

Pick up your guitar and hold it. Now flip it over so your opposite hand is fretting the chords and its opposite is strumming. Try to fret a basic chord, or play the first few notes of any tune.

Impossible!

But this is precisely the level of ability that you began with. What could have damaged your self-esteem so much that you forgot how far you’ve really come?

Now, hold your guitar correctly. Can you remember the first tune that you ever learned on the guitar? The first song you ever learned. It was probably a struggle. Go find the tab, or the sheet music. Or just try to remember it. Spend your whole next practice session playing it, or re-learning it if you forgot it. Isn’t it much easier to play now than it was when you began?

The problem is, we’re very adaptive. Our skills and experience are accumulated like drops of rain. Even when we’ve learned a whole bucketful, we don’t really notice that much because it accumulated so slowly. Give yourself some credit. And see if you can find more ways to measure your guitar progress, as this will help you avoid thinking this way in the future.

Cause #6: Expectations Mismatch

This one tends to affect beginning players more.

The problem

You’ve been trying your best to learn, but you’re frustrated by how long it takes and how much time it takes.

The solution

Adjust your expectations. Guitar learning is measured in months and in hundreds of hours of practice. We all know what it’s like to want to jump ahead as fast as you can. But this is an endeavor that rewards the patient and the persistent. Just hanging in there for your whole life will put you way ahead of 99% of the people who pick up a guitar at some point, and who stop playing at some point. Persistence pays.

Guitar might be the most long-term pursuit you ever undertake. Like watering a little sapling, you have to wait years until it grows into a big tree. And that’s what makes the progress you earn so worthwhile.

Cause #7: Diminishing Returns

This one tends to affect advanced players more.

The problem

You’ve been playing for years, and invested thousands of hours in practice. You have a decent handle on the instrument. You know all of the shapes and patterns. Your musical skills are up to par. You can play solo guitar or in an ensemble. But you don’t feel like you’re making any improvement.

The solution

If you’re not experiencing the other problems, you may have hit a point of diminishing returns. That’s good, but that’s also where the real work begins.

In your first week of learning guitar, you might practice 7 hours. The next week, if you practice another 7, you can double your guitar abilities in one week. But if you’ve already practiced 5,000 hours, another 7 hours is closer to 1/10th of 1%. That means it can take a longer time to notice improvements. And because a portion of your practice time is needed simply to maintain your current level, that means that as you progress that daily hour of practice may have less and less impact.

But you can speed this up, by:

  • Practicing a lot more
  • Focus on your biggest weaknesses
  • Organize your practice, quantify your skills, and define your success as clearly as possible, using numbers
  • Go play with some more advanced players, or perform somewhere that scares the crap out of you.

Pressure has a funny way of motivating us.

One student was able to play a few solo guitar tunes, but always felt disappointed by how few were in his repertoire. He had about 20 minutes of music memorized.

He got a call to play for a private corporate dinner event in the back room of a fancy restaurant. The date? Two weeks.

You’d better believe that in two weeks, he had quadrupled his solo guitar repertoire list.

Recommended Reading

Now may be a time to read and find some new inspiration. Consider reading Philip Toshio Sudo, Zen Guitar[?]Affiliate Link for some guidance.

Coda

If you’re stuck, just relax. It won’t last forever. Get out of your comfort zone. Do something that scares you. Do something new that excites you. Bust up your routine. Take a lesson with a new teacher. And hang in there. Learning guitar takes awhile.

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