How I Broke Through My Guitar Plateau & Found Love Again

I’m not new to the guitar. I began playing in the 90s. I took up classical guitar ensemble in high school and minored in music at university. I was in an active band in San Francisco for many years, recording two albums in respected studios and performing regularly.

Then I stopped. Other parts of my life took over, and, despite having several guitars available, I rarely touched an axe. They literally sat there collecting dust as my playing dwindled and my guilt about it all festered.

Every musician has been there. You might be there now. I was in a guitarist rut for a long time, but I recently bounded out of it. Not only did I become a better guitar player, I rediscovered my love for the instrument.

During the pandemic, I got back into music production and songwriting, which led me to face my woeful neglect of the world’s most wonderful instrument. Older now, I decided to take a new approach to the guitar, learning for me rather than to show off to others.

The following is what I did, what I’m doing now. This post isn’t a lesson or even really advice, as what works for me may not work for you. Also, I would not say I’m a “great” guitar player by any means, maybe somewhere around “decent,” definitely better than “that guy who only plays one Bob Marley song at all the college parties.” All the same, I hope this post will inspire anyone out there who feels like they may have plateaued with their guitar playing.

That time I had long hair and played at Slim’s in San Francisco

I went back to the fundamentals

Learning songs is a great way to become a better player, but I was never good at learning other people’s songs. I’d learn a little bit then lose patience with the rest (yes, I know the intros to “Master of Puppets” and “Nothing Else Matters” and “Tears in Heaven”). It works for some people, but it doesn’t work for me.

I wanted to know the guitar rather than learn any particular song or style. I wanted the freedom to play whatever I felt in my heart and to back it up with the music theory I already knew but was never fully able to apply. Out of my bookshelf, I pulled an old copy of Berklee’s A Modern Method for Guitar, a collection of three texts used for guitar instruction at the renowned music college.

I went back to the fundamentals, going through the text a little bit each day. I can now sight-read better across the entire fretboard and my playing is faster and more accurate than ever. I began studying the relationship of notes across strings rather than memorized scale forms. I still have a lot to learn, but the added knowledge from rebuilding a solid foundation has brought back joy and confidence in my playing.

I’m focusing on what is most practical for me

Everyone has different reasons to learn to play an instrument. When I was younger, I wanted to shred and rock out, etc. I wanted to learn everything at once without actually putting most of it into real-world practice. While it’s always great to learn all the skills, it’s not practical when time is limited and you want to remember what you’re learning.

I realized that guitar study is like learning a foreign language. While it’s great to eventually get to all the vocabulary, you don’t learn how to talk about astrophysics before you learn how to buy a train ticket. Also like language learning, guitar study takes lots of patience and daily practice.

My current focus is on songwriting, which means that learning all about chords and progressions is ultimately more useful for me now than memorizing all the modes. When a lesson is immediately applicable, it’s far easier to remember what you learned.

I try to see the guitar with new eyes

Fun fact: I was in a gospel choir during university (I’m not religious; it was a fun way to get a music performance credit). One of the most memorable takeaways was an activity during which we were to each bring in an instrument to share. We then picked from someone else an instrument we had never played to try out (some people brought wind instruments to share which was just… nasty). The lesson was that each of us can only play an instrument for the first time once. In other words, after you’ve handled a guitar for the first time, that complete newness is gone, and your idea of the instrument evolves.

When you’re not familiar with the guitar yet, there are no rules on how to play. There are no scales or picking techniques; you just pick the thing up and poke around. I wanted to recapture this feeling by playing without rules, letting my ears guide me, to play without regard to scales, keys, CAGED or guitar “best practices.” This allowed me to approach the guitar with fewer limitations.

Sometimes I’ll play in the dark

Some nights I’ll strap on the guitar and play in darkness. This forces me to use my ears and to go by feeling rather than sight. It’s also wholly cathartic and enjoyable. When playing the guitar stops being therapeutic, then I’ll know I’m doing it wrong.

Similarly, I try to find the right time to practice so that it never feels like a chore or something I have to do. Practice should be a special time, a sort of meditation. Cultivating this feeling helps stave off frustration.

I surround myself with guitar-related inspiration

I’m on social media a lot. Sometimes I work in social media. I’m not the first or last person to say that social media can be a toilet hole of misery and despair. With the proper tweaking, however, your social feeds can serve up inspiration rather than groans.

I followed the big music companies, namely Gibson, Fender, Martin, Sweetwater, Guitar Center and Musician’s Friend. The algorithms took over and now serve me an onslaught of guitar-related posts (I’ve managed to not buy anything from ads so far).

For example, the latest Fender ad for the 70th anniversary of the Stratocaster is pretty inspiring (see below)! And Gibson regularly releases beautiful photographs of some of their most gorgeous guitars. Looking at these pretty things won’t make you a better player, but damn do they not serve as great motivators for picking up your guitar.

So that’s the whole philosophy on how I broke through the guitar plateau and rediscovered my love for the instrument. My goal now is to become better from the inside out, from the fundamentals first, with patience and for self-improvement rather than pride. The ego makes for a horrible audience anyway.

If you made it this far, thanks so much for reading. If you want to follow along with my musical journey, please consider adding me on Instagram, YouTube and TikTok (more social links at the very top).

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