Every month, Justin Sandercoe of justinguitar.com lends GT his insight as one of the world’s most successful guitar teachers. This month: The same old tired licks?
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Y’ou know the feeling… you sit down to practice and find yourself playing the same old stuff, getting bored and frustrated and it often leads to putting the guitar down.
People ask me about how to escape this - there are solutions but it depends on which version you’re suffering from. Most commonly I find beginner and intermediate level players say that they play the same songs and riffs all the time. This one is the easiest to fix – learn some new songs! But before you choose a new song to learn there are a couple of things to think about that will help stave off the problem in the future.
Always try to choose to learn songs that you really love. There’s no point in practising something you don’t like unless you’re doing it ‘for work’, which is an entirely different conversation. The first thing to think about is a song’s difficulty, and your ability to play it). And be honest with yourself. I recommend most students have at least two songs they are working on at any time – one within their ability (and aiming to play the whole song along with the original recording). I would suggest that these songs become ‘repertoire’. Then you make a playlist of the songs you learn so you can have a jam day every few weeks and play through all your songs in a set. It’s great if you want to play in a band or jam with others.
The other song you are working on should be something you really love that is perhaps beyond your current technical ability but you aspire to play it one day. The idea here is to enjoy the journey and when you accept that you ‘shouldn’t be able to play it yet’, you can enjoy the progress and work on smaller achievable sections. But don’t feel too tied to it. Maybe only look at the song a week or two, move on and revisit it later. If you find it easier than you thought to get down, maybe it moves to your repertoire. Above all else this should be fun!
Students that follow this plan get a feeling of accomplishment from their growing repertoire and enjoyment from working on songs they love, even if they can’t play them so well. It’s a great way of breaking out of a rut and avoiding the same one in the future. You can apply the same logic to working on techniques and concepts too.
A variety of same lick frustration that affects intermediate players, comes when improvising and noticing that your ‘pet licks’ are becoming dominant. It’s important to realise that every improvising musician has ‘licks’, ‘lines’ or ‘concepts’ that they use regularly and that is totally as it should be. Licks are simply words and great poetry uses words that people are familiar with. If you doubt this, do some transcribing of your favourite player and look for the same licks or concepts - you’ll get to grips with it pretty quickly.
Problems usually occur when we find our pet licks are coming forward too often, or too close together. I’ll share a couple of exercises that I find really helpful when I get in this muddle myself, and I hope they might help you too.
The first step for me is to learn a new lick, phrase or concept and develop it over a five-minute backing track. I listen to someone who I really like and find a lick that I would like to work into my playing. I transcribe it, figure out what’s going on harmonically (looking for the essence or the concept if there is one) and figure out where on the neck it feels nice under my fingers. I will then start improvising over a backing track, trying at first to use only that lick, then developing it in as many ways as I can; eventually I start mixing it in with other licks I know in the hope it will become ‘part of the family’. I’ll often grab a few licks or ideas from something I have transcribed recently and do the above process with each, then try blending them together.
The second is that I record myself soloing over a five-minute backing track. I listen back and keep an ear out for my pet licks and phrases. I note down a few and then record another solo over the same thing, avoiding those licks. I listen back to that one and take note again of the offending licks, write them out and avoid those too. At some point the tired old licks are replaced with new stuff. If not, or I’m feeling really stuck, I learn a bunch of new licks (see above).
There are of course many other ways to break out of these ruts but I hope you’ll find these effective if you find yourself bored with the same old tired licks!
i record myselF soloing over a backing track and keep an ear out For my pet licks or phrases
Justin has ways to make your practice time less frustrating