If there’s a single lesson that might have the most impact on your guitar playing, it’s that you should never stop looking for new options.
When we first start playing, nearly everyone learns the basic open chords. This is foundation stuff, and important to any style of music. But a significant percentage of people stop there. If your goal is to play songs you like, that basic vocabulary can be enough for you to be functional. But the limitations soon become clear.
If your goals include playing lead and melody, you’ve probably learned some scales. If you’re diligent, you might have learned multiple scales in different places around the neck. But even skilled players begin to repeat themselves, and can eventually start to feel like things are getting stale.
Most styles of music have a primary vocabulary that helps defines the genre. But even within those (necessary) limitations, there’s always another way to play virtually anything.
If you find yourself stagnant and stuck, it’s almost certainly because you stopped looking for options.
Think about that basic open chord vocabulary. How many different ways can you play a D chord? That familiar triangle shape is often the right thing to play, but have you tried others? Even within the same song, some variation can make things more interesting. You can also find new possibilities for melody and signature guitar parts by expressing the same chord different ways.
We could say the same for scales. Even playing the same melody in a different location or with a different fingering can change the sonic effect. When improvising, simply landing somewhere new will have an impact on your note choices.
Let’s go a step further. What about alternate tunings? Some players invent their own, while others fall in love with the sound of a particular tuning. Some people pick up another guitar or even a different instrument when they need inspiration. But you don’t have to go that far to shake things up a little.
Looking for options simply means being on the lookout for other things to try.
Since guitar playing is based on learned movements, it’s easy to rely on muscle memory. Since music is based on patterns, it’s easy to fall into using the same ones automatically. It’s easy to favor the familiar, and sometimes that’s the right thing.
That’s not to say you should analyze everything you play. Your first intuition will often be the right one once you’re tuned in enough to connect to it. But if you get into the habit of challenging your musical decisions, you will always reach further and keep stretching your both your vocabulary and your skills. This keeps your playing fresh, engaged, and dynamic. Most of all, it gives you a path out of the ruts we all fall into from time to time.
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