It happens to the best of us. We fall into a rut, and don't know how to climb out of a soul sucking, lull in creativity. It's easy to become comfortable, after sitting down to practice, noodling, running over the same riffs. It's important to just play every once in a while, or play your favorite song, but if you want to move forward on the guitar, you have to be willing to shake things up.
Here are a bunch of different things you can do to get your guitar skills to another level.
Learn how to bend
Have you ever really listened to when you bend a guitar string? If you're trying to get a whole step bend, are you making it all the way? Sit down and practice, quarter, whole, whole and a half, and other bends. The easiest way to do this is to play your starting note, then play your target note, and then go back to your starting note and try to bend it up to the target note you just heard.
You should be able to get pretty close after a few tries. If you're bending with your ring or pinky finger, try and use your middle or index finger to give those weaker fingers a little support. It's a beautiful thing to be able to bend accurately. Practice this a little bit every day, and you'll also develop finger strength in the meantime.
I always talk about creating a lick library. Whether that be by writing your riffs down, or recording them, it's a really beneficial thing to have when you're writing songs. One other component you should add to your lick library is recording yourself via video.
This does a couple of things. First, you have a video version of the riff you recorded, so it'll be easier to see where you had your hands on the guitar neck, and this will also help you when you're trying to remember riffs. The other thing recording yourself via video accomplishes is that you can see how far you've come on the guitar. If you recorded yourself practicing a legato riff 6 months ago, and you find yourself recording a new legato riff today, you can see how much you've improved, and what needs work.
Practice a technique every day
While traveling recently my Lyft driver mentioned how he was trying to learn fingerpicking. Whether it be fingerpicking or any other technique (sweep picking, economy picking, hammer ons) it's important to practice that technique every day to make sure you're making progress.
Just like you wouldn't cram running or weightlifting into one day a week, the same thing goes for guitar. The practice every day thing is real. Not only for techniques, but for speed as well. If I find myself practicing something every day, by the end of the week I'll usually be able to see real gains, if not sooner.
Try to make music with two notes
I can't remember where I first saw this concept. I believe it was someone like Vai who even started with trying to play 1 note 30 different ways. If you're in a creative rut, it's easy to get better at guitar by trying to make 1 or 2 notes sound exciting.
Limiting yourself to two notes makes you really hone in on technique and accuracy. Plus, it's good mentally, because it'll force you to think of creative ways to play just two notes. Try them as a chord, using hammer ons, pull offs, with vibrato, bends, and more.
Don't practice bad habits
It's important to recognize that if you make a mistake or develop a bad habit on guitar, that you don't keep repeating it over and over again. One thing I've seen a lot of students do is practice sitting down. While this may be comfortable, it's likely that you'll be playing standing up. Whether that be at a show or another event, it's a good idea to try and practice good habits.
This goes for more than just practicing while standing up though. Some students hold the guitar in an awkward way, that doesn't give their fingers the optimal strength to play, and also might be hurting their hands. Spend time figuring out the basics, and make sure you don't practice bad habits.
Know what you're going to practice
We talk about this all the time, but I think it's so essential that I wanted to bring it up again. It's a really good idea to know what you're going to practice when you sit down. If you don't, you run the risk of just playing the same old stock riffs, and relying on muscle memory.
If you plan ahead you're more likely to progress in getting better at guitar, will learn new things, and have a lot more fun. Here's how to make a practice schedule that works, some great books to start with, how to take your practice setup on the go, and how to find the time to practice in the first place.
Buy a new guitar pedal
Let's get one thing out of the way first. Gear won't make you a better guitar player, but I've found that picking up a new guitar pedal can spark exciting new riffs. Whether that's pitch shifting with a Whammy pedal, getting your funk out with a wah, or playing texture-esque riffs with a delay, a new pedal is sure to ignite your creativity.
The best thing about this tip is that it doesn't have to cost a fortune to try out something new. Most pedals can be found used and in good condition for under 100 bucks. You can turn it into a game too. Try committing to learning something over a month, and if you stick to it, buy something nice for yourself. Let me know what pedal you pick up, and be forewarned, this is the beginning of a "gotta have 'em all" collection.
Learn a cover song
One of my favorite ways to learn new techniques is by learning a cover song. If something, a technique, a riff, a melody caught my ear, I'd always try and learn the song, and add that thing to my arsenal. This helps your guitar playing for a lot of different reasons. For one, it helps you build a repertoire of songs you can play, and that's always fun. It also helps turn "practice" into not feeling like practice at all. It's really rewarding, and might just turn your practice sessions into something you can enjoy.
Play with other people
Whether it's people you just met, or folks you've been jamming with for years, playing together in a band setting is one of the best things you can do for your guitar playing. It teaches you so many things. How to play for the song, when to step up and shine, how to create something from nothing with other people, and I think most importantly...how to listen.
On that note, another fun thing to try is recording a riff or chord progression and sending it to one of your friends and seeing what they come up with. You'd be surprised at how a song progresses through the lens of more than just you.
Play a style you're not used to
One of my favorite traits of a guitar player is when they can take a multitude of styles and combine them into one bigger thing. I remember one of my guitar teachers going to blues jams and injecting jazz riffs here and there, and it made him look and sound like a monster player.
If you're struggling and bored with what you're playing, try to play a song from a completely different style. It'll help your favorite genre sound fresh, and you might come up with something new and interesting. There's always a good batch of albums in just about every genre. Do a little homework and seek them out, and you'll be rewarded with new ideas.
Play an entirely different instrument
This tip has you switching up instruments. If you play guitar, you should try learning a bit of drums, or bass. Even investing in something as simple as a drum practice pad could help you along. By learning an instrument like drums, you're honing your rhythm skills and that'll show up in your guitar playing as well.
Take a week off
Every once in a while you won't be inspired to play at all. If you still want something to do when not playing guitar, check out this post. The classic phrase is that distance makes the heart grow fonder. I've found whenever I haven't picked up guitar in a few days, I'll really miss it. When I do eventually get back to playing, I'm usually filled with new ideas and riffs. Try it out every once in a while, and see how it works for you.
Explore the people who inspired your guitar heroes
Who influenced Stevie Ray Vaughan, Vai, Malmsteen and others? It's always a good idea to go back to the source when listening to some of your guitar heroes. When I first started playing, Kirk Hammett was a huge influence of mine. I listened to interviews of him saying who his influences were, and one that kept on coming up was Michael Schenker of UFO.
I started listening to some popular UFO albums, and I heard many riffs that were reminiscent of Hammett style riffs. Seek out the influences of your favorite guitar players, and you'll be inspired to "steal" from various players to make up your own unique style.
Clean it up
While it's easy to hide behind distortion and delay, it's a good idea to practice on your clean channel every once in a while. Playing on your amp's clean channel will help expose any mistakes you might be making. This'll help you get better at guitar, possibly make you want to slow down, and play with more accuracy.
Put on a jam track
One of my favorite ways to practice is to throw on a jam track in an unfamiliar key, and go to town trying to improvise. If you've already learned stuff like the pentatonic scale patterns, you may have learned them in a common key (like A or E).
Put on a jam track in an unfamiliar key, take those patterns you know and love, and try and locate the frets where they are in the new key.
Be uniquely you
It's all well and good to try and emulate a guitarist you like. It's actually a great way to get started, learning their habits, scales they like to play, techniques they like to use, and so on. But at the end of the day, you are always going to uniquely be you.
What can you do that other guitar players can't? What can you bring to the instrument that's a combination of old standards, and your unique take? Don't try to be Guthrie Govan, try and be content with being your unique, awesome self.
Something new every day
I hope the tips above help you become a better guitar player, and get you excited about playing and learning each and every day. The key takeaway is to try something new every day. There's no way to "master" the guitar, and that's a beautiful thing.