Dealing with Creative Artistic Blocks

Published by tgermann1962 on

See if this scenario sounds familiar:

You pick up your guitar (or really ANY musical instrument) to either play something or practice something

And then it hits: nothing interesting comes up. Or, maybe more accurate: nothing comes up at all

You have been playing and/or practicing the same songs, scales, riffs for some time and things have become less interesting.

Or less inspirational.

So you either “go through the motions” of playing the same familiar stuff

Or, you just put it down and walk away…

Been there?

Are you there now?

I think every artist hits this wall at some point in their artistic life. In fact, if you are like me, it happens many times over the course of one’s life.

So what do you do?

I think that the answer might surprise you because it is so counterintuitive.


Too Much Can Be a Bad, Bad Thing

If you play a musical instrument, you are an artist.

I don’t care if you are just starting out trying to learn how to put your finger on the fretboard or you are the greatest in the world at your craft. You are playing and creating music.

As a songwriter you create music

As a lead guitar player you often have to come up with some cool solo for someone’s music

Even while jamming, you can come up with some neat stuff (and then forget what you did later. More on that in another post!)

You create music even while playing other people’s songs because, believe it or not, you are giving YOUR interpretation of how that song goes.

But here is the interesting thing about being creative: there are no limits.

And THAT is both good news and bad news: There are no limits but oftentimes because of that, we freeze up and come up with nothing.

Or, we resort to the same old, same old stuff we have always been playing and/or practicing.

I have been there many times.

Most of the time, having “No Limits” to your options really can be more of a hinderance than a benefit.


Push Boundaries by Creating Boundaries

I recently read a blog article by successful entrepreneur, Derek Halpern that spoke of this issue to all people who create stuff (it’s not just us artists that deal with this “blockage and stagnation”); and it really got me thinking about how it specifically applies to us guitar players and musicians in general.

In his post he referred to a study by the Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts where they tested how constraints affect creativity.

Here is what Derek said about the study:

In the experiment, people had to come up with two-line rhymes for special occasions. For example, a birthday card or a “feel better” card. The twist was that they had to do it once WITH and once WITHOUT any constraints.

What was the constraint?

Participants had to use a given word in their rhyme. For example, they had to use the word “mouse.”

The results show how the right constraint unlocks creative power. Just compare a typical “feel better”-rhyme WITHOUT constraints…

I will write you a letter
To help you feel better.

…to a rhyme WITH the constraint:

I hope that you soon feel better
Than a mouse with 1,000 lbs. of cheddar.

Do you see what happened there? The second rhyme with the constraint had a much more creative answer!

You can read his post about more examples and studies but what I want to talk about here is what it means for you the guitarist and musician. What can YOU do?


5 Ways to Boost Your Creativity 

Here are some ideas for you to try to help break that logjam of creative block and loss of inspiration:

#1 – Chord Constraint: Mix ’em Up!

I do this sometimes just to break the monotony of what I have been playing: making unique chord combinations to see what happens.

Take the ever-popular I-IV-V-vi chords. (for those not knowing what that means: in short, it is the 1st, 4th, 5th, and 6th chord in any song key).

The vast majority of popular music uses some combination of these type chords. So, I’m not talking about changing the order of them. But rather, how often and where I play them.

Let’s use the I-IV-V-vi chords in the key of G major for example. They are: G major, C major, D major, and E minor.

The constraint is this: play the chords this way: G (1 beat), C (4 beats), D (5 beats), E minor (6 beats). Repeat.

You could actually record that on Garage Band or Audacity or something and try to play a melody, using the G major scale, with it.

Then create another constraint by mixing up the beats to each chord. For example, change those chords to be this way: G (3 beat), C (1 beats), D (6 beats), E minor (5 beats). Repeat.

I think you can see the vast number of possibilities here.


#2 – Solo Constraint: “The B.B. King Zone”

Here is one I like to give to my “busy” guitar students (like yours truly – sometimes!) that like to play all over the neck!

It’s called the B.B. King Zone (sometimes called the “BB King Box”) because this was a place in the scale that he hung out in so often in his solos. He was known for it. And he could literally make that guitar sing with only these notes!

You really should have a knowledge of the blues/pentatonic scales and/or mixolydian mode to make it work. But it is a great challenge for those of us that like to play a lot on the strings!

What you do is isolate the part of the blues/mixolydian mode where you would put your pointer finger on the root note located on the B string. So playing a blues style riff in A (root note is an A note), it could go like this:


Or, play it, similar to the “B.B. King Zone”, by using the minor pentatonic scale with your ring finger on the root note on the B string. Like this:


The constraint is this: ONLY play those notes when jamming to chords that fit that particular scale! You cannot leave the zone!

For example, you can play a 12 Bar Blues in A where the root note is A on either of those “Zones“.

It is amazing the creative melodies and riffs that result from this one method! If you know this scale, try it and see what you come up with!


#3 Scale Constraint: Creative Scales

Sometimes it can get monotonous going over your scales, especially if you are just learning them.

Here is a simple constraint: instead of going back and forth on the notes, in a linear order, mix up the order! It is probably the best way to come up with cool riffs!

Let’s try an example by playing in one position of the C scale. You could go easy and play it up and down just like this:


Instead of doing that, try playing every third note. It makes for a great exercise.

The possibilities then become numerous as you play your scale in different combinations: try it in fourths, skipping strings, play it different backwards, etc.


#4 Song Constraint: Only Learn Songs “Out of Your Box”

Here is a good one: learn some songs that you never would play under “normal” circumstances. And do it for a specified amount of time.

For example, I’m not really a country player. So, I would spend a few weeks learning only country tunes that I would not normally want to play.

I have recently done this after having a couple students express an interest in learning country songs.

Now, country still isn’t my #1 choice in music. But, the discoveries I made in how to approach playing the guitar were priceless.

So you rockers: learn some 70’s disco! Jazzers: maybe try some Metallica?

I think you get the idea – play a different style. It keeps things fresh. But the key is to stay on that style for a specified amount of time (say a week or two).

And when you are done, you just might find you have a new “normal” way of playing! Even to the songs you have always been playing.

#5 Be Creative With Your Constraints

Other constraints can be stuff like:

  • write a song in 7/4
  • Play heavy rock songs only with a totally clean sound
  • Play a jazz style song with heavy distortion. Sounds weird, I know. But try it
  • If you only play electric, just play acoustic for a while
  • Same for acoustic players, grab an electric and play the same songs ONLY on electric

The cool part of creative constraints is that you can be creative with your creative constraints!

That actually made sense…

I actually hope all of this made sense!

So do you now you see how you can get out of those creative doldrums? At the very least, you should be able to get started on your own ideas for invigorating your guitar playing.

Let me know if you have other ideas on how to deal with your own creativity challenges! I would love to hear them. Just leave a comment here!

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