Tips For Returning To The Guitar After A Break

Picking up your guitar again after taking some time away doesn’t have to feel like starting all over again! We explore the positives of getting back in the guitar saddle after a musical break …

Remember your formative teenage years when the guitar and music were your only cares in the world? You played that 6 string till your fingers bled! Then adult life happened and suddenly your guitar playing had to take a back seat! There are a host of reason why many of us hang up our guitars for a period: time, responsibilities, illness or the simple fact that we may have become disillusioned; falling out of love with the instrument. More people are returning to the guitar now than ever before, and remembering the joy that playing gave them. Those first notes and rediscovery of your playing can feel like starting on the bottom rung of the musical ladder again! But that isn’t the case. In this blog we explore some tips for reinvigorating your enthusiasm and getting back to into playing the right way.

1. Go For The Easy Wins

Ok, you are going to have to make peace with the notion that you won’t immediately be playing at the same level you were before you took a break. One of the most important factors, when sitting down with the guitar again, is creating the continuing feeling of achievement.

With that in mind; check your musical ego at the door and use your time fighting the easy guitar battles - single riffs, quick songs with that simple verse - chorus format, short easy solos etc. Back in the days when you were racing to get better, you most likely felt the pressure to challenge yourself with everything you played. Now the focus is different - it's all about small wins.

This isn’t about baby steps - simply a case of encouraging positive feelings about your playing. There is real power in being able to list new things you have achieved after each practice session. Going for the low hanging fruit, so to speak, is also a great way to avoid encountering any of the musical ruts or frustrations which may have contributed to your guitar sabbatical in the first place.

2. Balance What You Practice

When returning to the guitar it is very tempting (and common practice) to plough all your effort into one area, such as your alternate picking or that one song/solo you were working on previous to your break. This approach will get you the results you want but won’t give you the injection of motivation you need to keep playing - put simply, this ain’t a fun way to go about things!

Break your practice up into short chunks - 20 minutes max on each. This will keep you focused on each task, and any obstacles or frustrations will be quickly forgotten when you move onto the next activity. An example could look like this:

1. Learn a new riff - 20 minutes

2. Improvise - 10 minutes

3. Learn 2 new chords - 5 minutes

4. Work on a technique - 15 minutes

5. Finish learning part 2 of …. (Insert song/solo name here) - 20 minutes

6. Play a song all the way through - 4 minutes

You can see how well this approach also feeds into the sense of achievement we talked about earlier, whilst ensuring you move forward with your playing. Nothing saps your motivation like playing the same thing over and over! Breaking your practice up like this also means that, if lack of time was a factor in you stopping playing, then you can distribute these little bite sized practice goals throughout the day!

There is a physical benefit to splitting your guitar sessions up like this too - in a way your are getting your guitar ‘fitness level’ back in shape; focusing on a single movement or area of playing will cause your fingers, wrists and arms undue stress and risk a repetitive strain injury. You wouldn’t return to the gym after a long break and do an hour of dead lifts on your first week back!

3. Don’t Over Emphasise The Technical Stuff

Whether you could sweep pick like Yngwie or blaze around the neck like a demon prior to taking your guitar break, placing an emphasis on recovering your former technical skills may seem like the obvious first step to re-conditioning your playing. However, this again leaves the fun, motivation and moreover musical side of things out in the cold.

Play the long game here - your technique will return, and indeed improve with time. In fact, you will be surprised how quickly you will recover your dexterity, stretch, sync and speed; these were never lost, just hibernating!

You will find that your sense of timing, rhythmic sync, musical ear and simple synchronisation between both hands will need more attention than other areas. Yes, make sure you warm up with a simple song or basic technical exercise, but much of the afore mentioned skills can be developed through learning and performing songs. In your first few months back with your guitar you aren’t going for gold! You have nothing to prove so relax and place the emphasis on performing and playing music. Play with a backing track or original recording wherever possible too!

This approach is very liberating - giving yourself the permission to play things simply for the fun of it is the sole reason you began playing in the first place (and probably the reason you played so much!) - it was fun, plain and simple! Sure, spend some time working on technique but shift the balance to focus on good musical outcomes.

4. Set Small Goals

Now, this is not the same as managing your expectations, shoot for the stars and aspire to be better than you ever were! It is important to have goals, but the distant ones will leave you without a sense of purpose and direction - again this is a contributing factor towards many good players giving up the instrument.

Visualising how you will be able to play in a year or even 6 months from now is great, but will also put you under undue pressure to be that player sooner! Set weekly goals, and smash them! Start by setting the bar low - make a list of songs (even if its just one part - riff/solo/lick), lessons or simple things you want to achieve this week. Only think of the week ahead - no further. When you achieve these, celebrate that as a victory!

5. Reward Yourself

Taking the first step to picking up your guitar again is a big deal, it takes courage and shouldn’t be underestimated. There are few better motivators than a new guitar, amp or guitar toy (even on a modest budget). Celebrate the start of your new chapter in your guitar playing with a reward, no matter how small.

Attach rewards to your goals too - this could be anything from treating yourself to a bag of guitar picks to having a beer. Positive reinforcement of your playing is a powerful subconscious tool to maintaining good feelings about your guitar and beat any unhelpful notions of self doubt or negativity.

It may seem counter intuitive, but reward yourself with time off too; if things are going well - give yourself the day off! Far from causing you rusty fingers, a day or two off acts like a much needed reset button for your guitar playing and can stop you from obsessing or pressuring yourself.

Your relationship with the guitar is much like any other so learn to treat it as such (date nights and candle lit dinners are optional).

6. Enjoy The Process

A truth and wisdom shared by great players is they all wished that they had enjoyed the process of learning the guitar more; the journey only happens once and, by starting to play again, you have a second shot at experiencing this. Take comfort in the fact that you aren’t starting from scratch, no matter how rusty you may feel when you begin playing again!. Don’t feel overwhelmed by the amount of stuff to learn either; celebrate it and change your perception; playing the guitar isn’t a series of obstacles and challenges - you are a kid who has just been let back into the candy store! There is no pressure and no hurry, so you can pick and choose what you learn and play - go nuts! Discovering or rediscovering the guitar is where the real rewards are - not the end goal!

Be different; learn a new style, grab a jazz or country lick, learn that 3 chord song, or get your favourite teenage songs under your fingers and play them just because they sound good!

To sum up - keep things fun, if it doesn’t excite you then don’t give it your time! Listen to more music, namely the music which inspires you to play. The moment you brought your axe out of its hiding place you became a guitarist again … Welcome back to the club!!