Climbing Out of that Rut: A Guide for Musicians

Bass in case

Q: I’ve been feeling like I’m stuck in a rut lately. Do you have any advice for how to climb out of this thing??

A: To start, I want to say that ruts can be a good thing, because they’re usually followed by a breakthrough. The trick is that you have to push your way through and never let it beat you down.

When we get stuck in a rut, I tend to think there are only two viable paths to take at that moment:

Hyper-Focused Practice

Get hyper-focused with your practice routine and really push the envelope.

Try to lock into one thing you want to focus.

Break that thing down into the simplest form, and explore as thoroughly as possible from the ground up.

This approach can help you rediscover what you already know from a different angle, or it may reveal something completely new to you. Either way, new information often leads to inspiration which is a fast track out of your rut.

Take a Break

Sometimes we need to give ourselves a break, literally. Practicing, gigging, teaching, recording – and all the non-musical stuff on top – can take a toll. Sometimes we run out of gas, which can lead to lack of interest or motivation, which can lead to losing the enjoyment for making music. Sometimes, playing more is not the answer. When this time comes, take a mini-vacation and don’t let guilt change your course. Relax, and you should find that inspiration returns.

Give it the old college try and work even harder and if you feel like you’re simply banging your head against the wall after a reasonable amount of time? Go on a bass-cation.

Readers, what’s your approach to climbing out of a musical rut? Tell us about it in the comments.

Photo by Lee Carson

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  1. Totally true Damian. I tend to exaggerate stuff when I practice too. A principle that I got from both theater and bass playing…actually from Gary Willis VHS tape! By playing something you will never play normally, you trick your brain and muscles into learning the distinct motion and intention behind every move you make, thus making the normal stuff easy in the end! Hope I make sense.

  2. I got my hand stamped on recently playing soccer and since I have been able to play after the accident and pause I am playing better than ever.

  3. A temporary switch to another instrument can inspire your practice and creativity. I have been dabbling in keyboards now for over a year. I’m not very good, but knowledge of harmony has really expanded. Also, some of the melodies have jammed on keys have later become bass lines.

  4. Once or twice a year I go for a couple weeks without really practicing too much outside of scheduled rehearsals/studio sessions, and when I come back to it I usually am better for it. I also dabble a bit with guitar, drums, and an old Hammond organ when I am having trouble getting into practicing or writing on bass. The variety helps, and drums and organ are just plain fun!

  5. One time I asked John Patitucci, who is always musically in shape, what things did he find challenging in the bass at that point in his his life. He said he was working on mastering classical pieces with a director of a symphonic orchestra in New York and learning some new musical styles from Africa which he deemed difficult to play. Even the best of the best can always find new levels to reach for. If you are stuck in rut, you have probably been looking around too much; it’s time to look up!

  6. An ODD technique I use for breaking a rut: Try learning a song you DO NOT LIKE. I realize that may sound odd, but hear me out. If it is a song you do not like, there has got to be a reason why you don’t like it. Usually it’s because it’s in a different style than you typically gravitate to. By trying that new style you step out of your comfort zone which may be enough to give you a nudge in a new direction. For example, I’m a dyed in the wool metal head at heart, but let’s face it Judas priest bass lines are not particularly challenging (No Offense, Mr. Ian Hill). For a long time that’s all I played and never really gave other styles a chance. One day, a LONG time ago, I decided to try learning something NOT metal or even rock. Shame to say, I had never really LISTENED to Superstitious from the great Stevie Wonder. WHOA! Something new! Woo hoo! Let’s give this “Call Me Al” from Paul Simon. GOOD GRIEF! Suddenly I began to totally rethink everything I knew about my playing AND music in general. Best decision I EVER made.

    • John does that, we pick a theme and sometimes it may be 60’s, 70’s country, and then he has to only play those songs for the night. Its fun.

    • Head on over to Jamaica Jeff! Reggae and ska have some of the most challenging bass lines I have ever heard and it’s not just melodic, but percussive as well, kind of why bass was invented in the first place… also My favorite bass player is Eric Wilson from Sublime, his best work is NOT on the popular tunes.