The Intermediate Guitar Rut

Mastering an art takes dedication. What kind of magic can help?

We’ve all experienced having a rush of excitement, then giving up. When you find this happening repeatedly, maybe you should try attacking the sport from a different angle! The world is filled with intermediates in a rut.

My title, “The Intermediate Guitar Rut,” is inspired by Lito Tejada-Flores, author of a book on snow skiing “Breakthrough on Skis,” which is subtitled “How to Get Out of the Intermediate Rut,” in which the author uses a gentle, logical approach to teach technique so simple you can read the book in the lodge, then go out and give the tactics a try. I once spent a week in New Hampshire, skiing solo six days in a row while thumbing through chapter after chapter. My skiing went to a whole ‘nother place, clearing the intermediate rut permanently!

The same thing can happen with your guitar! Many people, for many reasons, end up in an intermediate rut with guitar. They don’t know what to try to do next. It feels boring and without a goal.

Here’s some tips:

  1. Sing. Don’t just pretend to sing, work on your singing just as much as playing guitar. You’ll be trying to conquer some songs you know and love, and you won’t have many to choose from if you only can work on songs that survive without ANY WORDS being sung. Sing regularly and challenge yourself to sing higher notes, and a world will open up to you.

  2. Finish the song. Pick a song you love. NOT one someone else suggested. NOT one that’s in a popular songbook – a song you LOVE, that defines YOU, that you know all the words to already and would love to share with other people who have not heard the song. Learn it on guitar and SING. Be sure to include the intro and the ending – learn the WHOLE THING.

  3. Practice the shit out of it. Practice for at least an hour every day. This is what separates the men from the boys in guitar playing. It doesn’t happen all by itself. EVERY DAY for an HOUR or more! Every time you play it, it should be just a little bit better. Comparing your progress over a week or so, you should notice a big difference. Play it until you are sick of playing it. It’s important that it was originally a song you loved, and now you’ve “heard it enough.”

  4. Pick some other songs and work them into your DAILY practice schedule. ALL songs you already love and would love to share with people. If a song is too hard, which will happen, skip it for now, but aim to try again in the future. You’ll find if you sing, you can perform MANY songs, because many popular songs are very heavy on the lyrical melody, not the guitar or keyboard melodies. You should be able to start to create a real list.

  5. Play in rhythm. Otherwise, frankly, you’ll just be slaughtering songs even if you get the chords down. There are very few people who don’t understand rhythm out of the box, but they do exist. Most people DO understand basic counting (1,2,3,4), and it should be stressed that counting (understanding where the ONE is) is critical for your success. Beyond this, master at least two basic scales (diatonic and pentatonic) and practice them every day in rhythm. Do not just play the notes in order, skip notes, jump around, and create mini-songs when you play basic scales. Hint: End riffs on the same note to create consistency/anticipation – play notes in C, and end every riff on “C.”

  6. Play for your pet. Your dog! My cat loves my guitar and when I play and sing. This may sound odd, but I’ve gotten my guitar out and practiced JUST because my dog wanted me to. As odd as it may sound, ANY audience member, even just some people nearby, change the scene drastically, and when you start to get a song together, it may feel very bland, boring and meaningless if there’s no-one around to hear it. Cats are super tuned-in to sounds (dogs too) and if they think it sounds pretty, it means a LOT more than just “your cat likes it.” It means it sounds good. This is what you should expect. First, your dog will leave the room when you play. Keep working on it. Then, your dog will remain in the room while you play; this means you’re tolerable. Finally, your dog will COME when you play.  You’re getting better!

  7. Take it to the public. Do an open mic. If an open mic is one of your long-term goals, everything above will not only make sense, but you may actually do it.


If you love the song, you’re more likely to work on it. If you have an audience, your improvements will be meaningful. Dedication is difficult enough, that playing alone and having no long term goals will prove to be self-defeating!

Good luck!


Mark Urso

One Reply to “The Intermediate Guitar Rut”

  1. Huge subject. I would add studying / investigating the major scale as the doorway / anchor point to understanding. Not as a cerebral exercise, but to see how everything relates. For example, if you take an E major scale and substitute the dominant 7th (blues note) for the major 7th, this is the exact same notes as A major. So when improvising in E major, you also have A major as a reference. D major is the Dorian mode of E, which gives improvising in E major a bit darker feel. Once you realize Bm and Dmaj are the same scale (same notes), then when you’re improvising in E major you can use B minor against it as well. Look into these things enough and learn the sound of the notes as relates to their numbers (music is hearing, the names are just for reference) and before too long you will not feel lost anywhere on the fretboard.

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