Lacking Inspiration? How to Get Into The Creative Groove as a Guitarist

The current situation is a conundrum for all creative types, including guitarists; you’ve got a lot of free time (the perfect opportunity to create), but you don’t go out and you don’t see anyone, so where do you get your creative inspiration from?

Even when there isn’t a global pandemic, finding the time and motivation to get creative with your guitar playing and writing your own music can be difficult. There’s a lot of things that can get in the way and the process itself can seem daunting – where do you start? How do you get in the right frame of mind?

In this blog, I want to show exactly how you can do that by offering you a few ideas that can get the creative juices flowing and some practices to help you become a better, more successful writer of your own material.

Ride the Inspiration High

Inspiration can strike at the least expected of times which is pretty unhelpful for creatives – if only it could come when you’ve sat down to focus on some writing… But my point here is that it pays to ‘ride the inspiration high’ and grab your guitar when you get that feeling.

Leaving it until later often results in either forgetting the idea that came to you, or not being in the right frame of mind once you actually get round to playing some guitar. You might be hit with an awesome riff by some epiphany-like moment, but telling yourself that you’ll remember it later is a lie – you won’t – and then you’ll be gutted.

Saying this, you’re not always near your guitar when inspiration strikes, so here’s a couple of things you can do to make sure your best ideas don’t go to waste:

  • Keep a pool of ideas in a notebook or on your phone: This could be subject topics for a song, song names that might help spark inspiration or a certain style of song.
  • Record voice memos or melodies on a portable recorder or your phone – this way they’re much easier to replicate later.
record guitar ideas

Emulate Your Guitar Heroes

Sometimes, even when all the best intentions are there, you sit down to do some meaningful songwriting but there’s no spark and your imagination goes blank. The best thing to do in this situation? Simply listen to some music.

It might sound obvious, but as creative musicians, most of our inspiration will inevitably come from other music. Perhaps there is an artist or band that you’re really in to at the moment; naturally, you want to emulate them because you admire their work, so stick on a few of their tracks and try to write something in the style of that particular artist.

There’s no need to view this as stealing or plagiarism – it’s not – it’s borrowing – which is perfectly acceptable. Every piece of art, music or not, has been inspired by something that came before it and this is just one way to ignite your inspiration.

The more you start doing this, the more nuances and little guitar moves you’ll pick up from different artists, which will eventually come together to form your own sound. For example, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ John Frusciante is often labelled as having a heavily Hendrix inspired sound and style, and yet he is still renowned as one of the greatest guitarists of his generation, if not all time. Frusciante took his inspiration from Hendrix, mixed it with other influences, including Bowie and former Chili’s guitarist, Hillel Slovak, and made it his own.

Non-musical Inspiration

Whilst it’s a good place to start, music isn’t the only source of inspiration – it can come from anywhere. For example, you might be inspired by something from a film or even a book, perhaps a particular character, but this doesn’t mean you have to be a lyric writer – you might try writing a piece that represents the personality of that character or what their story is.

The reality is, not all guitarists are lyricists, so don’t let this hold you back. If you’ve found a topic or object that inspires you, think about how it makes you feel and how you could express that using your guitar. Undoubtedly, this can be a challenge to ‘speak’ through your guitar, but it will definitely push you to think outside the box.

Van Gogh’s most famous painting, The Starry Night, inspired Don McLean to write "Vincent".

Set Yourself Songwriting Parameters

One way to get your creative mindset going is to set some parameters or limits for your writing session. For instance, you might set yourself the goal of writing a song with just three chords, or crafting a riff from a single scale or select number of notes. The possibilities here are endless.

This can also help with keeping your writing fresh as it challenges your musical brain to think in different ways and as a result, you find yourself moving around the fretboard in new, exciting ways. Otherwise, you tend to revert to the same moves/scales that you know best and this is when all your material begins to sound the same. As, Musical-U puts it:

‘Limitations will bring out your creativity in unexpected ways’.

Musical-U

Experiment with Tunings

Have you ever experimented with different tunings? This is arguably one of the best ways to open more creative doors with your playing and songwriting, and it makes a handy trick for finding new moods that are sure to spark your inspirational flow.

The best thing about playing in different tunings, particularly open tunings, is that, much like setting parameters, it changes the way you think about playing. You might be able to employ similar shapes and patterns, but they offer new, unexpected sounds that have a totally different feel to them. Not only this, but you automatically learn a lot more about relationships between notes and so your theory develops at the same time – it’s a win-win!

‘Open tuning’ simply means that when you sound all the open strings, you’ll be sounding a certain chord. Each string is tuned to one of the three notes that make up that particular chord, for example, open G tuning will result in a G chord as all the strings are tuned to either G, B or D. This can be really helpful when improvising as if you don’t know where to go next, you can always revert to an open string and know that it’s going to sound good.

Here are a few different tunings you can try your hand at (6th/thickest string to 1st/thinnest string):

Open G: D G D G B D

Open D (typical for slide guitar): D A D F# A D

Open E (also typical for slide guitar): E B E G# B E

Drop D: D A D G B E

For an ethereal sound – good for fingerpicking – try: D A D G A D

Get Yourself Some New Gear!

Pretty much all guitarists love buying new gear. Now, I should point out that you shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking that purchasing a new piece of gear will automatically make you a better guitarist or songwriter, but in some cases, it certainly opens up more opportunities for experimentation and branching out with your playing.

If you don’t currently own a loop pedal, this is one of the best investments you can make, even if you aren’t planning on performing live. Loop pedals are fantastic tools for sketching out ideas and building upon them in the initial phases of writing material. You may have a chord structure that you love, but you aren’t sure where to go with it next – this is where loop pedals really come into their own as you can start to layer riffs and accompanying sections over the top with the simple stomp of a foot switch.

They can take a little time to get used to; learning to time them accurately and remembering the commands, but they’re definitely one of the best places to start if you’re looking to take your songwriting to the next level.

I’d recommend something like this BOSS RC1 as a good first loop pedal which is fairly affordable too. More sophisticated versions will get you more storage space for your ideas and sometimes a selection of basic drum tracks to play along with too.

Here's my first pedalboard - I went for the budget option, and stuck some velcro to a piece of wood.

Explore Effects

Much like setting yourself songwriting parameters, sometimes playing around with new sounds can get you thinking in different ways. Simply hearing what your guitar is capable of when plugged into a small effects pedal often opens up new pathways and modes of playing – whether it’s a chorus pedal, phaser, fuzz or delay. So, essentially what I’m saying here is that I’m giving you full clearance to treat yourself to some shiny new guitar gear – you’re welcome.

Tools and Techniques

It’s also worth thinking about tools of experimentation that you already have at your disposal as a guitarist; some of them are even part of your body. Confused? Let me explain.

If your default mode is to always play with a plectrum, why not give finger-picking a go? It can be a difficult skill to master, especially when you’re playing bass notes and melody at the same time, but learning this style opens up a whole new branch of guitar playing and opportunities for experimentation.

One of the biggest problems for songwriters when working on new material is trying to find a new sound, and if you aren’t a multi-instrumentalist, this can seem pretty hard. As I’ve mentioned, venturing into the world of effects is one way to go here, but sometimes you don’t even need to do that.

Think about techniques that you can implement yourself, such as using your tremolo arm, also known as a ‘whammy bar’. Not all guitars come with one of these, but if yours does, it can really transform your playing into something much more dynamic and nuanced. Whammy bars are typically more common to shred/metal guitar styles, involving pretty extreme techniques for extreme sounds, but they can be used more subtly to add a little articulation to your playing. In fact, they originally found fame in surf guitar music from the 50s/60s which had taken inspiration from spaghetti western music too.

the shadows
Hank Marvin rarely took his hand off the Trem arm

Conclusion

The one biggest tip I can give you for boosting your creativity as a guitarist is simply to practise more (consistently) and learn new songs. Of course, as a guitar teacher, you can expect me to say that – and it might sound a bit obvious – but the more new material you learn, the more techniques and chord shapes you will become accustomed to, and this will then begin to translate into your own playing, whether you realise it or not.

Remember:

  • Inspiration can come from anywhere – books, art, films, conversations, and of course, listening to music
  • Borrowing from other artists is not a crime
  • Mix up your tunings
  • Set yourself some limits so your creative sessions aren’t so open ended
  • Play around with techniques you don’t often use
  • Buy yourself some new gear 🙂

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