intermediate plateau guitar

This leads on from what I was talking about in a previous article but it applies more specifically to intermediate guitarists, or those that are stuck on the so-called intermediate plateau. I say so-called because the main problem you face in intermediate land is that you’re way too comfortable. You can learn fairly complex songs, play a variety of riffs and rhythms, you know a few scales and can certainly wail on pentatonics. If you have any guitar-playing peers, you’re probably a step ahead of them and perhaps have a few years of live playing skills under your belt.

In other words, there’s no pulling you out of your comfort zone, and you may even go to great lengths to stay there by not pushing yourself or avoiding more demanding musical situations.

On the other hand, you should feel proud of yourself for making it to the intermediate level –not many people do– but now’s the time to act because intermediate can quickly become a synonym of mediocre.

See if you can identify with any of the following situations:

The strongest area of your playing is your technique. Great technique without the know-how to back it up is like having a beautiful voice but nothing to say. Symptoms of this include:

-Solos that sound like scales using the same old runs and pathways across the guitar neck.
-Not really listening to what you’re playing, at all.
-No real grasp of improvisational concepts beyond the pentatonic scales.
-Using a one-scale-fits-all method that doesn’t consider arpeggios or chord tones.
-Sincerely believing you’ve learned all there is to know about the modes.

Refusing to practice simple stuff. According to you, you’re way beyond this stuff now and only deal in advanced concepts. Unfortunately, nearly every advanced concept you’ll come across requires a solid knowledge of the basics. So, if you don’t know the notes on the neck, your intervals, which chords belong to which keys, or how to play a chord progression convincingly, go back and learn it!

Lack of mileage. This is similar to not practicing/knowing the simple stuff but refers to dismissing the mileage you can (and need) to get out of the basics. I would play A minor pentatonic for days on end just to see how much mileage I could get out of it, and you’d be surprised how resourceful (and tasteful) you become when you limit yourself to squeezing everything you can out of a simple concept.

The way you used to learn doesn’t work anymore. The intermediate guitarist needs to change his/her approach to learning because however you got from beginner to intermediate won’t cut it from intermediate to advanced, it’s a whole other ballgame.

Enjoy the process, it’s still fun. Remember when you were a beginner? Wasn’t everything to do with guitar, especially the learning process (which you probably didn’t even notice), sheer fun? Try to find that fun again, it’ll make everything easier.

No goals or unrealistic ones. The goal when you began learning guitar was probably to get to where you are now. Now you’re there, you probably don’t have a specific goal because people who are in their comfort zones usually don’t or have unrealistic ones such as ‘virtuosity or nothing’, which is you psychologically justifying staying in your comfort zone.

Speeding. Most intermediate guitarists I’ve taught simply refuse to slow down and really analyze what they’re playing. This is critical as relying on technique and patterns will keep you on the intermediate plateau forever.

Confusing advanced technique and advanced playing. Advanced playing is NOT advanced technique; advanced playing means being able to think on your feet and draw from deep knowledge that is second nature. An intermediate guitarist will have to work things out and won’t be able to do things on the fly yet; these are the mental processes that need to be sped up, not your technique.

Ear training. Technique and theory will only take you so far; if you don’t improve your ear and start really listening, you’ll hit a wall.

I hope you can relate to some of these situations and use them as a springboard to motivate you to past your comfort zone. Also, check the following books which are popular with those on the intermediate plateau:

Beyond Pentatonics
50 Guitar Hacks for the Advancing Guitarist
Hacking the CAGED System
From Scales to Solos