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Get Musically Inspired - Here's 8 Ways

How do you get musically inspired? Have you ever thought about that question? Someday, out there in future-land, you are going to find yourself looking at your guitar and feeling a little... bored. Uninspired. Maybe even downright disinterested.

Have you ever felt like you were stuck in a rut at work or in school?

Yeah, it's a bit like that. You see your guitar on its stand in the corner, staring at you longingly, and all you can muster is a half-hearted "meh." Then you go through some mild self-loathing because you know you should pick up your guitar and play. The problem is you just seem to play the same old thing, and you really don't feel like going through that torture again. Too much like a job.

We've all been there. Or we will be. Maybe you're there right now.

Luckily, it doesn't have to be this way. When you need to boost the musical inspiration level, there are tons of ways you can get your mojo back. What I'd like to offer you here is a handful of ideas you can use to recharge your music-making motivation. Before long, you'll have your baby back in your arms, making sweet music!

Finding the Spark

We are creatures of habit. When it comes to music, we tend to like what we like and don't deviate much from it. Think about when you were a teenager. If your parents were like mine, they either tolerated your tunes, or they yelled at you to "turn that crap off!" My daughter's have it made - I take them to their concerts and actually enjoy most of the music they listen to. Sorry about that. Not every kid is lucky enough to have a cool dad like me.

Anyway, I digress...

One way that I have been able to jump-start inspiration is to start listening to different musical styles. I'm primarily a rock guy, so for me taking a little trip over to Rhythm & Blues or Electronica can be like visiting a new city (or new planet, if you're talking some other styles!). While the basic infrastructure is the same, sounds and rhythms are definitely created differently. If you spend a little time getting a feel for the differences and similarities between the new style and your favorite, you will start to notice little nuances of the new style creeping into your playing. Don't be afraid! This is a good thing.

Don't worry that you're going to quit liking "your" music. Consider this to be an enhancement to your musical growth. Think about it - do you want to sound like every other guitar player out there, or would you like to have a unique sound that makes you stand out? I've been expanding my taste in music for decades, and I still love the classic rock I grew up listening to and playing. But I also have a huge appreciation for the musical styles I've adopted along the way. This gives me options...

Draw From Your Favorites

Another way I find myself getting ideas is in the songs I'm currently listening to. I tend to get into moods where I listen to a single band exclusively for an extended period of time. Now it's not just passive listening - I actively listen to different aspects of the music. The beat, the tempo, the melody against the chord progressions, the harmonies, the bass lines, drum fills and how they highlight various aspects of the songs and how they affect the emotion or flow.

As these various aspects saturate my brain, different patterns begin to form. I will catch myself humming a line or riff, or come up with a basic drum beat or fill. From these initial thoughts I can often come up with very interesting song ideas (at least interesting in my mind).

You might be concerned that this type of inspiration could make you unoriginal, coming up with copies of existing songs. I used to worry about that as well, but it really hasn't turned out to be a problem. There's an argument that there are no new ideas. I tend to agree with that, but you can take an old idea and create something original by making small changes to virtually any component of the song. For example, you could take a riff from a song and play it on a different instrument.

Make a subtle change to the chord progression or strum pattern of a song. Or make the tempo different. Change the meter of the melody or mix up the notes and create something completely different over the song's chord progression. This process isn't about copying successful songs. It's more about using a known winner to help you develop your creative edge. It's simply good practice.

Here are some examples of songs where the similarities are striking (some say even copied). I'm certainly not advocating wholesale copying of a tune. You don't have to - with all the technology we have available to us today, there are plenty of opportunities to create new songs from existing ideas.

Huey Lewis And The News - I Want A New Drug

Ray Parker Jr. - Ghostbusters

Or the more recent controversy between Joe Satriani and Coldplay

Try Some New Chords

When we start learning guitar, whether we're using free online lessons or taking private lessons, we tend to stick to basic major and minor chords, and typically in the open chord positions. This is a generally accepted practice by most instructors and helps students get some early success with chords.

Once you have the basics down and understand the finger patterns that make up chords, you can begin to start experimenting with different fingerings. Chords can be played all over the fingerboard using different strings and fingering patterns. Additionally, the notes that make up each chord can be played in different orders (called inversions), opening up more tonal patterns for you to use. It can be a lot of fun finding the chords up and down the neck.

When you play something interesting, you can go even further by combining chords. This is achieved by adding a note or notes that wouldn't typically fit any of the standard chord formulas. Each 'new' pattern that you find will open up different tonal combinations that can spark new song ideas for you.

You should also begin adding more chord forms for your repertoire. There are literally thousands of chord possibilities to use as you look for inspiration. In addition to major and minor chords, there are dominant 7ths, minor 7ths, suspended, power, add9, add11, add13, etc. You get the idea. Take a simple major/minor chord progression and change one chord to a different form. See what ideas come from that.

For example, a standard chord progression follows a pattern in whichever key you are playing. In the key of E major, the chords are E, F#m, G#m, A, B, C#m, D#dim then E. In the song "Say It Ain't So" by Weezer, they changed the C#m to a C#m7 and the G#m to a G# chord, which gave the chord progression a fresh sound and made the song infinitely more interesting.

Say It Ain't So

The chords in the song intro are as follows: C#m7 G# A E

Try playing the standard chords (C#m, G#m, A, E) then play the progression the way the song was recorded. Do you notice how the chords affect the feel of the song? That is just one example that demonstrates how you can really get the creative juices flowing with some simple chord changes.

Now you might be wondering why the chords don't seem to be lining up with the video. If you noticed, the song is actually played in the key of E flat - they actually used an additional technique to make the song more interesting...

Finding Alternatives

Weezer used a non-standard tuning for "Say It Ain't So." Artists in all musical genres have been changing the string tuning on their guitars for decades. Today we call them alternate tunings, but in the old days guitarists would change a string tuning to make the guitar fit the song idea floating around in their head. It could have been a single string or all six depending on what the artist was trying to accomplish.

We have quite a few established tunings to choose from to help spark our creativity. Besides the standard tuning of EADGBE, there's the very popular dropped D, dropped C and even dropped B (but these second two tunings are usually found on 7 string guitars). Another popular approach is to tune the strings so that they play a single chord when you strum them - these are usually referred to as open tunings. For example, if you tune your strings DADF#AD (thickest to thinnest), you'd have an open D tuning.

When you've changed the string tunings, you now have to relearn how to play chords. This clearly requires that you take a good amount of time to find the new chord fingerings. Because you now have many new open chord fingerings, you should have no problem coming up with interesting riff and song ideas. You'll find many cool arpeggios can be created when you use these open alternate tunings.

Arpeggiate, Baby...

Rather than getting stuck using a handful of strumming patterns, try playing your chords as arpeggios. Arpeggio is just a fancy word for playing each chord note individually instead of together in a strum. It's Italian and means "broken chord."

This technique ties in well with trying out new chords and breaking away from using strictly major and minor chords. Playing arpeggios give your ideas a different feel - more of a finger picking flavor to your music. This can be a very effective tool to transition between song sections, or you can use this style on top of a second guitar or piano playing chords.

Play Games

Here's a little game you can play to come up with some completely original ideas. This is not an original idea, but a variation on one that has been around for over 200 years. Apparently, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart liked to play games of chance, so he created a dice game back in the 1700s to help him write his music, and we can use a similar approach. He's not the only composer who used this approach, but his technique was actually published in a book called Melody Dicer in 1792. The idea was to use a "randomizer" to present different combinations to use when composing.

Rolling the dice

The premise behind this game is you will be randomly generating your melody or chord progression on the fly. Find yourself a pair of dice and choose a key to work in. For melody, you can use all twelve possible numbers that come up and assign a semitone to each possible number. Obviously, you'll never roll a one for the first note of the key (tonic note), but if you roll snake-eyes (2), you can choose either the tonic or the semitone above it, depending on how the melody is going or your mood.

For the chords, roll one of the dice to get your random progression. If you're bothered that there isn't a side to represent the vii chord (in a major key, this is the diminished chord), you can find 8-sided dice (remember all you Dungeons & Dragons fans?) for this game. In fact, you can get 8-sided dice specifically for musical keys (affiliate link). However, for rock music, it's highly unlikely that you'll use a diminished chord (the vii chord) for most songs, so a 6-sided die should be just fine.

Admittedly, you can wind up with some real 'interesting' possibilities. Keep in mind we're using this game to help spark ideas, not create some new set of rules for song creation. Don't get too bogged down in details. The point is to break you out of any routine process that could be keeping you in a rut. If you feel a different chord would work, then change it. But it can be very challenging to create a usable melody or chord progression when you force yourself to stay disciplined to using what the dice present (Ah, Fate, you can be so cruel!). See what kind of mess you can come up with! Ya know, turning lemons into lemonade has turned many a problem around.

Bang a Drum

When I find myself playing the same set of chords or riffs over and over, it's time for a change. That's when I might switch over to creating a new beat or start messing with the different virtual synthesizers or samplers that I have.

You can quickly work yourself out of a rut by learning how to play a new instrument. Every instrument has a sound unique to it. The sound created by a musical instrument is directly affected by the materials and craftsmanship that go into making it. This unique sound is known as the timbre of the instrument (pronounced 'tamber'). Put another way, timbre is the term for describing why a flute sounds different than a trumpet or guitar or a drum.

By starting to learn a new instrument besides guitar, you instantly force your ears to tune into the differences in sound and how it is created. You also begin training your body in the specific ways to produce sound on that new instrument.

For example, switching from guitar to piano forces a change in the roles your fingers play in music creation. There is a different type of hand coordination you need to master with piano versus how you play guitar. Your left hand typically plays the bass part and/or harmony on piano while your right hand plays the melody. Sounds are produced differently as well - piano is a percussive instrument, so you';re hitting the strings with a hammer versus you physically touching the strings on guitar. These tonal variations can create huge opportunities for you to explore and create.

You don't have to become a master at your new instrument. You don't even need to gain a high level of proficiency. Again, the idea is to expand your sonic palette so you have more ideas and inspiration when you're working on music.

Take a Break

Sometimes nothing will get you past the inertia that is preventing progress, so you just need to step away completely. I'm sure you've heard the saying, "Absence makes the heart grow fonder," (anonymous). Oftentimes, when I change my focus to a different activity and come back later to practice guitar or work on a song idea, whatever mental blocks I had seem to come down and I can move forward on my musical project. I'll usually be able to solve the problem, or at least be able to move on to the next challenge.

Have you experienced that as well? When you're working on a project, do you sometimes need to take a break to allow your mind to rest? By taking a break from a challenge, whether it's physical or mental, you allow your mind to move the task into the subconscious where it continues to work on the problem.

I'll find that even when my challenge is physical, like trying to master a new lick or increase my accuracy, taking a break will usually result in better results the next time I practice that aspect of my playing. It's not just your mind that remembers things - your muscles remember as well.

Conclusion

When you find yourself having trouble maintaining your inspiration, the whole reason for picking up guitar in the first place, it's time to mix things up a bit. Life is too short to suffer from motivation issues, especially when it comes to something you love. Rekindle your musical drive with the techniques listed here:

  • listen to a new style of music
  • pick a favorite song and copy the beat; come up with a different chord progression or melody
  • change the fingering of a chord
  • play an arpeggio
  • using a different tuning
  • pick random notes and jumble them - make it a game
  • try out a different instrument
  • if all else fails, take a break

There you have it - 8 ways to help you spark your imagination and stay motivated. Do you have other methods you use to start up your creativity and stay sharp? Let me know how you get musically inspired here. Go forth and create!


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