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Overcoming “The Blues Rut” and Expanding Your Guitar Creativity

blues rut header

There’s a very good reason why the pentatonic scale is so generally pleasing, applicable, and capable of making neck hairs stand on end: It’s something humans have been perfecting for a long time, and can be found in cultures all over the world. As a guitarist, I’ve often wondered whether the guitar was in some ways made for the pentatonic scale. But as reliable as it is, the pentatonic scale can become a security blanket for soloing guitarists. Novices and masters use it all the time, in both bedrooms and arenas. But if the pentatonic scale just doesn’t tickle your fancy the way it once did, what’s a guitarist to do? How does one get out of the pentatonic box?

+Learn more: The pentatonic scale can be used to great creative lengths in electronic production as well. Find out more with our course “Theory for Producers: The Black Keys”!

As someone steeped in blues, with a guitar-playing, blues-loving father who put a guitar in my hands at the age of 5, I found myself being less and less moved by this basic, fundamental scale. I wanted something more. New synapses. New pathways in the brain. Perhaps it was an innate human impulse to see what else is out there.

Whatever the reason, I needed something else. But what? It was 2001. I couldn’t just default to YouTube the way I would now.

Today, the internet makes many a reference to “the blues rut” (essentially, the rut of the pentatonic scale). Common suggestions for getting out of this rut range from playing in a different room than usual, to not playing for a week, to listening to different kinds of music. These are all possibilities, but for me, breaking out of the blues rut started a sonic exploration that continues to this day.

I started to just randomly detune the instrument. This became my go-to tactic for breaking out of my familiar riffs and licks, chord voicings, and fingerings on the neck. I couldn’t just think about muscle memory and let my hands do the rest. I had to focus on the sound. I had to use my ears again.

I also started preparing the guitar — inserting objects between the strings and the fret board to produce altered, often percussive sounds. (Pro tip: Spoons can be used both for preparation and also as a whammy bar of sorts!) These tactics were great for my creativity and for forcing me into new shapes on the neck. But ultimately, preparing the guitar and the anarchy of random detuning were not necessarily practical tools for musical advancement or easily replicable in performance.

deen tuning close up
A still from Soundfly’s free course Alternate Tunings for the Creative Guitarist.

However, one option that satisfies both new shapes and musical advancement is an open tuning. Open tunings are great ways to advance your sonic palette and to reignite musical passions. And Soundfly just happens to offer a series of courses on such tunings (coincidence, I think not).

Learn about the Open D tuning with our free course, and unlock the creative guitarist in you!

I first experimented with open tunings when I started to play slide, but quickly branched out when I got into finger-picked folk guitar. A friend introduced me to Jim O’Rourke and from there I learned about John Fahey, Basho, Sandy Bull, et al. What these tunings did for me was to refocus my mind on the sound emanating from the guitar, as opposed to the patterns and tricks I had begun to rely on in standard tunings.

Whatever tactic you use to break out of the blues rut, the goal is not to abandon from whence you came. Just because you are out of the rut doesn’t mean you have to leave the box forever. The pentatonic scale is great! At some point in my sonic journey, I returned to the blues, and the pentatonic scale, with a new appreciation and vigor. I thought about my first hero, Jimi Hendrix. How could one better describe him than as a blues player exploring the sonic possibilities of the instrument.

My point is nicely summed up by none other than T.S. Eliot, who wrote:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring 
Will be to arrive where we started 
And know the place for the first time. 

 

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Nick Lerman
Nick Lerman

Nick Lerman works with sound and images in various capacities including as a guitarist (Arthur Moon, Viktor Longo), video editor and photographer. His work has been shown internationally at venues including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The International House Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania, Roulette (Brooklyn), The Japan Society (New York City), Issue Project Room (Brooklyn), Taiwan Digital Arts, Hong Kong University, Videotage (Hong Kong), Maerz Musik (Berlin) and others. Nick has produced courses for Soundfly including A Conversation with the Blues, and the Chiptune Crash Course series.