How To Avoid Getting Rusty When You Can't Play Guitar [Lessons]

If I'm being honest with myself, I'd say that I've gone through several long periods where guitar was a secondary - even tertiary - part of my life.

Sure, ever since I started playing at 13, I've always proudly identified myself as a guitarist, but in reality, my involvement with guitar seemed to mirror the movement of a wave - the peaks of productive practice and progress would naturally sink down to troughs where I didn't do much playing aside from picking up my guitar every few days and noodling through whatever I could remember.

The thing is - I never wanted to be that way. I always wanted to get better.

As cliché as it sounds, life seemed to always "get in the way" somehow. Moving a few times as a teenager, traveling to visit prospective colleges, being a B+ student, having to play mandatory sports in school - these responsibilities contributed to times where - whether I intended to or not - guitar wasn't as much of a priority as I wanted it to be.

I always wanted to play though. Every now and then I'd get a burst of inspiration and motivation - a sugar rush of productivity. After a few days of buckling down with rigid practice, the high of the motivational sugar rush wore off and I'd crash back to my old habits. My guitar would then become better friends with the forgotten socks under my bed than it was with me.

Looking back, this lead to stagnation - a stalling of progress. Whenever I did pick up the guitar - be it in a spontaneous jam session or browse-playing a flashy axe at Guitar Center - I could only rely on the techniques, knowledge and repertoire that was fully engrained in my muscle memory (basically the stuff I learned in my first years of playing). All the songs, scales, and theory that I had learned in the previous year or two were virtually gone from my memory.

And on top of that I was perpetually rusty and it took me a long time to get fully warmed up and able to operate at 100%.

This pattern continued for years as my life circumstances changed. College was more of the same - there'd be periods where I'd routinely practice, join a band and gig around a bit, but as often as that would happen, I'd unintentionally fall into another guitar dry spell. Later, my first big-boy job offered a new set of challenges in terms of balancing my newly apparent adult obligations with what I really enjoyed - music. As much as I hate to admit it, I'd allow my work-resultant exhaustion to cause multi-week stints where I wouldn't so much as pick up my trusty Fender Strat.

Over time, this reality left me feeling very dissatisfied with my overall progress as a player. Something would have to change if I wanted to step up my game and become the guitarist and musician I always identified myself as.

Like the final part of the grieving process, what I came to was acceptance.

I didn't accept defeat though. What I accepted was the reality that's true for so many players out there: unless you're a career musician, there are naturally going to be commitments and circumstances that are going to pull you away from guitar for a while. We work; we study; we have families; we travel; we get sick and injured. That's life.

These are the obstacles that most "normal" guitarists have to face: the day-to-day distractions that hinder our ability to play as often and consistently as we'd like. "More important" stuff takes precedent. Unfortunately, it's easy to use these obstacles as subconscious justifications for not playing for periods of time.

I started to see things differently after reading a book that has since become one of my favorites - "The Obstacle is the Way" by Ryan Holiday. The book discusses an aspect of Stoic philosophy - an individual's ability to perceive obstacles as opportunities and use them as a way to adapt and overcome. In other words, the theme can be summed up with a quote from Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius - one of the main influencers of Stoicism: "The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way."

If I wanted to overcome these professional and personal obstacle that got in the way of my guitar progress, I knew I would have to adapt better and figure out some solutions. Would I continue to go through my up-and-down wave pattern of guitar playing, or could I find a way to avoid the on-and-off separation from guitar? Is there a way I could still stay relatively in shape on guitar even if I couldn't practice that much?

Instead of forgetting most of the songs, solos, scales and licks I'd spent so much time learning; instead of fighting to get back in shape like someone who hasn't taken a jog for years, I figured, why not try to stay in shape during the inevitable off-seasons?

I began to identify parts of my day where I had even a little bit of free time, such as my lunch hour, my morning commute, or doing laundry. I reasoned that instead of browsing Reddit during my lunch hour or flipping through terrible FM morning radio shows in my car, I might as well use that time to set my mind on something guitar-related.

It turned out that on an average day, I had more time to engage my mind with guitar than I realized, and although I technically wasn't practicing with a guitar, the mental engagement helped me stay sharp during any extended break from guitar.

Over time, I created a handful of simple techniques I could do without a guitar and that could easily fit into my daily schedule. The techniques addressed different components of guitar playing:

  • Memory
  • Mechanics
  • Musical knowledge
  • Inspiration and enthusiasm
  • Organization

By doing these exercises just a few minutes each day, I was able to stay mentally in shape on guitar, and since my mental guitar game was strong, it made the process of working up the physical side of my playing 50% faster and easier.

When I returned to guitar, I was able to remember riffs, solos and songs I learned. I didn't have to brush off cobwebs in my headspace of musical knowledge. I was even excited and eager to learn new songs, techniques and concepts. Naturally, it took a little work to get back into physical shape (stamina, dexterity, strength, callouses, etc.), but the mental half remained crisp.

I want to share these exercises with you so you can avoid getting rusty when - for whatever reason - your life circumstances won't let you play guitar as much as you like.

It's entirely realistic to find the balance between tending to your normal life and actually improving on guitar. So whether your daily workload has you feeling dead physically, mentally, and spiritually; whether you can't make a dent in your heaping plate of work, family, relationships, school, and other obligations; whether you travel frequently and can't bring your guitar along; or - hopefully not - whether you've fallen ill or injured both your thumbs in a bizarre gardening accident - whatever the case - learn and apply these exercises so you can always stay in guitar shape, even if you can't play as much as you'd like.

Ex. 1: Mentally Run Through Songs You Know

Purpose: to engage your memory.

Yes, Steve, it's true ... to an extent.

Think about learning a foreign language in school. Do you remember much from your high school Spanish or French class? Unless you speak the language everyday, I'll bet that you only remember a few random nouns and verbs since you probably haven't given the language a single thought since 10th grade.

In the sense of a language, if you don't use it, you lose it. The same idea can be applied to your guitar knowledge and repertoire. Even if you aren't physically practicing your songs, you can exercise your memory so you don't completely "lose it."

I hate forgetting parts and sections to songs I've already learned, especially when it happens in jam situations. To prevent this, I like to do "mental run-throughs" of songs that are currently fresh in my memory.

You might be thinking that this sounds completely vague and strange, but the act of recalling songs, solos, scales and licks can be surprisingly effective in terms of exercising your memory and remembering what you've learned.

All a mental run-through requires is a simple mental visualization of yourself playing a song from your own 1st-person perspective.

You can do this with your eyes open or closed. You can do a run-through with the actual song playing or without. All that matters is that you try to recall as many details as you can in terms of how the song is played (e.g., how each chord is fingered, how each lick is picked, how you bend and shake notes in the solo, etc.).

You may have heard of elite athletes visualizing plays, routines, routes or shots as part of their training (try Googling "imagery in sports").

An NBA player might imagine himself sinking 3-pointers at different spots on the court; an Olympic skier might imagine each curve, twist and turn of their route.

This performance psychology technique known as "imagery" helps athletes envision what a perfect performance will look like so they can apply that mental perfection to real competition.

Here we have the same idea applied to guitar performance. Try this technique for parts you find difficult. For example, if you have trouble getting a particular passage up to speed, try envisioning yourself nailing the part with ease, comfort and fluidity - paying attention to your fretting hand, picking hand and economy of motion. Afterward, when you physically play the part, you might find that you not only remember it, but you also have the mental image of a perfect execution.

Gotta believe to receive, right?

Personally, I tend to have a hard time remembering guitar solos after I've learned them, so I keep an ongoing playlist of songs with solos I've learned. When I'm in my car, on the subway, on a plane, on a boat - whatever the setting - I can quickly hit "play" and visualize myself playing these songs on the guitar, recalling as many details as I can.

Action Item: To help you remember what you know, try to mentally run through songs, scales, licks and exercises you know whenever you can. It's a quick and easy way to remember the details about what you've learned so you don't forget. Plus, the more detail you can recall, the better. To start, pick 5 songs you know really well and give them mental run-throughs throughout your day.

Ex. 2: Arm Yourself With Your "Guitarm"

Purpose: to engage your mechanics.

This technique is somewhat related to mental run-throughs in the sense that you're recalling something you know on guitar without actually playing the actual instrument.

What you're going to do here is create a makeshift guitar neck using your fretting hand and opposite forearm - a "guitarm," if you will.

To properly arm yourself, hold your fretting hand in front of you like like you're about to eat a sandwich (like a "C" shape). Then stick your forearm inside the C shape and then simultaneously lower your hand and arm to a level where you'd normally play guitar.

Instant guitar neck!

To show you how to properly create a guitarm (and to make it seem more exciting than it actually is), check out the all-out-extreme-dubstep-GoPro-Be-a-Hero demo of what a guitarm can really do!

"Shirley, you can't be serious," you might be thinking, catching your breath from such epic footage.

The main idea behind this mock-guitar neck is to help you practice small finger movements for coordination and help you remember things like arpeggio shapes and simple finger exercises.

Obviously there are no strings or frets on your "guitarm" (I suppose if you're dedicated and slightly insane you might want to tattoo a fretboard on there), but you can at least practice finger movements and approximate their mechanics.

Better than nothing, right?

For example, say I usually do those common 4-finger permutation exercises.

If I don't have a real guitar on me, I might run through them on my "guitarm" along to a metronome app on my phone. 1 - 2 - 3 - 4; 1 - 3 - 2 - 4; 1 - 4 - 3 - 2, etc.

I also like to challenge myself to keep my fingers as close to my arm as possible and avoiding unnecessary movements while I do these finger permutations. It's kind of fun and I can do it in front of the TV or when I'm talking to Time Warner Cable.

If I want to brush up on some arpeggio shapes I know, I'll bang them out on my arm and try to approximate their movements, string placement and fret distances.

Again, it doesn't need to be exact - it's more about staying fresh on their shapes and fingerings.

Action Item: Use your forearm and fretting hand to make a makeshift guitar neck. You can practice small finger movements, arpeggio shapes and finger exercises. If you're itching to do something resembling guitar playing and a guitar is nowhere to be found, this is the closest and cheapest option.

Ex. 3: Use Music Flashcards and Apps On-The-Go

Purpose: to engage your existing musical knowledge.

By now I'm sure you've realized how much of a music dork I am, and studying music flashcards is probably the dorkiest out of these exercises.

But alas, flashcards and music theory apps can be an effective and quick way to stay on top of your musical knowledge, and thanks to glorious available technology, you can brush up pretty much wherever you are.

If you fall into an extended guitar break, I'll bet you don't think about all the musical knowledge you've acquired in detail. Out of sight, mostly out of mind. But these details easily get lost over time if you don't keep them fresh.

Going back to the foreign language comparison, think of this exercise as reviewing vocabulary words. It's not the most exciting thing in the world to do, but if you already know the words, it's not that difficult to simply go through them whenever you get a chance. Over time, they'll be that much more committed to your long-term memory.

So the goal here is not to take on theory knowledge you don't know, rather to simply review whatever you do know. This is more about maintenance in your off time.

Personally, I like to have flashcards that quiz me on fundamentals that I tend to forget, like chord spelling, chord chard logic, relative major and minor keys, key signatures, scale degrees, etc.

Whatever you find useful - make a flashcard for it.

I recommend the Chegg flashcard app for your smartphone. It's pretty intuitive and easy to whip out whenever you get a chance. I have these flashcards handy on my phone so I can use them anytime I have a few free minutes in line at a store or on hold during a phone call. It especially comes in handy at the DMV.

I also recommend an app from MusicTheory.net, called Tenuto, which has fantastic interactive music theory exercises. Particularly, the guitar fretboard trainer is a great way to memorize the fretboard (FYI, I have no affiliation with this site - I'm just a fan).

Action Item: While it may seem like homework, staying up to speed on your musical vocabulary with flashcards and theory apps can be a quick and easy way to stay mentally sharp. Even if you don't know a ton of theory, think of any musical knowledge you do have and make some flashcards. When you're done and find a free minute to check your phone, skip Facebook and quiz yourself.

Ex. 4: Make a Playlist of Albums/Artists/Genres You've Always Meant to Check Out

Purpose: to engage your inspiration and enthusiasm for guitar.

Whenever I find myself in an extended guitar break, I like to have something to look forward to for when I come back to the instrument.

A great way to stay inspired and enthusiastic about guitar during your off time is to actively check out albums you've always been curious about.

Go to YouTube or Spotify and create a new playlist for albums you've always meant to check out. These can be classic albums you've heard are great but haven't actually listened to, guitarists you've read about in magazines, or different genres that you haven't spent much time with, like gypsy jazz, bluegrass or Viking metal.

For example, I've always meant to explore the Rolling Stones' catalog (I've been a lifelong Beatles fan, so although I definitely appreciate the Stones, I just never gave them the kind of attention as I did the Beatles). Knowing that I have a long plane ride coming up, I figure it'll be an opportune time to check out classic albums like "Let it Bleed," "Sticky Fingers," and "Exile on Main Street" and see what resonates with me. Into the playlist they go.

Keeping a playlist like this can at least keep you thinking about guitar during your break, and by discovering new music, it's likely that you'll spark some ideas and excitement about what you might want to learn on guitar when you are able to resume practicing.

You might find that you really dig Django Reinhardt and want to explore gypsy jazz when you can finally find the time to practice. Or maybe you'll get turned onto a new band and open up your musical palate even more.

Action Item: Having a collection of fresh albums can help keep your mind on guitar while you're on your break. This can be particularly great for getting inspiration for future songs you want to learn, styles you want to tackle, and add to your overall musical knowledge. Create a free YouTube or Spotify playlist today and fill it up with anything you've meant to check out but haven't yet.

Ex. 5: Set Yourself Up for a Welcome Return

Purpose: to avoid preventable setbacks.

When all is said and done and you finally have time to sink back into your guitar playing, it's a good idea to prevent any random and avoidable setbacks that prevent you from playing, like not having any replacement strings or realizing your cables aren't working.

I've often returned to guitar only to inevitably and almost immediately break a rusty, worn string. Only problem - I don't have any extras (especially those damn, high E strings). "Whelp, I might as well call it a day and watch some Curb Your Enthusiasm reruns."

Wrong attitude! Bad foresight!

If you're expecting a break from guitar, why not get organized and make sure you have everything you need before your break? When you get back, you'll have everything you need.

Action Item: This weekend, go to Guitar Center or make an order online for any piece of gear you need - cables, picks, strings, amp tubes, fresh batteries for your effects pedals, etc. If you foresee an upcoming break for guitar, be sure that you'll have everything you need for when you get back to it.

Next Steps for You

All of these exercises/techniques/suggestions are designed so you can do them on the go and virtually anywhere. They don't take long and you might find them easy to fit into your everyday schedule.

If you get anything out of this article, I hope you at least take away this: if your life doesn't allow you to play as much as you want, it's entirely possible to stay in shape without practicing every day.

We all have obstacles in the way that prevent us from growing as guitarists. But growth can happen in the midst of everyday life. Even if you can't play everyday, these tips should at least help keep your mind and spirit into the instrument. So when you finally open up some time to play, you won't feel like the guitar is this complete stranger that you haven't kept in touch with for years.

Try these out and let me know how it works out!

If you read any of my previous lessons, you'll know that I'm all about helping busy self-taught guitarists get the most out of their limited practice time and help them find direction so they can be the guitarists they always wanted to be.

I'd love to hear about your experiences with taking wanted or unwanted breaks from guitar. What do you do to keep yourself engaged with guitar when daily life makes it hard to practice?

TL; DR: If you routinely stop practicing for weeks on end due to work, school, family, injury or any other obligation, instead of abandoning guitar completely, try to refocus your approach to stay mentally engaged with guitar in lieu of actual practice. Doing this can help you stay in shape, remember what you've learned, and feel motivated to come back to guitar when you're able to. I used to get horrendously rusty when I took inevitable breaks from guitar, but by applying several quick mental exercises into my daily schedule, I was able to quickly get back into guitar, stay in shape, and continue improving. I know you can do it too.

About the Author:
By Zach Pino. If you like this approach and want to get a little more specific with how you can apply it to your own playing, I have something extra for you (free of charge). Head over to zachpinoguitar.com and enter your email address in the top form to get access to my free e-guide, The Zach Pino Guitar Game-Changing Guide to Learning Songs as Quickly as Possible. The guide gives detailed step-by-step instructions on how to get organized and how to learn songs faster and more accurately so you can really start seeing the results you want.


Ashutosh Pande
Ashutosh Pande

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