You can never totally forget how to play the guitar, however, after taking many months or even years off, your theoretical knowledge won’t be as solid and your skills won’t be as sharp.
However, after just a few months of repeated playing again, you can get back to where you were before.
A lot of people like to compare it to riding a bike. Riding a bike after a lot of time off is a lot easier than playing the guitar. While the two are similar, they’re not quite the same.
You can easily pick up riding a bike again without even thinking about it, but when it comes to the guitar, it’s going to take at least 3-4 months to get back exactly to where you were before in terms of total skill level.
A lot of people like to say that you forget EVERYTHING, but really you don’t. Your skill just isn’t quite as sharp, depending on how long you’ve taken time off, and for how long you previously played.
The following guideline describes what happens to me – someone who has played for 15 years – when I stop playing guitar for an extended period of time.
At One Week
In my experience, taking time off for a week is enough for my playing to feel just a little bit rusty.
- My alternate picking technique diminishes a bit, and it takes a solid 30-minute warm-up before I’m back to where I was before.
- My arpeggios get messier
- Knowledge of chords, scales, and other music theory concepts stays the same.
At One Month
- After a month, complicated songs and exercises I used to be really good at, start to feel a little frustrating but aren’t completely insurmountable.
- If I’m doing Chromatic string-skipping exercises, I might have to drop the metronome down by 20 BPM and practice there for a day or two.
- Knowledge of chords, scales, and other music theory concepts is still intact, however.
- The calluses on my fingers start to go away, and then when I go back to a day where I’m doing a lot of bending, my fingers start to hurt again.
After Six Months
- At this point, all of the problems mentioned above exacerbate, however, of course, nothing is totally lost.
- I start to forget music theory concepts I was working on, for instance, the order of semi-tones and whole-tones in a particular mode or scale. If the knowledge wasn’t totally memorized and established at this point, it starts to slip away.
- My alternate picking, string skipping, and arpeggios don’t sound nearly as solid.
- At this point, the calluses on your fingering hand almost disappear altogether, and if you have one day of vigorous playing, your fingers will start to hurt again like you’re brand new to the instrument.
One Year And Beyond
- One thing I noticed when I stopped playing guitar as much is that my ability to play fast triplets on the Low E-string – for instance, the type of guitar playing that’s utilized in metal where the player chugs on the Lowest strings very fast – starts to degrade. I can’t play songs like that without practicing them slowly.
- Music theory concepts that I didn’t memorize completely like the back of my hand start to slip away, including the order of Major and Minor chords in the Major Scale, assuming I haven’t been using this knowledge at all.
- Calluses on the fingering hand are completely gone. Building up the calluses again will take a bit of work. After a day of rigorous playing, I might have to take 2-3 days off just to give my finger-tips a break.
As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, even though many of your skills start to deteriorate after a long period of time away from playing the instrument, the amazing thing is that it’s not that hard to bring your skills back to where they were and for a scientific reason.
Why You Don’t Completely Forget How to Play The Guitar
The human brain has what’s called neural pathways, which means that once you’ve already learned a skill, those pathways are already formed.
It’s kind of like a grass-path. When people walk on the same area of grass over and over again, eventually, a path will form to the point where the grass no longer grows.
Using this metaphor, the path is like your skill, and the growing-grass is your memory of that skill starting to disappear.
If people stop using that path for 6 months and longer, the grass will slowly start to come back. It might even take much longer, but it will happen.
Playing the guitar is similar.
My Experiences With Taking Time Off From The Guitar
In this tutorial, I’m going to discuss my own experiences with guitar-playing and taking time off, and how it affected my skills, and then I’m going to run through a practice routine that I used to quickly get my skills back to where they were before taking time off.
From the period between 2015 and 2017, I stopped playing the guitar while I was getting my undergraduate degree and I was more focused on other goals.
However, in 2017, I discovered Garageband and the software reignited my passion for music because I realized all of the amazing ways that I could utilize my skills using Apple’s software. From there, it took me only around 3-4 months of playing to get back to where I was before I took my break.
In other words, if you’re worried about what the effect of taking time off will have on your guitar playing skills, know that you won’t be as good after you’ve taken time off. It’s a lot like going to the gym, in the sense that you will lose it.
However, the difference between growing muscle in the gym and playing the guitar is that if you completely stop hitting the weights, you’ll lose everything. It will be a lot easier to get back to where you were before after getting into it again, but you still will lose everything.
With guitar playing, however, the skill doesn’t degrade completely. Very small elements of your technique will degrade a little, and it feels like your playing becomes a bit rusty.
You have to shake the cobwebs off, so to speak.
Assuming you are now in the position that I was once in back in 2015 until 2017, here is a list of great things to practice, so you can get your skills and swagger back.
How to Get Your Guitar-Playing Skills Back to Normal After a Hiatus
1) Practice one of the songs you used to play the most.
One of the songs that I used to love playing on the guitar was “It’s Not Safe To Swim Today,” from the prog-metal band, Veil Of Maya (Old Town Road is fun to jam too as well – my guide). In my opinion, the track has the perfect combination of skills necessary to play in a number of styles.
There is a lot of alternate picking, slurs, arpeggios, and fast-picking, and this song serves as a great warm-up.
The idea behind playing a song like this is not only that you enjoy it a lot, but pick a song that combines the skills you had already learned. This has the effect of bringing together all of the things that you need to practice in one exercise, making it a great way to shake the dust off.
Another great song to practice for working on your technique is Serrana from Jason Becker.
If you grab the tab off of Ultimate-Guitar and get ready to use your metronome, this is a great way to practice your sweep-picking technique.
Chances are if you can play the sweeps in this song, you likely can figure out the sweep picking in any song.
2) Practice Ben Eller’s “The Punisher” Alternate Picking Exercise.
This is perhaps one of the greatest alternate picking exercises I’ve ever seen. It combines arguably one of the most commonly suggested exercises out there, which is the chromatic scale up and down the neck and on every string.
Ben Eller is a guitarist on YouTube who creates awesome tutorials and how-to guides on the instrument, and many of his tips are extremely helpful. I recommend you check out his channel the link here.
The exercise that I’m talking about looks like what you can see in the images below:
You’ll notice that it looks quite a bit different from the regular chromatic exercise that a lot of people recommend.
It’s different because it combines the use of upstrokes and downstrokes in such a way where you’re really getting used to changing the order of downstrokes and upstrokes between strings.
Explained in another way, the standard chromatic exercise will only help you alternate pick when starting on either the downstroke or the upstroke.
However, if there is ever a case where you have to start on the upstroke instead, and perhaps string-skip as well, you won’t be in a good position because you’ve never actually utilized that skill before.
Ben Eller’s exercise is a fantastic way of not only improving your alternate picking but also for shaking the dust off so you can get your skill level back to where it was before.
3) Use Backing Tracks
The use of backing tracks and other popular songs is a great way to practice while at the same time, really enjoy what you’re doing.
I find that practicing only exercises can get quite tedious, so what I like to do, is pick a song on Spotify or whatever platform you use, and then jam over it, no matter the genre.
One of my favorite genres to play over is hip-hop songs, for a number of reasons, including the fact that most hip-hop songs have 2-3 chords max, and there aren’t Key Signature or Tempo changes, unlike Jazz.
What’s great about this is that you can practice all of your skills over the song, as well as your music theory knowledge.
It’s a great way to practice a number of things, including:
a) The ability to figure out a song’s key signature
b) The chords in the relevant key signature
c) Arpeggios for each scale degree in the key
d) General improvisation technique
As I mentioned above, it also has the added benefit of being a lot of fun, so you won’t get so bored just practicing exercises all of the time.
One of my favorite tracks to play over is Fat Jon’s Realization, off of his new album, Teflon Funk: The Free Tapes. The song is super emotional, it sounds amazing, and is a great one to play over.
4) Use MusicTheory.net
This is a great way to remember a lot of music theory concepts and ideas, and after a few weeks of taking practice tests, going through old lessons, and reviewing old material, a lot of the music theory knowledge you once had will come back rather quickly, assuming you had already learned it.
Here are some of the things that you should begin practicing again.
a) Key Signatures
c) Diatonic Major Scales
e) Basic arpeggios: major, minor, diminished, dominant 7th, m7b5.
5) Use a Metronome
The metronome is one of the greatest ways to practice, and I always use one. The great thing about it is the fact that you can take any exercise that you want, drop the BPM down by 30-40 beats, and then practice at a level that’s comfortable for you.
Truthfully, you should be using a metronome regardless of whether or not you’ve been playing on a regular basis.
If you hate practicing with a metronome, at least play with a backing track or a song. It’s important to have a feel for timing and rhythm.
YouTube Video Tutorial
To wrap everything up, yes, your skills will decline if you stop playing for several months or even a year.
However, as I said above, if the neural pathways in your brain have already been formed, it’s not going to take a ton of effort to back to where you were before.
If you only played guitar for three months before taking time off, there’s a good chance you’ll lose a lot of the things that you learned. But if you’re a seasoned player, and you’ve got around 5 years under your belt, it’s not going to be that easy for your brain to forget everything.