Mental meltdowns while playing?

When you’re intently practicing something difficult to do, does it get to the point with you where your brain just shuts down and says the hell with you! I’m not cooperating anymore? It’s incredibly frustrating but almost fascinating at the same time. My picking hand basically stops moving, I start fretting notes wrong, things that I thought I had down become incredibly difficult coordination wise, i’m completely lost with any kind of chunking in my mind etc, it’s like a brick wall comes up between my brain and fingers and that’s the point of no return. It’s not really a speed thing either where I’m trying to do things beyond my capability. I could set the Metronome beyond half speed of something I’m practicing and I’m still completely lost. :confused: I’m starting to wonder if I just don’t have the mental capability of pulling this stuff off more than anything?? Very strange, but incredibly frustrating. :thinking:


Definitely has happened to me.

Point of advice. Do things intensely and focused for like 10-20mins MAX. Then get up and go walk around, make a coffee, play a few rounds of a video game, then go back to your focused practice some reasonable amount of time later. It’ll give your brain a chance to focus on something else, and it’ll give your own self a break.

I’ve started doing it and I find I’m way less likely to brickwall myself these days. Also, if I happen to just all of a sudden stop playing up to my own standards, I just put the guitar down for a bit and go do something else. It works, honest!


Seconding @JB_Winnipeg’s advice here with an analogy:

When you’re practicing something incorrectly (wrong picking motion, fretting, whatever) it’s like the equivalent of walking around with a splinter in your foot. That discomfort becomes your baseline or “new normal”. You take the splinter out (i.e., remove the problem) and then think to yourself “That’s what I was thinking was normal or healthy the entire time?”.

The physical and mental act of getting up and doing something else with your hands and mind, only to come back and do something different with your hands, is the break in that analogy. You might sit down again to find what you were doing previously was so laughably uncomfortable you couldn’t even believe you tried to do it in the first place.

I find sometimes the longer I go without picking up the guitar the more intense these realizations are.

Conversely, marathon practice sessions dull the senses. The guitar becomes less of a fresh experience in your mind and more of a “new normal”, similar to wearing a ring or necklace all the time. After a while, it’s not even there anymore.

Avoid that at all costs. Always feel fresh and change things up/shuffle motions around while you feel that way.


That’s great advice! When I start getting to the point of no return, instead of putting the guitar down and taking a break to refresh my mind I just keeping playing like I’m going to push through and fix the problem. It never happens of course. I just get worse. :confused: I wonder if this stuff ever happens to advanced players like @Troy? To me it’s not a real reassuring problem to have because how are you ever going to feel comfortable doing this stuff live?? I don’t know about you guys but that’s the whole point with me, to be able to apply the technique to actual music and live band situations. :man_shrugging: Thank God I’m a singer first! :joy:

I hesitate to comment on such matters because what I say may not be that far off from pseudoscience and general quackery.

With that disclaimer out of the way, this is just my opinion, observations, and experiences over the years:

I will always lean towards over-practice than under-practice, given sufficient time. I like the work ethic it promotes and the reassurance it gives me, regardless of how misguided those two things may be.

However I also find myself rarely in such situations and thus no one needs to imagine themselves in this false dichotomy.

The rare instance was when I gave up nearly two weeks of sleep to learn 15 songs for emergency session work, and that was the only option simply because of the time constraints. There was no real healthy way to do it any other way.

Oddly enough, I retain a lot of what I played during those two weeks. A lot of it was mental more than physical because the playing itself was relatively easy.

And I doubt it would have mattered if it were the opposite case. The salient point is that for most normal folks distributed along the middle part of the bell curve, I think there is a real (daily) threshold to both.

Playing guitar I believe is one of those things that require almost equal proportions of both, in my opinion.

I also admit I don’t know how exactly my abilities and senses developed, and whether I had any previous advantages that immediately translated to guitar from an early age, be it violin or whatever. Interestingly, I never faced the “bored” phase, or whatever it is more scientifically called.

I can say for sure I took the long way around for certain techniques to develop, but if I were to go back, I would have made the same mistakes, and I would choose to do them again. In the grand scheme, it’s a price to pay for having other things come easy to me.

Many good things came from extreme amounts of repetition, and many came on short sight. In what proportions, I am not sure.

I realize I just wrote a lot of words to say something inherently ambiguous, so to conclude with more concrete points:

  1. There is the rote memory (or formula) way of learning which is necessary and the gym-rat way of learning which is sometimes necessary (not always, but sometimes). The real skill is to judge what the situation calls for and to ultimately have a healthy balance of both which I imagine is not 50/50.

  2. Also, a lot of development is not linear. Learning is simply not an exercise of filling the bathtub and watching the number go up. One has to be okay with this reality.

  3. I improved much more when I lessened expectations, and held less reverence for the artists that I like (namely EJ). The desire for perfection and mental block in thinking I’ll never be able to play a phrase like him were severe bottlenecks in my playing- and in some ways, more than just finger dexterity. A lot of progress came as a result of being mentally healthy and letting silly stuff go, which allowed me to focus (or rather, focus only happened naturally as a result of this byproduct), and then everything seemed to progress exponentially.

  4. I play a lot, but I also listen more than I play. Sometimes I listen so much that I even forget to play. Some Hendrix/EJ tunes I fear to look at the play-count sometimes because I feel that is grounds for admission to a mental hospital.

  5. I am also interested in any sonic effect/gag that makes my playing more enjoyable. Diffused reverbs? Tell me about it. Old 80s gear? I’m all ears.

  6. A word on tabs. It seems that first the bedroom rockstar treats Hal Leonard’s version of Ah Via Musicom as gospel, then gets disappointed when he finds out that it isn’t 100% right. The unfortunate result of this is that the tab book is discarded entirely, and the boy gets discouraged (with Hal Leonard and every single online tab from then on). Both extremist conclusions and quite unfortunately misguided. The lesson to learn here is not to trust tabs, but to realize tabs, no matter how correct, will still not do the playing for you. There are countless copies of accurate sheet music for (insert favorite composer) yet still many folks aren’t (insert that same composer again). The healthy attitude (as is the case with any secondary source), is to treat it as an honest interpretation, and take some bits, and leave out the rest. Fool around with it, do as you please. I still refer to my Venus Isle tab-book daily; not because it’s right or wrong (because I really don’t care about that), but because I know not to judge it on one specific criteria- and when I am in that frame of mind, I learn so much more with the book than not having it at all.

  7. I trust that if I did something right today, I won’t know today, but tomorrow will certainly tell me, and that is good enough (for me).

I try to live by a healthy amount of positivity tempered by realistic expectations, a good deal of balance, and everything in moderation, even moderation.

Again, apologies for the long-winded answer and the wall of text.


I’ve started to think of practice as more like reading a book I enjoy. Doesn’t matter HOW much I enjoy it, sometimes I just can’t marathon 4 hours straight of reading, even though I might want to. It lessens my overall enjoyment of the “book” and reduces what I retain.

Guitar is now like that for me, it’s no longer “you’re swimming to shore and if you stop swimming, you die” it’s a book you’re reading. You may want to get to the end (whatever that may be) but there’s no point in killing yourself to do so, quite teh opposite in fact.

As for the singing/playing live, it’s my goal too. Last year I just about felt comfortable following chords during campfire tunes played by others, this year, I can play and sing at the same time on a good handful of songs. It depends on the material and the person/repetition obviously, but that shit takes TIME man! ; )

Good luck

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I spend 90% of my guitar life in the zone of not being able to do things, then being able to do them, and the not being able to do them. That’s what you all pay me for.

When it comes to techniques I have already learned, that’s a different story. They’re super stable. This technique for example - I can play this line any day of the week, tired or awake, warmed up or not:

That’s because these motions are pretty simple to begin with (single escape) and totally baked in at this point. Only occasional playing is required to maintain them.

In your case I think it can help to be absolutely clear as to what it is you are trying to do. What specifically do you mean by “problem”? Is it a problem with picking technique? Because usually those problems boil down to learning to do a particular motion. What is the motion? Can you do it or not do it? Film it up close and look at it. Is the motion actually correct or not correct?

Because I will tell you, when you actually do a thing correctly more than a few times, and you can recognize by feel that it is indeed correct, without needing to look at your hands or in a mirror, it becomes permanent very quickly. Once you get to that point, things get a lot more automatic and resistant to change.

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This. I did this last year, when I was getting back to practicing and re-bonding with the guitar. I felt a bit insecure after years of kinda avoiding the challenge, and wanted to manage the emotional workload a bit so I wouldn’t demand too much from my rusty state. It worked, and it felt like a guitar practice achievement in its own right.

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Yeah man, it’s not a perfect system and it requires constantly reminding yourself to stick to “the plan” and actually taking the breaks but like, basically just give yourself a break on a regular basis! If something straight up isn’t working, it’ll allow you the breathing space to analyze what/why without getting into the “destroy all things” state of mind.

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Mental breaks in technical guitar work means more progress when you are actually ready again. In my experience I generally need 2, sometimes 3 days. It doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t play…I shift to something else like chord work…or honing much needed production skills. I often notice some small breakthrough when I come back to it. Frustration is great when it’s productive but not when it kills your whole musical vibe.

Thanks for all the replies! I totally get that you need to take mental breaks after a while, but damn I didn’t think it was after 20 minutes. I figured it would be after four hours of playing. When do the mental breakdowns stop happening? The thing that throws me off is I’m able to physically play some of these licks fine when starting out at full speed 170-200 BPM. So it’s not like I can’t pull them off. I’ll be trucking along beautifully where everything is synced up, then I just start falling apart out of nowhere. I watch videos of EJ playing, or Yngwie and just wonder how are they never getting lost with what’s going on? It seems like that they would get stumped up with playing their patterns of five or sixes And lose sight of what’s going on at those speeds but they never do. That’s a lot of stuff going on that you have to keep track of and I’m finding out trying to learn Eric Johnson stuff that it’s a lot more difficult than it looks. :confused:

MY way :wink: (nothing universal) is to change exercise every few minutes.
When i feel muscle tension AND/OR mental disconnection, i simply do something else.

Exemple : practice Pepsi lick. Switch to metal rythm. Gambale sweeping. Another metal riff. Back to Pepsi lick. Or song switching.
Or simple same rythm/same solo licks switching.

I STOPPED unmusical exercises like “fake” chromatic (1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4), Steve Vai spider string change … because they are NOT musical. And so very mentally alienating :wink:

I now only play musical chunks. And switch regularly.
No more hours and hours spend on the SAME pattern.
Because you gain NOTHING when playing one hour or more the same thing.

And if you really can’t play anything more … just STOP and go away :wink:
Your brain is saturating. And may be your muscles too.

It is better to spend only 20 minutes with concentration than hours without :wink:
One thing for sure : NEVER stop playing, unlike i’ve done for years :smiley:

Happy shredding !


Good advice! For the last week or two since I started this thread I’ve made big improvements just by playing in smaller time frames. I started timing myself to see how long I can go with intently practicing something difficult before I start to have mental and physical fatigue and Wala it’s around the 20-30 minute mark every time. Playing through something over and over trying to get it right doesn’t work. I guess that’s what most of us have been taught. On another note I’ve never understood those mindless exercises either! 1234 on every string crap! What’s the point it’s never gonna be musical you’re never going to use it and you’re just gonna end up sounding like a Soulless robot. :man_shrugging:


This is fantastic advice. In my experience, most people are not able to to intensely focus on a single thing (exercise, technique, etc.) for more than a few minutes at once. So I would take this one step further and say practice each individual thing with intense focus for 1 to 2 minutes and take a short brain break between each thing you’re practicing, with your full practice session totaling about 20 minutes. Do these 20 minute practice sessions as many times a day as you want to, with a reasonable rest period between each.

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I use those as a warmup supplement. Those kinds of excercises do help me open up my fretting hand finger coordination. Not saying that playing actual musical licks wouldn’t warm you up, but I think 1234-style excercises give me just a bit different kind of extra warmup and comfyness. Especially when I vary them, like 4321, 4231, or 34 34 34 on adjacent strings and so on.

Yeah whatever works. I guess I’ve always been too lazy to do those type of things. I always just want to get Rockin! Haha :joy:

The 1234 thing (and it’s variations) is good for beginners to build finger independence…but I agree is limited in musicality past this. I spent a lot of time doing this kind of thing as a teenager…however the ‘wish I knew then what I know now’ cliche is both true and unavoidable to a significant degree.