Improving by not playing

I’m a lockdown guitarist - 3 years in now, posted a couple of times about the journey. Still loving it of course, now have 2 electrics (Ibanez 721 and a an LTD1000 - absolutely love them!), as well as an acoustic. I try and practice an hour a day - and I have a routine. Often I manage more but some days don’t manage any, but at any rate a decent amount of practice.

Just throwing the above the out as context in relation to something I’ve noticed; there have been a couple of times where I’ve not been able to play for a period - say a week or more, when I’ve returned to it I actually feel like I’ve improved.

Last week I had to go back home unexpectedly to parents for 10 days or so - no access to guitars and no practice schedule. I’ve been working on some metal shredding techniques - improving speed and accuracy and have a routine based around shred exercises. Coming back after the layoff I really feel more fluid and relaxed - I feel much more in control when playing through the exercises rather than feeling like I’m trying to keep up. This is one example but as I say I’ve noticed this phenomenon before.

There’s no particular revelation here I suppose, just thought I’d share with everyone and ask has anyone else experienced similar? Is there actually a reason why taking short breaks from playing might improve a skill? And if so, is there value in actually scheduling in break periods, for example 3 weeks of practice and 1 week off (like the old 3 field crop rotation system we all learnt about in history!)? Or is it all just one of those brain playing tricks type things? That I haven’t actually improved and it’s just that a short break has given me a different perspective. Curious to hear thoughts!


Chris @Christo_pritchez
I am not like you I go away for a weeks holiday and when I get back it takes me more than a week to get back to where I was.

I’ve experienced that myself. A couple of times that I’ve taken a week off seemed to benefit me.

I’ve been playing for three years too (I picked up my guitar in January 2020, just before the pandemic) and I play every day.

I usually have some things that I’m working on, but my practice is not as structured as it could be.

I have found that when vacation or work travel takes me away from home for more than five days, I return a better player. I think that this is due to giving my hands and my brain a break.

In fact I got home yesterday after being gone for six days. I spent this morning with the looper on my amp, soloing over some simple chord progressions. I found that I was able to link together scale patterns better than I ever have before and that I was playing more melodically without having to think about it. I am still a beginner when it comes to soloing, but it was the first time I ever had an inkling of the feeling that I could just think about what sound I wanted and my fingers would do the rest.

Sometimes I think that I should force myself to take the occasional week long break, even when I am home, but I’ve never had the discipline to actually do it.

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After a number of days of practice, I tend to start to mess things up. It’s happened a couple of times that, for different reasons, I didn’t touch the guitar for a couple of days at this point and after that all of a sudden, practice went noticably smoother. So no, you’re not alone.

I think we’ll placed breaks help our learning. I have had less time to practice recently, with several breaks of 3 or so days. I think that, although I am losing ground in a few songs I was working on remembering, overall I am finding it helpful for my skill.

I’ve also experienced not losing any skill with a small break.

However, I loathe to believe that not practicing can overall improve skill.

I’ve also experienced getting better at a piece/technique while taking a break from practicing that specific thing, but continuing to practice guitar. So it may be better overall to rotate practice items rather than stick at the same thing for too long.


The science of learning could explain this a bit: We learn in our sleep. On the night of practice, or learning something, and possibly the next night a bit as well, but not after that.

If you practiced today, it is natural you’d wake up playing better the next day, or a week after.

But it won’t be more than what would’ve been if you’ve been practising every day since.

Also, other things you do could contribute to your playing. Say, if you been practising ukulele, or something to do with rhythm, reflexes etc. that could have a positive impact on your guitar playing.

Absolutely not! (Happy to be proven wrong). There are more likely explanations:

  • You improved a bit on the night of your last practise and you are noticing that.
  • You mis-remember how well you were playing.
  • You forgot some nuance in your playing so you are now playing something a bit simpler more cleanly with more on tempo so it feels better to you but it is not.

And so on. But there is no way skipping practice for a week (or for a day for that matter) is better than not skipping it unless there’s an injury involved.

I wouldn’t take a week off every month, but once or twice a year can kinda recharge your enthusiasm, IMHO. I know it’s counter-intuitive, but I absolutely know that many times that I had to be out of town for several days, I was better when I got back to it.

Yes, I have experienced this as well. It’s almost as if the mind has had time to absorb the knowledge? If I take too long of a break however, I go backwards😜.

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That’s when GAS kicks in too :sweat_smile:

I wouldn’t take a guitar on a week vacation, so a week off here or there seems reasonable. On a regular basis I don’t schedule any time off though.

Life can get complex enough that there I days I don’t have time or don’t have the will to practice. If at all possible I try to pick up the guitar at least for a bit regardless of how I feel. That usually turns into 10-30 min playing.

Currently I have been going through a move which requires a lot of work on two houses and has added a complexity to parenting (no divorce, just increased kid needs during transition). Not to mention my usual job.

Although I pick up the guitar anywhere from 10-30 min daily, I really haven’t had a real practice, like with organization and planning, or even specific intention, for a few weeks. It has been great for my basic skills and development of songs I already know, since those are the things I doodle with absent a plan.

But I am not otherwise progressing and some of the songs I know less well are going backwards.

Sigh. Not really a problem. Just is…

Getting worried, am I the only one who regresses a little bit after a weeks break.
Must be my age !!!

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I have had a few days break and it always takes a moment getting back into it. I don’t think it’s a question of age :slightly_smiling_face: It’s just a question of how much stress you put yourself under I think.


Nicole @JokuMuu
I hope I was only joking about my age.
Michael :grinning:

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I noticed this as well, however, this only applies on the things I’ve been practising, and their progress was minimal at best. So, a couple of days or weeks time off from doing this was beneficial to, I don’t know, something to set-in my muscle memory or brain, to “fix” the major problems I’ve been having with certain practice elements. That would not have been fruitful, if I did not practice before.

Not practicing at all makes me rough the first time or two back. I seem to lose some of the dexterity and smoothness, not that I have a ton to begin with :slight_smile: But I do find if I’m struggling with learning something, if I put it aside for a week or two, a month. Often it’s improved or easier when I go back to it.

Maybe it’s really because it feels somehow less stressful then and the brain has had some time to process something that has been learned?
I noticed something similar, not with a break of several days though, but let’s say 24 hours. Something that felt difficult back then - say e.g. splitting up Old Faithful in a bar between two chords - felt so much more easier after I have, subconsciously I suppose, had time to process the learned.

If you’ve worked on other techniques in the interim I think that contributes to it. I also think just letting the brain shift it to the sub-conscious memory for awhile may help. I do the same thing with non-guitar projects like day-job stuff. Letting things rest a day or two can sometimes give a fresh perspective.

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