Have you ever had one of those days when you pick up your guitar and for no apparent reason your playing feels WORSE than it was the day before?
Suddenly you find yourself making mistakes left right and centre with things you thought you had down. Things aren’t happening, and your playing feels stale and uninspiring.
It’s one of those days when you feel like your playing just SUCKS!
When we’re learning an instrument it seems like you should be steadily getting better all the time. And normally this is what happens.
Then one of these days hits you out of the blue and you wonder what’s going on…
Huh?! Am I going backwards here? Is my practice working?
Every guitarist experiences off days like these!
They might not talk about it that often, but I can assure they all do. I do too. It’s a normal part of playing an instrument.
Why do days like this happen?
As Tommy Emmanuel suggests, off days are probably caused by very small day-to-day variations in things like how much energy you have, how good you’re feeling generally, and other factors like your state of mind or the mood you’re in.
But it doesn’t really matter why off days happen, because you can’t avoid them — unfortunately they just happen. This means that the only thing that really matters is how we think about them.
Why they're nothing to worry about
The main thing to recognise when you’re having one is that an off day is only a temporary thing. That’s why they’re called “off days” — because they’re unusual, and because things are quickly back to normal.
Having the occasional unexplained drop in performance is not only a feature of playing guitar, but a reality of doing pretty much anything. Sometimes, for a whole host of possible reasons, we just aren’t at our best! Sportspeople and athletes experience the same thing.
Where off days fit in the bigger picture of learning guitar
Assuming you are practicing regularly and doing the right things, then you are steadily getting better at guitar every month. So let’s visualise off days in the bigger picture with some simple numbers.
Imagine that for every year of guitar playing, you gain 1000 guitar skill points.
And imagine that when you have an off day your guitar skill temporarily drops 20%.
(These numbers are only for example purposes.)
Using this example, if someone in their first year of playing has an off day then their effective guitar skill will fall somewhere well below 1000. This would probably have immediate practical consequences like being unable to play recently learned songs, or struggling with technique.
However, once the same person has been playing for ten years then even a massive 20% drop in their guitar skill would still leave them at 8,000.
That’s still a big loss – but because so much total skill has been built up – their skill level even on an off day is still really high. At this stage an off day is still frustrating, but it’s not like like you suddenly can’t play.
Do you see how it works?
It matters less the better you get
Let’s finish up by taking the point outside the world of guitar and music.
Picture the wrestler and actor Dwayne Johnson – “The Rock”. How much maximum weight do you think a guy like that can lift when he’s on top form? Let’s imagine it’s similar to other top wrestlers, or somewhere between 400 and 500 pounds.
Now imagine he’s having a bad day because he has had a cold or something recently. Maybe for a day or two his performance slips to something like 360 to 400 pounds.
Oh no… This means he’d still be able to comfortably lift the weight of more than four people on a bad day!
Even on a bad day he’d still be stronger than 99.99% of people in the world. Sure, he himself would sense he wasn’t at his best, but do you think anyone else (other than another top wrestler on a good day) would have any idea he wasn’t on his ideal form? No way!
So let's get back to work
The 20% used here is obviously just a rough figure for example purposes. It’s just there to demonstrate how, over time, as your total skill and experience becomes higher and higher, that even on a really bad day you will still be really good. In reality, I don’t think it’s really as bad as anything like 20%.
This is why the best thing to do when having any kind of off day is to shrug it off and keep going.
With enough practice, your playing on an ‘off day’ will still sound a whole lot better than many guitarists on a ‘good day’.
So keep practicing, keep learning, keep progressing, and don’t get bogged down or discouraged when you have one of those weird days when you just feel like you suck.
We all have them.