The guitar is so rock and roll, so iconic, it's a symbol of the teenage American cool kid. It evokes youth and rebellion. Nearly as versatile as the piano musically but far more accessible and portable, guitar has risen to a popularity that has now made it somewhat commonplace. There is still innovation for sure, still room for individuality and cutting edge expression, but for every Hendrix there are countless others who pull the guitar out of the corner periodically to give a rendition of Brown Eyed Girl or Boulevard of Broken Dreams in a barrage of open chord strumming where 4 minutes of dragging that pick across 6 steel strings in a constant forte creates a punishing experience for those caught in its wake. I'm sure I have been guilty of this, toting my guitar to parties as a naive 16 year old, thinking that for sure everyone would enjoy my unrefined performances. For this I am sorry.
Yes there is the possibility to play all 6 strings at once making a big impressive sound, but it's not so impressive over and over with no variation. The first trick most guitarists learn is to strum a chord that has open strings, making a very resonant sound. Unfortunately, far too many guitarists stop after they learn that one lesson. I just can't take that nonstop strumming any more. Some people use it over and over and it's increasingly making me dislike my instrument the more I hear it, it's gotten old and boring. As guitarists, we must do something to keep the guitar young and fresh, let's rise to a higher creative musical standard Here are 4 ideas you can try to breathe some life into your guitar arrangements.
1. Play that guitar like it's not a guitar.
Using the right dynamics and rhythm variation, strumming can be good, but what's even better is when a guitarist plays a part and it sounds like something another instrument would play. Ask yourself: what kind of line would a cello play here? Then try to replicate that on guitar, chances are you'll come up with something more interesting. Doubling the bassline is a favorite practice of mine. Piano is also a great one to emulate, piano usually has some more interesting parts due to the left and right hand independence. Try to replicate that with a fingerstyle approach using your thumb as a left hand. If you try to replicate the accents and phrasing heard on other instruments then you can really push yourself into some new creative areas. It will help keep both yourself and your audience interested.
2. Give it some space.
The onslaught of guitar noise is a tempting trap to fall into, but what about when the bass wants to take a run, or the drums have a particularly good fill going on? The guitar shouldn't swamp everything out like a bratty child who is annoyingly asking for attention all the time. Lay off to let the other instruments have moments to shine, you could even rest for a whole verse and then when you come in again at the chorus it will really make a dramatic entrance. In addition to resting at strategic moments in the song consider taking out some notes during the times you are playing, you don't need 4 or 5 notes to be played simultaneously, sometimes just 1 or 2 will make a more tasteful impact. Take out the doubled octaves and 5ths to leave just a root note and a third and you'll be surprised how full the arrangement still sounds and it introduces an effective personality into the song.
3. Put down that guitar altogether.
Try doing a song a cappella, or on the keyboard. Rock and roll doesn't always need to have guitar, Ben Folds and others have handily proved this. Try out other instruments and you might like what you hear. At least it should give you some new ideas on how you can approach the guitar from a new perspective once you pick it up again.
4. Use a complete opposite technique from what you are used to.
Do you always use a pick? throw it out and see what happens. It may take some getting used to but it will probably be worth scaling that learning curve. Do you always play with no reverb? turn it to 11 and just let loose. Try palm muting, eBow, slide, etc. There are so many techniques out there that change up the sound and most of them are far more interesting than standard eighth note chord strumming. Sometimes by restricting yourself you are opening up doors that you never knew were there. Remember the 90's band the Presidents of the United States of America? They had a quirky fun hit with Peaches. They had no bass player, one of the guitarists only had 3 strings on his guitar and the other only had 2! They tuned them down to C# if I remember correctly and they made some really cool stuff happen under circumstances that most guitarists would consider creatively prohibitive.
So please, if you are a habitual strummer, break out of the mold a little bit to help preserve the good name of the instrument and make this world a more interesting place.