One of the greatest areas of struggle for most guitarists is remembering the numerous chords, scales, chord progressions, and other odds and ends that we must employ to reproduce our favorite songs or to improvise. While there is no way to make memorization of large amounts of information easy, there are things we can do to make it more predictable and consistent and thus produce better results and faster progress in our playing.
Psychologists advise that lifestyle greatly affects memory. While this article is specifically directed at musical pursuits rather than memory in general, it is worth mentioning that a healthy diet, regular exercise, and adequate sleep allow our memories to function at their maximum potential. If you want the best results from your musical endeavors, take good care of yourself!
For us musicians, we need to focus specifically on two components of memory: procedural memory and declarative memory. Procedural memory, for our purposes, refers to that aspect of recall pertaining to executing physical tasks. In musician lingo we often refer to this as muscle memory. Declarative memory is that aspect of memory that allows us to recall facts and figures, such as chord shapes, scale patterns, and the intervals of the root notes of chord progressions. So now that we have a view of the two aspects of memory we need to master, let’s look at some specific strategies.
Improving Muscle Memory
1. Repetition – there is no substitute for repetition. You may have heard something of the old adage among guitar players about “playing until my fingers bleed”. While this may sound like a ridiculous hyperbole, I have in fact literally practiced extreme bends for certain licks to the point that one of my fingernails began to separate from the nail bed and seep blood. While I don’t recommend this, it does illustrate the point that repetition is the key to muscle memory. The more you repeat good executions of a given technique, the better you will play it. This is also incidentally one of the keys to overcoming “stage fright” – embed your skills so deeply into your muscle memory that you can execute them accurately regardless of any distractions.
2. Consistency – you will get much better results from your muscle memory by practicing a moderate amount of repetition daily as opposed to trying to cram in a large block of repetitions on the weekend or the day before your next lesson.
3. Focus – repetition of slop leads to playing slop. It is extremely important to pay attention when practicing scales, for instance. Be sure that you are relaxed and using the most efficient motions possible for each note. When you are learning something new it is important to practice it at a speed that will allow you to play it accurately and efficiently. That often means “excruciatingly slow”. If that is what it means then do it that way. You will never have speed without slop until you thoroughly train your muscle memory to execute the required motions as efficiently and accurately as possible. Then gradually increase speed, maintaining a balance between speed and accurate execution.
4. Test – it is critical that you push the limits of your muscle memory by testing it routinely. Once you have learned a scale pattern then work on playing through it without looking at your fret hand fingers. Likewise, once you have learned a new chord then get started with applying the chord in a chord progression without looking at your fretting hand. Observe mistakes, correct them, and repeat. This will greatly increase your speed in mastering technique.
1. Focus – as with muscle memory, focused attention on the details of new information will greatly increase your ability to recall that information. While this may seem obvious, it is important to be aware that we all have a tendency to allow our thoughts to drift randomly. For maximum understanding and recall it is imperative to willfully interrupt the random flow of thought and focus your attention while trying to digest new information.
2. Focus – see item 1. This is so important that I am repeating it to help you remember it!
3. Relation – as often as possible, try to relate new information to things that you already know. For instance, if you know the first position A Major chord shape then it is not so difficult to recall that the A7 is simply A Major minus the middle note. Likewise, all of the A form bar chords are an offshoot of the A Major chord shape, so if you know the A Major well then the various bar forms are not so hard to remember.
4. Isolation – break complicated sets of information into parts and memorize the individual parts first, then assemble them into the complete set. For instance, with a new scale pattern memorize the notes on two strings. Then move to the next pair of strings, then the next. Then go back and put them all together into the complete pattern. For a tablature score, learn one line. Then move to the next and learn that one. Then play the two together. Then learn the next line, and then add that to previous two. Repeat until the song is complete. Then repeat until your fingers bleed!
5. Consistency – as with muscle memory, recall responds well to repeated exposure to the same information. This is why it is much more productive to practice a half hour a day than to run practice marathons on the weekends.
6. Vocalize – where feasible, find some way to say out loud what you are trying to memorize. Speaking things aids the memory in storing them. Example: when trying to memorize notes along the fretboard, say the notes out loud as you are playing them. This will greatly speed up your ability to recall the names of the notes.
Following these recommendations will greatly increase the rate of speed of your mastery of all things guitar. We all struggle with memory, but these strategies will assist you in increasing the rate at which you conquer various elements of musicianship. Remember this: never give up!