4 May 2009

Muscle Memory – The Guitarists Friend?

Muscle memory is a term you will come across as you learn guitar. But what exactly is it, and what does it do for your playing? In this article you'll learn the answer to both these questions and discover how to avoid one pitfall that muscle memory can cause.

What is muscle memory?

Muscle memory is the unconscious muscle control you use to perform often repeated activities like dialling a phone or tying your shoe laces. You repeat these activities so often you don't think much about the movements to make.

Guitar practice develops muscle memory for the movements required to play guitar. Having to think less to control your finger movements helps you in several ways.

How Muscle Memory Helps You Play Guitar

Whenever you start learning something new on guitar you are usually highly concentrated on all your finger movements. You are so busy with this that you can't play fast without making mistakes.

As your muscle memory develops you use less conscious effort and you can perform skills faster and with less error.

As well as letting you play faster muscle memory also frees your mind so it can pay attention to other things, like what's coming next, how you sound, or what the bass player is doing. All these contribute to better sound and performance.

Muscle Memory Problem

Although muscle memory is usually considered a good thing, it can also cause problems of its own.

The muscle memory you build through repeated practice of the same movements, the same licks and chord changes tends to hold you into the same, familiar patterns. It can lead to that feeling of being in a rut, and you are quite literally in a kind of rut, created by your muscle memory.

Variety, the Spice of Life

To avoid the muscle memory rut you need to ensure sufficient variety in your practice.

Seek out new ideas from other players, copy their licks to shake up your habits and introduce new ideas in your playing. You can find other players licks from books of transcriptions or tab sites or figure them out yourself by ear.

When you play other players licks you follow in the footsteps of their muscle memory, shaking up your own habits and breaking out of the same old patterns.

You can shake up your habits even more when you copy licks from other instruments. The collective muscle memory of the guitar players you copy is influenced by the instrument itself, and by the licks copied down from previous generations of players. A pianist or horn player will have different habits, so their licks will offer something fresh.

Another practice technique that will shake up your habits is to play stuff you know backwards. Write out your licks or chord progressions putting the notes or chords backwards, then go and practice it. You should find you end up doing some things you don't usually do.


Now you've learned what muscle memory is and how it helps you to learn guitar. But remember to shake up your muscle memory regularly so it doesn't lead your playing into a rut.

Guitar article writing: Gary Fletcher writes quality, original content for your guitar web sites. Discover guitar writing services for web sites, blogs and newsletters. Visit http://www.writescribe.com/guitar to learn more.

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Stratoblogster said...

Great post! Way to get guitar players to re-evaluate what's going on! Found this at GW blips.

Ralph said...

Great tips and information on muscle memory in this article. It is always important to take things slow during your practice sessions and allow your muscle memory to build up slowly and accurately.

Gary Fletcher said...

Hi Stratoblogster, Glad to have such a prestigious reader, and thanks for your enthusiastic comment.

Gary Fletcher said...

Hi Ralph, I agree completely, take it slow and focus on accuracy is the way to go. Thanks for commenting, I love to hear I'm not alone here sometimes ;-)

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