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Muscle Memory: an athletic approach to the tactics of practice

Sometimes, music is like sports. Music can be played alone, or in a group. Music is collaborative: your bandmates are your teammates, and the more you’ve practiced, the tighter your performance will be. You can approach music tactically, theoretically, or just play to have some fun and pass the time. But the main similarity, at least to me, is that music is physical, and if you learn to use your muscles in just the right way, the repetitive motion can become second nature. This is often referred to as muscle memory. Developing this type of skill can be tricky, and it’s not always clear where to begin, so let’s dive in!

 We’ve all heard stories of basketball players shooting hundreds of three pointers a day, a hockey player lining up buckets of pucks and shooting for the corners, soccer players bouncing the ball off their limbs and head to keep it from hitting the ground. But how do our favorite guitar players develop their skills? Well, they work on specific motions enough times to be confident in their execution when the time comes to take a solo or play a complex riff. Let’s begin by identifying three important foundations that we can focus on, and look at a simple example for each one:

  1. Left hand melodic technique
It’s important to note that we are talking about playing single note lines here. One note at a time, with one finger at a time! Here’s an exercise that will keep your fingers limber and ensure that you gain confidence in all four fingers equally:
    • To start, remember that your index finger is 1, your middle finger is 2, ring is 3, and pinky is 4.
    • On the low E string, play the 1st fret with your 1st finger.
    • Next, play the second fret with your second finger.
    • Repeat for the 3rd and 4th fret, with your 3rd and 4th fingers.
    • Voila! You’ve begun.
    • Next, we’ll try a variation: 1 – 3 – 2 – 4. Keep in mind that your finger and fret number should always be the same: 1:1, 2:2, etc.
    • Now, let’s try another variation: 1 – 4 – 2 – 3.
    • And another! Try 1 - 2 – 4 - 3.

     How many more can you think of? Once you are comfortable with one version on all 6 strings, move on to the next! Too easy? Play it faster! Too hard? Slow it down. Soon, you’ll notice strength and endurance growing quickly in all your fingers, and the next time you need to grab a note in a weird place with your pinky – your muscles will remember exactly what to do.

    1. Chords
    To start, pick two chords - any two will do. For our purposes, let’s use G and C. Take some time to imagine exactly how your hand moves to get from G to C. Does your wrist rotate left to right, or the inverse? Do the two chords share any notes? Which fingers move up? Which ones move down? Once you’ve mapped out the route, much like X’s and O’s in team sports, use this map to transition between the chords as efficiently as possible, then repeat! Need a stiffer challenge?
      • Do it faster!
      • Find a song with chords that are new and difficult for you!
      • Try two chords that are far away from each other on the neck!
      • There are always creative ways to up the ante.
      1. Pick technique

      Most guitar players spend a lot of time on their left hand when they start to play – and with good reason. While focusing on the left hand is essential, it’s always good to pay a little mind to the right hand from time to time. How can we help our right-hand muscle memory develop to the point where we can stop thinking about it altogether? Try this easy exercise:


      • For simplicity’s sake, we’ll play fret’s 1-2-3-4, with the same fingering rules we covered earlier, starting on the low E string, and moving up the strings until we’ve covered all 6.
      • The first time you play this pseudo chromatic scale, try picking down. Here’s a visual of what that will look like (D is for Down): DDDD
      • Next, try picking in an upwards direction! Or, UUUU
      • Then try alternating between down and up strokes: DUDU
      • Lastly, alternate between up and down strokes: UDUD
      • Practicing in this way is an excellent starting point for developing dexterity and adaptability with your soon to be awesome picking hand!

      If you feel like your hand doesn’t bend this way (!), or your muscles just don’t do that (!!) - you are not alone. We’re all working with different bodies, but we can get to the same place with a bit of guidance, and these techniques are a great place to start. With enough reps, the above exercises will help you unlock the tiny muscles that you may not believe in just yet.

      My favorite thing about this type of work – developing muscle memory – is that it doesn’t need to be focused! We don’t all have the patience (or time!) to sit down with a metronome and repeat small motions endlessly. That’s fair! Lucky for you, this can be done passively. Once you know the exercise: just repeat. Sit down and watch TV, hang out on the front porch, do whatever you like, as long as your guitar is in your hands. If you grab your guitar with this goal in mind, the next time you hit the stage, the jam space, or the fireside sing along, you’ll be performing at the top of your game!


      Dan Rougeau is a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and performer based in Montreal. Check out what he does here.

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