A Musician’s Secret: Muscle Memory 

What is muscle memory?

Pretty much everyone uses muscle memory to a certain degree every day. You use muscle memory all the time. If you can type without looking at your keyboard, tie your shoelace without supervision, ride a bike etc. you are likely using muscle memory for all those actions.

So, do your muscles really have ‘memory’? – Well, not really. The memories are actually stored in your brain. Every time you perform any movement with your body, neurons within your brain send electrical signals to that body part to perform that specific action. As you repeat this action repeatedly, more neurons send more electrical signals. Over time, your brain makes neural pathways that send specific instructions associated with that specific action. Eventually, your muscles execute the action with little conscious thought, relying mainly on muscle memory.

When you first perform that action, your neural pathways haven’t yet been established. Imagine a field overgrown with grass and other vegetation. Initially there are no paths to walk through, and it requires a great deal of effort to cut through the shrubbery to pass through the field. Over time, more people use that path, creating a little dirt track. As even more people use it, the dirt track widens to accommodate horses and cattle, then eventually vehicles. Now, fast forward to the future: a 5-lane highway of vehicles pass through where the narrow dirt track once was.

Now imagine all the vehicles traveling on this 5-lane highway are carrying the same pieces of information, just like the neurons sending information through electrical signals in your brain. With that strong a neural pathway, muscle memory takes over your conscious thought.

How is Muscle Memory your best friend?

Let’s use tying your shoelaces as an example. It is a skill that requires 2 hand coordination, hand-eye coordination and delicate motor skills. When you first tried learning how to tie your shoelaces, you probably weren’t very good at it. By now you could easily do it with your eyes closed.

The same thing will happen with your guitar playing if you apply the principles correctly. Initially, executing something on the guitar will feel difficult, seem awkward and may even feel like your hands were never built to make certain movements or stretches! But, be patient, your brain just needs time to make those strong neural pathways, and it will eventually feel like you were born with a guitar in your hands.

How can you develop muscle memory quickly?

Here are a few tips that will help you to rapidly develop muscle memory to help you with your guitar playing:

– Practice as often as possible

Especially when learning new techniques, songs, pieces or even music theory concepts. This will ensure that you retain the information you learn and solidify the muscle memory needed to make it happen.

– Practice in short and frequent instalments

You may find that, when practicing certain techniques, you actually improve significantly within a session. The next day, you try to do the same thing and pick up where you left off, but you find that you just can’t play it at the level you did yesterday.

This is because even though you may have trained the ‘temporary muscle memory’ in your hands, it needs to go into ‘long-term muscle memory’ in your brain.

Practicing in short instalments more often allows you to ‘forget’ and ‘retrain’ the muscle memory into your hands, fingers and brain – effectively forcing the movements to stay in your long-term muscle memory.

– Perform visualisations like pro athletes

Trainers of Pro athletes coach use visualisations as a very powerful tool to help them break through plateaus, break mental barriers and to empower themselves to achieve success. Start by visualizing the result you want to achieve. See yourself being able to play guitar with the right technique, the right finger motions, cleanly and precisely.

– Practice using exercise and strategies that deeply train your muscle memory

There are thousands of guitar exercises out there. Which ones are right for developing muscle memory? While some exercises are inherently better than others for this purpose, you will gain more from training with the right mindset, focus, and attention to detail.

You can pretty much use ANY exercise to do this, if you know what to look for and know what to do. A good guitar teacher can help you out with this if you are not sure what to do.

How can muscle memory work negatively for you?

– Practicing in ineffective ways

“Practice makes perfect”, right?

That saying is very cliché, but I disagree with it. I like to say ‘Perfect Practice Makes Perfect’.

See, if you DO make the correct motions and you DO train with the RIGHT focus and you DO pay attention to your guitar playing technique, and you DO make adjustments and corrections where necessary, then you ARE on the right track.

Conversely, if you train the WRONG movements and practice with POOR technique, you would just get better at playing with the wrong motions and poor technique.

– Relying too much on muscle memory to make music

If you train too much in the same way, you will be limited to what your fingers can do. Some guitar players (and other musicians), solely rely on their muscle memory and play music with their fingers, rather than trying to create actual music in their minds, which is really where music comes from.

Playing guitar in this way will start to sound repetitive, boring, and not musical.

Do NOT fall into this trap!

Conclusion?

Muscle memory can be a great thing and really work for you to help master certain elements of guitar playing. Learn to use muscle memory to work for you. Use muscle memory to develop general and lead guitar technique, learn chords, arpeggios and master scale fingerings!

Muscle Memory does not mean you should go on auto-pilot when practicing or playing guitar. You should still be 100% focused on what you are playing, hearing, seeing and doing.

Do NOT use muscle memory to make music, because you don’t want to sound like you are just regurgitating notes in patterns on your guitar – you want to make music!

About the author: Vishaal Kapoor is a professional guitar teacher in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia who trains guitar players how to reach their guitar playing potential. Do you want to take your guitar playing skills to the next level? Get in touch with Vishaal at GuitarKL.com.