Muscle Memory

If you really want to learn to play guitar well you must do one simple thing before anything else. You must learn how learning takes place between your muscles and brain. If you understand the process that your brain must go through to train your muscles your practice sessions will produce predictably effective results.

You have probably heard the term muscle memory. This is the process of your brain learning and storing a set of precise instructions for each group of muscles needed for every small task you want your fingers to perform on the guitar. When muscle memory is solidly established it becomes a naturally effortless and an almost unconscious act to play the guitar well.

These tasks need to be practiced at speeds that are slow enough so that you can consistently perform them perfectly. If you practice the guitar at a tempo that produces lots of mistakes you end up teaching your muscles how to play the exercise with the mistakes included. Unfortunately muscles cannot distinguish between playing with mistakes and playing without them.

Here are 12 tips for having practice sessions that will support the development of good muscle memory:

1. Prepare your whole body for the practice session.

Practice while relaxed. Just like an airplane pilot checks over the plane prior to take off you should check your body for any tension, stiffness, tightness, pain or any discomfort. Tight muscles can become tighter during practice which can seriously limit the full range of motion needed to master the guitar. Even tension in the shoulders can travel to the arms and then eventually to the fingers. Stretch and warm your entire body before playing in order to stay loose. Begin practicing with slow, easy exercises to prepare your hands for more demanding new material.

2. Practice in a quiet, comfortable place where you are unlikely to be disturbed.

3. Commit to a specific time each day for practice.

Begin each day with a firm commitment to a practice plan that includes the specific details of when, where and what to play.

4. Keep your practice sessions short, frequent and very specific.

It is more effective to practice 20 minutes everyday than to practice two or three hours once a week.

5. Always practice with a metronome.

Let me repeat that. Always practice with a metronome. It is surprising how often even good guitarists break this rule. Training yourself to play at a consistent tempo will make your music sound professional. This is valuable whether you plan to play just for friends at a party or in a stadium full of screaming fans.

6. Tune the guitar before each practice.

7. Determine your optimum practice speeds.

For each part of a scale, exercise or song find the fastest metronome speed that you can play without making mistakes. Practice it for a day at 25% to 30% of that maximum tempo. Follow this with a day at 50% of maximum then another day at 75%. On day four practice at your old maximum speed. You may be pleasantly surprised to find that you have a new, faster maximum speed. Be forewarned, however, that this routine might seem ridiculously slow but, hang in there because it really will pay off.

8. Do not try to learn too many different things at each practice session.

Practice only small sections of an exercise or song at a time. Working on an entire new song, all in one setting, makes it more difficult for your brain to cement solid muscle memories. Just like a newborn baby can’t handle an entire meal of solid food we need to practice only a few, small musical spoonfuls at a time.

9. Work on the problem parts not just what you already know.

This may sound extremely obvious but there is a tendency for new guitarists to play the easy parts over and over while continuing to stumble over the problem spots.

10. Spend the first ten minutes warming up, then split the remaining time equally between new exercises and new songs.

11. Set aside some time to just goof around with the guitar.

Make sure to inject a healthy dose of fun in each practice session. If you have been working on blues scales then why not put on some jam tracks or even your favorite blues CD and try to improvise a solo. Select a favorite song to work on at the end of each practice session.

12. If you plan to perform in front of people …

Perfect your songs in private then practice playing in front of sympathetic friends and family members. Create a practice environment that is as close to the conditions of your upcoming performance as possible. If you will perform standing up then use a guitar strap and practice that way. Tell your friendly practice audiences to feel free to talk and laugh it up during your practice. This will help you learn to become comfortable in a distracting concert environment. Consider recording your practice sessions with a simple home video camera on a tripod.

Opening night jitters can throw off your game no matter how well you know the material. If you have repeatedly practiced playing in simulated concert environments then the real deal can be a breeze.

The bottom line: in order to play well you must acknowledge how your body is programmed to learn then design practice sessions that are complimentary.

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