Unable to Memorize Your Guitar Pieces?

Posted on Posted in Announcements, Stories, Tips from Mark


I recently received another inquiry concerning a player’s inability to memorize guitar pieces, in this case my arrangement of the Turtles’ ’60s hit “Happy Together.” Here’s my 2020 response:

Simply put, you MUST STOP LOOKING AT THE MUSIC to memorize it. The brain will take the easy way out if you allow it to always read! 

Force yourself to memorize the music you are reading by simply closing the book or turning the paper over as you practice. 

My suggestion: Play a very short passage (one measure or two) of the piece over and over and over, reading it. Then close the book and play the same passage again, over and over and over.

You might make mistakes when you first stop reading. If you do, open the book again and play it correctly by reading it. THEN close the book again, repeating the passage numerous times without looking.

Take small bites. Once you’ve memorized very short passages you can string them together. 

The process: You are burning new neural pathways into your brain: both muscle memory and AUDITORY memory. This is why it is so important to practice new pieces/passages CORRECTLY. If you burn neural pathways for incorrect movements, that’s what you will have: incorrect movements which will affect the music negatively. Do it right — from the beginning!

Methods: There are many methods of memorizing. You can try to conjure up a visual image in your mind of the notation/TAB. Or you can hear in your inner ear what the original recording sounds like. This is part of the method I use: I can hear in my mind’s ear what is coming in the next phrase. I also am thinking about what chord is coming, or what fingering, or what position. Your brain should always be a little ahead of your fingers when you play music!

Mostly I’m thinking about the MELODY, the most important part of the piece.

Here’s a funny story: A very talented student at one of our summer seminars played Leo Kottke’s finger-busting “William Powell” for the student recital. But he couldn’t memorize it. So he photocopied all 12 pages, taped them together side-by-side, laid them out on the floor, then played the piece sitting on a wheeled office chair scooting sideways across the floor as he read the pages. Hilarious, but not very practical for a performance setting.

Of course, these days he could have loaded it into an iPad with a foot switch and turned pages with his foot. But, the point is clear: Memorizing a piece of music frees you up to play a piece more effectively — better dynamics, phrasing, interpretation, etc. — because you REALLY KNOW the piece.

Mark Hanson

May, 2020

Copyright © 2020 Accent On Music LLC & Mark D. Hanson.

11 thoughts on “Unable to Memorize Your Guitar Pieces?

  1. Nicely done.
    I figured this out myself the hard way, slapping at it several times. Coulda used it earlier. 😉
    I still forget music, how a tune goes too often. Learning it “correctly” is less painful in the long run, than embedding bad habits.

    But that’s why tab is my crutch, I am not confident in habits learned. In the beginning, its not always clear to a listener, which way a strum or pluck goes in recorded music.

    When I hear a pc, I am transported by the music. Like analyzing movie shots in a film class, eventually you get sucked into the storyline if its a well-built film or song & forego critical analysis. This is what makes the art engaging.

    I know a lot of song intros & not so much the songs. Being able to play the basic melody first tells you you have actually internalized the song structure to hang the music on. My opinion, anyway.

  2. I don’t know if it’s wrong or right, but I usually start more broadly with the chord progression rather than the melody. See if I can piece out the broad structure–and use BOTH the tab and the staff to figure out fingering and note duration. Also, like he notes in his books, I write out the lyrics or a version of the lyrics to help it sink in–or even make up lyrics for the melody when there are none. Grand Master Hanson uses so much harmony with the melody sometimes it’s hard to keep it straight. It takes tons and tons of daily practice–and then even more daily practice after that to get better at expressing the song and to keep it fresh and avoiding alterations that creep in over time. Being able to have lyrics and/or knowing the chord structure helps my brain to have more things to grab on to and avoid blanking out because muscle memory can be a fickle friend. Other than that I love the advice about covering up the song and forcing yourself to recall parts of the song without the notation. I need to get better at that. I probably am far less efficient at memorizing these arrangements because I’ll often just play through the songs over and over again looking at the notes–hoping in vain it sticks. :-p

  3. Mark’s suggestion of small doses, 1-2 measures repeated over and over really does work. Also a great tool is to listen to Mark play the measures so you can hear the subtle sub tones beneath of the melody.

  4. Mark, just want to mention how great your products are, and want to ask,, If you haven’t played a piece in a while, such as several months, do you have to go back and re familiarize yourself with it??

    1. Thanks, Rob. Glad they help! Yes, if I haven’t played a memorized piece in a while I will run over it once to make sure I remember it all before I’m ready to perform it. If I am playing gigs regularly, that is less of a requirement. With Covid-19 isolation, and less performing, I find myself keeping my four-hour repertoire less immediately at hand as I work on new pieces of music. (My wife and I have recorded over 60 music videos in the last eight months helping several churches with their Zoom services. Some will get online.) So keep playing as much as you can. Enjoy it!

  5. Thank you for this! just want I really needed to hear and internalize. Btw, I emailed you several years back on your arrangement “Breakdown” by Tom Petty thanks for making the Tab available. I’m so excited to learn it but slowly to really get it.
    Take Care.

  6. Thank you for putting some science to it. My bf is such a talented musician but ever since he discovered Ultimate whatever, it’s just annoying. More than half of the time the chords/tabs are wrong, but he can’t correct it. I’ve actually charted out songs for him bc it was driving me nuts but apparently using crap tabs on his iPad is easier.

    I almost caved at a regular gig a few years ago, since it seemed to make things so easy for my duo partner. But I was scared I’d form a dependency. Thank you for confirming the dumbification that can happen. I wish I could show this article to my boyfriend lol

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