The importance of developing good muscle memories

Muscle memory is the act of committing a specific motor task into memory through repetition. While it’s true that your muscles themselves can’t actually remember anything, your muscles are full of neurons that are attached to your nervous system and it is these smart neurons that play a major role in the skill retention of motor learning.

We employ muscle memories in many common daily tasks without even realising it. A good example of a muscle memory is how you write your own signature, because the act of writing your signature employs muscle memories and the neurons in the muscles in your hand and in your fingers remember the style and the motion of your signature. So much so that if you’re going to write your signature while you are thinking of something else, your muscle memory will take over and write your signature for you.

So how do muscle memories impact your guitar performance?

We start developing muscle memories from the very first time we pick up our instrument. If you’re one of the lucky few whose hands just seem to naturally find the rhythm and the essential relaxation components to move freely around the guitar from day one, we often refer to players like you as “naturals”.

However for the majority of guitar players out there, learning to play a guitar requires about the same level of coordination as learning to ride a bike. We need to learn how to balance ourselves correctly and to build enough momentum, by developing smooth peddling and steering actions to keep from falling off the bike. We need to be able to navigate around obstacles while enjoying our new, two-wheeled freedom.

It’s very much the same with guitar. We need to learn how to develop the physical motor skill coordinations of being able to fret notes with one hand and strum with the other hand, while using our foot to keep a steady count. We also need to use our ears to follow the melody as well as the rhythm. For most beginners and even intermediate level guitar players, combining all of the above coordinations to produce a smooth performance on the guitar is no easy task.

Developing inefficient muscle memories can have long-lasting consequences and sabotage your natural learning progress

If your early experiences with playing guitar caused you to develop a “death grip” on the neck (like Homer Simpson choking Bart), or if you find it exceedingly hard to move freely around the guitar from one chord change to another, chances are that you’re suffering from the development of unhealthy muscle memories and those muscle memories have severely impeded the natural progress that you would have otherwise experienced.

These kinds of challenges can be amplified when the guitar player is taller than average, causing them to have longer than average forearms and torso. This is because the additional length tends to make finding a comfortable playing position more challenging and creates more pressure on the wrists. In particular, if you’re a player that is taller than the average guitarist, then the additional length in the forearms, especially on your fretting hand can also make it difficult to form barre chord shapes, or to learn how to play riffs and licks smoothly and fluidly. The additional length can also make it tricky to find a comfortable strumming position on the guitar.

It’s not just taller guitarists that can have difficulty. I have also met lots of shorter guitar players that experience similar challenges for different reasons. They often find that they have difficulty in stretching their fingers far enough to produce the required shapes with their hands to perform barre chords and more complex chord shapes.

In short, if you’re struggling to move around on your guitar smoothly and fluidly, you have likely been impacted by the development of early, unhelpful muscle memories.

Here’s a quick checklist to identify whether you’ve developed some of these unhealthy muscle memories that may be impacting on the enjoyment of your guitar playing:

  1. Have you developed a “death grip” on the neck, where your hand is too tense to easily move between one chord and the next (either horizontally or vertically)?
  2. Do you need to apply additional force to your fingers to execute a simple chromatic lick horizontally on the fretboard?
  3. Do you struggle with playing a lick or a guitar riff smoothly and fluidly?
  4. Do you find it difficult to play hammer on and pull off notes, i.e. when you hold one finger down on the fretboard and “hammer on” an additional note, or use the same approach to “pull off” a finger to produce an additional note?
  5. Do you find it hard to remember and execute the common, cliché rock licks that are essential for the development of good lead guitar playing?
  6. Do you struggle with your sense of rhythm and timing?

If your fingers feel tight or inflexible, your muscle memories need to be addressed.

How do we break inefficient muscle memories?

  1. We need to recognise that we have a problem.
  2. We need to understand how to use the brain’s preferred method of learning to develop a new, healthier muscle memory for better guitar playing.
  3. We need to coax or positively trick your fretting (or strumming) fingers, wrists, forearms, elbows and shoulders to momentarily experience the wonderful freedom that is afforded to us when we use the correct, positive playing coordinations.
  4. We need to have a coach that will model these correct behaviours for us.

Inefficient muscle memories can be replaced rapidly by healthy, correct playing coordinations. This requires getting together with a guitar performance coach that can help you identify where these muscle memory handbrakes are for you, and how to physically release them.

At Rapid Guitar Results, we use your brain’s preferred learning methods to make it easier to retrain inefficient muscle memories and replace them with healthy guitar playing coordinations. This makes it easier for you to play your favourite riffs, licks and original ideas.

If you practice and you’re not getting better, or you feel like you’re fighting with your fretboard every step of the way, then the culprit is going to be the unhealthy muscle memories that you’ve developed. Until you resolve this issue (either by yourself or with a coach), you’re not only robbing yourself of the ability to play more freely and easily, you’re robbing yourself of all the additional fun and love for playing your guitar that naturally develops from having healthier muscle coordinations.

Want to find out more? Send us a message now and let’s chat about your guitar performance goals.

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