The majority of guitarists play without sheet music in front of them. Basically all guitarists outside of the Jazz and Classical music genres. Although, performing guitarists can effortlessly remember songs night after night with little to no errors in their play. This begs the question, how do guitarists remember songs?
Guitarists remember songs by developing a deeper level of understanding for each song learned. Guitarists will memorize the chord progression and melody, and tap into their theory knowledge to play these chords and notes on different parts of the neck with various chord voicings. This process fills in the song’s melody and guitarists will only need to remember the chord progression instead of each specific note.
Continue reading to find out:
- How guitarists remember songs.
- How guitarists memorize solos.
- The best way to memorize guitar songs [3 Tips]
How Do Guitarists Remember Songs?
Guitarists remember songs by learning the song inside and out. Guitarists will learn and memorize the chord progression of the song and use different chord voicings with it. From there, guitarists will only need to remember the chord progression and can add their embellishments to fill out the song. Muscle memory through practice solidifies the song in their head and body.
Learning songs is in large part, the reason why guitarists pick up the guitar. Although, to a beginner to intermediate guitarist, learned songs often escape our head when the next song is learned. But this does not happen to intermediate-advanced guitar players, especially those that play live.
Of course, the simple answer to this question is to play the song over and over and over again until it is built into muscle and cognitive memory. This is a good approach for beginners while they build various physical facilities. Although, this is not the exact approach that intermediate-advanced guitarists use.
If the song were to simply be memorized, then the guitarist would have an understanding of the song, not necessarily the guitar. And an understanding of the guitar is much more effective when remembering a song.
Performing Guitarists and Studio Guitarists
Performing guitarists do not simply learn the chords, strumming and picking patterns, and BPM of a song and are good to go. Most performing guitarists learn the building blocks of songs.
Through the deeper learning aspect of this process, a more in-depth understanding is achieved and therefore remembered.
“For a song like Sugaree, it is only B to E. You can just play the chords underneath it, which is the conventional way, but I play lead lines that suggest chords without having to actually play chords.”John Mayer on learning and practicing Dead and Company songs, John Mayer IG live
I provided this quote above because I believe it is an excellent example of how most performing guitarists remember songs. They remember and dial in the chord progression, then use the scales accompanying that progression to fill out the song. Night after night, Mayer is not memorizing each note he played, instead, he understands the logic of the song and uses his understanding of the neck to complete the song.
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As mentioned above, guitarists like John Mayer learn the chord progression and melody. From there, they use the different scale patterns in each chord in the progression to form the subtleties and nuances of each song. Instead of simply strumming the chord progression in the same or similar fret positioning.
He remembers the vast number of Grateful Dead songs by remembering the melody (or listening back beforehand) and diving into the knowledge he acquired when he memorized the chord progression of the song.
To summarize: the process of remembering songs is simply understanding what chord you are moving to. From there, various chord voicings can be played up or down on the neck that corresponds to the understood/remembered melody of the song.
By cover guitarists, I mean guitarists who intend to learn a song note for note. For an easy acoustic strumming song, this is easier as it is simply memorizing the chord progression and the melody. For more complex songs like Little Wing, there is a deeper level of work needed to remember the song note for note.
Sean Mann, a top-tier guitarist who covers difficult songs note for note from SRV, Hendrix, and Mayer discusses how he approaches learning and remembering these songs through the below phases.
The first phase of learning a song note for note is learning the theory behind the song. This is the chord progression, scales used, and the melody. The second stage is learning every single note. This stage takes a while to get through, even more so if it is an SRV song.
The third stage is developing a feel for the song. After chord progression, melody, and notes are memorized/understood, developing a feel for the song is next. This involves understanding where each note falls on which beat. Paying attention to the first beat and the third beat, accenting the 1st and 3rd beat. This allows the phrases to flow better and creates more interest when listening and playing.
To remember the song note for note, cover guitarists will need repetition and a deep-level understanding of the song is required. This develops muscle and cognitive memory for each note as well as an understanding of where the next chord or phrase will be.
How Do Guitarists Memorize Solos?
If a guitarist intends to improvise the solo, as most do when performing live, then they will learn the chord progression and melody. From there, the scales of the underlying chords will be used to construct the solo around the melody.
If a guitarist is memorizing a solo note for note, then they will start by learning the chord progression and the melody, then memorize the notes broken up into the different chords. From there, the guitarist will play the solo repeatedly until the solo becomes instinctual and forethought is not needed.
Best Way to Memorize Guitar Songs [3 Tips]
The three best ways to memorize guitar songs are:
- Learn the theory behind each song
- Record yourself
- Rehearse the song in your head
1. Learn The Theory Behind Each Song
Learn the building blocks of the song you are trying to learn and memorize. Understand the why behind each chord shape that the original composition was written for. Doing this will broaden your understanding of the song, otherwise, you would simply just be memorizing chord shapes with no real understanding of why this chord is being played for this song.
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Learning the chord progression, the root notes of the song, and how each chord works concerning the key it is in will give you a greater understanding of both the guitar and the song itself. When you understand the song better, memorization becomes far easier and longer lasting.
A tip for this tip is to hand write down the chord progression multiple times to get it to stick in your head. Hand write notes as you progress through the song on the why of each chord shape or ending note of each phrase.
2. Record Yourself
As you make progress on the song, start recording yourself. This does not mean when you get the song perfect. A large benefit of this method is the focus. The prospect of being recorded makes you focus harder than if you were not.
The main benefit of this is to see where your weaknesses are. As we play, we do not always listen to where we are lacking, we usually focus on the next note. Recording yourself allows you to solely focus on the task at hand, which is where the playing can be improved. You can truly hear what you sound like over and over again.
Continuing to hear yourself will help you dial in on the melody and any tempo adjustments, thus helping to memorize a song faster.
3. Rehearse The Song in Your Head
We cannot play guitar 24/7. To compensate, rehearse the song in your head throughout the day. Visualize playing it, even make the chord shapes on your air guitar.
When I am learning a song, I will rehearse it in my head over and over again before and after practicing it on my guitar. I will also listen to the song and visualize the chords/phrases as well as make mental notes on which notes the chord progression progresses.
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