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There are three types of musical memory…

…that I can think of: namely; (1) muscle memory which enables the fluent playing of the guitar, (2) that which enables aural recognition of intervals when hearing them and, (3) that which enables recall of which chords are diatonic to which keys, their voicings, and their placement on the fingerboard. All three need attention on my part, for sure, because it strikes me that if these three memory sets are optimised then I could say I could really play my guitar, improvise, and write.

Muscle memory is a double edged sword. Sure, it’s essential. Without it we couldn’t play a damn thing with any fluency. Indeed, we couldn’t remember how to finger even the most simple chord. When it (muscle memory) is performing at its best, it enables you to focus on the performance while your fingers go where they’re supposed to, as it were, blindfolded. But it’s a curse if you’re trying to correct some mistake that’s become ingrained through repetition. I can’t recall who, but some smart player or teacher opined that too many of us spend all our practice time practicing our mistakes. Re-educating your fingers is hard, hard work. It’s like digital boot camp.

Recognising musical intervals when you hear them is a faculty which I’ve never spent any time concentrating on. This has resulted in my only being able to differentiate major and minor triads ““ easy if they juxtaposed next to each other ““ and major sixths, which seem to have a distinct aural flavour. Well, come to think of it, dominant 7ths with augmented 9ths rarely pass me by unnoticed. Augmented 5ths, also. Well that’s quite a few, you might think. But I couldn’t tell you which key they might be in, or what keys might be involved in a modulation.

Clearly, I’m talking about music I hear. If I’m playing it, I only have to look at my memory challenged fingers.

The recall of what chords are diatonic to which keys is a matter of sheer repetition of playing in different keys ““ or learning by rote. This might seem trivial in “guitar keys” like G major or C major. But do you know which chords are nominally diatonic to E flat minor? Can you list them? Or even A flat major (without thinking) even though it’s only a half-step away from G?

Not being fluent in these areas makes me feel a bit like a cheat. Sort of like I had landed an engineering job with a fake qualification. I keep meaning to set some time aside to practice all of this. Even try writing down in notation things I hear in my head. The trouble is that there is no time and I don’t hear new music in my head, anyway. I’m a noodles sorta guy…

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My first fingerpicking lesson

Sometimes I look back wistfully and muse upon odd events that have defined the directions I would take in life. Apropos my music, one of the events that had a profound impact was a casual ten minutes with a friend back in 1971 when he showed me my first fingerpicking pattern. Here it is:

Fingerpicking pattern

It’s such a felicitous pattern that it can be applied to every chord in the book requiring only the strings corresponding to the lower of the two bass notes being changed from the 5th to the 6th, or vice-versa, depending on which the root of the chord falls. It’s a pattern that I’ve shown many guitar players who have wanted to learn fingerstyle. It’s great to see that moment of epiphany light up in their eyes as they realize the latent possibilities of this pattern.

I have normally asked that the student start very slowly – slow enough that the pattern itself is hardly discernible – but firmly, not shyly as if you were trying to hide it away. In this way the student will ingrain the muscle memory (but see below) so that when played at tempo mistakes are less likely. Then – and only then – I suggest that the student increase the tempo by increments; getting faster and faster in the manner of a train picking up speed. Hey, presto! The player is a fingerpicker!

Caveat: the student should then make every effort to unlearn this pattern less, like me, it should get so deeply ingrained it becomes monotonous and the possibility of playing any other way becomes an impossibility!

Postscript: I’ve read people on internet forums call this, and alternate bass fingerpicking in general, “Travis picking”. I beg to suggest that alternate bass picking predated Merle by some years. Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Blake…