When learning guitar music it is always best to keep in mind the golden rule: practice makes perfect. Whether you are a beginner or a professional musician, you will never be able to learn new techniques, songs, chords, or riffs, without practicing your instrument. Many players have the technical skill to play just about anything but they get caught on smaller problems such as memory.
You don’t have to look hard to find a guitarist with bad memory. It happens more often than you might think. This can especially be the case with trained musicians who are used to playing along with charts and sheet music. It seems odd, doesn’t it, that learned musicians can have a memory more faulty than that of an untrained jam-based blues player? Not to say that this is the case with all trained guitarists, but it definitely occurs. In my opinion, the only way to truly memorize guitar music is to play. Play constantly. Play with sheet music if you can, and then stop. Play with the music you hear in your head, and know what it sounds like before you play.
The problem with many musicians is that they often play straight from a chart, without listening to a sample of the music beforehand. This can be detrimental to memory. If you already know how the music sounds before touching finger to fretboard, your brain will connect the dots more easily. If you can hum what you want to play, chances are you’ll remember the song when you pick up the guitar.
First, learn the music. Whether you learn by sheet music, chord charts, or guitar tabs, just sit down and commit to learning the actual notes. It helps to have a sample of the music nearby for quick reference should you get stuck during this part of the process.
Second, put the sheets away. Don’t look at the chord chart, don’t put those tabs up on a music stand. After you’ve spent enough time learning the proper notation you must step away from the page. This will help you feel the song as you play along and force you to remember where changes occur based on rhythm and tempo, not dots on a page. Too many players forget that music is built on emotion, not math.
Third, revise and recheck. Pull the music notation out and make sure that what you learned and what you’ve been playing sans cue cards is identical. It’s good to solidify the notes in your head and the movements in your fingers. By learning first and playing freely second, you will have created a mental and physical response.
Another quick tip is to practice slowly. Before playing at the actual speed of the song, try learning at a slower tempo (this works especially well if you are learning a quick riff, lead, or solo). If you start slower, get the notes memorized, and then gradually speed up, you will find that your fingers move more precisely because your muscles have started to remember placement. The more you practice the more perfect your playing will become.