Breaking Muscle Memory When Writing Guitar Parts

Breaking Muscle Memory When Writing Guitar Parts

Something weird starts to happen when you’ve been playing guitar long enough. You’ll pick your guitar up from its resting spot and jam on it, only to find yourself unintentionally playing almost the same thing you played when you picked it up yesterday. You’ll come up with a new riff to place after the second chorus of that you’ve been writing, but then realize that riff is eerily similar to the riff that comes after the first chorus. There’s no cause for alarm if you’ve been noticing things like this happening to you.

It’s called muscle memory, and it happens to all of us at some point. While it’s a key part of developing mastery of the guitar, as muscle memory sets in it has the odd side effect of stifling creativity. This is because as certain patterns become muscle memory, they also become buried into your subconscious. These subconscious patterns will often represent themselves to you as you try and come up with no material, and it can be pretty annoying. Luckily just about every guitarist faces this at some point in their journey, and many have come up with some great workarounds. In this article, we’re going to go over three of the most common. 


Use An Alternate Tuning

Probably the most common trick guitarists use to break out of muscle memory patterns is to use an alternate tuning. An alternate tuning is any tuning that uses intervals other than those used standard tuning (such as the typical E-A-D-G-B-E tuning). Common alternate tunings include open tunings where the strings of the guitar are tuned to the notes in a specific chord, drop tunings where the interval between the lowest strings is tuned to be a fifth instead of a fourth (you can see more about drop-tunings here and more. Below is a chart of common open tunings.

NameTuning Notes
Drop-DD-A-D-G-B-EExtremely common; widely used by metal and grunge players
Open-GD-G-D-G-B-EThe open strings form a G chord; a favorite tuning of Keith Richards
DadgadD-A-D-G-A-DCommon for a long time among fingerstyle guitarist, but popularized in rock music by the Led Zeppelin song “Kashmir”
Major Thirds TuningE-G#-C-E-G#-CTuned entirely in major thirds; forms an E augmented chord when played open; widely used in 1960s improvisational music
Open-DD-A-D-F#-A-DThe open strings form a D chord; widely used in all forms of popular music

Pick one of the above tunings that catches your interest and tune your guitar to it. Once you’re tuned up, try experimenting with the new tuning. Many of the scales, chord shapes, and other patterns you know from standard tuning will no longer work, but that’s the point. The new tuning will force to you branch out of your comfort zone and hopefully into some new ideas! 

Write On A Different Instrument

Another common method for breaking muscle memory is to write guitar parts on an instrument other than guitar, and then apply what you come up with onto the guitar. Writing on another instrument forces you to completely abandon the guitar-centric patterns that may be holding you back. It’s the preferred method of writing for many guitarists, with a notable example being Deerhoof guitarist John Dieterich. However, there is an obvious potential barrier to this method: you need to have at least a rudimentary understanding of an instrument besides guitar. And no, bass guitar doesn’t quite cut it. An instrument like bass that ben can be navigated with the same muscle memory patterns as guitar kind of defeats the purpose. 

However, this might be less of a barrier than you might think. You don’t need to be any good at this other instrument. In fact, you don’t need to even be good enough at this other instrument to play the very parts you write on it at full speed. You just need to be good enough at it to work out a riff or melody and then apply it to your guitar. This means that all you really need to know how to do is identify note names on this instrument. You can worry about such things as tempo, phrasing, tone, and other details once you play the melody you wrote on guitar. All you need to learn how to do is learn how to play another instrument well enough to write with it, not necessarily well enough to perform with it. 

While I previously mentioned that bass guitar may too similar to guitar to really work, other fretted instruments with more degrees of separation from guitar can suffice. This includes such instruments as banjo, mandolin, and ukulele, all of which are played similarly to guitar but have just enough differences to push you out of your comfort zone. Piano, a highly visual instrument whose notes are laid out clearly is likely the most common instrument to write on, but the truth is that any instrument you can navigate will do the trick. 

Write On The Page First

The last method we’re going to go over today involves writing down music before you ever put it onto an instrument. While you can write music directly onto paper if you have a good enough relative pitch, this method is much easier to pursue if you have some sort of music notation software. A music notation software is any software that allows you to write out some form of sheet music, typically but not necessarily in standard notation. Such software as Sibelius and Finale are industry standard, but both software, though excellent, can be a bit pricey. MuseScore is a great and entirely free software and Guitar Pro is an affordable alternative intended specifically for guitar players. All four of those software have both standard notation and guitar tablature capabilities. 

The main perk of using music notation software to write your guitar parts and the playback feature, something that is featured in every notable software. The playback feature is exactly what it sounds like; the computer will use MIDI data to have a synthesizer playback whatever notes you wrote on the page. The playback will allow you to listen back and tweak the music you wrote, just like how you might use a

n eraser to change some notes you wrote in your paperbound workbook.



Ben Fitts is a musician, writer, and instructor at New York City Guitar School. He is the guitarist of the indie rock band War Honey, the author of numerous works including the short story collection My Birth And Other Regrets, and a former NYC Guitar School student himself.

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