I just remembered something I want to tell you…

by | Jul 26, 2017 | Articles | 18 comments

Let me let you in on a little secret.

Lately, I’ve been completely obsessed with studying books by memory masters – you know, people that can memorize the order of 5 randomly shuffled packs of cards in the space of 10 minutes.

Why this strange fetish, you may ask?

The reason:

Because a lot of jazz guitar isn’t so much about improvising, as it is about remembering.

People often complain (rather dramatically) that when they improvise it’s like being ‘a deer in the headlights’ or having ‘a big blank canvas’, with no idea where to start.

Here’s the thing:

If you haven’t learned jazz vocabulary (i.e. the specific ‘sounds’ in a melodic line that gives it the jazz sound), you won’t sound jazzy when you go to improvise.

But there’s something I would consider even more important than this:

If you can’t remember the jazz vocabulary you’ve learned in the past and how to make it end up on the fretboard…

All that hard work you’ve done learning vocabulary has been largely a waste of time.

Even if you have 8 hours a day to practice, if you can’t remember what you’ve practiced, it will just be like pouring water into a leaky bucket.

Turn your back for one minute, and then look back – lo and behold, the bucket is empty again.

People often complain “I have a terrible memory!” – in fact, most people seem to tell themselves this.

They give the excuse they are ‘getting old’ and becoming forgetful.

But what I’ve been realizing through my fanatical obsession about memory masters is that being able to remember isn’t so much about innate ability.

Case in point: memory masters generally score no higher in cognitive or IQ tests. They have simply acquired the skill of memorization through practice.

It’s all about technique. Learning to memorize things like jazz vocabulary requires that you not only develop your guitar technique but your memorization technique as well.

The great thing about being able to memorize jazz material faster and easier in the practice room?

Elementary, my dear Watson:

You won’t need to practice nearly as much to remember the same amount of music.

One book, in particular, I’ve gotten a lot out of when it comes to memory training is Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer – a fascinating look not only at very clever memorization techniques but also an eye-opening journey on how memorization has gradually become a lost art in modern culture.

Now the exciting bit:

If you're keen to have a structured, step-by-step approach to learning jazz guitar, it might be worth checking out my online learning system, the FretDojo Jazz Guitar Academy.

Here's what you get when you join up:

  • Detailed step-by-step video lessons on new classic jazz tunes and essential jazz guitar skills added to the club website each month. Includes listening recommendations, demonstrations of the melody, analysis of the harmony, and detailed explanations on how to solo over the tune.
  • Key improvisation concepts and techniques for soloing, and classic licks and example solos that relate to each tune, so you can continue to expand your jazz vocabulary and have more options when it comes to soloing.
  • Detailed comping ideas to suit the style of each jazz standard covered
  • Lessons on how to make chord melody and solo jazz guitar versions of tunes featured - play a complete jazz standard completely on your own like Joe Pass!
  • Members only forum - A worldwide community of jazz guitarists from all around the globe.
  • Regular workshops, masterclasses, and Q & A Sessions - get direct answers from me on anything holding you back in the practice room. Replays of all sessions are available to access for all members even if you can’t make it live.
  • Massive searchable database of jazz licks and soloing concepts - the ultimate idea "grab bag" for your solos.
  • Optional monthly challenges where members participate to get feedback on their playing, reach new milestones and be eligible for cool prizes.

The best part:

You can access this all of this and more for just $1 by signing up to a 14 day trial. Go here for more info: https://www.fretdojo.com/signup-offer

Over to you…

What techniques, books or resources have YOU come across when it comes to developing the skill of memorization, in particular for remembering musical material?

Leave your reply in the comments below.

It would be great to get your input, as I’m currently experimenting with some memorization techniques and thinking about the best way to apply them to jazz guitar. I’ll let you know how I go.



Greg O’Rourke,
Founder, Fret Dojo

World Leader in Online Jazz Guitar Education

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• Beginners Jazz Guitar Improvisation
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  1. edward calhoun

    thanks i just ordered the book. have lost ability to remember am trying to learn the fretboard notes and sight read music at same time but cannot remember what i practice on

  2. Washington Johnson

    Man Greg you hit the issue right on the head. l have a ton of books, dvds , pdf music material to last a life time. l didn’t learn how to read music until l was 41. l’m 67 now.
    One book on memory l’ve had for years, Then misplaced, then found, is ” How to Develop A Super Memory ” by Harry Lorayne. Harry use to do some the early informercials back in the 90s. l sent for it and that’s how l got it. But l am always looking for ways to really remember the written music of any kind, not just jazz. Classical soloist , like a Yoyo Mah let’s say, memorizies lots of pieces of of all kinds of music. Not just classical. Osmosis works better for plants than humans, so we need all the help we can get ! So thanks for info

  3. Robert

    Hi Greg,
    Going through 4 years of dental school required a lot of memorizing to say the
    least. I find that different techniques are necessary depending on the material to be memorized. Mnemonics are very helpful when one has to memorize a
    word list, e.g. the names of the 12 cranial nerves. With chordal harmony, I
    memorize the song with the chords in root function and learn the “number
    sequence” which is the way a lot of people do it in my experience. The same
    applies to licks and even melodies.
    Just my 2 cents.

  4. Ken Zuercher

    Hi Greg, this is a great subject and i’ve struggled with it also. I teach guitar and jazz in a high school and we have this issue with young people also. I have learned a couple of thing with regards to learning songs themselves.
    1. Learn the melody a phrase at a time. After you go through the song to the end you get many repetitions on each phrase. Perhaps learn the most difficult phrase first, then add the rest.
    2. Learn the changes and analyze them at the same time. (here’s ii-V-I in Bflat etc).
    3. Play the entire song (better yet perform it) as soon as possible!
    4. Get out of the book right away. No one wants to watch someone read music. If you have something in front of you, maybe use a chord sketch.
    5. Don’t try to learn 25 songs in a week. You’ll never fully learn any of them. I have learned this the hard way.
    I know you use these techniques in your tutorials as I’ve seen some of them. Learning jazz vocabulary is similar.
    Find a solo you really like (Grant Green comes to mind) and learn each phrase using a slow down software package. then try to use the phrases in a different song with similar changes.
    Thank you for this wonderful site and your tireless work toward better jazz guitar!

  5. cristian giannini

    Hi! To me the best way to memorize is to practice very very slowly at 8/10 bpm (quarter or eight)..doing so my brain analize everything(fingering, fretboard, note names,sound…)
    The mind needs very slow practice to absorb the material
    This is my experience..sorry for my english..
    Bye! Cristian

  6. Helmut

    Hi Greg,
    from time to time I sneak in to your DOJO. First of all, I like what you do and the way you do it. Thank´s for sharing your knowledge and giving advices to all the people around the Globe. But, what is the reason to remember so many Chords in a short period of time?
    I thout its OK to know my diatonic Chords by Roman Numbers. Learning the Cadences by numbers and add extension if needed (e.g b5, #9, etc.)
    Very much music is based on similar or equal chord sequences as I know.
    It is certainly great, If anybody is able to remember many Cadences very quickly. I am good in remembering Numbers, not names (even Chordnames). To learn that would be too much science for me. I am much closer to the grave than to the cradle ; )) There is not too much time left to play music (I´m just kidding)
    Excuse my bumpy English.
    Best regards from Germany

  7. Hank Manning

    I greatly appreciate all your insights into music and guitar practice/performance thank you for that.

    I have been playing for many years, and my practice, typically revolves a round scale/mode practice as a warmup, followed by tune playing of thev50 or so jazz tunes that I have “learned” over many years.. Occasionally I will explore a new tune to add to my repertoire, but primarily my practice is about not forgetting the tunes. I already have memorized (initially cognitive, but ultimately motor memory). Over the years I have performed in jazz/ rock bands, and thrive on that energy, but my practice sessions have lost their appeal, primarily because they don’t allow me to explore, and remember, new materials that would expand my repertoire, improve my listening and overall understanding of “music”. It’s almost as if I have filled the bucket and adding on more tunes will result in something spilling over, a memory fading.

  8. Bill

    When I began reading your email today, I thought it was something I had written. I, too, have investigated the memory gurus. As I recall, though, Foer was more interested in “talking about” memory, not so much on techniques. For that, I’m sure you’ve already considered (1) Tony Buzan’s “Use your perfect memory” and (2) Harry Lorayne’s “Ageless Memory.” You’ve written a fine piece here; should get some folks hooked, although I still haven’t learned how to use these techniques to increase my shape vocabulary – sigh, think it still comes down to practicing. (A LOT!) [btw: I like and enjoy your work. I wish you great success!]

  9. Mark Freemantle

    Some principles are so simple – they are related to Patterns, not notes, chord progressions or even memorizing the fretboard! [but that is a worthy objective]
    Do you use Barre Chords? Learn the E Barre Chord form [root on the 6th string] and the A Barre Chord form [root is on the 5th] A typical song might be a progression of G, C, & D. We call it 1,4, 5. Using “folk” chords, there is no Pattern to those 3 chords. But, play a G barre, the C chord is played ON THE SAME Fret, using the other barre form. The D chord? Down two frets. What is important to KNOW is moving from any barre chord (on the 6th string) to the other form on the 5th is moving a Fourth.

  10. Benny

    Love this post Greg, I’ve just been doing a lot of research into memorisation techniques myself. I’ve discovered a couple of techniques for memorising lists – the memory palace, where one takes a familiar place Ike the home and associates items with rooms, and a variation on it, associating items on a list in a particular sequence with parts of the body in order – top of the head, ears, eyes, nose, mouth, chin etc.

    For memorising music, I try and make up a narrative to go with the music, and associate emotions and sensss with the narrative – being able to taste and smell things, having heightened emotions at particular places in the musical narrative.

  11. Sydney

    This is exactly right Greg.A good memory is vital for improv.
    Look forward to your application ideas…

  12. Cindy

    I love this subject too. I read recently that there is actually something in learning and forgetting that is powerful. The article (which ironically, I can’t remember where it was), stated that our brain is designed to be efficient so if it doesn’t need to remember something it will choose not to. But if we come back to that information a short time after (perhaps a couple of times) the brain will comply and move that information to “long term” memory (or at least longer term memory).

    So in music, I have discovered that learning a line or a song and then putting it down for a day or two then returning to it, and if need be, re-learning it proves to be very valuable for our memory. Probably not as quick or efficient as learning a deck of cards really quickly, but for me it shows me that it’s okay to forget something because the “re-learning” of it will enforce it in “longer term” memory.

  13. barry cook

    mind mapping has helped me remember stuff … especially when I am delivering a training workshop ..

  14. nicholas

    Memory Techniques are useful to some extent and Dominic O’Brien’s book : Brilliant Memory ; himself an eight time world memory champion made me curious about his book.

    But really who wants t to commit to memory the sequence of eight card decks ? — waste of neurons ?

    But can these memory techniques be applied to aid memorizing a musical score , say like , Rachmaninov’s lengthy piano concertos’ ? or lengthy sax solo’s by Coletrane, Sam Rivers etc ?

    I think there is an alternative solution: I saw the book by Hector /Quine reading studying for guitarists. And what a revelation it was ! it opened my eyes to new possibilities.

    what if guitarists who are generally poor sight readers than first rate concert pianists or violinists can raise their level too ? there isn’t any reason why they can’t.

    Then they would not need to memorize much, the sheet music in front of them would prompt themif there is a memory lapse

    Here is Slava sight reading the complex Bach Cello suite .

    Now he did not commit this to memory !


  15. Eddie

    When I was into card magic tricks there was this one magician that had a memorization technique that he wrote about. He has been on the old Johnny Carson show here in the U.S. This technique is not a magic trick, it is a real technique for memorizing numbers, peoples names.

    The name of the person is Harry Lorayne. He has a book out on memorization. I can’t remember the name of the book. Just google his name.

  16. bill

    hi greg. good post! remembering loads of stuff is great if you want to go on a quiz show; but mountains of info is good if you know how to use it, and useless if you don’t. I have been in a duo for nearly ten years, using material from Beatles, Eagles, Crosby-Stills-Nash, etc etc, and we NEVER have more than a list of songs to work from! we make very few mistakes! But, as the guitarist in a big jazz band the situation is different, and I have to use the sheets (though there is a degree of interpretation, and flexibility). for my money being clever is about being able to work things out, and as musicians, on the spot impro…… that is not easy (for most) and putting in a lot of work, sometimes over years, can get you there. thank you for a great Dojo.

  17. Mike

    Hi Greg,

    I studied several memory techniques from Harry Lorayne, Tony Buzan, Dominic O’Brien and lately Anthony Metivier.

    Harry Lorayne wrote a book with Jerry Lucas titled The Memory Book. In it they have a chapter on Music for Beginners. They touch lightly on the guitar for memorizing the notes on the fretboard. I’ve varied it a little bit by taking the number of the string 1 (E), 2 (B), 3 (G), 4 (D), 5 (A) and 6 (E) and the number of the fret 1-12 and assigning a word to the strings and a word to the fret. For example, C on the first string, eighth fret would be 1 (Tie) and C (Sea). Imagine a bunch of Ties floating like seaweed on the ocean shore. The key is to use Lorayne’s Peg Words for the string numbers (1-6) and his Alphabet words for the note names.

    Anthony Metivier like Dominic O’Brien uses Memory Palaces. Metiver who also plays a Bass has a couple of posts on his blog about memorizing music.

    The Jazz guitar player Tony DeCaprio developed a memory technique based on Harry Lorayne’s methods for Jazz guitar. I went to his web site, but it is no longer available.

  18. nico

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