Though my notated examples are specifically for guitar, this advice is pertinent to all instruments, including those that can’t actually play chords, but rather, must perform as arpeggios. Also, throughout this lesson I have specifically notated these concepts for beginners (except for the final one, which should challenge even the most advanced players). That said, intermediate and advanced players can also use the tips for more difficult chords, as most of us could develop our memorization skills; this advice is not solely for the novice.
Context is Everything
The number one piece of advice I have for all musicians is to put everything into the context of a song. Learning any new chord is practically meaningless without a point of reference. So if you’ve recently been introduced to the B7 chord (a chord that seems to stymie many beginners), start playing it in songs you like - the more songs the better.
Now here is a problem: what if you can’t find that many songs you like with a B7 (or whatever new chord it is your learning)? A few solutions:
1) Look harder!
2) Broaden your taste!
3) Give up!
Trust me, there are enough great songs, of all styles, that have the chords you are interested in. With enough diligence on your part, or guidance from a knowledgeable teacher, you’ll find what you need.
For example the B7, which is frequently thought of as a bluesy or country-ish sounding chord, is found in songs from a diverse group of artists such as:
The Beatles, “I Should Have Known Better”
Metallica, “Nothing Else Matters”
Al DiMeola and Paco DeLucia, “Mediterranean Sundance/Rio Ancho”
Foo Fighters, “For All The Cows”
This is just the tip of the B7 iceberg! So put your new chords into context and you’ll have them off the page and under your fingers before you know it…as long as you play them enough.
How Much Is Enough?
So how much is enough? How many times do you have to play a new chord before you have it memorized? Unfortunately there is no one answer for this question because context, once again, plays a part.
That said, muscle memory kicks in after about 12-24 repetitions, as long as you get them correct every time. And this is very important. If you play a chord incorrectly and then have to rearrange your fingers, you’re actually telling your muscle memory to, “play it incorrectly, then fix it.” DO NOT DO THIS!
Get it right the first time. I can promise you, you can play something 12 times slowly (painfully slow, half of performance tempo) and correctly and know it for a lifetime, or you can play it 1000 times wrong and fast and never truly know it. So aim for long-term goals, not short-term gratification.
But there is an unfortunate caveat to this “play it slowly and correctly” rule. I have noticed for some (many? most?) players, moving to a B7 chord from a C seems different than moving to B7 from G. The B7 hasn’t changed, but the movement into B7 has. So it is important to practice the new chord in different contexts. Thus, we return to our variety of choices found in figures 1-5.
12-Bar Blues Progression, It’s Not Just For Blues Any More
Another tip I have for memorizing new chords – as well as licks, riffs, and short repetitive phrases – is to run them in a 12-bar blues form. One of the simplest examples of this is Fig. 6, which demonstrates a 12-bar blues pattern, performed with only a D7 chord shape played at different frets. This process permits you to focus on just one chord shape at a time, yet still moves you around the fretboard and actually allows you to play a real song.
I’ve also notated a knuckle-busting, Allan Holdsworth-esque chord/arpeggio pattern (beginners beware), Fig. 7, to demonstrate how this 12-bar blues concept works for more challenging shapes.
These are just some of many memorization tools musicians can use in their everyday practice. I would like to point out that all musicians are different, and it is possible these tips won’t work for some. If they don’t, there are alternatives to explore – consider these springboards to further investigation of the memory. And if you have your own tips, please feel free to share them in the comments section.