Memorizing sequences of notes, especially long ones in solos, can be a challenge. People often ask me how I can memorize really long solos and execute them flawlessly. The answer to that is that I don’t have them memorized. I have the melody memorized and I follow that with my fingers. It’s not the other way around.

In fact I really need to focus when I go through them slowly in the videos because I’m not following the melody anymore. Instead I need to have memory of the notes one by one as they occur in the right sequence.

To me following the melody is the trick to memorizing really long solos as well as bringing about other advances in playing. Once you get used to this your ability to play by ear should improve by leaps and bounds. So will your ability to figure out songs. Improvisation will become easier too. It really does work miracles.

It’s not something I invented. I discovered it through the guidance of my first really demanding piano teacher. When I was a freshman in college I was still a piano major and was memorizing some pretty intense pieces. I was stuck in some places on this Paradisi Toccata. I don’t remember which one anymore. All I remember is that there were a zillion notes to it, both hands, played allegro (fast). It needed to be prepared for a recital what seemed to be the day before yesterday and I was going about it the hard way trying to memorize every single note in sequence hoping muscle memory (a force of habit from playing something a million times) would kick in.

So this teacher tells me I’m never going to have it memorized in time if I don’t learn to hum the melody in my mind and let my fingers follow that. Its too late for muscle memory. I don’t have time to play it a million times before the performance. I remember his words to this day “If you keep the melody as your focus you will not forget the next notes”.

My problem wasn’t solved instantly though. Next I had to practice keeping the melody the focus which requires adjusting the whole thought process. In some way its puts it backward because the new way to think is finding the notes from the melody in contrast to creating a melody from a sequence of memorized notes or finger movements.

So from that comes the exercise that I recommend you start applying to your practice. Hum the melody to a solo, out loud, as you practice the notes. Let the humming become your focus, not your finger movements. Do this for every single song you learn until it becomes a habit, until focusing on the melody becomes second nature. When you’re at the point that you rely mostly on letting your fingers follow the melody in your mind you’ve got it.

Take it to the next level when you solo. Have you ever seen the great players saying syllables or moving their mouths when they solo? They are coming up with melodies and their fingers follow them. Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Hendrix, Robert Cray do it constantly. Those are just the ones to come to mind right now but there are many others. Once you become skilled at associating finger movements with melodies in your head, your ability to transfer ideas from your brain to your fingers will dramatically improve.

This is something you can use for figuring out solos by ear too. You’ll find that every artist has a bunch of signature licks. In fact every style has a library of signature licks that artists in the genre draw from or imitate. If you can commit the melody of those licks to memory then when they occur they should translate to your fingers quickly if you have become fluent enough with them. This is a trick I use constantly when I am figuring out and memorizing solos.

So go take all the stuff you’re working on and try out this approach. It may seem a bit awkward or even backward at first but like I said earlier it will work miracles for your playing.