There are three main reasons I'm memorizing the music I perform most frequently:
- To connect more deeply with my audience and with the other musicians.
- To develop a deeper understanding of the music.
- To set up less equipment! I'm all for minimizing my gear. It will be a great day when I don't have to set up a stand and a big book for a gig.
Most of my repertoire consists of jazz standards, which means that I have a lot of chords to memorize…a LOT of chords! Some songs come more easily because I've either played them for a long time or because they follow a common format.
Here's my standard routine for memorizing a song. This prepares me to sing, comp, or solo over the chord changes. I follow this routine even with songs I've played a long time. I've found that, while I've memorized some chord changes through sheer repetition over the course time, I can get lost when I have to improvise a solo without a lead sheet, because I've been relying on muscle memory rather than a better understanding of the chord structure.
- Learn the melody and the words. Sing and play the melody over and over again. Sing it in the car or on a walk. Sing it to your dog. It should be stuck in your head so much that it drives you a little crazy. Even if you don't think you'll ever sing the lead in a performance, sing the melody when you practice. The melody is your guiding light when you're comping or soloing.
- Then learn the chord structure. Although jazz songs typically have more complicated chords than blues, rock, or folk songs, there is always a form. Find sections that are the same or similar, so that you can understand the overall form of the song. If you've learned the melody, then you are already familiar with the structure of the song. Have I mentioned that you should learn the melody?
- Outline the chords. So you think you've memorized the chords? Think again! Now try going through the song, outlining each chord. I'm not talking about arpeggiating the chords using whatever chord shape you want. For each chord, play the root, 3rd, 5th, and 7th in time. If the chord lasts 4 beats, then you can play R357 as quarter notes. If the chord is a half note, then you'll have to double that up and play R357 as 8th notes. Once you can play R357, reverse it. Start from the 7th and play downward 753R in time. Bonus points if you can sing the song while you do this. This will not only deepen your knowledge of the chords, but it is a HUGE help in learning to improvise over difficult chord changes.
- Improvise over the chord changes. You can practice improvising to a track or to Band in a Box. If you really want a challenge, improvise unaccompanied, with a metronome clicking on beats 2 and 4 to keep you honest (or clicking only on beat 4 to really test your sense of time). If you can improvise without accompaniment and keep a tempo, it's going to be a breeze when you play with accompaniment.
If you think this sounds time consuming, you are correct! Yes, it takes a lot of time, but this is some serious quality time with the music. It'll take me a while to go through my repertoire like this, but it'll be worth the effort. I've found this approach to be very satisfying. I'm learning my music more thoroughly, and I'm able to close the songbook a little more often when performing.
I don't want to minimize the ability to read music. Any guitarist who plays in a big band or a pit orchestra will tell you how important it is to be able to sight-read. I will continue to keep up my reading skills, but I'll deepen my understanding of music through memorization.
Oh, and learn the melody.