Can an experienced player break bad muscle memory?

I don’t want to waste too much time on my individual situation, but here’s the basic back story. Been playing 27yrs, mainly a thumb movement player for most things (with some forearm rotation), and elbow rotation player for very fast lines (think Zakk Wylde 2nps riffs). Tried to change/fix my technique, as there were very specific things I could not do and certain things that caused too much pressure in my shoulder/fingers, but inadvertently (over 2yrs) lost my old thumb movement without developing appropriate write/forearm rotation movements to make up for it. Long story short, after generally being able to play most things (Satriania, Vai, Wylde, speed metal), I have reverted back to a worse than beginner picker, I don’t know how else to put it. Beyond frustrating doesn’t begin to capture it!

The crazy discovery: If I flip my guitar around and play left handed, I can actually pick with good technique, palm muted at fairly high speeds (150bpm+), with very little effort, remaining totally relaxed (and I’ve never done this before in 27yrs!). Took me about 15 minutes to get comfortable, crazy I know. So I know what that feels like. But unfortunately, with my right picking hand, I have all this mess of old+recently modified bad picking habits, i.e. the muscle memory, that has taken over. We’re talking total mess, not being able to pick smoothly simple QUARTER NOTE passages without my right forearm/shoulder tensing up.

So here’s my question: How do you break bad muscle memory and replace with good memory? Is it possible after you’ve been playing 20+ yrs?

I understand people might ask, show me a video, you can probably pick right if you just use what you have and modify slightly. But I’m telling you, there are some screwed up bad habits in there that I’d like to get rid of. Is this possible? And if so, how? Do I literally sit there and practice qtr note passages at 50bpm? I appreciate Troy’s “start by picking fast”, but if I do this I will go straight to a Marty Friedman/Zakk Wylde/Gypsy style (i.e. wrist way up), elbow dependent / no wrist rotation tremolo picking which does not work for palm muting or playing slow riffs, and I will have A TON of tension that locks up the entire arm to fingers.

Any thoughts are appreciated, I just can’t seem to find an answer to this question, and the right way to practice if you’re not new to guitar but have bad engrained habits that need to be corrected.


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Hey there, what a backstory you have. :slight_smile:

I’ve been playing for a long time too, with breaks, and have been fundamentally reworking my technique as well. I used to just be a huge knot of tension. I’ve since relaxed a ton, and made some relaxation practices which I documented here:

Ping if any question on the vid!

I believe it is possible but don’t know the details of you, of course. If you are trying to rework, I believe it will take mindful practice, not necessarily “start slow and speed up”, but you will have to be constantly on the lookout for tension and old habits.

I’d say drop the old licks for now, too many associations to old habits. And see if simply touching the guitar causes some tension, like it did me.

Cheers! Z

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I can’t comment on what it’s like to of played for so long, I started at 27 :stuck_out_tongue_closed_eyes:, and been “playing” 8 years now, 3 were not really playing at all, so 5 years with excersice and daily focus.

I’ve gone through quite a few changes in my habits and techniques. I went from my natural grip, to an EVH style for two solid years, and then a Jason Becker style technique for the past 3 years or so. And that combination of three different styles has messed me up in a way. I realize I think way to much about how I pick, but I’m an obsessive person so can’t really help it. But it’s become akward. I think to get a real solid technique down it takes about two years of constant practice. Thats what happened to me after smoking weed and watching van Halen 1989 in Tokyo. I was like, WTF this guy is insane. And I became obsessed with his technique, to the point of regularly trying to stretch my thumb to gain his flexibility, I eventually fizzled out trying that, I’m not EVH…
And then I found Jason becker and became obsessed with him, tried to emulate him to little success (there is way more to that story including dmt experiences but whatever). I am currently in a daze so to speak with my technique. I am a Jack of all trades, master of none. But it’s been quite an education. Right now I’ve become intrested in the upward edge picking style like Joshua Jones and Shawn Lane. It feels good. Tho it’s just another path on the journey to my true expression.

Basically, I’ve experienced these changes that you describe. It’s the brain adapting…
My EVH pursuit took two years till it became natural feeling.

I’ve been watching MAB relatively recently and a big thing he has said is start everyday putting your socks on the reverse way. So if you normally do right foot… try left… It’s literally facing that plasticity of the brain, it feels akward at first, but put some work in, and it will work.

Basically I can only assume your facing the confusion of plasticity. Power through it, you WILL get there with work… it just takes work. Possibly a couple years.

You can do it. I relearnt left handed after a number of years as it felt more natural (I am left handed).
It is frustrating at first but it soon starts to feel more natural. After 5 years I am way better than I was after 20 years right handed - that was before CTC and YouTube though :slightly_smiling_face:.
Good luck.

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Welcome back @guitarwrecker

The quickest suggestion I could give is to try a radically different pick grip and hand position. For example, try to imitate the 3-finger grip in the style of Steve Morse, Eddie Van Halen or Albert Lee.

Please don’t :slight_smile:

We’d definitely recommend this! we find very often that people don’t have the problem they think they have! Often times it is a different issue entirely that needs fixing, and a bunch of external eyes can spot this much more easily that the players themselves.

Yes this remains our most reliable “sanity check” for picking technique. It’s either fast & (relatively) easy, or it’s wrong!

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Have you posted about this before? I’d enjoy reading it. I am left handed (writing), yet my right hand is far stronger, can move faster, and is overall just far more connected to my mind.

My left hand is more refined, I can draw with it and write, but my right is so much more ingrained in me. If I had to throw something it would be my right.

I’m going to prescribe the same advice as @tommo. The 3 finger grip not only is a great way to immediately have all 3 escape motions available, it also will most likely prevent you from falling into old habits because it will be a completely new grip or at least it will minimize the amount you revert to. I recommend watching the section regarded this motion in the latest release called “Identifying Eddie Van Halen Wrist Motion” here you’ll see @Troy go over all 3 escapes from the grip. This little video helped me tremendously with figuring out USX and DSX with the grip. A nice thing about it is that DBX is the default escape for this grip in my experience which is what I love most about it. Really glad I switched to it so far.

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Thanks for all the comments. In regards to switching and playing left handed, I’m tempted! But I’ve developed so much skill in my left hand I hate to start over. In regards to playing with 3 finger grip, that’s actually what I’ve been doing most commonly if I’m playing slowly. I’ve also started playing just fingerstyle, even with high gain, as it’s so natural for me, but you just lose so much pick attack and there are a lot of other limitations there.

I’ll go ahead and post some videos as that should help.

To set the stage, I’m going to post some from a few years ago. Main point here is purely to show how I used to pick, sorry it’s a song, but if you watch few seconds you’ll get the idea, not posting to get views! If I could snap my fingers and go back to this I would, but I have totally lost the ability to pick in my old style. Look at gallop riff at 0:50 where you can see how I was dependent on thumb movement, like a fish out of water! Watch 2:52 to see close up of solo where you can see my picking technique up close.

Now on to my current sorry state…

In this first video, I’m just doing a normal grip. As you can see my thumb and index finger straighten out as I pick. I cannot keep them relaxed and stable. I think this is tied to how I used to use thumb movement, but now it’s just screwed up.

In this second video, I’m switching to a 3 finger grip. Much better, but fingers all keep straightening out again.

In this third video, I’m trying to play fast with the 3 finger grip. Ok but pretty bad still.

In this fourth video, I’m using a trigger grip and closed hand, but all elbow rotation. This is actually the most natural way for me to play fast, but there’s two major problems: 1. I have to have my wrist up off the bridge so I can’t play palm muted really. 2. Since it’s all elbow, it works for tremolo but not slower riffs.

In this fifth video, I’m doing the same as the fourth, but letting my wrist naturally float even higher. By the end of the video, you can see how it’s floating. When I do this, I am using more wrist rotation then just elbow, but I’m too high to palm mute.

As I mentioned at first, I’m beyond frustrated with my picking. Any help getting me back to a point I was for the last 25 years until I tried to start fixing things I never should have messed with is appreciated!!!

So analyzing my playing, a key problem is actually my fingers straightening out, like in videos 1 and 2 above. Here I’m focusing on just this issue. As soon as I start playing consistent 8th notes, I start straightening. And also, its like my wrist wants to rotate so it’s straight instead of pointed down, with my thumb moving towards the guitar and my palm away from the guitar. So I lose the right position and my pick is no longer angled well, in fact it can be angled the other direction, away from the bridge.

Any thoughts on the vids?

Based on your song video, maybe try incorporating thumb / index movement to a small extent? Maybe I missed the part explaining why you’re trying to avoid finger movement?

Hard to describe but muscles locking up, as I pick thumb wants to go to full extension and stay there. I used to be heavy thumb movement, but lost that and just can’t seem to get it back. I know the muscle movements that are available. Just can’t get the arm/wrist/thumb to do what I want anymore.