A few weeks ago, in On Writing I mentioned that I'd taken up playing the guitar again, after a hiatus of thirty-five years or so. I said that alas, the much vaunted 'muscle memory' hadn't lasted the full three and a half decades and I was starting from scratch.
That might not be entirely true. When I learned as a teenager, I was taught classical guitar – all fingerpicking. I never used a pick. This time, I went to a guitar class where we began with strumming using a pick and we never really put it down. But I found it rather difficult to use – like picking something up with your hands closed, a deliberately handicapped way to go about something. Whenever I was asked to do something complicated (like play notes on two strings without about a minute's thought between them) I dropped the pick and used my fingers. Now, after a few months, I'm far faster, and far more accurate, with my fingers than with the pick. In fact, if I make myself use the pick I sometimes miss the guitar entirely and accidentally hit the 'on' switch on the TV remote control and wake up about an hour later watching a Sci-Fi Channel special about men and women with 2007-era looks and Southern Californian ethical values defeating giant dinosaurs, giant spiders, giant lizards or giant sharks. You have to admit that shows a definite lack of accuracy. And although it gets better slowly, my first three fingers get better much more quickly.
I can't prove that it's 'muscle memory' – that my fingers 'remember' the way they were taught before. It's equally likely that I was hard-wired for fingerpicking from the start and it won't matter how long I spend on either technique or which order I learned in. There's no way to test the hypothesis because I would have had to split myself in two just before I learned the first time, and that might prove to be a difficult experiment to do.
But it's interesting, is all.