Brainjo - book review and practical application

Brainjo, Applied

Moderators: I wasn’t sure where to post this, hope this is an ok place.

While reading posts on an acoustic guitar forum I came across a recommendation for the book “The Immutable Laws of Brainjo: The Art and Science of Effective Practice” by Dr. Josh Turknett. “Brainjo” is fantastic, and while reading it I started to incorporate some of Dr. Turknett’s recommendations into my practice routine. It’s been a couple of months and I’m seeing the results I had hoped to see, so thought I’d pass on what’s been working for me. I also mention Justin Sandercoe in this summary: I’ve got no affiliation with Brainjo or — just a very happy customer of both.

TL;DR Highly recommend the Brainjo book. It’s highly applicable to guitar (and other instruments) and the advice it provides has really helped my playing improve. Minimize the use of tab, record yourself playing, incorporate spaced repetition into a practice plan.

Here are the key challenges I’m working on (I bet these sound familiar):

  • improve my recall and playing of material I’ve learned
  • be able to improvise while playing
  • be able to hear a piece of guitar music and have a sense of where on the neck it might have been played
  • make my practice time more effective and structured


The timing of reading Brainjo coincided with me completing one fingerstyle blues course and being about to start another. In the course I had just finished, Fingerstyle Blues Handbook (Vol 1) by David Hamburger, David has you work through videos plus tabs for lessons on 10 short blues tunes (tunes range from 8 to 16 bar studies). The tunes get progressively harder, and most focus on a melody played over a “steady thumb” bass.

I spent about a week or two learning each piece, and my practice generally included:

  • Gathering my iPhone or laptop to watch a lesson video and my binder containing the printed tab for each tune
  • Watch the video of the instructor play the piece
  • Practice the piece by reading the tab and watching the video: work through the piece measure by measure until I can play it
  • Make written notes on the printed tab about chord shapes, what intervals the notes are in a scale (e.g. root, 3rd, flat 7th etc) to get my head around the theory of what I’m playing.

At first I thought this was working. My playing improved, I was learning to play the pieces, I felt organized.

Here’s something interesting, and as it turns out, normal and predictable: I can play the pieces while looking at the tab, but it’s a huge struggle for me to recall them without tab as a reference.

This is a problem! Not only because all that effort seemed somewhat wasted, being able to play from memory is going to be crucial for the next class I planned to take.


The next class I took, also by David Hamburger, is his Fingerstyle Blues Factory course. This course is structured a bit differently, you first learn 41 licks or turnarounds organized by keys E, A, D and B. After learning the licks, you assemble them into 8 different tunes.

Not wanting the same results as the Pre-Brainjo course, I read Brainjo while keeping in mind that I knew I needed to change my approach to practicing. My goal was to be able to memorize the licks and recall them without referring to tab.

As of this writing, I’m near the end of the Blues Factory course (just 5 turn-around licks to go!), and I’m able to play the 36 I’ve studied so far from memory. Assembling the licks into tunes has been relatively easy — I’ve done three of the eight so far, and I’ve found I can play them pretty much by ear because I can recognize the individual licks.

Here are the key changes, suggested by Brainjo, that have really helped me improve my ability to memorize:

  • Minimize the use of tab
  • Focus on listening (rather than tab)
  • Apply spaced repetition

Minimize Tab

Brainjo points out that when humans learn to speak, listening is a crucial part of the process: infants learn how to connect what they hear to the muscle control needed to produce the sounds that form words. Learning to play music is the same process, you learn motor control to produce sounds in a structured way.

Brainjo points out that learning to play music by reading tab encodes a different set of instructions in your brain compared to learning to play by listening. Relying on tab focuses on visual cues for the motor control — i.e. the work your brain does is to to translate the printed notation to command what your hands need to do.

Key change (pun intended): Learn the licks by listening to the course instruction, watching the videos to see the instructor’s hand positions, and only refer to the tab as a last resort.

Focus on Listening

Minimizing tab is a start to a “listening focused” approach. In addition to this, I recorded myself playing — even if it was bad, even if I could barely make it though. Recording helped accomplish two things: 1) have an audible reference for what the lick should sound like and 2) hear and celebrate the progress as I improved.

The other aspect of this is that you need to be able to hum the music. If you can’t hear it in your head, there’s no way you will remember it. Brainjo mentions this along with visualization — where you imagine yourself playing, picking and fretting the notes. I found this to be a great way to “practice” even if I wasn’t holding a guitar.

Key change: Record yourself playing (for this low-fi is fine, I just used my phone).

Spaced Repetition

This technique is mentioned by Justin Sandercoe and is a widely accepted approach to memorizing lots of different material. The idea is that you put increasing intervals of time between playing something once you’ve learned how the piece goes: first a day then two days, then four days, then a week, two weeks, month, two months, and so on.

Spaced repetition has the added benefit of spreading out whatever material you are learning across practices. I’m at the end of the Blues Factory course and have learned 36 of the 41 licks. Because of spaced repetition, I’m not playing all 36 every time I practice (which would take way too long).

Key Change: I started using a to-do app to manage what I’m going to practice (I use Omnifocus, but really any will do if it allows you to set up tasks that repeat once you check them off). I start out with a new lick on a daily repeat. Once I think I’m ready, I move it to a two day repeat and gradually increase the interval. If I come to a lick and it’s been, say, two weeks and I can’t remember it then I listen to the recording and figure it out. If figuring it out is a struggle I move the repeat to a shorter interval (usually back to two days). I try really hard to not use the tab when figuring it out — that’s an approach Justin recommended and I think it really makes a difference.

Other Key Changes

Some other learnings from Brainjo that I’ve incorporated into my practices:

  • Learn one new thing at a time: you are trying to get your brain to encode instructions, so make it easier for you brain to know what you are trying to learn, and just learn a little bit at a time. I limit new material to one at a time.
  • Dissect licks: find the root, look for the chord shape it’s based on and/or scale the lick is derived from. Find the intervals (does it start on the root and move to the V?). Look at the root and the intervals and how they are positioned (e.g. if the root is on the 4th or 5th string, the V is on the same fret but on a lower (sounding) string right above the root…the IV will be on the same fret one string up, and another V two frets up from the IV…).
  • Identify where the lick starts and ends — where did it take you to? Does it start on I and end on IV or V?
  • Play something , do something else, come back to it. This is especially helpful in the early stages of learning a lick. Make the clumsy attempts to learn a new one, then turn your focus away for a few minutes, then go back and try again. More often than not I found I had improved (even if just a little)

This ended up being a longer write-up than I intended (thank you for your attention if you made it this far). I hope that this was helpful, and I highly recommend the Brainjo book — it’s a fast and easy read (and the Kindle version was inexpensive). It’s had a huge impact on how effective my practices are now. I’d be really interested if any of you give it a try, let us know what you found to work!


Fantastic post - thank you for taking the time to share.

Outside of guitar I enjoy adopting more general ‘learning to learn’ practices. The detail shared here is very interesting though - especially the brain wiring between passively reading tab v listening to music.

Off to buy the book now!

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James, thank you for your detailed posting! Very interesting to read. The focused listening approach seems to be very comprehensible. Also, the spaced repetition technique would be worth to integrate in my individual practice routines in a more organized way instead of doing some random repetition. A lot of aspects to think about! Again, thank you!

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Hhmmm I’m dwelling on this! I’m wondering on ways of extending AnkiApp into guitar practice? It has spaced repetition built in so that it fine tunes to your own learning. Perhaps more suited to theory though over practical skills.

Thanks for sharing, James, really interesting. Like @Sound_Bound I am quite interested in the learning about learning, so will put this into the to-read pile (what an enormous pile it is).

I moved this into ‘Just Chatting’ as the most appropriate Sub-category of ‘Community Hub’.

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An interesting approach James and a sensible approach. Ironically I am part way through the Hamburger Handbook V1 and have V2 and the Factory. I’ve tried in most cases to learn the pieces from the video instructions and just using the tab as a reminder or prompt, without being aware of this method. I also find myself “singing” the exercises when away from the guitar. So a lot of what you are saying makes sense, as I actually retain these better.

I do have difficulty remembering licks but have actually relied more on the associated tab when practicing them. Certainly with Justin’s Blues Lead, I would just refer to the charts having watched the lessons. So I plan to revisit another lick course I have and try this non-tab method to see if they stick better.

Thanks for sharing.


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@TheMadman_tobyjenner @jsgreen

I’ve signed up to David Hamburgers fretbroad confidential fingerstyle five, but there’s no singing along with the songs he teaches, tell me more about the fingerstyle blues factory course???

Not delved too deeply into it yet, as working on other “stuff” but basically focuses on two Keys. Teaches 33 licks and 7 turnarounds, then combines them into 4 12BB choruses. Each with a “simple” set of phrases to start with and then a more complex ones in the second.

Yep there is no singing but the old Blues masters managed to combine the two. So maybe worth listening to some of those and see how they pitch the vocals alongside the phrases, if that’s what you have in mind. I’m a third on the way through his “Handbook” course, which I am doing alongside Justin’s Solo Blues Course and for now, I’m happy making music without worrying about singing. Hope that helps.


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Thanks, always interested where others paths cross mine. Two songs that I’m gonna work on there: Sitting on top of the world and Baby please don’t go, are blues standards so it doesn’t matter a lot that he’s got no singing. Makes me appreciate how well justin does every song.

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Try playing them backwards :upside_down_face:

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Apps with spaced recognition built in would be a nice addition - would remove the “friction” of having to schedule each thing you learn.

I hope you post about your experience with the membership! It’s on my list of things to do once I’ve worked through DH’s other courses.

There’s another Justin Guitar learner here, @WimVD who also recommended it (Wim’s recordings are on SoundCloud and are excellent).

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This looks really great! I ntsta-purchased from Apple Books for $8 Canadian.

Here’s what Bing AI has to say:

Brainjo is a neuroscience-based system of instruction designed for adult brains that can help you learn how to play music, including guitar³. The Brainjo Method of instruction is based on neuroscience and is designed specifically for the adult beginner¹. It minimizes the use of tab and incorporates spaced repetition into a practice plan³.

I hope this helps! Let me know if you have any other questions.

Source: Conversation with Bing, 2023-04-04(1) Brainjo - book review and practical application - Community Hub … Brainjo - book review and practical application Accessed 2023-04-04.
(2) Fingerstyle Banjo Lessons – A complete online course for the adult … Accessed 2023-04-04.
(3) The Brainjo Academy – Better Brain Fitness. Accessed 2023-04-04.
(4) The Laws of Brainjo: The Art & Science of Molding a Musical Mind. ‎The Laws of Brainjo: The Art & Science of Molding a Musical Mind on Apple Books Accessed 2023-04-04.

Not something I would be doing, given I have been on Justin’s learning path for nearly 10 years and a loyal forum member for 9. Happy to mention educators or courses in posts here and there but I would personally not post a review or recommendations for Truefire and its material on this Community. Folks can find out and judge for themselves and I am sure there maybe even be a forum arena over there, that would be more appropriate for such comments. But each to there own.



That’s funny - the first source of Bing’s AI summary was this thread. Hhmmmm!

Sure. Been working on his youtube six steps to fingerstyle blues, got the groove working well.

What does the Fingerstyle Five membership have to do with TruFire?

That’s really interesting! I was reading the AI review you posted thinking “wow the AI summary is really similar” and thought maybe I did a good job summarizing - turns out it’s just an echo chamber.

the fact that i love steak doesn’t mean i don’t eat lobster, fried chicken, pork chops…etc. (justin being the steak in this analogy) variety is the spice of life. you learn from everything you do. justin welcomes differing ideas

I don’t know, its the first time you’ve mentioned it I believe. But the same principals would apply but they are mine. :sunglasses: