Seeing a guitarist play a complex riff or song on stage while closing their eyes or looking away can seem like a magic trick. After all, there are over 12 frets and six strings. Each pairing has a different sound. So, how do guitarists play without looking?
Guitarists play without looking through muscle memory and familiarity. As a guitarist progresses, familiarity with the neck and shapes start to form. The familiarity of the neck helps the guitarist know which key they are in and the muscle memory of the minor and major shapes allows a guitarist to understand where each note is without looking at the guitar.
Continue reading to find out:
- Should you look at your guitar when playing?
- How do guitarists play without looking?
- The benefits of it.
- Where to look when playing guitar.
- Tips for how to play guitar without looking.
Should You Look At Your Guitar When Playing?
When you are a beginner guitarist or learning a new song, you should look at your guitar when playing. If a guitarist is not familiar with the neck of the guitar or the various minor and major shapes, then not looking at the guitar could be detrimental to their playing.
Looking or not looking at the guitar when playing does not make you a better player. Instead, it is technique, staying in the correct key, timing, etc. that makes you a good guitar player. Eventually, as a guitarist progresses, not looking at the guitar when playing will become second nature.
How Do Guitarists Play Without Looking?
Guitarists play without looking by repetition and developing an ear for the key. Looking at the guitar uses the visual cortex of the brain, by developing a series of mental images. Without looking at the neck, this uses the motor cortex of the brain. A different process that requires repetition and a trained ear.
As guitarists become better, they develop a familiarity with the length of the neck. Without fretting a note they will know what area of the neck they are in and what keys reside in that area. Once they are familiar with the key they are currently positioned in, it is simply muscle memory to play the song or lick.
For a guitarist, the hardest part of playing guitar without looking is ensuring you are in the correct key. As soon as you hit the first note, it is easy to tell for a trained guitarist, but it is ensuring that the first note is in the correct key in the first place that is harder. This is where the familiarity of the neck through repetitive practice comes into play. Memorizing where each key is based on the distance your hand travels on the neck of the guitar.
Find Out How Guitarists Remember Songs and Best Ways to Do So
For licks, a guitarist will first learn the lick by looking at their fingers on the fretboard. Once the basic notes are learned, they will then play them over and over to build muscle memory of the lick. Finally, once the lick can be played without thinking of the next note, they can look away from the neck and play it without looking.
To summarize, playing guitar without looking is not as difficult as it seems. If a guitarist is familiar with the fretboard and with its minor and major shapes, then looking away from the fretboard is almost instinctual.
3 Benefits of Playing Guitar Without Looking
The benefits of playing guitar without looking are more than what you may expect. After researching this topic more thoroughly, I started playing more without the visual aid of the neck, and my confidence in my playing grew immensely.
1. Faster and More Accurate Finger Movements
The first benefit of playing guitar without looking is faster finger movements, with increased accuracy. Because playing guitar without looking uses a different part of the brain, the motor cortex, different attributes are involved in memory/motor function building. This area of the brain promotes memories that are formed in it to result in faster and more accurate finger movements.
2. Easier to Improvise
The second benefit of playing guitar without looking is it becomes easier to improvise.
While staring at your hands, your brain must process multiple types of information simultaneously. Information like finger positions, how close you’re fretting the string to the fret, etc. This gets you into more of a thinking mode which uses a lot of processing power.
This processing power can instead be used to feel more of a connection with the music. Going with the flow whilst not looking at the guitar makes it far easier to get lost in the music. This likely sounds extremely cliché but it is true. The brain power used when looking at the guitar while playing is immense. When not looking, the capacity is opened to improvise more naturally instead of constantly thinking about the next lick.
Feeling the music will not happen when staring at your guitar. This is especially the case when playing with other musicians. Improvisation is all about feeling what you are playing, so stop looking at the guitar and see for yourself.
When looking at the guitar, you are not allowing the subconscious to take over. Allowing the subconscious promotes greater improvisation.
3. Becomes Easier to Find Chords
The third benefit of playing guitar without looking is that it becomes easier to find chords with your hands.
Your hands will become programmed to find the correct position by feel. This is because finding the correct position is better by feel in the long run. If you stare at your hands to find the chord shape, you will always have to do so.
As you continue to practice playing guitar without looking, a subconscious effort takes place where your fingers feel the frets and already know the positioning of the intended chord.
This is cutting out the middleman. If you were looking at your guitar, you would have to react to the visual information. You’d be looking at your fingers, thinking about where they are, then moving the fingers into position. Without looking, you program your mind and fingers to find their way to the correct position.
Where to Look When Playing Guitar
When playing guitar without looking, aim your sight at something stagnant. An un-moving object will help keep your focus on the movements your fingers are making and will reduce the chances of distraction. In the beginning, any distraction will be enough to disrupt your focus and ultimately your playing.
3 Tips for How to Play Guitar Without Looking
The three tips to play guitar without looking are:
- Start With Reference Points
- Anchor Your Pinky Finger
- Place Paper on Top of Guitar
Continue reading to learn how you can implement each of these.
1. Start With Reference Points
The first step for playing guitar without looking is to start with reference points.
When first practicing guitar without looking, it will seem impossible. When people first try to do this, they go 100% immediately by not looking at all at the guitar.
Instead, start by using reference points to become accustomed to playing guitar without looking.
A reference point means when the key changes in a song, briefly look down at the guitar to situate your hand and then look away once in the correct key. Once in the correct key, look away from the guitar and play the lick or chord completely without looking.
As you progress, skip and adapt some reference points to the point where you barely use them to situate yourself.
Eventually, as you become more familiar with the neck, you will not need to use these reference points as often or not at all and you will be able to play without looking at the guitar seamlessly.
2. Anchor Your Pinky Finger
The second tip to playing guitar without looking is to anchor your pinky finger on your picking hand.
You have likely seen many professional guitarists do this and they do this for a good reason.
Anchoring your pinky gives you more stability and control when picking.
Anchoring your pinky finger of the picking hand helps you to aim your pick as you play. It helps to know where you are at, a benefit that is extremely helpful when first learning how to play guitar without looking.
In the long-term, there are pros and cons to anchoring that have been plaguing guitar forums since the internet was invented. Aside from the pros and cons, we are talking about tips to learn how to play guitar without looking. And this is a great picking method to do so.
3. Place Paper on Top of Guitar
The third tip to playing guitar without looking is to place a piece of paper on top of the guitar.
Place the piece of paper above the sound chamber on an acoustic or above the pickups on the electric (a little harder to balance on). You want to place the paper on the body of the guitar, inhibiting your view of the picking hand.
When you look down, you will not be able to see the strings you are picking/strumming, preventing any instinctual looking that may occur.
In the beginning, it will be difficult but sticking with it for a few months, and picking the correct strings without looking will become second nature.
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