Tired of constantly glancing down at the fretboard during your solos? Having trouble singing while you play? Maybe you’re just out to emulate all your favorite blues musicians, like Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie McTell, or Sonny Terry (also blind)… none of whom could even see their guitar, let alone the fretboard!
But for those of us with two working eyes, learning to play without looking at your guitar can be the single best live performance skill you develop, as it allows you to truly connect with your audience during a show. The greatest performers melt hearts with just a glance, you don’t always need to wow them with a killer solo (although it’s pretty powerful when you can do both).
Today we’ll look at some quick tips that will help you play the guitar with your hands, and not your eyes. While playing blind may not be considered a technique per se, it must be practiced slowly and methodically just like any other skill.
1. Play the guitar, A LOT.
This may seem obvious, but the more you play, the more comfortable your muscles will become when navigating the guitar neck. Playing music is a repeatable, physical technique, and practice is training. An Olympic fencer never looks at their feet or their weapon during a bout. They look at their opponent — their objective.
The athlete builds, and trusts, their physical technique to carry them through a competition, without having to monitor every little aspect of their performance. We can apply the same concept to mastering an instrument. This is achieved through slow, deliberate practice and repetition. We often see even the most accomplished guitarists look down at their axe while taking a solo. It’s totally normal. They’re essentially venturing out into unchartered musical waters, creating something new. But try to practice your scales, your chords, and your riffs so many times that the muscle memory kicks in without you even having to think about them!
2. Distract yourself.
Start practicing the scales or songs that you are more familiar with while you’re watching TV. I’m not kidding! The intention is to teach your brain to feel, before you see.
The guitar is naturally a very visual instrument, with most players identifying “shapes” and “boxes,” reading music or tabs, looking at chord charts, and watching others play as the most common ways of learning by copying. By shifting your attention to something else, you can train your brain to trust your hands and fingers instead of relying on your eyes to get you there. You might be surprised to find what you’re actually capable of playing without looking, once you trust your hands and let go of your visual ideas.
3. Connect the dots.
Begin by playing sequences of chords, licks, and scale shapes in a single position. At first, look at the neck as you would normally. As you become more comfortable repeating the idea, start shifting your focus and look away, or close your eyes entirely. Closing the eyes can actually be more effective than simply averting your gaze, as your other senses become stronger when another is dulled.
Once you are comfortable playing the closed position idea without looking, try shifting the idea, or transitioning to a different phrase or progression in another position. This should be seamless and musical, as if you were playing a song or solo. You can use this shuffle pattern in the key of A to start. Practice jumping between the zero fret A chord, and the D chord on the 5th fret, without looking.
4. Slip and slide.
KEEP YOUR FINGERS CONNECTED TO THE STRINGS. Slide your fingers along the neck as you make larger jumps to gauge the distance between frets. This is something you can practice deliberately and employ as a repeatable technique in your warm-ups. In the above example we begin by playing a G major scale in root position, then connect the A on the 5th fret to the D on the 10th fret (using the pinky finger). Then we begin our descent. You may isolate smaller groups of notes within these positions and practice shifting between them as well.
Here is another quick example using chords, applying the same technique to help us learn to gauge the distance between frets.I hope these tips for playing the guitar without looking was informative for you. Good luck and remember craft comes first. If you’ve found any other techniques that work for you, share them in the comments below. Practice, practice, practice!