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Tips for Playing the Guitar Without Looking at the Fretboard

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Having your eyes glued to your fretboard is completely natural for players just starting out on guitar. But once you start performing on bigger stages, more professional tours, and for increasingly engaged audiences, you’re going to have to use your eyes to connect with the fans, not your strings.

And yet, as much as we all long for Matrix-like learning abilities whereby picking up new skills and muscle memory such as Yngwie-level guitar shredding can simply be downloaded straight into our brain, it’s unfortunately easier said than done. Building the technical skills required to play the guitar without staring directly at it takes a great deal of practice, patience, and memorization to achieve.

So to thwart some of the inherent frustration in this process, here are four quick tips to help you get your eyes off the fretboard and get you playing confidently.

1. Play something. Then play it again, again, and then a dozen more times.

Muscle memory is essential for not only playing the guitar without looking, but for being able to play anything on the guitar at all. It’s the reason why tying your shoes in the morning is a breeze instead of a massive struggle. Similar to the way your mind memorizes lyrics and language in general, your muscles rely on patterns to perform functions. You’re an expert shoe-tyer because you’ve been doing it all your life, but you’re still looking at your hands while playing the guitar because it’s new to you.

Repetition is the only way to develop muscle memory. This means that all the basic stuff you’re already learning on the guitar needs to be worked on as much as possible — scales, drills, chord transitions, etc. Before you start playing without looking, you’ll need to focus on mastering basic guitar concepts.

2. Focus on transitioning between two chords over and over again.

Pick two simple chords like G and Em. Start by switching from one chord to the next in a slow rhythm and feel free to look at the guitar if you need to. You’ll most likely want to pause between chords to get them to sound clear, but you should resist this temptation. Playing slowly without pausing will help build muscle memory and finger dexterity in your hands quicker, and cement the connections between movements.

When you feel confident, close your eyes or take your eyes off the guitar and play through these chords. If you slip up (or when you slip up, rather), do your best to stay on rhythm and keep going; because that’s how to practice for the live stage. Add in more chords when you feel ready to up the ante.

3. Master the chromatic scale in the first position.

The chromatic scale can be a huge challenge to overcome for new players, but working on it delivers massive benefits. In addition to promoting dexterity and good alternative picking habits, it’s also a great way to help guitarists take their eyes off their instruments.

Why? Because this scale is performed by keeping the left hand frozen in the first position. Your index, middle, ring, and pinky fingers should all naturally line up with the guitar’s first four frets which means you won’t need to look at the guitar to be able to play this scale.

With your left hand in the first position, you’ll start by playing the open sixth string and then the first four frets with your index, middle, ring, and pinky fingers. Repeat this until you reach the fourth fret of the first string and then play the descending scale by doing everything you just did backwards. This scale will be difficult work if you’re new to the guitar, but it’s a great way to introduce playing by feel instead of sight. Use a metronome to practice with for this one!

4. Power through a power chord warm-up.

Power chords are helpful in learning to play by feel because their shape never changes. While complex chords can be tricky to not look at, power chords are built with simple shapes that can be moved all over the fretboard.

A simple warm-up to help you get your bearings is to switch from a power chord built on the sixth string to one built on the fifth string on the same fret. If you want to get really tricky with it, you can start this exercise on the twelfth fret and gradually work your way down to the bottom of the guitar. Go as slowly as you need to to not look at your left hand and practice with a metronome.

The common threads between all of these tips are speed of playing (slow) and repetition to build muscle memory. The goal here isn’t just to help you play without looking but to get you playing your instrument with complete confidence. The quicker you can build and reinforce haptic familiarity in your hands, the quicker you’ll be able to play your guitar with ease — which leads to playing bigger and better on stage.

Be warned that learning to play without looking is a long, tedious process; be prepared to put in plenty of work.

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Patrick McGuire
Patrick McGuire

Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.