How Michael Jackson, John Lennon and Ray Charles Can Take Your Guitar Playing to the Next Level!
One of the most common challenges you face when starting to learn an instrument is playing without looking at your hands. You feel like your fingers won’t do the right thing unless you’re staring at them. This can be a real problem on the guitar because you can’t see everything at once. You enter what I call the Bermuda Triangle.
Here’s what happens in the Bermuda Triangle. You look at your right hand, then you look at your left hand, then look up at the music. Not only does it make your neck sore, it kills any forward momentum in the music. As a teacher, I have seen the Bermuda Triangle claim the hopes of many a student.
It is easier for people to do something than to not do something (this is especially true of those ever-active children.) So inspired by some of the greatest musicians of the past century, I have come up with a few exercises to help you not look at your hands while you play. These exercises are written specifically for guitar, but the ideas apply to any instrument.
The Man in the Mirror
We’re gonna make a change, for once in our lives. Pick something that you can play well (in the beginning this could be as simple as two notes or open strings). Then play while having a staredown. While a partner is helpful for this, you can get the same effect with a mirror or webcam. If none of these (people, mirrors, or webcams) are available to you, just pick an object in the room or out your window. What you stare at is unimportant, what matters is that you are purposely focusing your eyes somewhere other than your hands.
Imagine what John Lennon would do?
One of the best ways to stop looking at your hands is to heed the words of John Lennon and imagine. Specifically imagine what your hands are doing while not looking at them. This sounds complicated, but it is actually pretty easy.
The steps are as follows:
- Play the open G and B strings in a repeated pattern (G-B-G-B-G-B-G-B, etc.)
- Stare at your right hand while you play
- After you have been playing for a little while (about 4 or 5 times through) close your eyes and imagine you can still see your hand while you keep playing.
- Still playing the pattern, open your eyes and look at your hand again
- Keep playing while you close your eyes and lift your head to a natural position
- With your eyes closed, keep imagining that you can see your hand while you play
You can do this same exercise with fretted notes. Instead of playing G and B, play G to A. Once you have this down, try G, A, and B.
Play with Feeling Like Ray Charles
Often students will say, “but I have to look at my hands.” Try telling that to Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Jeff Healey, or the countless blues legends whose stage names start with blind. How do all of these virtuosos navigate their instruments without the aid of sight? They feel it. Not in some esoteric way—they literally feel where they are on the instrument. The problem is when you can see, you never learn to develop this sense of feel. This is where a blindfold is helpful.
- Put on a blindfold. If you don’t have one (and honestly who would have a blindfold), use whatever is available—stocking hat, t-shirt, towel, etc.
- Pick up your guitar
- Put your thumb on the top string
- Feel where the other strings are
- Starting at the lowest string, count up three strings and play is G
- Now where is B
- Do the same with your left hand
- Feel the strings until you find G
- Feel the frets until you find the second fret to play A (you may need to run your finger along the side of the strings to feel where A is)
Why You Need This Skill
There are a number of benefits to playing the guitar without looking at it.
- Better time since you’re not always having to look at things
- Better posture, no need to hunch
- Smoother playing, playing without looking forces you to economize your movements (check out the blind Rev. Gary Davis video below)
- Better ensemble play, non-verbal communication is important in a group
- You can stare into the eyes of all of you adoring fans (once you have them, of course)
It actually doesn’t take long to break the habit of staring at your instrument. Just apply one of these strategies to the first and last few minutes of your practice sessions, and you will never stray into the Bermuda Triangle again. Please feel free to share your questions and thoughts in the comments section.