Practicing Guitar Without a Guitar

Not to say you can become great without picking up a guitar. But you can develop important mental skills that will enhance your playing.

Ultimate Guitar
Practicing Guitar Without a Guitar
As much as we'd all like to be pretty well permanently attached to our guitars, there are those unfortunate times when we have to put her down to do things like eat or attend a wedding. But as long as you're not doing something that needs direct brain engagement (work meetings anyone?) there are still ways that you can improve your guitar chops without a guitar actually being in your hands.

Not to say you can become great without picking up a guitar. But you can develop important mental skills that will enhance your playing.

Manual Dexterity

Ever notice how drummers are always tapping and beating on stuff when not behind a kit? It can be super irritating. And now it's your turn to be irritating.

1. To work on your fret hand finger independence, tap out these different finger combinations on a table top.

Do any other combinations you come up with as well. For instance, starting each of those patterns on the 2nd or 3rd finger and rotating them around.

2. Do a tapping exercise to sync up your left and right hands. For instance, tap quarter notes in one hand and eighth notes in the other. Then switch them.

3. Now come up with a two handed rhythm you might encounter in a song. For instance, eighth notes in your strumming hand while changing chords on the first beat of each measure (i.e. a whole note) in your fretting hand.

A more complex example of this might be sixteenth notes in you strumming hand and hitting the downbeat of 1 and the upbeat of 3. Play with every two-handed rhythm you can come up with.


This might sound like a bit of new agey hoo ha, but hang in with me. Artists and athletes of all types have used visualization to reach their goals to a long time now. It's not about wishing for something, it's more about playing out the scene in your head.

1. With your eyes closed, picture yourself playing a song you've been working on. In your head, you're playing it perfectly and easily, with no mistakes. Really concentrate on what your hands are doing and feel what it feels like to really nail the song.

2. If there's a song playing in the background of wherever you are, close your eyes and visualize yourself playing the guitar parts of the song in your head. Doesn't matter whether or not you actually know the song or have even heard it before.

My apologies ahead of time for you having to play "Hit Me Baby One More Time" in your head while sitting in your dentist's waiting room.

Why does this work? Recent studies have shown that this going through the mental motions of an activity stimulates the same synapses in your brain as actually doing it in real life. It's still not a replacement for real practice, but right now it's as close as we've got to Total Recall style mental downloads.

Work That Brain

Most guitar technique isn't about memorizing something. Our brains are that great at memorizing. What they are great at is working through systems. And if you work a system enough times you'll arrive at the answer so fast it looks like you have it memorized.

As an example, being able to mentally plow through the musical alphabet in a variety of ways is very helpful when you're in the moment and looking for that next note.

By the way, these techniques work a lot better if you say them out loud. If you're in public, just try to not look like a total nut job. Unless that's you're thing. Then rock n' roll with it. Or just stick a Bluetooth on your ear.

1. Recite the musical alphabet backwards, G to A. Hint: Break it up into two parts like a phone number: GFE-DCBA.

2. Recite the musical alphabet in 3rds: A C E G B D F A - Backwards and forwards.

3. Name each note scale-wise along with a 3rd above. An "up two, down one" pattern. - A C B D C E D F E G F A G B. Backwards and forwards.

4. Recite perfect 4ths - A D G C F Bb Eb Ab Db Gb Cb Fb.

5. Recite perfect 5ths - A E B F# C# G# D# A# E# B#.

6. Bonus points for doing other intervals (octaves don't count, Lazy) as well as their major and minor versions.

How does this help? All of these patterns are the ones you'll encounter when building chord arpeggios, working with key signatures, and dealing with key changes.

You can also visualize each of the interval patterns on the different sets of strings on the guitar. Those little portable practice necks are handy for that too.

Critical Listening

Critical listening means listening to music with ear towards structure and composition instead of just for pleasure. In fact, once you start doing this, you may never again be able to listen to a song without mentally deconstructing it.

1. Whenever you're listening to music, whether on purpose or just those horrible overplayed songs in the grocery store, see if you can figure out the chord progression. Not necessarily exact chord names, but the relationships. Listen for I-IV or ii-V-I progressions for example.

2. Make an effort to figure out music you don't like as well as the songs you do. You'll start to see the similarities in all styles and be able to both with and against the rules in your own playing.

So now you have no excuse for wasted time when you can't get a guitar in your hands. I mean, don't do them while operating heavy machinery. But waiting for your computer to reboot? Get it on.

Also, there is one other concept that is really the best way to learn guitar and put me out of business.

45 comments sorted by best / new / date

    I've been doing that finger thing for years now and it annoys the hell out of everyone (just like when drummers slap their thighs..oh god why..)
    Battery Chicken
    Thigh slapping/desk drumming is a really good way to practice your timekeeping. I do it regularly, pisses my wife off to no end.
    Imagine being both a drummer and a guitarist, like myself. I actually almost hate being around me.
    I start by air drumming, then i get really into it and start slapping different parts of my body... Before I know it I let out a big rgrgrgrdgdgdrdrdgdrBSSSH! (drum roll followed by a cymbal made with my mouth) and everyone on the train is staring at me
    For some reason my friends get angry at me when i do blast beats...on their heads
    Critical listening is great practice. I start listening for chord progressions and then I go home and replay the song I just heard that day
    It's really helps develop your ear for learning and eventually playing complex pieces by ear
    Definately sounds like someone who likes Joe Satriani lmao. And that's supposed to be just a joke
    one of the smartest article ive read here and there a total of four comments .... shows how many people actually understand music
    Hals Shinigami
    For the record, don't play air guitar to remember figures, I did and got laughed at by 12 year olds -o-
    I wholeheartedly agree with the second point there. I have often listened to music and tried to learn it (mainly Children of Bodom when doing this), after doing viewing the tab and trying it out a few times I have found that when listening to it later I can work out how to play it correctly.
    Yeah. If the tab is not very accurate, then sooner or later, you will hear, what exactly is wrong, and be able to correct the mistakes without ahy help of tabs at all.
    the article has put my brain activity on discussion,,this is what my brain dose most of my days of the week,It hit the nail on the head as far as song composition,good stuff.
    Wow, this was better written than most of the "professional" UG articles! Awesome tips as well. Kudos!
    Radical Bob
    Good article, I like the bit about reciting the alphabet backwards. One thing I'd point out in reciting 5ths and 4ths... E# and B#? E#... and ... B#...
    I used to listen to music for pleasure before picking up guitar; now all songs i hear are automatically deconstructed.
    whoa, i've never thought of the other stuff beside the finger tapping stuff! now i have a thing to do while taking a crap! If I am on the street and I get distracted and a truck runs me over, it'll be your fault! thanks a lot anyway!
    A friend of mine kind of learn to play the drums without drums, using tricks resembling these.
    Nice article. I would to point out though, that some of these things actually come naturally sometimes. For example, when you've learned a song and know the theory behind it, after some time, when hearing it again you sometimes begin to kinda "re-analyze" it. And when you hear some similar things, then this "some sort of an analysis" happens too.
    Drew Boyer
    There is no E# , B#, Cb, or Fb
    yes there is you cant use the same letter twice in a diatonic scale eg. F# Major is F# - G# - A# - B - C# - D# - F, but since you cant use the letter F twice, youve gotta call that last F, E#. therefore, E# exists.
    When I was in junior high and high school I played trumpet in the school bands. I started the habit of just taking home the mouthpiece and sheet music to memorize assigned music. I'd sit in front of my music stand at home and hold the mouthpiece against my lips with my left hand, use my right hand to finger the musical notes. This worked to memorize music and keep my lips in shape, 'cuz brass players need to workout their embouchure, a lot like fret fingers need a bit more work than pick hand.
    I think the only real way to do critical thinking is if you have a healthy amount of knowledge of the fretboard, it's not impossible, but it'd probably be hard otherwise. Other than that, great stuff, i'll probably try it out
    not necessarily if you can work out the numeral progression, i.e I-IV-V etc, that will translate into any key, so if the song you've heard and worked out is the above pattern is in A major, you could play it in D major, C Major or any other key and it would work, then you would work out the key the track was in when you had your instrument with you, play the progression in all the keys you know which in turn would not only help you train your ear, it'll help with your progression learning in various keys while you ran a trail and error until you found the correct key.
    ZOSO <(")
    Recently I've been doing this to slash's new song 'anastasia' it's perfect just to get your mind working
    This is a pretty good article, thanks for the tips, I probably wouldn't have thought of the strumming patterns idea without this lol
    As useful as this lesson is, I think people should find their own ways of practicing. What I'm saying is, this is very helpful as you are showing an alternative practice method, but I fear that sometimes it will be taken too literally and people will just start following it step-by-step without even using their brain to adjust it to the way they will benefit from it the most. I'm rating this 9/10, would have been a 10 if you had encouraged innovation from the reader.
    I'm using a GRIPmaster You can take them everywhere. Find them on Amazon. I bought a two-pack. One unit has 1.5lbs. of resistance and the other has 3lbs. of resistance. GRIPmaster has units going up to 11 Lbs. of resistance if you need that much. They are inexpensive. My two-pack was twenty dollars and I also purchased a "sandpaper" attachment for each spring. I believe the sandpaper du-hickey is $6.00. This may sound confusing . Go to Amazon and type GRIPmaster in the search field and you will see what I am talking about.
    "Unless that's you're thing." Unless that is you are thing? Third paragraph under Work That Brain Helpful article anyways, though.
    I like this because it took me a while to learn wich I hated but it really payed of!