Think (and Look) Ahead of Your Hands

At some point when I was first getting into classical guitar, I got in the habit of not looking at either of my hands. I stare off into space or zone out — the equivalent of having my eyes closed. Looking at your hands while playing can be beneficial, but it has to be done right.

Think ahead.

Look at where your hands are going next, not where they are. One of the biggest problems with shifting I see in my students is inaccuracy. Most times the problem is easily fixed: I tell them not to look at their left hand as it travels, but to look at it where its going.

The same principle can be applied any time you look at the left hand. Imagine what comes next, look at the frets and positions and strings you need to be at; imagine what the next thing to come sounds like and looks like. Don’t dwell on what your hands are doing at a given moment, always think ahead.

I find that thinking and looking ahead takes your accuracy to an entirely new, much better place.

Turn it into a practice method.

This can also be a practice technique. Play a piece or section only paying attention to one finger. What does it do? Is it accurate? If you have problem fingers (my left hand second finger tends to have the most issues), start by focusing on those.

Posted on in Guitar Practice Techniques


  • Simeon

    Going along with this is the question of memorization. I came to guitar from other instruments and have always been proud of my ability to sight read (relative to most guitarists). Frequently, however, I fail to memorize music unless I intend to perform it for a recital or something. Recently I played something for Church that I had to memorize and was amazed at how quickly I improved my tempo when I could practice while looking at my hands instead of at my music…

    I think I’m reversing my opionion a bit – reading is important but memorization should come early enough to help you practice and bring a piece up to tempo…

  • Chris

    I think with classical guitar music you should aim to memorize a piece as soon as you can play through it from the sheet music reasonably well, note not perfectly.
    My teacher pointed this out to me when I was struggling with a chord progression in a piece of medieval lute music. I could play the chords fine out of context, but was grasping at the notes on the page rather than on the guitar! He asked me to play the chord progression from memory, first with my eyes closed, then watching the left then the right hand. Voila! I had no problems, the difficulty was in me using the read > decode > play process instead of recall > muscle memory > play.

  • Cary Terry

    The previous comment is excellent, as is the post. There is a lot to process all at once in order to make things as good as they are by memory. One of my teachers said when asked how he makes it look so easy, “I make it easy. That way I can do what I’m thinking instead of thinking about what I’m doing.”

  • Jerry Swain
    Jerry Swain

    I liked this article and took it to heart last night as I was practicing. I found, as you said, that when I paid attention and actually looked ahead to the upcoming notes the piece became much smoother.

  • toy guitars

    i have just been trying this and although hard to start with i have noticed that it has definately made me more aware of what i am actually doing rather than just letting by muscle memory do the work and letting instinct take over

  • andreas backlund
    andreas backlund

    interesting thaught!

    but I must give my highest skepticism against watching the hands when playing.The reason is simple.You cannot focus enough on the music.Of course it is of good use when analyzing the movements of your hand but in my my experience it is much more beneficial to rely on the tactile muscle memory then the eyes.It is just to difficul for the brain to both focus on the watching the hands going around on the fretboard and at the same time listen to what you do.

    But ok,I know that many professionals do watch the fingerboard when playing.I just want to mention that it is not necessary for performance and it`s annoying for the audience.

    best regards Andreas

    • Christopher Davis

      Andreas, I agree: watching the fretboard isn’t necessary for performance. However, I find focusing on something (my hands) helps me stay in the music and keeps my mind from wandering. Watching the left hand lets me focus more on the music, in other words.

  • rob watson

    This is a very interesting topic.

    I have a lot of experience working with children . The stakes are very different with them, they will completely tank their posture in gnarly ways if I allow them to look at their hands much. Their movements and thought process are simplistic, so teaching direction must sometimes be simplistic (don’t look at your hands!)

    Adults have more analytical ability, so you can tell them that’s its okay to look for certain reasons, or actually look but maintain a tall back and balanced neck (by use of peripheral vision).

    I think (with adults) its really where the mind is, not whether one looks or not. Marc Teicholz plays crazy hard rep with his eyes closed; John Williams plays looking at his hands constantly. Both are very high level players.