How to Practice Mentally | 5 Tips for Guitarists

guitar mental practice tips

Mental practice is a foreign concept for many guitarists. For some, the idea of a productive practice session away from the guitar may seem far-fetched. Others might wonder why you should consider practicing mentally when so much of playing relies on physical movements.

All of which is to say, if you’re skeptical about mental practice, I don’t blame you in the least.

Yet interestingly enough, mental practice can be extremely effective. A number of famous musicians, including the pianists Arthur Rubenstein and Vladimir Horowitz, are known to have often practiced away from their instruments.

There’s even a story about an aspiring young violinist stalking the great Paganini, hoping to discover the maestro’s secret. The young man would listen outside of Paganini’s room, ear to the door, but rarely heard so much as a sound. Imagine his frustration! It follows that Paganini must have practiced mentally a good deal of the time.

But that’s all anecdotal, you might say. How do we know that mental practice actually works?

The Power of Your Imagination

In one famous study out of Harvard Medical School in the 90s, Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone and his team proved that our imagination alone has the power to change our brain anatomy.

They split a group of volunteers into a “mental practice” group and a “physical practice” group. Each group worked on a short piano piece two hours a day for five days. The first group could only use their imagination to practice, while the second group practiced normally.

The results were astounding. Both groups made similar progress on the piece, and even showed similar neurological changes. It seems that our brains don’t distinguish between “real life” and the world of our imaginations quite as much as we do!

Eager to get started? I don’t blame you. I’ve said before that the shortest road to guitar mastery is through the mind. You’ll find that truer than ever if you take this post to heart.

Practicing through an Injury

One huge advantage of mental practice is that it allows you to continue improving even if, God forbid, you hurt yourself. Unfortunately, playing-related injuries are very common for musicians, and guitar players are no exception.

Many players find themselves in a situation where something is bothering them and yet they don’t want to spoil their practice routine. They continue to play, making their injuries worse and worse. Even for very minor injuries, it’s important to give them time to heal lest they become chronic issues.

Fear of backsliding is totally rational. Yet with mental practice you can continue as normal, or even work harder than ever before! You can also increase your practice time without fear of injury by adding a mental routine.

You might think mental practice is a poor substitute for conventional practice, but I see no reason why it can’t be more effective if done properly. In fact, I recommend you supplement your physical practice with some mental work even if you’re feeling healthy!

Without further ado, here are my top tips on how to get started with mental practice!

1) Listen to the Music You're Learning

active listening is an important form of mental practice for guitar

Musicians should listen to music, right? The good news is that simply listening to the music you’re trying to play definitely counts as mental practice. You should be looking to develop a clear sense of how your piece of music should sound. Keep listening over and over until you know it inside and out.

The more you listen to the music you’re studying, the more it will become a part of you, and the easier it’ll be for you to play it on the guitar. I believe listening to music until you can effortlessly hold it in your mind is a great way to facilitate a deeper musician-instrument connection.

I’ve also found that listening to music tends to impart strong opinions on how certain pieces should sound. Once you develop those opinions, you’ll insist on reproducing the sounds you love during your normal physical practice. This insistence will ensure that you won’t rest until the music you’re working on is perfect.

Even if you know the song you’re working on pretty well, it never hurts to go back for another listen. You might just notice a small detail you missed in the past.

Remember that there are many, many levels of knowing a piece of music. Just because you can sing all the lyrics to a song, or hear an entire piece or your head, doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot more for you to explore.

You really can’t overdo this sort of thing, so be sure to err on the side of knowing the music too well.

2) Study the Score Away from the Guitar

mental practice can mean studying notation away from the guitar

No matter what music you’re learning, from a simple chord progression to a classical sonata, you can gain a lot by studying the score. We don’t always do this very well when we’re holding the guitar, usually because we’d rather play than stare at a piece of paper.

However, once the guitar’s put away, you might be able to see all kinds of nuances you were missing in the music.

You might notice that the song’s in A major, or that it follows a I-IV-V chord progression. Maybe you’ll discover that you’ve been playing a G when the music called for a G-sharp. Maybe the song you’re playing has a confusing pattern of repeated sections which only makes sense when you go through the score with your eyes for a while. If you’re like me, you’ll discover something new every time!

You might try reading through the piece from start to finish, almost as through you were reading a book. I recommend you read through the music you’re working with on a daily basis, always looking to learn more.

Practice memorizing the music measure by measure; that should give you more security when you pick up the guitar again. Overall, the better you know the music, the better you’ll perform it.

3) Listen to Music While Following along with the Score

3) Listen to Music While Following along with the Score

Now that we’ve listened to our music and spent time with the score, it’s time to put these strategies together! Reading along to music being played is an excellent form of practice. You learn to associate all those lines and dots, tabs, or chords with meaningful sounds.

With enough experience, you’ll even gain the ability to “hear” a piece of music in your mind simply by looking at a score. I really can’t think of a better way to bring music on paper to life!

You don’t even need to limit yourself to the music you’re currently working on. Personally, I think of the ability to “hear” sheet music as a valuable skill in general.

That means if you devote some time to following along with random music, you’ll get better at “hearing” anything you might be interested in playing yourself. Think of it as developing your musical fluency.

The best way to do this type of practice is to go online and find music videos that help you follow along the score that’s being played. The most helpful ones, especially for beginners, use a digital pointer to keep you on track. Here’s an example for Canon in D major.

Another great thing to do is to play a recording with the notation right in front of you, trying your best to read along.

This does take some practice, so don’t be discouraged if you get lost at first! I promise your effort will be rewarded in the end.

Do You Need to Read Standard Notation?


Nope! The beauty of this method is that it works perfectly well even if you only read tabs. Just as with standard notation, the more you link the tabs on paper to the music you’re supposed to hear, the better you’ll be able to hear the score in your head. With enough practice, I promise that tab numbers will come to life for you in sound.

One final note: don’t think you only need to listen to guitar music. I believe there’s a lot to be gained from listening and following along to music written for other instruments.

Many guitarists throughout history have been inspired by other types of musicians, refining their tone colors accordingly. You only stand to gain from exploring the wider world of music!

4) Play through a Song in Your Imagination

guitar mental practice is about unlocking the power of your imagination

Once you know a song pretty well, a great way to practice is to imagine playing it whenever you have a free moment. The beauty of this method is that you don’t need anything in front of you. You don’t need a device to play music, and you don’t need your notation either.

You could be waiting in line at the grocery store, for instance, and decide to spend a minute or two “playing through” a piece.

The only real downside of performing mentally is that it’s a fairly advanced technique. Not everyone has the imaginative ability to play through a piece wholly in their mind. However, I can assure you that, like any other skill, mental playing gets easier with practice.

I would take it really slow at first. Try starting with the part of the song you know best, moving outward from there as you gain confidence.

Another great way to get started is to focus on one hand at a time. If the song you’re working on has you strumming through a sequence of chords, then try breaking it down and imagining one hand at a time.

You might try to picture just the strumming as clearly as you can, making sure you have the rhythm down in your head. Then, you can imagine the chord changes in the left hand. Once these exercises become easy on their own, you can combine them into a full mental performance.

Although this type of practice may not feel effective at first, I guarantee that the next time you play the song for real, you’ll feel as if you’ve been practicing. Mental practice definitely works! Be sure to keep the faith, even when you feel skeptical.

5) Begin Sight-Reading Mentally

mental sight reading is a difficult yet rewarding type of guitar practice

I would classify mental sight-reading as expert-level practice. All the more reason you should try it, right? As a general rule, I would certainly say that the difficulty of a type of practice corresponds to what you’ll get out of it. If your sessions feel too easy, you won’t be improving very much.

Learning guitar is much like working out in this sense. The harder you push, the faster you’ll see results (provided you have a sensible methodology).

If you’re new to sight-reading, I highly recommend this article, where I take you through the basics. Essentially, sight-reading is the art of playing through a piece the first time you encounter it. Good readers are able to perform a lot of new music without practicing first, which is an extremely useful skill.

Mental sight-reading is exactly what you’d expect. Get your hands on some unfamiliar music, whether tabs, standard notation, or chords, and imagine yourself playing it, start to finish.

Of course, I don’t expect you to be able to do this right away. No one can. Like any other skill, sight-reading takes practice; the more time you devote to it, the better off you’ll be. Personally, I spend about half of my guitar practice time on sight-reading.

Mental Reading for Beginners


I suggest you start small. Set aside a couple of minutes a day (could be right before bed or first thing in the morning) and practice reading mentally. You might only get through a few notes before you give up. That’s totally fine. Your mind will need some time to get used to your new routine.

You should aim for as vivid a mental experience as possible. I’ve noticed that some sensations of playing are easier imagined than others. For me, I find it easier to picture my left-hand action than what my plucking hand should be doing. For you, the opposite may well be true.

One thing that might help is to try mentally reading a short passage, then pick up your guitar and try playing it for real. If nothing else, that should bolster your confidence in the mental approach.

Going back and forth can also help you develop your imaginative memory of what guitar playing is like. Forget what it feels like to fret a G chord? Try it for real, then picture yourself doing it immediately afterward, doing your best to recreate the feeling.

Don’t be discouraged if this all seems too hard for you right now. If you’re ever feeling overwhelmed, take a break and come back later.

Also be sure you’re sight-reading music that’s easy for you. Not that there’s anything wrong with trying to sight-read challenging music, you just need to build up to it. Be patient, steady, and strong-willed!


I’ve detailed 5 ways to practice guitar mentally in this post, and I believe any and all of the above methods will yield results for you. That said, don’t be afraid to create your own type of mental practice. Clearly, there are infinite ways to train yourself as a musician away from the guitar.

Best of luck both inside and outside of the practice room!

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