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classical guitar finger games

Practice On the Go, with Guitar Finger Games

Playing classical guitar consists of more than just seeing notes and playing them. We have issues of coordination, patterns of very fine motor movements, and complex mental structures to keep track of.
And most of us aren’t dedicating several hours each day to practicing guitar.

But there are several ways to progress more quickly on the guitar using off-guitar exercises.

There are off-guitar exercises for physical strength and dexterity, memorizing music, ingraining muscle movements, and just about anything else music-related.

One fine exercise that requires no guitar is what I call “Finger games”.

What are Finger Games for Guitar?

Finger games are patterns of varying complexity using a different order of fingers in each hand.

Try this:
Tap on the surface in front of you, your legs, or just move your fingers in the air in the following patterns (both hand separately to learn the pattern, then hands together).

Right Hand: I M I M  – I M I M etc.
Left hand: 4 3 2 1  – 4 3 2 1 etc.

Keep a steady rhythm (I put the dashes in just to keep it more visually organized.  Don’t stop for them.)

What do you notice?

Away From the Guitar

Just to clarify, these require no guitar. You can do them anywhere, anytime. As such, they allow you to increase your guitar skills throughout your day, regardless of your other demands. Bonus!


The Benefits of Guitar Finger Games

Guitar Finger games demand focus and concentration. If you let your mind drift, you’ll likely fumble your fingers.

Coordination: Pat Head, Rub Belly

Each hand has a different pattern, and if there’s a different number of notes in the pattern, the hands “phase” (or go through multiple cycles before meeting together in the starting position).

To keep track of what each hand is doing and also stay in a steady rhythm requires some serious coordination.

Much like patting the head and rubbing the belly, it may take a little time to get comfortable with it. And even more time to be able to start in tempo.

If you let your mind drift, you’ll likely fumble your fingers.

Finger Independence

Guitar finger games also lead to better finger independence.

Through the practice of complex patterns, we strengthen the brain/finger connections and increase the control and awareness of each individual finger.

How to Play Guitar Finger Games

The premise is very simple (though not necessarily easy!): Tap fingers of each hand simultaneously in a predictable pattern.

Here’s how:  Tap fingers of each hand simultaneously in a predictable pattern.

To spice this up a bit, and make it more directly beneficial for guitar skills, use patterns that frequently happen on the guitar.

For instance, we don’t often play with the left hand thumb or the right hand little finger. So we can omit these from our patterns.  (Of course you could put them in as well.  It’s up to you.)

On the right hand, we very frequently use the following patterns:

If you choose one of these patterns for the right hand, you’ll be working directly on coordination issues that you will almost certainly encounter at some point.

On the left hand, we can decide on any order of the 4 fingers (no thumb).

A few examples are:

  • 1 2 3 4
  • 4 3 2 1
  • 1 3 2 4
  • 3 4 2 1

Decide on an order (using finger numbers) for the left hand. Then decide on one for the right hand.

You now have two different patterns (one in each hand).

Put them together slowly, so you can make sure that each hand is executing its pattern correctly.

If you try a few of these, you’re likely to find one or more very challenging! That’s a good sign. Work slowly at it until it’s easy.

When to Play Your Guitar Finger Games

Because you need nothing but your hands (and your wits about you) to play finger games, you can do them anytime, anyplace.

A few options to get you started are:

  • Stopped in traffic.
  • In the waiting room.
  • On your couch.
  • During commercials.
  • Sitting in the park.
  • Out on a neighborhood walk.

Basically any time you have a minute of down time, you have the option of playing a finger game and adding a small deposit to your “guitar brain account”.

Game of the Week

So you can immediately work on a guitar finger game anytime, it may help you to set a specific pattern for each week.

This way, you can master the pattern and gain the coordination skills it demands.

You’ll also not have to spend any mental energy deciding what pattern to play in each hand. Just this small amount of mental demand is enough to cause you to procrastinate and decide instead to check your Facebook feed.

Creating Your Own Guitar Games

While we could get very technical and list out every available possibility of finger combination, it’s much easier to just make one up.

Here’s the process;

  1. Choose a finger to go first.
  2. Choose which finger goes second.
  3. Choose which finger goes third.
  4. Note which finger is left to go fourth.

Of course this step-by-step instruction is ridiculously simple and obvious, but I include it to make this very point. This is easy.

You just pick a pattern. There is no wrong answer.  You can include all 10 fingers, or just 2 on each hand.  The sky’s the limit.

And when you think you’ve figured out all the different variations, just remember:  you haven’t!

A Few to Get You Started

But just to get you started, here are a few patterns you can work through right now. Just for kicks.

Remember, the goal is to be able to maintain a “loop” when doing these.  Not just once and done, but several times.  You may find that your focus drifts after a certain number of repetitions.  If this happens, make focus the goal, and try to beat your record.

Left Hand Pattern


Right Hand Pattern


What Else Can You Do Away From the Guitar?

The key to using off-guitar exercises consistently is having a few different options to choose from. This keeps it fresh and engaging, so you’re more likely to spend a minute here and there.

Related: For more off-guitar exercises, see these articles;

Off Guitar Exercises
Rasgueados for Both Hands
Five Scale Shapes (use the scale patterns for the left hand pattern of your finger games!)
Arpeggio Patterns


This is Fun and Easy (Keep it That Way!)

It’s important to remember that guitar is for fun. Its purpose is to add joy, discovery and personal challenge to our days.

If anything surrounding guitar practice adds stress or obligation, our enthusiasm wanes and our progress slows.

If we think of guitar finger games as “one more thing I have to do (oh no!)” then we’ll just feel guilty about skipping them for a few days then forget them entirely.

Instead, do them as an investment in your own mental acuity, physical coordination, and general guitar skills.

Keep your expectations low, and be perfectly satisfied with a minute or two each day (or even week). Any of this type of work is bonus guitar practice time we wouldn’t otherwise have.

Have fun!

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14 Responses to Practice On the Go, with Guitar Finger Games

  1. Linda Shepherd September 12, 2016 at 1:30 pm #

    Hi Allen,
    I am currently having chemo again, an I have noticed that my fingers have got very stiff – I have also lost my nail length, which is a real pain! Just as I had got them right too. S I have two questions for you.
    1. Which of the exercises do you recommend for loosening the fingers – I am finding arpeggios increasingly difficult – may be you have some others up your sleeve?

    2. Do you have any info about using finger picks, or ways of creating good tone without nails?

    Sorry if these questions are in the wrong place!

    Thanks for your help
    Best wishes,

    • Allen September 13, 2016 at 2:15 am #

      Hi Linda,
      So sorry to hear of the finger stiffness and nails. I hope you move through this quickly.
      For flexibility, I recommend:
      1. Warm/hot water soaks. Take your time and enjoy the hand spa. Epsom salts are great as well.
      2. Gentle rubbing and stretching. Think of your joints like cold clay that need to be slowly kneaded and warmed up.
      3. If you have a marble or small ball, rolling it between your hands will help to loosen up muscles and connective tissue.
      4. Stay very hydrated. Connective tissue doesn’t have its own capillary system, so for hydration and blood flow, it relies on the tissue around it. It’s basically last in line for water and blood, so the more you have in general, the better it will be for your connective tissue.

      Each of these can be done anytime, and don’t have to coincide with guitar practice. In fact, it’s best if you can do these multiple times/day.

      I would also avoid anything too strenuous, especially early in your practice. It’s easy to injure yourself if you’re stiff, so gentle is the word. Avoid pain and go for long, gentle stretches and practices (instead of intense bursts).

      I hope that helps. Good luck!

      • Linda Shepherd September 13, 2016 at 10:45 pm #

        Thanks Allen. I will certainly try these. I already do the massage and stretches as part of my normal warm-up routine. The hand soak and small ball tips sound good.
        The nail issue will take a good year to resolve once chemo is finished, so that is a long haul!
        You have written a great article about nails, and hiw they help enrich tone. I re-read it this morning. I wonder could you do something similar on achieving good tone without nails? That would be another useful resource on technique!

        Best wishes,

        • Allen September 15, 2016 at 12:35 am #

          Hi Linda,
          Best of luck with them.
          Tone is generally more consistent without nails, so I suspect there’s not as much to say. I haven’t played much without nails, so I haven’t fully explored it. Lute players usually play sans nails, so I wonder if there is deeper exploration of the subject in that world. I’ll keep my eyes out.

          All the best,

  2. Andy July 31, 2016 at 8:16 pm #

    Hi Allen, I used to do this too, back in grade school during class, and still do rather aimless finger tapping, wiggling and shaking. I drummed on my leg back then because the desk made too much noise and my fiddling hand was visible. But I never developed it usefully as you do. I will now. Thanks for your down-to-earth tips.

    • Allen July 31, 2016 at 8:18 pm #

      Thanks Andy,
      Glad to know I wasn’t the one squirmy one.

  3. Judy July 30, 2016 at 3:11 pm #

    Hey Allen: In Ashland for a few days but will still get in a little guitar practice using your good Finger Games suggestions….perfectly timed video!

    • Allen July 30, 2016 at 5:14 pm #

      I planned it this way just for you, Judy!
      Enjoy Ashland!

  4. Gil July 30, 2016 at 12:18 pm #

    Hi Allen,

    I love your newsletter and your various exercises. I’m super glad I subscribed.

    Keep doing what you do and thanks for sharing!



    • Allen July 30, 2016 at 1:01 pm #

      Thanks so much, Gil! I’m glad you did too!

  5. Linda Shepherd July 30, 2016 at 11:39 am #

    Great ideas Allen! Thank you.

  6. David July 30, 2016 at 5:13 am #

    Very nice. Thanks a lot.

    • Allen July 30, 2016 at 7:42 am #

      Thank YOU, David.

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