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 downtime, 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.

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Left-Hand Pattern


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Right-Hand Pattern


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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 the 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!

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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