Pros and Cons of Looking at Your Left Hand on Guitar
It’s a common question: Should I look at my left hand when I play guitar?
Sometimes, looking at our left-hand technique can be useful. Other times, it works against us. So do we, or don’t we? When and why?
Below, you’ll find several pros and cons to watching your left hand (aka fretting hand) when playing guitar.
Pros: Benefits of looking at the left hand when playing guitar
Without question, looking at our hand brings advantages when we play guitar. When we know these advantages, we can use looking as a strategy.
As a rule, we feel more in control when we look at what we’re doing. This may be just an emotional comfort – a feeling. We may or may not actually be more in control. But most people feel more safe and secure when looking.
Potentially better accuracy
When we look at our fingers as we play guitar, we may, at times, have better accuracy. We can look at where we want a finger to land, and increase our chances of landing there.
This can be helpful for large shifts. And it can also help with awkward fingerings, such as chords we have not played before.
May help memory for visual learners
Visual learners are those who learn most easily when they see the material or action they want to learn. Visual learners benefit from seeing their fingers go through the movements.
For these people, seeing the action can help them with learning materials and memorizing the music.
Looks good in performance
In a classical guitar performance, the left hand moves more noticeably than the right hand. Indeed, the fretting hand is where the action is on stage.
When we look at our hand in performance, we show the audience where to look. We lead them to the point of the action.
This makes us look focused and engaged, and can help draw the listeners in.
Conversely, some players play with eyes closed or looking in different directions most of the time. This can make us look detached, disengaged, or “spaced out”. And staring at audience members can appear creepy.
Cons: Downsides of looking at the left hand when playing guitar
Looking at our hand also has its drawbacks. It comes at a price. Depending on the situation and moment, it may be worth it, or not.
Can adversely affect balance and tension in the body
To look at our hand, we may have to crane our neck. This puts us out of balance and introduces unnecessary tension.
This is especially true when we try to look at the front of the guitar neck. When we look at the side of the guitar neck, we can stay upright, in a better sitting position.
But to see the front of the guitar we have to either crane our neck forward, or rotate the guitar up. Both have negative effects on our speed, safety and comfort.
Using mirrors in practice can help mitigate these risks.
Makes sight-reading difficult
When we look at the fretting hand, we’re no longer looking at the music. Sight-reading is playing notes from musical notation that we don’t already know.
A main goal of sight-reading music on guitar is to keep going. When we look away from the music, it’s very likely we will not be able to get back to our place in the music in time. We get “lost”, lose our place, and have to slow down or stop.
Can lead to over-emphasis on left-hand, ignoring right-hand technique and quality
The right hand (aka picking hand) makes the sound. The right hand creates the tone quality, plays the rhythm, and sounds the notes.
When we spend too much time focused on the left hand, the right hand usually suffers. This is especially true when we first start to learn guitar. The fretting hand tends to be the “squeaky wheel”, demanding the “grease” of our attention. But right hand technique is just as important for making music.
Can slow down learning by suppressing other senses
Blind people play guitar. We don’t need to look. In fact, other senses are more useful for guitar playing than vision.
When we remove sight, a large amount of mental bandwidth gets transferred to our other senses. We can speed up our learning by not looking at our hand.
We can listen more acutely. And we can feel the strings under our fingers. And we increase our proprioception (the sense of knowing where we are in space without looking).
So Should You Look?
In a perfect world, you look only when there is a clear benefit. You look when it makes guitar playing or learning smoother and easier. Or in a memorized performance.
Most of the time, we’ll benefit more from not looking, or looking only occasionally. The more time we spend not looking, the faster we’ll improve at classical guitar. We’ll grow more comfortable not looking. We’ll have better use of our bodies. And we’ll expand our sensory experience of music.
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.
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