How to Shadow Practice on Guitar

Many people think that guitar practice requires a guitar. But not so!

If you take a deeper look at what we are actually doing, we are more “playing ourselves” than the guitar. We’re learning to move our bodies in a way that, when they come into contact with a guitar, make music.

So the most important element in the whole equation is our ability to move in efficient and effective ways.

What is Shadow Practicing?

Shadow practicing is simply performing the motions that make up a skill, on their own, focusing on the small details of the motions and technique.

Many different disciplines use shadow practice. From sports to music, and likely anything else you can think of that requires skilled movement.

Guitar as Distraction

Especially when first learning the fundamental movements involved in classical guitar technique, having a guitar in your hands can actually (at times) be more distracting than useful.

If you’re focusing on your right hand, having to play notes with your left hand is just muddying the waters and diluting your attention.

Many of us (especially if self-taught at first) have many habits on the guitar that create excess tension. This also makes it harder to train fundamental skills effectively.

Instead, practicing core movements (like arpeggio technique) off the guitar can be very beneficial, and allow you to learn without the distraction and baggage of holding a guitar.

Pure Memory

While you can shadow practice with or without sheet music in front of you, I generally advocate memorizing every piece you intend to play (provided you mean for it to be in your repertoire for a while).

One of the ways to test your memory, and notice where things get “fuzzy”, is to practice the piece without the guitar.

To do this, you sit as if you’re holding a guitar, and play slowly through the piece, visualizing the strings and frets, and “hearing” the music in your head.

You can also do this strictly as a visualization exercise, without moving your hands at all (this becomes “mental practice”).

Either way, take the opportunity to notice if, where and when tension arises in your body.

Working through a tricky spot without the demands of the guitar can give your body a new experience of the music and help to ease any tension that may have been trained in during the learning process.

How to Shadow Practice Classical Guitar

Shadow Practice can be done formally or informally.

For instance, you could go for a walk or hike, during which you shadow practice a few primary arpeggio patterns. You focus on your right hand for a few minutes, then let your mind wander and enjoy the scenery. Back and forth.  (You may look like a crazy person, but it’s for the greater guitar good.)

More formally, you could sit down and shadow practice your entire repertoire, or large pieces of it.  It’s wonderfully taxing on the brain.


Perhaps the most important “rule” of shadow practice is that you bring your complete focus and awareness.

Turn off the tele, get away from chatty people and happy puppies, and pay close attention to the minute details of the movements you’re making.

Watch your fingers if you like. Or don’t. The important thing is that you are 100% aware of what you’re doing. (Otherwise you’re likely reinforcing less-than-perfect movements, and may be better off playing with the dog or catching up on the juicy gossip.)

The Before-Bed Review

One of my favorite ways to shadow practice is before bed.

Turn the lights down. Take a few deep breaths. Maybe stretch a bit.

Then sit down and shadow practice any new music you may have learned that day, or whatever piece or movements are my primary focus just then.

This is especially powerful, because your brain will continue to churn on it all while you sleep. Much of long-term memory encoding happens during deep sleep. So reviewing something before bed encourages deeper learning.

It’s also a wonderful way to wind down and spend some of your last moments of the day focused on something enjoyable, rewarding and self-nurturing.

Learning New Music

If you can visualize the fretboard and your hands, you can also learn new music away from the instrument.

For several years, I learned all new music lying in bed at night. Instead of reading a book, I would mentally go through a few bars of a new tune.

I would mime it with both hands (separately and together). Look at the music, then look away and mime it. Look at the music to check what I had just done; evaluate.

Of course I would also go through the music on the guitar the next morning very slowly, to reinforce what I’d learned. But I did manage to reduce my overall tension and learn pieces more quickly.

Mental practice is widely studied and is a wonderful way to progress more quickly while avoiding tension patterns.

Anecdotally, the great pianist Artur Rubenstein is said to have memorized Franck’s Symphonic Variations on a train, and played them for the first time on piano at the rehearsal with orchestra!

See What You Think

Whether it’s working through your scale patterns, ingraining your fundamental arpeggio patterns, or mentally rehearsing your music, I encourage you to give shadow practice a go.

What do you notice about the levels of your awareness? What do you notice that you hadn’t noticed before? How do you think this could be useful to you right now at your current level?

Leave your answers below in the comments!

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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