The most useful technique I’ve developed over the years is fretboard visualization.

In a nutshell, what I’m speaking of is the ability to ‘see’ something played on the guitar without ever picking up the instrument. Without this, the connection between what I hear and what I want to play would be much less, well, ‘connected’.

I used to race BMX bikes when I was younger, and my favorite thing was jumping. The key to pulling off a cool trick was to be able to really ‘see’ yourself going through the motions before you ever left the ground. I would run a scenario obsessively through my mind until I almost felt I had done it for real. The accuracy of this visualization gets better with practice, as does the amount of time it takes to do it. The more accurately you can visualize, the closer you will be to actually doing it for real.

So, back to how this relates to guitar playing. The whole idea is to be able to ‘see’ a part on the guitar without actually picking it up. This is a combination of ear-training (and good relative pitch), experience with chords and scales, and recognizing familiar sounds and tonalities that you’ve heard or played before.

I’m a Very good driver…

For me this really is/was like an obsessive-compulsive disorder! I do it with everything I hear, whether it’s guitar or not. If music is playing, I’m working out fingerings in my head, often unconsciously. Before you start calling me ‘Rainman’, let’s dig a little deeper.

Like I said, after a while this becomes an almost subliminal act, but for the sake of explanation, I’ll try to break it down into a ‘process’.

Hearing Intervals

Your ability to hear intervals is probably the most important part of this. Here’s an example.

Take a simple melody like ‘Amazing Grace’

The first interval jump is a fourth…from ‘A’ to ‘MAZ’.

If the key of the song is G, that means you play D then G. (songs don’t always start on the root note!)

The easiest place would be the open D string, then the open G string. That’s a fourth.

You can also play the same notes at the 12th fret on the D and G strings…one octave higher.

What you need to be able to do quickly in your mind is hear the interval, and hear the octave range so you have a ballpark idea of where on the neck it can be found. This is a VERY simple example, but that’s where it really starts. The better you get at hearing intervals, the easier this gets.

Want to solidify that fourth interval in your mind’s ear? ‘Here Comes The Bride…’ From ‘Here’ to ‘Comes’ is a fourth.

As you tackle more difficult material, the process remains the same…and the more you do it the better you get. After a while you begin to recognize the sound of melodic patterns and chords right away, without having to actually sit down with the guitar and work them out.

From Head to Hands

For me, the ability to visualize music allows me to get ideas from my head to my hands quicker. The more automatic the process becomes, the less time and thought it takes to make music.

When you are away from the guitar, ‘practice’ in your head. Run scales, chords, and songs in your mind’s eye. This eventually becomes a second-nature thing. If you’re sitting in a restaurant and there’s music playing, instead of focusing on how much you hate it, try and picture how you would play it on the guitar. Even if it’s Kenny G, listen to the melody and try to visualize where the notes would be on the neck! Ok, that might be a little much…but you get the idea.