Although you might not always have a guitar at hand to practice on the spot, there are many things you can still practice when you don’t have a guitar with you. As a matter of fact: really great musicians have gotten to the level they are at, because they are so passionate about music that they constantly found ways to practice things wherever they had some time to kill and wherever they were at, with our without their instrument. You can do most of those exercises anywhere: waiting in your car stuck in traffic, waiting in line in the bank, etc.
These exercises are also great in the unfortunate event if you were for example to injure an arm or hand.
A music student who somehow gets injured usually gets incredibly discouraged. No need to anymore! You can still progress strongly even if you can’t play guitar for a while.
Here are some of the many things you can practice without your guitar.
- Memorize Key Signatures
You don’t need an instrument around to memorize key signatures. Use flashcards! Make a stack of flashcards that covers every key/scale, and make a stack of cards for every key signature (a number of #’s or b’s). Keep both stacks separate. Shuffle one of the stacks of cards; then begin the drill. Card you just pulled says 3#’s; answer, that is A. Take next card, and so on. Figure out the answer if you are not sure. If you don’t know how to figure this out, have your teacher cover this with you, or read up on keys signatures. Do this till you run out of cards, then take the other stack, and do the same drill. Card you just pulled says “4b’s”, figure it out and when you are sure, blurt out the answer: “Ab scale”. You will be amazed how quickly you will have all key signatures memorized. If you master this, start doing the same drills again but for minor scales.
- Sight Reading Notes & Rhythms
Take any sheet music of any piece of music you haven’t seen before and practice sight-reading the notes or rhythmic placement of the notes. You could tap your foot or conduct the beat with your arm, and read or sing the names of the notes, or sing the rhythms. Practicing rhythms, you could say “ta” (1/4th notes), “tata” 1/8th notes), “tatata” (triplets), “tatatata” (4/16ths), etc. This is great practice to get better at reading notes and rhythms on the spot.
- Listen to Music.
Given that music is a language, one of the necessary tasks to learn a language is listening to it. Listen analytically! What is the key? Is it a major or minor key? How many song sections? How long are they? What is the style? How does the song feel, the vibe? Why does it have that sound and vibe? Any guitar solos?
Listen to music you would not normally listen to. It will greatly expand your range of influences, your ear, your taste and your musicianship.
- Get Familiar with the Fret Board
Guess what? You actually don’t need your guitar to practice your fret board and to memorize where all the notes are located. You could practice this while being stuck in your car in traffic, or while waiting in line in the bank or the super market. Here’s how: pick any random note, for example F#, then from the bass string to the treble string, try to figure out all the fret locations for the F# notes by heart, staying within 12 frets. (2, 9, 4, 11, 7, 2). It is a very fun challenge, and it is motivating to see how much better you get at finding the note locations when you do this exercise regularly. Do this for all 12 notes. Start out simple first: all the C notes, all the E notes, all the A notes, etc. (Don’t start with sharps and flats right away). The only 2 requirements: know the open string names, and know that the notes EF and BC are on 2 adjacent frets, while all the other note combinations (CD, DE, FG, GA, and AB) are 2 frets apart (you skip a fret). You will be amazed how strongly you’ll still improve doing those non-guitar drills that you can do anywhere, even I you cannot practice as much guitar as you would like to.
- Practice Rhythm
Walking is healthy: it’s very good for you. Now: while you’re taking care of your body, you could train your mind as well in the meantime. And what better way to train your mind, than with rhythm exercises? Here’s how this works: use your footsteps, as beats in a metronome. Then count rhythms, on top of your steady walking pace. A quarter note, 1 note filling an entire beat, is the number “1”, 2 eighth notes, are counted as 1-2, a triplet is 1-2-3, sixteenth’s you count as 1234. So every footstep you set along your way, you basically on the spot improvise rhythms, counting for example: 1, 1-2, 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4, 1, 1-2, etc, any combination of 1, 12, 123, and 1234. The main challenge here: keeping the numbers in your triplet count (123) even, and feeling the difference between even numbered groupings (12, 1234) and odd numbered groupings (123). Once you get the feel for this: add triplets over 2 beats. (You then count 1-2-3 over two footsteps, called “quarter note triplets”). Then quintuplets (groupings of 5 notes, 12345), which you could count over 1 beat, or over 2 beats, etc. This is one of THE most efficient and effective ways to get the feel for combinations of even and odd numbered groupings of notes. More importantly, this exercise is so effective because it touches at the core of what rhythm is all about: it’s physical… it’s about motion. “Rhythm” is something you feel. You do this exercise whenever you’re walking, and I can assure you that you will be amazed at your accelerated rhythmic improvement. This will do wonders to your understanding of rhythm and your guitar rhythm playing.
- Bar Chord Exercises.
Name any random chord, for example Bbm. Then name the fret numbers where you have the 2 bar chord versions of that chord. The answer would be: “Am shape bar chord on the 2nd fret, Em shape bar chord on the 6th fret.” This is like practicing guitar without your guitar, and the great thing is: you can literally practice this anywhere, everywhere, whenever.
- Train Your Ear
No guitar is needed to train your ear. You can just pop in an ear training CD or use online ear training resources to strengthen your aural interval and chord recognition. If you’re out and about: get one of the many ear-training apps for your phone so you can practice anywhere. This is one of THE most important things to work on as a musician. The better your ear, the easier it is to play with other musician. Having a well-trained ear also makes it easier to learn new scales, new songs, guitar solos, and so on. Your ear basically guides your fingers to the right locations when you can tell by ear what the notes are in a melody or in a chord. You should practice this every day, without any exception. This drill should be your priority.
- Learn New Scales
Learning a new scale doesn’t always have to include a guitar. Pick a new scale you wanted to learn. Memorize its structure and intervals. Memorize its scale formula. Memorize what the notes are. Mentally picture and visualize the scale on the fret board whenever you have a quick minute to spare. Try to see the fingerings and notes for that scale in every position visually on the fret board in your imagination. When after a long day of work, school or errands, you finally get home and you finally have time to pick up your guitar, you will be amazed and surprised to find out how quickly you will master the scale.
- Brush Up on Music Theory
When you are out and about with no guitar around, you can use downtime for memorization of music theory. Some of the things you can practice (besides the key signatures mentioned above):
• Recite chords to songs you’re trying to memorize.
• Memorize the notes in all major, minor, diminished and augmented triads.
• Memorize I IV V in all 12 keys
• Memorize the half step locations in all 12 major scales. (for example in the key of C, that would be E-F & B-C, in the key of A that would be C#-D & G#-A, etc.)
• Memorize the 12-bar blues progression.
• Memorize the chords in “Rhythm Changes”
• Memorize all modal interchange chords.
- Improve Your Picking Technique and Dexterity Through Visualization.
Acquiring and possessing great technical facility on the instrument, is more mental than it is physical. Victor Wooten in his book “The Music Lesson” touches upon this. Neuroscientists discovered that imagining yourself doing a certain activity, still fires off the neurons in the brains that would fire if you were actually engaging into that activity. In other words: if you just imagine your fingers flying over the fret board super quickly like you’re playing a Randy Rhoads or Yngwie Malmsteen solo, then the neurons in your brain that would fire off if you were physically playing that solo, still fire off even if you are not playing it.
That is why, once you acquired great technique, you typically don’t loose your technical abilities as quickly as most people generally think you would. Even if you never have time to practice as much as you would like to, your technique will not deteriorate if you occasionally visualize and imagine yourself playing technically advanced guitar parts. Dexterity, control and coordination are all controlled from the brain in the first place, not from the muscles.
You could literally practice on a daily basis for months on end on a certain picking technique exercise without seeing noticeable improvement. If that is the case: put the exercise away for a couple of months and don’t practice on it at all for that long. Instead: spent 10 minutes a day imagining and visualizing yourself playing that exercise super fast, way more quickly than you are currently physically capable off.
However: in addition to imagining how you’re physically playing that line at the speed you are aiming for, you also want to feel the joy of that mastery, feeling a sense of happiness, awe and wonder over your accomplishment. Visualization of a goal + emotion attached to it = a sense that your goal is already accomplished. Your imagination will fire off the neurons in your brain that would fire off if you were physically playing that line, but without interference of the physical strain and pressure you put onto yourself when you are physically trying to push your muscles to accelerated motion while gradually speeding up your metronome. That strain works aversely on the results you are trying to get.
All this does not mean that you could become an amazingly technically advanced player without practicing dexterity and speed. It does however mean that you will get greater success and results when you take advantage of the power of your mind and of the workings of the brain. Nothing can substitute for practicing, but you might as well practice efficiently and use every trick and technique you can think off to speed up your results and boost your efficiency.
The road to mastery on guitar is a road with no end and no destination. There is always more to learn. As a result, the more quickly you learn and the more efficiently you learn, the more you get to discover and experience on your musical journey in this lifetime. The above ideas and exercises will help you deepen and enrich that musical journey, as you will have more time to play guitar, practicing the things you don’t need your guitar for whenever you have a minute and wherever you are.