Mental Representations

We learn to play the guitar through the mental representations we hold in our heads of how to do things. Each mental representation is a mashup of how we see something, feel something, and hear something. The better the mental representation we have of what we want to learn, the better we’ll learn it!

My Old Chord Book

When I was a beginner, I learnt chords from a chord book. The book was full of chord diagrams (boxes and dots) that told me where to place each finger to play each chord. 

But guess what? My chords sucked! 

They sucked because my old chord book didn’t help me create a great mental representation of what it takes to play great-sounding chords. All it taught me was where to place my fingers.

I Needed More

But I needed more! I needed to know what to do with my thumb, my wrist, and each of the three knuckle joints. I needed to know what part of the fingertip to press down with, where to place the fingertip within the fret, and the angle that each finger needed to take. I needed to know how each chord was meant to sound and feel. To feel the correct amount of tension and relaxation that I should be applying.

Had I been presented with more information like this, I’d have developed a better mental representation of how to play great-sounding chords, which would have helped me play better chords. 

Creating a Better Mental Representations

If we’re going to create a better mental representations of how to play things, we need better instructions. We need to gather as much correct information as we can by studying the advice from the best teachers and watching the best players.

What advice are the best teachers giving?

How are the best players playing?

Gather as much correct information as possible (from worthy sources), study it all very carefully, and help yourself create better a mental representation of the things you want to learn. Remember, the better the mental representation you have in your head of how to do something, the better you’ll do it.

Visual Feedback

As well as creating a better mental representations of how to do something, we also need an accurate physical representation of how we’re actually doing something. Quite often, we think we’re practising a technique correctly when in reality we’re not.

Take a video of yourself playing (delayed feedback) or use a mirror (instant feedback) to compare what you’re doing to the mental representation you have in your head for how to perform a specific technique.

Feel Feedback

You also need a good mental representation of how a technique is meant to feel.

If you’re learning open chords for example, you need to know how it feels to grab the guitar neck in the correct way. You need to know how it feels to press down with the correct part of the fingertip. You need to know what a relaxed squeeze feels like.


A good teacher can always help you create good mental representations of how to do things, and he/she can also give you accurate feedback on your efforts. But if you don’t have a teacher, you have to do the work yourself.

You have search out and study the best teachers and players to help yourself create better mental representations.

You have to provide your own visual and feel forms of feedback to ensure you’re physically executing the correct mental representations you have in your head.


This blog was inspired by the chapter Mental Representations from the book Peak, by Anders Ericsson.