We figured the first thing we’d ask the guitar icon is how he warms up.
It’s ten minutes before show time. You’re backstage with a guitar in your hands. What are you playing?
This is the first thing I do [Ex. 1]. I call this Diagonal Chord Relay, because, well, I had to call it something [laughs]. I’ve been doing this for years—decades, actually. I used to tell my students “strum, mute, switch” when they were doing this—the idea being that after you strum the first chord, your strumming hand mutes the strings before you lift your fretting fingers and switch to the next chord. Your thumb should remain behind and on the neck at all times, and your fingers should move as little as possible as you ascend the fretboard.
How long do you typically do this exercise?
I actually wouldn’t recommend anyone spend more than a minute doing this because the idea is not to become familiar with it. What you need are ten of these exercises for ten minutes of warm-up. I mean, you want to do the exercise well, but I would never say, “If it takes you 45 minutes to get this perfect, then put in the time.” It’s not music. This isn’t repertoire. You’re never going to play it during a performance, and it’s never going to provide joy to you [laughs]. It’s a mindless warm-up, which is great. Because it’s not musical, you can say, “Okay, I don’t have to worry about my timing, or whether I’m putting enough emotion into it or not, or if I am projecting to the audience.” None of that stuff is involved. It leaves you free to say, “How do my fingers feel today? Does my thumb feel good in that position?”
Are there ways one can vary or expand the exercise?
Try moving it from the middle four strings to the lowest or highest four strings, or moving up a fret with each new chord. Or, arpeggiate every chord [Ex. 2]. Here’s another two-chord pattern you can use in the same way [Ex. 3]. This last one has always been strange for me, so I always make sure to do it. Just as a tongue twister helps pronunciation, these exercises improve finger dexterity. Try to stay absolutely relaxed as you do them.