60 Exercises to Improve Your Playing—Right Now! | TAB + AUDIO

December 12, 2016
PHOTO: Cindy Moorhead 
Wouldn’t it be nice if someone came up with a guitarist’s checklist of all the many little skills and techniques you should know and practice and have in your arsenal? You know, things like hybrid picking, unison bends, chord inversions, and the like? 
And wouldn’t it be even better if everything on the list included a little lesson or drill to help you hone that particular thing?
You can’t say we don’t know a great idea when we hear one. That’s why we came up with this list of 60 exercises that can help you improve in all areas of your guitar playing—from fret work and picking to ear training and theory. They’re divided into 31 topics that make it easy to zero in on exactly what you want to work on. 
You can go through this list from top to bottom, or just find the topics that suit your particular need at the moment. However you use these exercises, they’ll help you improve your skills and become a better and more well-rounded guitarist.
Before practicing or performing, it’s a good idea to run your fingers through purely physical exercises, such as FIGURE 1, measure 1, which attacks all four fret-hand fingers and requires strict attention to picking accuracy. Alternately, you could isolate your fret (measure 2) and pick (measure three) hands for independent warm-ups. The speed it’ll take you to become fully warm will depend on several factors, ranging from room temperature to how active you’ve been that day. Generally, the more regularly you practice, the quicker your hands will be prepared for intense playing.


Want a warmer sound for clean-toned licks? Or perhaps you want to play contrapuntal textures on your acoustic? Fingerstyle playing will help you do both. Traditionally, proper technique dictates that the thumb picks strings 4–6, while the remaining fingers pick the 3rd, 2nd and 1st strings (FIGURE 2A).

Also, when playing electric leads, try using your bare fingertips on the strings. You’ll get added tonal warmth, plus greater dynamics and more subtle nuances. Fingerstyle technique may also be used in a “pull and snap” style, with the index finger yanking and release a string so that it snaps back against the fretboard, creating a funky sound (FIGURE 2B).

Often used as an alternative to fingerstyle playing, hybrid picking is a technique in which a pick replaces the pick hand’s thumb, while the middle, ring and (sometimes) pinkie fingers pluck the higher strings. Hybrid picking works particularly well with country-fried double-stop licks (FIGURE 3A), but it’s also useful for playing rock riffs (FIGURE 3B).
AUDIO: See the second half of the track in 2. Play Fingerstyle.

For “making the changes” in an off-the-cuff solo, often nothing sounds more right than breaking up a chord—that is, articulating it as an arpeggio (FIGURE 4A). Whether you’re soloing over a jazz standard (FIGURE 4B) or shredding your way through a rock jam, arpeggios will open up your lines, make your phrases more melodious and help you bust out of the cursed pentatonic rut.
Is your phrasing busted? Working on legato techniques—hammer-ons, pull-offs and slides—will help to smooth it all out. For those new to these terms, a hammer-on involves picking a note and then depressing a higher note on the same string without picking (FIGURE 5, measure 1). Conversely, a pull-off involve pre-fretting a note, playing a higher note on the same string and then releasing the higher note with a flicking motion, thereby sounding the lower note (FIGURE 5, measure 2). Meanwhile, in a legato slide, a note is picked and then evenly slid—from above or below—into a second note (FIGURE 5, measure 3).

Tapping licks are essential to an arsenal of flashy guitar tricks. The smooth sound of two hands hammering on the neck is also a dramatic departure from the percussive sound of a pick. In FIGURE 6, measure 1, an Em arpeggio (E-G-B) is arranged along the 1st string. Position your index finger over the fretboard, then tap (hammer on) the highest note. The notes following the taps are created by pull-offs from the tapping finger. Work on bend-and-tap maneuvers (FIGURE 6, measure 2) as well as pick-tapped slides (FIGURE 6, measure 3), and you’ll be a tonal badass.
Alternate picking is the key to effectively tackling quick single-note lines, and it’s easier than it sounds.

If you can already play downstroked quarter notes at a brisk clip (FIGURE 7, measure 1), simply add an upstroke in between downstrokes to alternate-pick eighth notes at the same tempo (FIGURE 7, measure 2). Tremolo picking—picking notes in a measured, typically rapid fashion (FIGURE 7, measure 3)—would be nearly impossible without alternate picking. In general, for each note falling on a beat, use a downstroke. From there, strictly alternate between downstrokes and upstrokes. A passage of syncopated eighths, therefore, would be picked as shown in FIGURE 7, measure 4.

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