Rock Guru John Petrucci

When I’m warming up for a Dream Theater show, I typically start with slow exercises and gradually build up to a point where I am racing up and down the neck, full of adrenaline, and ready to go on stage. But playing fast isn’t necessarily the best way to prepare for a big show—sometimes it can send you out of the gate overplaying or playing with fatigued hands, so it’s important to know how to pace yourself. For the best results, you may find endurance-based exercises are a smart way to go.

For instance, on the recent G3 tour of Japan, I did things a little differently to prepare for my solo set. Instead of sprinting, I took the jogging approach. I set the metronome to a comfortable speed at which I could comfortably play two different rhythmic subdivisions—straight sixteenth-notes and sixteenth-note triplets—in a variety of techniques.

The idea is simple: Choose a tonality, such as, say, B minor. Then, at a comfortable tempo, simply meander—i.e., jog—up and down the neck in stepwise motion, moving in and out of various B natural minor scale positions and fingerings, playing the notes in even, relaxed sixteenths, and employing an alternating picking attack [Ex. 1]. After doing that for a while, without stopping, switch gears to an arpeggiated, string-skipping approach in which, whenever possible, each new note occurs on an adjacent string [Ex. 2]. Next, sticking with alternating picking, go back to stepwise motion but switch to sixteenth-note triplets, making sure that the tempo you initially selected is still slow enough that you now can hit six notes per downbeat cleanly and comfortably [Ex. 3]. Finally, be sure to practice both straight sixteenths and triplet sixteenths legato—that is, entirely slurred through the use of hammer-ons, pull-offs, and finger slides whenever and wherever possible [Ex. 4].

For me, a comfortable starting pace for this exercise is 104 bpm, though I do tend to goose up the tempo as I go, but never all the way up to hyper-speed. I try to do it for 20 minutes or more—sometimes for a full hour, time permitting. Some may find this tactic is more fun over a drum-and-bass groove, which many modern drum machines and guitar gizmos can generate for you in any key. Everybody warms up differently. Some people like to take the opposite of this relaxed, patient approach—they like to get as pumped and excited as possible, run around, and have a couple of beers. I suppose a drink or two may help you lose some inhibitions, but I don’t understand how people play well when they’re even slightly tipsy—I guess they’ve had years of practice [laughs]. I prefer to get in that relaxed state—that zone—through connection with my instrument, rather than inducing it from the outside.