Warm-Up Time: Six Crucial Calisthenics for Your Right and Left Hands

Spending a little time warming up can bring big payoffs, and help ward off injuries like tendonitis.
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A good warm-up session can be the most valuable part of your playing day. Not only does it help ward off injuries like tendonitis—it can also determine how well you can maneuver your way over the strings and fretboard during play time.

Most of us want to grab our ax and get to work, but remember: Patience is a virtue, and spending a little time warming up can bring big payoffs.

Let’s get started.

SINGLE-STRING WARM-UPS
FIGURE 1 shows a tried-and-true exercise for getting the hands to work in sync. It’s a four-note-per-string quasi-chromatic scale pattern designed to get all four fingers moving in steady eighth-note rhythms. Since the brain doesn’t have to think about note placement in a scalar sense, more attention can be focused on the physical aspects of the exercise.

FIGURE 1

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Many people do this exercise in 1st position and work their way up the neck. We’ve purposely placed it in 12th position instead, where the frets are packed closer together, so there’s minimal amount of stretching. Working your way down the neck will ease you into the stretching process. Remember to focus on accuracy at this point in your warm-up routine, and save your speed licks for later.

Set your metronome to a slow tempo (between 60 and 100 bpm) and strive to play all of the notes evenly. Use alternate picking, starting with a downstroke, and either maintain strict down-up picking or shift to an upstroke when descending. Incidentally, this is also a good legato exercise—ascending strengthens your hammer-ons; descending is for pull-offs.

FIGURES 2A–B are variations on FIGURE 1 that address a common weakness of guitarists: the inability to play clearly articulated notes on adjacent stings with the same finger. It’s easy to flop the fingers down barre-chord style and let the notes of these figures ring into each other, but try these exercises using a “roll-over” technique in the fretting hand. Each finger is rolled over to play the note on the same fret of the adjacent string. Articulate each note separately—don’t let adjacent notes ring.

FIGURE 2A

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FIGURE 2B

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STRING SKIPPING

The next set of warm-up exercises involves string skipping. All five follow the same “1-2-3-4” fingering order as introduced in the previous figures, but that’s where the similarity ends. FIGURE 3A climbs the strings four at a time in stair-case fashion, then turns around and climbs back down. Although it’s tempting to rake or sweep-pick these figures, stay with alternate picking—that way it warms you up for string skipping. Articulate this pattern both as ringing arpeggios and as isolated notes.

FIGURE 3A

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FIGURE 3B gets the string-skipping proceedings under way with an adjacent string-picking pattern much like you would have used in FIGURES 2A–B, except that here the focus is on the picking hand rather than the fretting hand.

FIGURE 3B

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FIGURES 3C–E take this pattern through a logical expansion, sort of a friendly torture rack, which ultimately challenges the accuracy of both your picking and fretting hands.

FIGURES 3C–E

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STRETCHES

Now that your fingers are warmed up, it’s time to give them a good stretching. FIGURE 4A performs yet another operation on our quasi-chromatic finger pattern, this time inserting a whole-step spread between fingers 3 and 4 to give the pinkie a workout. FIGURE 4B takes the opposite approach by inserting the whole step between fingers 1 and 2, and FIGURE 4C puts the stretch between fingers 2 and 3.

FIGURES 4A–C

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Before we bid farewell to the simple 1-2-3-4 and 4-3-2-1 fingerings that we’ve been using so far, here’s a thought that will stretch your brain a bit: The numerical patterns 1-2-3-4 and 4-3-2-1 are only two possible ways to order those four numbers, Other possibilities might be 1-2-4-3, 3-1-2-4, 2-4-3-1, or many other combinations.

Sit down sometime and write out all the permutations of the numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4, and then go back to the previous figures and apply each pattern as a new fingering, perhaps using a different pattern each day as a “finger theme.”

But is there really any value to practicing all the permutations of the four fingers? Definitely. For one thing, our brain-to-hand connection can get rusty by playing the same patterns over and over. Introducing new patterns to old exercises can make them come alive again, even providing valuable insights into technique and musical application.

For another, the very process of working through a large series of patterns over time creates a continuity and sense of purpose to our warm-up period that might otherwise be lacking.

That said, quasi-chromatic patterns may be great tools for warming up, but let’s face it—they’re not always musically practical. With that in mind, the next two examples employ bona fide scales as a means of limbering up the fingers.

FIGURE 5 uses the C whole-tone scale—a good scale choice for C augmented chords. Two fingerings are given, so try them both, and be sure to use the suggested fingerings on the two-note strings—they afford more of a stretching workout.

FIGURE 5

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FIGURE 6 lays the G dominant (half/whole) diminished scale across the fretboard in a repetitive four-note-per-string pattern. This invites a unique opportunity for a four-digit stretch warm-up that concentrates on the two middle fingers on the ascension. Coming down, the pattern gives those fingers a rest while the index finger and pinkie take on the stretching duties.

FIGURE 6

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The next time you sit down for a practice session, spend 10 or 15 minutes on the above exercises (FIGURES 1–6). By the time you’re finished, standard scale patterns should feel as natural and comfortable as pulling on your favorite pair of jeans.

FRETTING-HAND EXERCISES

Sometimes it’s helpful to isolate the hands for certain warm-up exercises, giving one hand a rest while you concentrate your efforts on the other. Bends, legato techniques, trills and vibrato are all exclusive to the fretting hand. Let your picking hand take a back seat for a while as you work through the following fretting-hand examples.

Here are a couple of straight-ahead warm-ups designed to get every finger in bending shape. FIGURE 7 eases you into the process with a half-step bending exercise along the G string in 5th position. Every bend is preceded by its target-pitch note to give your finger and ear a sonic destination.

FIGURE 7

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FIGURE 8 is basically the same exercise but involves whole-step bending. Perform both exercises very slowly, concentrating heavily on the amount of bending pressure needed to match each pitch. Also, try moving them around the neck, as there is more tension on the strings toward the nut and maximum flexibility at the 12th fret, calling for varying degrees of bending strength. For even more extra credit, try transposing FIGURES 7 and 8 to other pairs of strings.

FIGURE 8

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FIGURE 9 is a legato exercise along the G string. An E major scale sequence, it features a variety of hammer-ons, pull-offs and slides arranged in such a way that you can play the entire phrase without picking. Dial in a bit of distortion, hammer-on your first finger to get the first note ringing, and go.

FIGURE 9

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Note that your 1st finger does all the sliding, while the 2nd, 3rd and 4th fingers do the hammer-and-pull work. Keep in mind that a proper pull-off requires more than merely lifting off the string. It actually involves a subtle plucking of the string by the pull-off finger, usually in the direction of the floor.

FIGURE 10 is a trill exercise that involves every possible finger combination. Like FIGURES 7 and 8, this should be performed on other strings as well. Varying the tempo will challenge you to sort out just how many trills will fit in each tempo.

FIGURE 10

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Lastly, FIGURE 11 shows an effective way to warm up your left-hand vibrato technique. With a metronome set at 80 beats per minute, fret the note with your index finger and kick in an extremely slow vibrato motion, such as one rise (or about a quarter step) per beat. Pick the string once every two or four beats to maintain your rhythm and keep the note ringing. Notice that the resulting rise-fall pitch pulsation sounds and feels like an eighth-note rhythm.

FIGURE 11

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Now see if you can kick it up to an eighth-note-triplet feel, a sort of RISE-fall-rise-FALL-rise-fall pulsation Comfortable? Good. Now kick it up again to a 16th-note pulse. You’ll probably encounter a “breaking point” around here that divides your controlled vibrato speed from your full-tilt setting.

Keep exploring and “fine-tuning” this breaking point by varying the metronome speed and increasing the vibrato pulsations. The more adventurous players may try a pulse of five, but most us will move from a 16th-note vibrato to a 16th-note triplet vibrato. Regardless, the goal is to eventually break down that barrier between the controlled and “uncontrolled” feeling so that you can perform a smooth left-hand vibrato at any speed.

STRUMMING/PICKING-HAND EXERCISES

The strumming/picking hand is often the neglected appendage when it comes to warm-ups and practicing in general. Here are some things you can do when you need to give your poor overworked fretting hand a rest.

Many players have a difficult time with the strumming-hand motion involved in sweep-picking techniques, especially on the transition to the upstroke. FIGURE 12 offers a bare-bones sweeping warm-up in 16th notes. The fretting hand is not involved at all, so full attention can be directed to the sweeping motion. Play it slowly with a metronome and concentrate on refining your “point-of-return” (transition between downstrokes and upstrokes) to get it perfectly in time.

FIGURE 12

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And speaking of time, there’s nothing that says you have to be playing a chord to practice your strumming grooves. Sure, the fretting hand can be the culprit—sloppy chord voicings, etc.—when it comes to a weak meter, but most often it’s the strumming hand that’s out of sync. Spend some warm-up time simply muting the strings and direct full attention to your right hand as you “scratch out” rhythm grooves.

Hybrid picking licks (using both a pick and the fingers) often involve simple fretting-hand moves played out against tricky right-hand maneuvers. FIGURE 13 offers some “lickless” hybrid-picking moves for the right hand without getting the left hand wrapped up in the melee.

FIGURE 13

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If you’re one of the many guitarists who live in fear of being called upon for a sudden burst of tremolo picking, you might want tot check out the example in FIGURE 14. It’s an open-B string exercise starting with eighth-note rhythms, and each measure gets progressively faster, culminating in a final bar of full-on tremolo picking.

FIGURE 14

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It matters little how slowly you perform this exercise, but do it faithfully and eventually your tremolo chops will be burning. Make sure you stay with alternate picking throughout.

COOLING DOWN
After an intense practice session or gig, take time out for a cool-down session Give your hands a good shake, flex your fingers or simply relax for a few minutes. That might be all it takes. In any case, go easy on your fingers, hands and arms for a while.

One common mistake most of us make is to immediately start packing up our heavy gear, risking damage to our hands. The jolt of lifting a 75-pound amp can easily displace your back, so imagine what it can do to the wrists. Play it safe and take a rest before you do anything else.

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