From the January/February 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Paul Mehling
Most guitarists have received plenty of reminders about warming up, but many choose to skip this important step and dive right into playing. That’s a shame, because however tedious or boring they might seem to be, warm-up exercises are great for strengthening fingers, increasing speed, and improving synchronization between the left and right hands. In this lesson, I’ll present a few great exercises that have helped me progress and stay in shape on the fretboard in my many years of playing and teaching.
I recommend working through this series of exercises slowly, for about five to ten minutes minimum at the beginning of each practice session. Focus on one exercise for at least a week at a time, gradually adding the subsequent exercises to your daily routine. As with everything, the results may not be apparent immediately, but if you work on these warm-ups daily, you will likely begin to see progress in a week or less.
Every journey begins with a single step—in the case of these exercises, a half step, or the distance of one fret. Start by setting your metronome to a slow tempo, around 60 bpm. (More advanced players use a faster setting.) In Example 1a, play the notes B and C on string 3 with your first and second fingers, respectively. Use all downstrokes, for a strong, pure sound. (Fingerstyle players can use one finger at first, then each subsequent finger, one at a time.)
As with any physical exercise, repetition is key for building accuracy, strength, and confidence. Play this pattern four times, striving to make both notes sound the same in terms of intensity, clarity, and volume. Then do the same thing on the B string (Example 1b), as well as the other four strings. Something to keep in mind is that the goal here is near-perfection—otherwise, you’re just practicing mistakes.
ADD HAMMER-ONS AND SLIDES
The next exercise is the same as the previous one but adds hammer-ons. Controlling the burst of energy needed to make each hammered-on note match the tone and volume of the preceding picked note is the entire point of this variation. If this warm-up feels challenging, just take it slowly at first.
As before, start on the G string (Example 2a), repeating it four times before doing the same thing on the B string (Example 2b) as well as the remaining four strings. For an added challenge, advanced players might want to do eight repetitions of each measure, rather than four.
After you’ve done the warm-ups with hammer-ons, try them with legato slides, as shown in Examples 3a–b, sounding each higher note by moving into it from a half step below, without lifting the fretting finger off the string. As with hammer-ons, the goal is to keep all the notes sounding as similar as possible in terms of tone and dynamics. This will help to develop finger strength and accuracy as well as build up—or maintain—those much-needed callouses!
REVIEW AND REGROUP
After a month or so, try the warm-ups in the first two steps first with your second and third fingers and then your third and fourth. Likewise, practice the sliding exercise with each of your other fretting fingers. You can also up the ante by using alternate picking, or, if you’re a fingerpicker, trying different two-finger combinations (e.g., index and middle, or middle and ring, on the lower and higher notes, respectively).
You’ll also want to move the warm-ups up and down the fretboard. Some strings and positions might be easier for you than others—don’t shy away from the difficult areas, as that will hinder your connection to your guitar. Keep at these exercises thoroughly and regularly and you’ll be improving the relationship between your left and right hands—not to mention your overall guitar technique—without even thinking about it!
Paul Mehling, founder of the Hot Club of San Francisco, is a Gypsy-jazz devotee, teacher, and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.