BY ADAM PERLMUTTER | FROM THE MARCH 2009 ISSUE OF ACOUSTIC GUITAR

Like it or not, playing the guitar is an athletic endeavor. Just like any sport or exercise, it can take a bit of playing time before you reach your “zone,” so just as a runner stretches before sprinting, a guitarist should warm up before delving into practice or performance. Between strumming, fretting, and hammering-on also lies the possibility for injury, a fact many guitarists disregard until they figure it out the hard way—the fretting-hand fingers and wrist are particularly susceptible to repetitive strain injuries. 

This article will look at ways to prepare your precious digits before putting them to the test, including a variety of easy warm-up figures designed to get the blood flowing to your fingers. Incorporate these and other exercises into the beginning of your daily practice routine, and you’ll stay loose and maintain a better shot at staying injury free.

Start with Chromatic Exercises

Chromatic exercises that involve all four fretting-hand fingers are a great way to get started. The word chromatic indicates that we’re going to be playing in half steps, ascending and descending one fret at a time. The following examples show easy patterns that, while not necessarily musical, are designed to loosen up your fingers and get them moving. In each figure, written in first position, use your index finger to fret all the first-fret notes, and your middle, ring, and pinky fingers on the second, third, and fourth frets, respectively.

Example 1 is a four-note ascending pattern played on each string. If you’re playing with a pick, first play this (and all the other examples) with strict alternate picking. If you’re playing fingerstyle, try alternating your picking hand fingers (first the index and middle, and later, middle and ring). In either case, once you’re comfortable, experiment by using hammer-ons and pull-offs somewhere in each four-note run. Start slowly and concentrate on making each note sound nice and full—in addition to warming up your fretting fingers, these exercises help the coordination between your right and left hands.


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You can also try this example in a descending pattern, the first measure of which is shown in Example 2. Once you get the basic idea, apply it to the remaining four strings. Examples 1 and 2 complement each other well—try playing Example 1 from the sixth string up to the first, and then play your way back down to the sixth string using Example 2. You can even try them in reverse, starting the four-note pattern in Example 2 on the lowest string and using Example 1 to come back down. Once you’ve mastered both, start moving everything up the neck in half steps (second position, third position, fourth position, etc.) until you get to the top of the fretboard—the different fret spacing as you climb to higher pitches makes things tricky. 

Skip Frets and Strings

In Examples 1 and 2, the notes sit right next to one another, but a good guitar workout includes exercises that skip frets and strings. Examples 3a–d show some ways to focus on two fingers at a time. Play each two-note pattern on all six strings, and also play each example in reverse, as you did in Example 2. Examples 4a–b again require all four digits of the fretting hand, but they disrupt the strict ascending and descending order in Examples 1 and 2 for some unconventional patterns. Try coming up with your own similar patterns—fingerings 1–4–2–3, 2–4–3–1, 3–2–4–1, and 4–1–3–2 are four possibilities—and play them across all six strings and up the fretboard.

Examples 5a–b introduce some string-skipping that will get your picking hand going. The pattern in Example 5a can also be played on strings three through five, two through four, and one through three, and you can try them with or without the sequential variations suggested in Examples 4a–b. Since Example 5bcovers four strings, the four-note pattern can be played only one more time, between strings 4 and 1. Pickers should try playing each four-note group first with alternate picking and then with sweep picking (a single downstroke). Fingerstylists might start by playing each note with a different finger (starting with the thumb, then the index, middle, and ring), and move on to sweeping with the thumb.

Practice Your Scales!

Scales, those building blocks of music tirelessly taught and enforced by guitar teachers everywhere, can also be used to create effective warm-up exercises. Example 6 is the G-major scale (G A B C D E F#) in second position. (Use your index, middle, ring, and pinky fingers, respectively, on frets 2, 3, 4, and 5.) Just playing this scale (and any other scales you know) backward and forward makes a fantastic warm-up exercise, since it really helps drill the scale as it gets your fingers ready to play. You can also try breaking up the scale in interesting ways. Examples 7 and 8 show you how to do this in three- and four-note groupings—play three or four notes up the scale, then return to the second scale tone and play up three or four more. Continuing up the scale this way will really increase your facility on the fretboard and can help lock in your scale knowledge. 


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Yet another way to warm up is to break the scale into pairs of intervals. Example 9 divides the G-major scale into pairs of thirds, and Example 10 breaks the scale into fourths. Linking two thirds together also sounds great, and gives you a three-note chord called a triad.

Example 11 starts with an F-major triad (F–A–C), the same notes you’ll find in an F chord. Play it from lowest note to highest, with your index, pinky, and middle fingers, and continue the pattern through the F# and G triads and beyond. Watch for the big four-fret gap between the root and third of each triad—it’s a big stretch, but it’s worth developing.

Example 12 is a similar exercise based on minor triads—use your index, pinky, and ring fingers for this one (and be thankful the minor third doesn’t require the same stretch as the major). Examples 13 and 14 show major and minor triads on all five adjacent pairs of strings. As always, expand these two examples to cover the entire fretboard, traveling up in half-step increments.

For your own warm-up routine, pick a few of these examples to play at a time, or make up your own. Carve out ten or 15 minutes before you kick into a practice session or performance to drill some of these basic ideas, and you’ll be rewarded with looser fingers and a lower chance of injury. Remember, good exercises don’t necessarily have to sound musical to be useful.