You have a weak pinky that refuses to cooperate when you need it.
Just as you would do pushups for upper-body strength or crunches to work on your core, the best way to improve pinky strength is to train it for use on the guitar in a variety of different contexts. Here are just a handful of good workouts for your weakest finger.
1. Scale the Fretboard
Scales are great tools in general—among other good things, you can use them to improve your familiarity with the fretboard and with music theory—and they’re also excellent for exercising your pinky. Example 1 shows the G major and G-natural minor scales, each covering two octaves and fingered with three notes per string. Use alternate picking—or any other approach that works best for you—on these exercises. Practice them ascending as written, as well as descending, and on other starting notes on higher frets. For example, shift everything up by two frets to play A major and minor scales. You might also try picking the first note on each string, then hammering on the other two. Try other scales in your arsenal in this same fashion.
2. Break Things Up
Playing arpeggios—broken chords—offers plenty of possibilities for pinky training. Your fourth finger will get quite the workout if, for instance, you arrange G major- and minor-seventh arpeggios in a two-notes-per-string configuration. As shown in Example 2, this is quite an athletic exercise. Practice it on different starting notes, and with different chords as well, going as low and as high as your fretboard allows.
3. Get Harmonic
Certain chord grips obviously require more participation from the pinky than others. Playing progressions—making extensive use of your fourth finger—is a good way to bolster its strength. Example 3 and 4 give you a couple different ideas for doing so. In Ex. 3, you’ll tackle a basic I–IV–V progression (in the key of G, G–C–D) with grips involving a fourth-finger barre instead of the customary third finger. Ex. 4 contains add9 voicings requiring pretty big stretches of your pinky. As before, move the shapes in both figures to different positions on the neck—the higher you go, the easier.
4. Add Some Ornaments
Playing around with chordal ornaments that engage the pinky finger is another good way to whip that digit into shape. In Example 5a, hold down an open-D chord while you hammer-on and pull-off the suspended fourth with your pinky. Example 5b transfers the same idea to a C-chord shape and is a little harder on that finger. In a different direction, Example 6 is a classic shuffle pattern based on the I, IV, V chords in G, requiring that your pinky stretch to hit the sixth on each chord. Remember to try these ideas in other positions, and you might also create your own exercises in this vein.
5. Do Fingerboard Calisthenics
Symmetrical fretboard exercises serve as excellent warmups for both hands, and can also help bolster your fret-hand pinky’s strength. Example 7a shows a typical example, played chromatically on each string. Continue the pattern through strings 3–1, and play it descending as well. Do the same with the trickier exercises in Example 7b–c, which demand more of your pinky. Then, experiment with your own combinations that you find give your pinky the greatest workout. But be careful not to overdo it—if you feel any pain at any point in these or any of the other exercises in this lesson, then, just as at the gym, it’s time to take a break.
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This article originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.