From the September/October 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY PAUL MEHLING

In the quest for making music, we spend a certain amount of time in the woodshed toiling away with hope and patience. One of the easiest obstacles to overcome is the challenge of playing at the level you were at when you last put the guitar down—whether the day before or the week before—and then moving beyond.  

Many players find that they cannot merely pick up where they left off, not only potentially leading to frustration and disappointment, but totally taking away the desire to play. The good news is that if you’re consistent in your practice, you’ll improve steadily. I tell my students that a guitar is like any other relationship you have in life—with a friend, a significant other, a cat, etc.—the more you put into it, the more you’ll get out of it.

The other good news is that understanding the body’s need to warm up is a simple concept to master. You don’t just jump out of bed and run a marathon, right? All you need to do is to allow yourself 15–20 minutes (this will obviously vary from person to person and from day to day) to remember what you did last time that worked so well. 

You also need to know and remember that muscle memory is a real thing that works in your favor. In this lesson, you’ll be warming up your brain, your hands, and your ability to coordinate everything and cement it into your muscle memory.  

Focus on the Picking Hand


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What are the best things to do when warming up? To start, besides simply playing what you did yesterday at a slower tempo, you may want to do some calisthenics, or finger-strengthening exercises for both hands. You might focus on your picking hand, with some gentle exercises on an open string, like in Example 1, before proceeding to more demanding patterns, such as those shown in Example 2. If you get bored of that single open string, try the exercises on any fretted note—or even a chord. 

Remember—your goal here is precision, and that’s the first objective. Keep the frustration/disappointment/etc. at bay. Warm up slowly. Do it right and build on that foundation of perfection; there’s no use in repeating mistakes. As you increase your speed, remember to keep an eye and ear out for any places where you can tighten up or improve what you’re doing before moving on to the next tempo.

Bring in the Fretting Hand

Now get both hands in on the action. I would suggest starting on the sixth string in first position, which is the hardest on your fretting fingers due to the thickness of the string and the distance between the frets. Examples 3 and 4, which are best played with alternate picking, are designed to warm up all four fingers. Try each one at various locations on the sixth string, and on the five other strings as well. You might also experiment with working on the same patterns, but with more difficult fingerings. For instance, try playing all of the measures in Ex. 3 with only your second/third or third/fourth fingers. Or see how it feels to play bar 2 of Ex. 4 with your first and second (rather than third) fingers, which requires more of a stretch.  

For an extended warmup, you can also play around with different note values. For instance, Example 5a uses the fingerings of Ex. 3, bar 1, in eighth-note triplets, while Example 5b does the same with bar 3 of Ex. 4, in straight 16 notes. 


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Work the Chromatic Scale

The chromatic scale—that containing all 12 pitches—is useful for warming up all the fingers and can be broken into smaller chunks to benefit the weaker digits. Example 6 is a warmup with the first four notes of the chromatic scale starting on C. I like doing this particular workout starting on the G string, because when you get to the fifth note of the scale, E, you don’t need to move your fretting hand to a new position—see Example 7. That sets you up to play the first eight notes of the scale in the same position (in this case, fifth), as in Example 8

Remember, once you have these warmups comfortably under your fingers, you can increase the degree of difficulty by varying the picking patterns—one at a time, of course—just like you did with examples 5a and b. Countless musicians use these and similar techniques for warming up their hands (and arms and minds). This little investment of time at the beginning of each practice session will yield improved accuracy, speed, and satisfaction in your playing. Happy warmups!

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.