All musicians, regardless of their instruments, must develop a considerable amount of technique to be able to play their favorite songs and explore new repertoire in a variety of styles. Once a musician has developed technical proficiency, he or she must continue to maintain fluency and work on new techniques. String players, woodwind, and brass players all have volumes of études, which they use to develop and maintain intonation, embouchure, and articulation.
As guitarists, you need to focus on developing speed, control, and—most important—good tone, by working on picking and fretting techniques. This Weekly Workout will show how to synchronize the hands through a variety of exercises, concepts, and articulations: everything you need to play guitar effortlessly and beautifully.
Concentrate on alternate picking, one string at a time, while developing independence with the fretting fingers through chromatic exercises (scroll down for music notation). Ex. 1 is a short chromatic exercise that gets all four fingers moving up and down the fingerboard. Pay attention to the suggested fingerings in all of these examples, and employ strict alternate picking throughout. Each chromatic line is broken up with a quarter-note rest. This is important, as you’re developing the action/rest concept with your hands.
Ex. 2 removes the rest for more of a constant velocity exercise. This one is all about slow and steady—keep your fretting fingers close to the neck for economical movement, and slightly curved, as if you’re holding an orange in the palm of your hand. Your picking hand should remain relaxed, but the pick should be held with a firm grip. Focus on picking up and down through the string, striving for clarity of sound and good volume. Both of these examples can and should be played on all six strings.
Ex. 3 offers a few variations by crossing over to other strings and fingering combinations. Stay in position, and keep one finger per fret over a four-fret span. The third and fourth measures cross over three strings, but continue to use alternate picking throughout.
Ex. 4 is another variation that starts out the same, but alternates between fretted notes and open strings in the second and fourth measures—a great way to synchronize the hands. If any of these exercises are difficult at first, remember to take the tempo down and practice slowly, with conviction.
This week’s exercises conclude in Ex. 5 with the concept of speed bursts. Your fretting hand is still alternating up and down between two adjacent strings, but now switching between eighth and 16th notes. Practice this at a tempo where the 16ths sound clear and effortless. This reinforces the contrast between action and rest in Ex. 1, while adding the element of a speed burst with the 16th notes. You could also do the exercise alternating between eighth notes and eighth-note triplets, or eighth-note triplets and straight 16th notes.
Beginners’ Tip #1
Week 1: Accent (or emphasize) the first note of each measure to keep your time solid. Then, do the same
with the first note of each beat.
It’s time to explore some of the same concepts, but with challenging variations in terms of fingerings. Ex. 6 is another velocity exercise between two strings, with new fingering combinations, both ascending and descending. You’ll likely find these more difficult than the simple chromatic fingerings. Take your time and also feel free to explore additional permutations (for example, 1-3-4-2 and 2-4-3-1; 1-4-2-3 and 3-2-4-1, and so on).
Ex. 7 and Ex. 8 mix up a variety of these variations while crossing and skipping strings—essential flatpicking techniques. Stick with alternate picking at first, and then feel free to explore consecutive or directional picking when needed.
Ex. 9 works through open triads across the neck with some challenging string skipping. Try alternate picking at first, though you might prefer to use consecutive downstrokes for the first two notes of each triad, followed by an upstroke for the top note.
Beginners’ Tip #2
Try the first couple of examples in higher positions
on the fretboard. These will require less stretching on your fretting hand. After you’re comfortable with the basic exercises, move down to positions I through III
to get some good stretching in the workout.
The examples from the past two weeks will do wonders for synchronizing the hands, but they don’t exactly sound musical. It’s important to balance technical exercises with real music—that’s the point of études! Compared to other instruments, there aren’t as many études (aside from classical-guitar music) to draw from to develop picking, fretting, and synchronizing. Many contemporary guitarists—regardless of their style—turn to J.S. Bach’s works for violin, cello, and piano to practice technique and play beautiful music.
You may also try composing your own examples that focus on developing and/or improving a particular technique. Ex. 10 is a highly chromatic line that works over a C-minor chord. The technical emphasis is on picking five notes on one string (requiring the fretting hand to shift) in both directions, and also rapid string crossing in the second measure.
Ex. 11 adds speed bursts to this five-note-per-string concept. The challenge in this example is to keep all of the bursts smooth on every string. Playing on the bottom three strings will require you to move your pick a little higher and to adjust your hand posture slightly.
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Beginners’ Tip #3
Isolate and repeat each measure of both examples—
these will give you mini exercises to develop your technique.
Now that you’ve practiced a variety of fingering permutations, string crossing/skipping, and position shifting, you’re ready to tackle something that is technically challenging yet musical. Ex. 12 outlines a basic chord progression with a singular melodic line, while also incorporating a variety of techniques. Note the position shifting in measures 2, 4, and 6, and remember to keep your entire arm relaxed while moving back and forth on the neck.
Ex. 13 adds some variety in terms of articulation with pull-offs to the open G string in the first two measures, and some half-step sliding in the second and fifth measures. When handling the pull-offs in measure 4, your fretting hand will gradually move up the neck while moving down the strings.
Beginners’ Tip #4
Record these examples to ensure that you’re playing
with good tone and time. Try tracking the chord changes separately, and then practicing the melodies over the chords to hear how they sound. Finally, take a stab at composing your own hand-synchronization études
over various chord progressions.
Sean McGowan is a jazz and acoustic guitarist based in Denver, where he directs the guitar program at the University of Colorado Denver. seanmcgowanguitar.com
This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.