By Ron Jackson
When I started playing acoustic guitar at age 11, my fret-hand fingers jumped off the fingerboard like grasshoppers, as speed and clarity evaded me. Then, when I was in high school, I saw the acoustic-guitar trio of Paco de Lucía, Al Di Meola, and John McLaughlin, and my mind was blown by how fast and flawlessly they played. I knew I needed to work on my fret hand, so I developed some exercises that took my playing to the next level.
In this lesson, I’ll share the fret-hand exercises that have helped both me and my students. Whatever your style, if you work on these etudes diligently, you’ll develop speed, finger independence, and flexibility. By the fourth section of this Weekly Workout, your fret-hand fingers should feel less like grasshoppers and more like tiny dancers on the fretboard.
Ex. 1 depicts the 1-2-3-4 exercise—your first, second, third, and fourth fret-hand fingers are assigned to frets 1, 2, 3, and 4 respectively. Like all of these etudes, it requires that you keep your fingers as close to the fretboard as possible, in the interest of efficiency. After you play the first-fret note on each string, keep your first finger held in place when you play the second-fret note, and so on.
As for the pick hand, if you’re a plectrum player, try alternate picking, and if you’re a fingerstyle player, alternate between your index and middle fingers using either rest strokes or free strokes. You could also use your thumb and index or thumb and middle fingers.
Ex. 2 is the opposite of Ex. 1. Start each four-note grouping with all four fret-hand fingers in place, removing them one at a time until you’re left with your first finger on fret 1. In Ex. 3, switch things up a little with a 1-3-2-4 fingering pattern. On each string, after you play the notes on frets 1 and 3, have your second finger close to the string and ready to grab the second-fret note; and keep your second finger in place while you add the fourth-fret note to the pattern.
Ex. 4 shows yet another variation: 4–2–3–1. As with Ex. 2, start each four-note grouping by placing all four fingers on frets 1–4 of a given string. After you pick each fourth-fret note, lift your fourth and third fingers to play the second-fret note, then add the third fret note with your third finger before removing your third and second fingers to play the first-fret note.
Once you’ve worked through Ex. 1–4, try coming up with some of your own finger variations. Also, be sure to not just play these exercises in first position as demonstrated, but in as many positions as your guitar will allow.
Start working with four-note groupings that cover four different strings, as opposed to falling on the same string. Though these might not be chords per se, the exercises involve switching between discrete shapes and are therefore good training for chord switching.
Just like in the previous examples, play the notes on fret 1 with your first finger, those on fret 2 with your second, and so on. For each four-note grouping in Ex. 5–7, fret all four fingers at the same time. In other words, each measure will have two different fret-hand grips. If you’re using a plectrum, try sweep-picking—play each four-note group with a continuous downstroke or upstroke.
As before, play the exercises in all positions—try moving each one up the neck in half steps, for example, and feel free to experiment with other fingering combinations to create your own exercises.
Take on some exercises that involve finger independence—exercises inspired by classical-guitar etudes. In Ex. 8 and 9, play the first- and third-fret notes on beats 1 and 3 with your first and third fingers. Keeping them held in place while on beats 2 and 4, you play the second- and fourth-fret notes with your second and fourth fingers. These fingerings apply to the entirety of both examples. Use hybrid picking (pick and fingers) with your pick and middle finger. If you’re a fingerpicker, use a combination of your thumb and index finger or your thumb and middle finger.
Ex. 10, in which a sixth-string-rooted add 9 chord shape is moved up the neck, will give your fretting fingers a good four-fret stretch. Whether you’re using a pick or your thumb, strum this example entirely in downstrokes. Be sure to extend the pattern, ascending in half steps, as high on the neck as you can go. Do the same for Ex. 11, with a fifth-string-rooted grip.
Get stories like this in your inbox
In a similar vein, Ex. 12 involves a major-seventh shape with a two-fret stretch between the third and fourth fingers. If you ever encounter any pain when doing these stretches, stop before you injure yourself. Let your fret-hand fingers gradually acclimate to wider stretches.
Getting back to the discipline of finger independence, work on holding down a note with one finger while you use your other fingers to play melodies. This type of exercise is great for chord melodies—especially in jazz, where you really want to play the melody louder over each chord.
In Ex. 13, keep your first finger on the first-fret F while you play notes from the F major scale. Use alternate picking, starting with down- and upstrokes, or hydrid picking, switching between the pick and middle finger. Fingerpickers: Use a thumb-index or thumb-middle finger combo.
Use the same picking approach in Ex. 14, in E major, where your fourth finger is stationed at the fourth-fret G#. Close things out with Ex. 15, applying the concept to a longer etude. For good measure, try playing this last set of examples in closed positions—for instance, moving each note of Ex. 13 one fret higher to access the key of Gb major.
Years after I first started doing these exercises, I still use them as a quick warm-up before practicing, gigging, or recording. Doing the same will help keep your fretting fingers in tip-top shape.