Here’s an example of how you can take a very simple but effective picking drill, and almost instantly expand it into plenty more ideas. Check out this basic two-finger, two-string pattern:
As will be the case with all the examples in this post, the second bar is simply the first bar reversed. The next step is to add a third finger to the mix:
Pretty simple pattern, right? Here’s a variation that will really come in handy in working on 3-note-per-string scales:
This next variation alternates between groups of 4 and groups of 6. Take it slow at first, but when you get it up to speed, it sounds really cool.
Now let’s add the second finger, so we’re using all four. This is a great exercise for working on fretting finger independence, picking on multiple strings, and synchronization between both hands.
Let’s take a moment and recap the above exercises. Starting with the basic two-finger pattern at the top, we then added the other two fingers, one at a time. Picking directions indicate the usual down-up alternating pattern, but with these string-crossing parts, starting with an upstroke instead will work wonders for your picking hand. The goal is to be equally fluent and comfortable starting with either a downstroke or an upstroke.
As always, start at about 40-50% of your maximum rate at first, and internalize the patterns while identifying potential mechanical issues with either hand. The fingers on the fretting hand should be lifting a minimum distance off the fretboard between notes, and the picking hand motion should also be minimized. It’s always easier to spot any inefficiencies in technique when you’re well within your comfort zone. Use a metronome, track your progress, and keep an ongoing record so you can see your long-term improvement.
So starting with an upstroke is one way to create a useful variation on all these patterns. (Especially on the 3-finger variation that combines groups of 4 and groups of 6; the odd-numbered grouping per string on the sextuplets will force you to examine your picking technique.) But there are plenty of other simple, effective ways to reconfigure these patterns. One is to work these two-string patterns across the neck through all the adjacent string pairs:
You can see already where this one simple move, worked through all the previous variations, creates a ton of new exercises. And this is all in one position, using adjacent string pairs. So what about working the patterns up and down through multiple positions? What about non-adjacent string pairs? Can legato be used in these patterns? (Again, the groups of 4/6 combo pattern is a great one to work in some legato on the sextuplets.)
Another example is that, in the two-finger exercises, we were just focusing on the 1st and 4th fingers, at the 5th and 8th frets respectively. There are six possible ascending combinations of two fingers (1-2; 1-3; 1-4; 2-3; 2-4; 3-4), and they can all be run through those two-finger patterns — as well as reversed (descending).
The thing to really keep in mind about drills is that they are purely for warming up your hands, getting things moving, building fundamental dexterity and precision, and identifying any potential issues that might need further attention. Ideally this should be somewhere between 5 and 15 minutes. Certainly after 15 minutes of drills of this sort, your hands should be warmed up sufficiently, and you should be moving on to more musical aspects of practice.
We’ll be doing a short series on how to get the most out of your practice sessions in an upcoming set of posts. In the meantime, the drills we’ve gone over here, as well as all the possible variations, should give you plenty of additional material to rotate through your practice workouts.