Just as it takes solid practice habits to develop good technique and improvisational style, it takes a solid warm-up routine to get your hands ready to practice effectively. There are virtually countless exercises you can do to prepare both hands, but let’s go over a few basic warm-up patterns that emphasize mechanics, that you can easily tweak and incorporate your own ideas into.
Keep It Simple
While the amount of time and experience playing will tend to dictate the kinds of things you use to warm up, the one thing to remember is to keep the whole thing as simple as possible. All you want to do with a warm-up routine is exactly that — warm your hands up, prepare the muscles to do a little heavy lifting. Just as an athlete stretches out and does a few light exercises before running serious practice drills, you need to get all the muscles in your hands and fingers ready to exert themselves.
So make sure, right from the start, that your hands are actually warm, or at least not cold. Cold temperatures will cause muscles and nerves to contract, and if you attempt to practice or play with truly cold hands, you will run a greater risk of pain or injury to those muscles. Take a minute and stretch and flex each hand by itself, isometrically. Make a fist, squeeze a little, unclench and stretch out the fingers as much as you can without pain, and repeat a few times. Rub the large muscle in each palm (at the base of the thumb) with your other hand for 30 seconds or so. The idea is to get your joints and muscles warm and loose.
Over the years, I’ve accumulated a bunch of quick, melodic classical etudes and pieces that I like to use for short warm-up routines. As your experience and style develop, you’ll add these sorts of things into your warm-ups: pieces of songs, melodic patterns, blues licks, a few bars of playing advanced techniques (string skipping, sweep picking, etc). But it’s generally best to start out with a few quick “mechanical” patterns that use all four fingers, in various sequences.
Most players will find that the 3-4 (ring-pinky) and 4-3 fingering sequences to be the most problematic. Like anything else, take it slow and work it up to whatever speed you can, making sure it’s smooth and precise. Keep an eye out for any other patterns or combinations that present a challenge, and devise your own short exercises to address those issues.
3 Things to Work On
Let’s break this down to mechanical basics. Just about any exercise addresses one (or more) of three simple concepts:
- Fretting — This includes all fingering sequences and combinations, first on a single string, then incorporating more strings.
- Picking — This includes alternate picking (usually starting with a downstroke, but also practice beginning phrases with an upstroke), as well as legato, palm muting, sweep picking, and string skipping.
- Position Shifting — Just what it sounds like: moving up and down the neck, ideally with the same level of effort as playing in a single position.
We’ll take a look at five warm-up routines that should address foundational technique for any style of player. The reason they are referred to as “basic” is because they focus totally on mechanical (as opposed to melodic or musical) ideas, getting all the fingers involved in as many ways as possible.
To the extent that there are ground rules for warming up, they go more or less as follows:
- You should spend no more than 10-15 minutes max warming up. In fact, five minutes can frequently be enough. Just go until your hands feel loose and ready to practice hard.
- Don’t worry about using a metronome. You can do so if you want to make sure you’re playing in time, but unlike practice, warming up does not need to be tracked or optimized for mechanical efficiency. However, all of these exercises can and should be incorporated here and there into your regular practice routine, where (hopefully) you’re using a metronome, and tracking progress.
- While there are only five basic exercises here, you’ll see that we also provide you with a lot of patterns, sequences, and variations to “plug into” each of them. There is no way (or need) to play all of them in any one sitting. The idea is to give you plenty of material to rotate in and out of your warm-up routines as you choose, and hopefully serve as starters for ideas to develop on your own.
Because the exercises are “chromatic” in nature, they are tabbed as if starting at the 1st fret, and working all the way up the neck (at least to the 12th fret) and back. This is ideal for navigating the fretboard. However, if you have smaller hands, you may prefer to start further up the neck, around the 7th fret or so, and working from there. In fact, there are more advanced warm-up exercises (which we’ll look at in a future post) that should be started up at the 12th or 15th fret, and worked down the neck, and you may not be able to work them all the way down to the 1st position. That’s okay, that’s what practice is for, right?
Here’s the first pattern, a simple triplet figure that uses all four fingers, 1-2-3 up and 4-3-2 back down:
Naturally, warming up with strict alternate picking gets both hands going pretty quickly. Make sure also to try these patterns legato, to get each fretting finger up to speed, maintaining even tempo and dynamics:
With any pattern, but especially purely mechanical ones, you want to work them across the neck on all six strings, and up and down the neck in as many positions as possible:
The above tab is a great example of combining the “horizontal” and “vertical” aspects of a pattern. Below is an example of working the pattern up and down the neck along a single string, which is a fantastic way to work on position shifting.
For warming up, it’s probably enough to go back and forth between two positions, maybe four positions at the most; for an actual practice exercise, I would recommend covering at least 8 to 12 positions.
Observe the slight (but important) differences between shifting up and shifting down, you may even want to isolate these and practice each “direction” separately.
Those of you who are mathematically inclined have probably already figured out how many different fingering combinations are possible (using each finger just once). The second pattern is a small but crucial switch in fingering — instead of 1-2-3 ascending, 4-3-2 descending, let’s switch the 2nd and 3rd fingers in both ascending and descending sequences:
Just plugging in the few variations from the first pattern (alternate picking; legato; across the neck; up and down the neck) provides tons of possibilities.
The third pattern changes from triplet rhythm to straight fours, another minor but important change.
Remember that the triplet and straight-four rhythms can be played “against” each other; that is, playing a triplet pattern in straight-four rhythm (or vice versa) creates a “3 on 4” (or “4 on 3”) effect, That’s probably more ideal for practice than warming up, but it’s something to keep in mind, as those polyrhythmic effects can add a ton of flavor to your playing — and has the added benefit of sounding more complicated than it actually is!
You can also start these patterns descending, rather than ascending (you can also start your alternate picking with an upstroke).
Adjacent string pairs are ideal for quickly bringing both hands up to speed, as the picking hand is forced to go from one string to the next, and back again. Again, working in repetitive “cells” of two positions (no more than four) really allows you to focus and observe what both hands are doing, and where any mechanical issues might need attention.
As always, combining the horizontal and vertical is where both hands achieve maximum efficiency, and technique starts improving:
The next pattern is a classic exercise known far and wide as the “Trill Drill”. The idea is to take all six possible two-finger combinations (1-2; 1-3; 1-4; 2-3; 2-4; 3-4), and do a minute of each, just trilling (hammer-ons and pull-offs). Just pick the first note (or don’t).
Don’t worry about speed, you can practice or warm up at any tempo with this. The purpose of the Trill Drill is to achieve a smooth, even sound. The “lower” finger serves as an anchor, and is usually the stronger of any given fingering pair, but the idea is to get the “weaker” finger to a comparable level of ease and smoothness.
The first three should be fairly simple, using the index finger as the anchor:
As with all of these warm-up patterns, you can (and should) try them at as many positions and on as many strings as possible. The main reason for tabbing them in the 1st position is because it shows the fingering as well, making the pattern easier to internalize. But definitely try these out anywhere and everywhere on the fretboard.
The Trill Drill gets progressively more difficult, as we move along the hand to the next anchor finger (middle finger):
For warming up, a few bars of each should suffice. For an actual practice situation, make sure to use a metronome, so that you stay in tempo, and go for a full minute for each trill. One minute doesn’t sound like much, does it? But you’ll find out pretty quickly that trying to keep a smooth, dynamically consistent sound at a single tempo for that long will test your stamina, especially on the weaker fingers.
The last one is a bear, even for advanced players:
Again, for warm-up purposes, just burn through a few bars of each to get the fingers moving. But this is a valuable exercise to practice, and will give you excellent legato technique.
The final pattern is designed to stretch your fretting hand out a bit, and should be started up the neck somewhere. We’ve tabbed it at the 7th position, but if your hands are small or you don’t have much experience with these types of patterns, try it further up the neck. If you feel any acute pain at any point, stop. You don’t want to risk any sprain or muscle injury.
This pattern uses the 1st (index) and 4th (pinky) fingers only.
Play the pattern as a repeated, single position “cell,” not too fast. If you’ve seen some of our past posts on sequencing, this is a cool pattern to try out some sequencing as well:
Again, because of the stretch, don’t worry about working the pattern up and down the neck, just across the strings and back. Come up with other sequencing patterns on your own.
Finally (and again, you may want to move this up the neck to a more comfortable position), try incorporating the 2nd and 3rd finger into the stretch pattern.
The one-fret gap between the 1st and 2nd fingers, and the 3rd and 4th fingers, will be challenging. Notice that there is no such gap between the 2nd (middle) and 3rd (ring) fingers — the muscles in the hand that allow for finger stretching and flexibility are generally not as strong or well-developed between those two fingers. If you do attempt the stretch between those two fingers, try it way up the neck (like around the 17th fret or so), take it slow, and be careful.
These five basic warm-up patterns should give you plenty of ideas for patterns and variations to try out. The link below is a PDF containing all the material covered here, suitable for printing. Please feel free to share it, as long as it’s for free and properly attributed.
We’ll cover intermediate and advanced warm-up patterns in future posts. Have fun!