Chromatic Patterns Part 2

In the last post, we looked at the 24 possible combinations for all four fingers, and paired them up as ascending and descending symmetrical patterns for easier memorization and practice. The idea with these sorts of exercises is to develop maximum independence in the fingers on the fretting hand.

So now we’ve taken the ascending and descending parts of our #1 fingering set, and worked on those pieces separately. The next logical step would be to combine the two, right? Let’s do it!
Cell/Loop:

Run:

Now reverse the combination, ascending with the descending pattern, then descending with the ascending pattern.

Another way to combine the mirrored patterns, rather than running one all the way up and the other all the way back down (or vice versa), is to alternate them one right after the other, all the way up and back. The cells and loops are the same for both sets of combinations, but the runs will change as seen below:

Let’s review the process of breaking down exercises into cells, loops, and runs:
• Practice the pattern cell a few times to get the rhythm and feel of the fingering pattern.
• Play the loop, gradually raising the tempo until you can no longer play it perfectly.
• Play the run as you did the loop, comparing maximum tempos for each to identify possible mechanical areas to work on.
• Play the full exercise, from the 1st to 12th fret and back down, on each string.

Some observations on the process:
• For the full exercise, feel free to adjust the range up the neck to a more comfortable area, if need be. The range should span an entire octave (12 frets).
• Use standard alternate picking (down-up-down-up) until you are satisfied that you have mastered the exercise. Then try reversing the picking motion (starting with an upstroke).
• Try fretting-hand techniques such as legato (hammer-ons/pull-offs).
• Try picking-hand techniques such as palm-muting.
• When working on ascending/descending fingering pairs, spend just enough time on the individual pieces to learn them, then move on to working them in combination. That’s where the greatest benefit to your technique will occur the most quickly.

Again, keep track of your maximum tempos as you work on these exercises and their component pieces. This will help you pinpoint areas in your technique to focus on, and will also allow you to track your progress.

Bending and Vibrato

As we mentioned in the Still Got the Blues lesson, one of the really cool things about the guitar is that there are techniques you can use to mimic human vocal sounds and styles. Two of the most powerful of these “vocalisms” are bending and vibrato. They are related, but not quite the same thing.

The thing about bending and vibrato is that they require your ears as much as your hands to accomplish successfully. For beginning players, this can be difficult, because you’re still in the process of training your ears to what sounds “right” or “in tune.” Rest assured that persistence will pay off when it comes to ear training, it just takes time and practice.

These techniques are difficult to teach as well, because they are more about feel than precision. That doesn’t mean that there’s not some precision involved, just that it’s not easy to convey with a simple tabbed lick to practice.

Vibrato

A good vibrato is characterized by being able to sustain the note long past it being initially picked. Keep pressure applied with the fretting finger for as long as you can, letting the note ring out. A minimal amount of motion with the finger, either back and forth, up and down, or “circular” (sort of a cross between the first two), will help sustain the note even longer. Bring your wrist into the motion a little bit as well, for stability and support. Some players will even use their forearms as well. Keep it simple until you get a better feel for it.

As the vibrato motion continues, the pitch of the note will alter microtonally (less than a quarter-tone). It’s important to not use so much vibrato that you end up off the note you were aiming for. Again, knowing how much is too much is mostly a matter of trial and error. Really listen to how much the note “shakes” when you apply even minimal vibrato motion.

You’ll find that it’s more difficult to apply vibrato (and bending) on the wound (lower-pitched) strings. Still not too bad, again it’s just something that takes practice and ear training.

Usually when we run through a scale or a melodic sequence the idea is to use a metronome to track and improve your precision and time. For this exercise, you don’t need a metronome at all. You really don’t need any tab, either. Simply work a basic chromatic position pattern from the low E string to the high E string. Start at the 7th position or higher, use each finger once per string, 1-2-3-4, low to high and then back down.

Do not worry about keeping a rhythm or playing in time for now. Just get a feel for sustaining the note, and giving it a little vibrato. Sustain each note for as long as you can, before moving on to the next note. You will probably find that the pinky finger is not very good at this by itself, so use your ring finger for added support. (You’ll need that for bending also.)

Work through the position pattern a few times, by then you should have a feel for what you’re striving for, and your ears and fingers are prepared. Then try it out all over the fretboard, any combinations you can think of. Play a three-note-per-string scale going from the low E string to the high E string, putting vibrato just on the last note before you go to the next string. See the tab below:

VibScale01

The above example doesn’t have to be played perfectly in time, but start trying to keep it at least to a rhythm. Slow to medium tempos work best for now, but even in faster songs, a well-placed bend or vibrato is a nice change of pace from a rapid-picked flurry of scale fragments.

As you get more comfortable with vibrato, start experimenting with widening the note as you’re sustaining it. It’s still not quite a half-step bend or more, but it’s more than the subtle microtonal changes we started with. Make that final note of the phrase sustain as long as possible without having to pick it again. It will take some trial and error but it will be well worth the effort.

There are great players of all genres, not just blues, that use vibrato very well. Rock players such as David Gilmour, Gary Moore, Frank Marino, and Zakk Wylde all have tremendous vibrato, as do countless other players of all styles. As you start hearing in your own playing the sound you’re trying for, you’ll start hearing it in the music you listen to as well. Obviously, that’s true for just about any technique, but it’s especially so for highly personalized techniques such as vibrato and bending. Like with anything else, imitate the greats, and then make it your own.

Bending

Bending is just like vibrato, only more so. (See, that was easy!) Successful string bending requires being able to push or pull the string considerably farther than vibrato, but the real difficulty is in maintaining pitch accuracy. You’re bending to another specific note, whether a half step, a full step, or even more. But you want to land accurately on that note at the right time, which requires even more feel and ear training.

For the higher-pitched strings (high E and B), you will be pushing the string straight up toward the ceiling. For the lower-pitched strings (low E and A), you’ll pull the string straight down toward the floor. For the two middle strings (D and G), it’s pretty much your call; there’s generally enough room on the neck to bend quite a bit without pushing or pulling the string off the neck (which chokes the note).

Again, learning how to bend with taste and feel requires training your ears just as much as your fingers. So let’s try a simple and effective exercise to train ears and fingers simultaneously in the nuances of bending strings. The idea here is to create a unison; you’ll play a regular picked note, and then bend up to that note from the string below it. Check the tab:

Bend03

Bend slowly at first, working up to the target pitch without going past it. You will probably need to use your ring finger to support and reinforce the pinky. Listen closely to the two notes, pick back and forth between them if you need to in order to remember your target. When the two notes ring together, you’re there.

The tuning between the G and B strings makes it easy to practice bends of a half step and a full step. Try both examples below:

Bend01

Bend02

Use your vibrato to work on holding the bent note as long as possible, at least into the next note. Listen closely to make sure that the bent note matches the note on the next string accurately. Just like with tuning, the two tones should match perfectly. Practice bending the note at different rates, quickly and slowly, the variations will give your ears and fingers a workout.

Bending down the neck on the lower strings is also cool for riffs. Here’s a simple but effective one used by countless bands over the years:

Bend06

For the last exercise, visualize the first two boxes of the E minor pentatonic scale, starting at the 12th fret. We’re just going to use the first three strings (E’-B-G) for this exercise:

Bend04

Again, don’t worry too much about perfect metronomic rhythm just yet, just try to keep it more or less in time. Now let’s try creating the highest notes on each string by bending the next note up to it, then releasing it back down to the original pitch:

Bend05

This one will definitely take some practice, so be patient, take it slow, and listen closely for the pitches of the bent notes to be accurate.

As always, make sure to try these out all over the fretboard, especially when you practice transposing the pentatonic boxes in various keys. Vibrato and bending are probably the two most important techniques that make up great phrasing, and let you find and create your own voice on the guitar.

Usually we’ll sign off with “stay tuned,” but when it comes to ear training, it’s extremely important to be accurately tuned. Unless you’re comfortable and experienced at tuning by ear, use a tuner to be certain. Have fun!

Tales from the Practice Monkey

Let’s talk about “practice” versus “jamming”, and how each is important to your development as a player. After several years of playing drums and then bass guitar, I picked up the six-string, motivated in no small part by lunch-hour excursions home from high school with my friends to crank up the first couple Van Halen albums, and ask “how’d he do that?” over and over again.

That was a great time to get started, to see the ongoing development of rock guitar, from giants such as Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and Jeff Beck (and so many more), to the fertile post-EVH boom of proto-shredders. Once I had mastered most of the Van Halen and Randy Rhoads material, I turned my attention to what at the time was unheard-of speeds of playing.

Players such as Paul Gilbert, Nuno Bettencourt, and Yngwie Malmsteen (and again, literally dozens of others) gave me an appreciation of where impeccable technique could be matched by real musicality. There was room for both, and players were experimenting with all sorts of unusual techniques and scales, and (just as important to me, as a learner trying to take in all these new sounds and styles) sharing tips and tricks with one another.

Tab was still in its infancy at the time, and things we take for granted now — such as, you know, home computing, websites, YouTube, software that enables you to create awesome neck diagrams and tabs with a few mouse clicks — were not even a dream. I still have a huge notebook, spiral-bound binder paper, full of handwritten tabs that I either copied out of magazines or created painstakingly, hunched over the guitar, working out one sweep-picked arpeggio at a time.

Also, we walked to school in the snow, uphill both ways, barefoot.

Anyway, it quickly became apparent that, having average manual dexterity, a systematic approach to learning all these great new tricks would be the best way to go. Many players (also, by definition, being in the middle of the bell curve) figured out the same thing, and started really taking practice seriously, and breaking down mechanical techniques into their most fundamental forms. It was still cool to blast Buck’s Boogie or Cat Scratch Fever with your older cousins when they were around and felt like playing, but it was clear that if you wanted to compete with guys like Paul Gilbert, it would take some time and preparation.

And when it came to breaking everything down to its mechanical basics, and providing some clues as to how much time you should really spend on acquiring a high level of technique, the great Steve Vai came along and threw down the gauntlet, hard, with his infamous 10-Hour Guitar Workout. The title alone tells you he’s not screwing around, right? (In fact, Vai later expanded upon the original for Guitar World magazine, creating an even more comprehensive article called The 30-Hour Path to Virtuoso Enlightenment, comprised of three 10-hour-per-day sessions.)

Such a level of commitment and dedication was nothing short of a challenge, and many players (including yours truly) wanted to see if we were up to it. There were days I would call in sick to work, and spend 10-12 hours with a stack of books and my Ibanez, going over scales and patterns and arpeggios and solos. It was a lot of fun, and a tremendous amount of work.

Even with that sort of lopsided, time-intensive commitment to anything, it’s important to leave at least some time for other things, for some sort of life balance. For probably 3-4 years, I probably never took a full day off, unless I was sick. There was always at least an hour or three, after work, on lunch break, watching football on the weekends, for practice. Where there’s a will there’s a way, as they say. But there was also time for riding motorcycles, for dating, for recreation, for reading, etc. Even so, most weeks were in the 30-40 hours of practice range, so it was basically like having a second full-time job.

After a few years of that, I became accustomed to referring to myself as a “practice monkey” — that is, someone obsessed with the mechanical minutiae of playing things that required very little active intelligence, merely rote memorization and pattern recognition. There’s nothing wrong with that; in fact, I still routinely use many of the pieces I learned at that time as practice material. But in retrospect, it may not have been the most balanced approach to things.

Don’t get me wrong; if there’s been one consistent theme here since day one, it’s that practice is vital, and it is defined distinctly from jamming (which is also important). Things like goal setting, tracking progress, closely observing fundamental motion in both hands, learning music theory, are all crucial to effective practice that will really accelerate your learning curve.

Or you can learn a few patterns and boxes you’re comfortable with, develop your ear to the point that you can hear where and how they fit, and write songs based around that. Which is a perfectly valid approach to the instrument. But there’s a lot more you can get out of real practice, with time and attention, and that sort of thing is not really “practice” anyway, but jamming. And again, that’s fine.

If you’re one of those players who, once you pick up the guitar and start learning, you know that you’ll never stop learning or playing, then you know what I’m getting at here. The old bit about it being a journey and not a destination holds true. The thing to recognize is that over such a course of many years of playing, your focus will (and should) shift from one to the other, from an emphasis on practicing mechanics and technique, to spending the majority of your playing time on improvising and composing.

Back in the 30-40 hours of practice per week days, probably 80% of that time was spent on mapping various patterns all over the neck — scales, modes, arpeggios, chords, etc. Included in that would be time spent on learning classical pieces like we frequently tab here, and solos from songs I liked. The remaining 20% would be left for more jamming-oriented playing. Included in that would be composing riffs and progressions, writing and arranging songs.

As time has passed, that ratio has shifted, probably to almost the opposite — while my weekly playing time is closer to the 10-12 hour range these days, probably 75-80% is spent jamming and noodling around. The patterns have been long ago internalized, and putting them together, running through them randomly, and finding progressions over which to apply them, is the whole point of learning them in the first place.

So while we spend most of our time here going over scales and patterns and classical pieces and exercises to memorize, please keep in mind that these things are just a means to an end, not an end in themselves. The object is not to hone your mechanical dexterity until you can play a C major scale pattern at a thousand beats per minute, it’s to help you attain a solid level of mechanical ability and musical understanding in a shorter length of time, so that you then have the ability to play whatever you come up with, whether it’s composition or improvisation. It’s a matter of getting your hands, ears, eyes, and brain all on the same page, working together effortlessly.

Think of it as a continuum, starting with a ton of practice and some jamming, to eventually the other way around. And again, jamming is the arena where you apply the patterns you’ve drilled on for so many hours. If you’ve played organized sports, you know the dynamic right away — you work out with weights and cardio (basic motion) to get physically conditioned to execute without too much strain, then you drill on specific movements that you will need in a playing situation. Then comes the game; then you play. That’s the difference between practice and jamming.

Realize that it takes time to learn all the patterns and pieces that we’re going over on this site, and even more time to put them all together in some sort of coherent context (which is music theory). Understand that all that material gets learned a piece at a time, and will take repeated visits to learn and internalize and commit to memory. Keep it all in perspective; no matter who your favorite player is, no matter how brilliant they are, it took them years of patience and dedication — and yes, practice — to get their playing to the level that you’re hearing.

In the meantime, be persistent and consistent in learning the patterns, and take advantage of the tools at your disposal. If you can’t afford recording software, go grab a free copy of Audacity, and record some basic grooves to improvise over. Don’t feel like you need to write songs right away, unless that’s your focus; if you’re a lead guitarist by nature, record some simple progressions that have a clear key, then move on to more complex progressions and songwriting as your ear becomes more attuned.

Above all, if you find yourself in “practice monkey” mode, make sure that the time you put in is matched up to concrete goals, short- and long-term. Take at least some time during the week to apply the things you’ve been working on.

And when you hit the inevitable wall or rut, don’t be afraid to put the guitar down and take a walk, hang out with friends, just get away from it for a while.

Learning to Read Tab and Notation

A very common question among players is whether they really need to learn to read music. Some will just dive right into reading tab and standard notation, and figure it out, while for others, it seems too much like work, time taken away from actually playing. It is mostly that latter group that asks if knowing how to read music is necessary.

And the answer is both yes and no, which can be frustrating for most people. Which is it, yes or no? As with many things, it depends. Look, if you just want to learn a few songs, a couple of pentatonic boxes, keep it real and play completely by ear, you can definitely do that. There are countless musicians who have had legendary careers, who cannot read music and do not know theory. If you can navigate your way around to where your ear can hear what you like, and you know the patterns to create those sounds, you can write plenty of songs in that style.

When talking about “reading,” especially for guitar, it helps to make a distinction between standard notation and tablature. Unless you’re learning jazz or classical guitar, learning standard notation is not as critical a skill. (But it certainly doesn’t hurt.) Tab, on the other hand, is essential to getting anywhere beyond the absolute basics. Almost any song or exercise that will further your development is going to at least be in tab.

The best analogy I can think of as to why it’s worthwhile to at minimum learn to read tab has to do with reading in general. You want to be able to read any book or magazine or publication you might pick up, so you learn what sounds letters make, separately and in combination, how to put words and phrases together, etc. It’s the same with music — you can figure out by ear how to play this or that song, but to grab a tab book or a piece of sheet music and make it sound like something, that takes an understanding of the basics of reading tab.

And reading tab really isn’t that difficult, for the most part. Aside from seeing the fret/string combination and being able to play it as you read it, the other major feature that needs some study and attention is note values and rhythm. This means understanding the difference between a quarter note and a 16th note, or a triplet or odd grouping, which is mostly being able to tap your foot to a beat and count it out.

Learning to read notation is somewhat trickier, because the guitar is considered a transposing instrument, and so is written in standard notation one octave lower than it actually sounds. This can be confusing at first.

Also, unlike other instruments, the guitar has more than one location to play most notes. Take a middle C note for example — there’s only one place to play that note on a piano, but five locations on guitar (1st fret, 2nd string; 5th fret, 3rd string; 10th fret, 4th string; 15th fret, 5th string; 20th fret, 6th string). The context of the music and the practicality of the location (most people are not going to play that note on the 20th fret of the low E string) will help determine where to play the note. But it still can be difficult to properly sight-read (that is, read the music while playing it, in real time) standard notation, where with a little bit of practice, sight-reading tab is fairly simple and straightforward.

Some players have a fear that learning to read music, or learning theory, will affect the way in which they approach and play their music. This is not entirely unfounded — since there are only so many hours in the day or week available to practice and study, it’s reasonable to believe that excessive amounts of time spent on learning theoretical concepts will take away from learning the practical applications — that is, songs — of those concepts.

But with practice time that is properly segmented and prioritized, you can do both — learn useful concepts that will advance your understanding of music in general and guitar in particular, and more importantly, how to apply those ideas. It doesn’t take that much time, either — a 15-minute segment of your practice routine, over the course of several weeks or months, should be sufficient to internalize your ability to read tab, and use it to apply your own musical ideas.

Learning to sight-read standard notation is a worthwhile effort, because it will make a wider variety of music (again, primarily jazz and classical) available to learn. But it should be noted that it will take substantially more time and effort than learning to read tab. If you’re “starting from scratch” and don’t know how to read tab or notation, but would like to learn both, I would suggest starting with tab and progressing to notation once tab has been mastered (in other words, you can sight-read and play an unfamiliar page of tab in real time).

In the next few weeks, we’ll do a “quick and dirty” rundown on the basics of reading tab, and put that into a 1-2 page cheat sheet for the Resources page.

Melodic Warmup Exercise

If there’s two things we like here at PTG, when devising useful exercises, one is to keep it as simple as possible, and the second is to combine musical ideas with mechanical concepts. This post and the next will show some ideas that address both those areas.

We’re going to look at the B-G-D string trio, in the seventh position. Let’s take a simple triad progression and see what we can do with it:

MelWarm01

Pay special attention to the fingering, because this is where it becomes somewhat challenging. The first chord, A7, uses (in order from lowest note to highest) the 1-3-2 fingers, while the next chord (G with B root, also known as an inversion) is fingered 3-1-2. So as you transition from the A7 to the G/B, keep the second (middle) finger in place on that G note (B string, 8th fret). Simply switch the first and third fingers as you go from the A7 to the G/B.

Next, on the B triad, you can see that the fingering is just 3-2-1. Easy enough. This time, as you transition from G/B to B, keep the third finger stationary on the B note (D string, 9th fret). You just trade places with your first and second fingers, between the G and B strings, and 7th and 8th frets.

The fourth and final chord in our single-position mini-progression is a C triad, exactly the same as the B triad immediately before it, just one position higher. You can easily slide shift the 3-2-1 fingering up one fret to play this, but to keep this challenging (it is an exercise, after all) use the 4-3-2 fingering shown in the notation. You may want to isolate this further and just work back and forth between the B (3-2-1 fingering) and C (4-3-2) triads until it feels comfortable. This is a very simple but effective exercise for finger independence.

When you feel comfortable working through the entire four-chord sequence, and can do it smoothly and cleanly, keeping the suggested fingers in place during the transitions, you’re ready to use the progression for melodic picking exercises. Let’s take a very simple four-note version of this:

MelWarm02

As always, start slow and smooth, use a metronome to keep in tempo, use strict alternate picking, and pay particular attention on the transitions from one chord to the next. The first transition (from A7 to G/B) may be somewhat tricky, in that you are moving your 3rd finger from the 9th fret on the G string to the 9th fret on the D string for consecutive notes. Again, take it slow and it will fall under your fingers before you know it.

As with any picking exercise, make sure to try as many picking hand techniques (palm muting, sweep picking, etc.) as you can think of. Mix and match these techniques, come up with progressions of chords and triads of your own. Use the chords section here (scroll down on that page) for ideas, and listen to how the chords flow and resolve when sequenced together.

Here’s a variation on our triad sequence, using sweep-picked triplets:

MelWarm03

With these back-and-forth sweep picking exercises, try to achieve a smooth “rolling” sound. Observe the motion of your picking hand, and where the “turnaround” point is from downstroke to upstroke and vice versa. Instead of coming to an abrupt halt to change direction, keep it smooth and even. Think of your regular alternate picking on a single string, and how the picking motion is constant, and not start-stop-start-stop. Sweeping across multiple strings is basically an extended version of that motion, in terms of the distance your picking hand travels.

Definitely come up with chord and shape ideas of your own and put them together. Print a bunch of blank tab and chord sheets, and keep them handy when you’re practicing, so you can sketch out these ideas as you come up with them. Don’t worry too much about figuring out which scale or chord they “belong” to yet, the main thing is that it sounds cool to you, and that you get it written down for future reference. You can figure out the theory later if you want.

The next post will explore a melodic variation on the single position exercise, stay tuned!

1-2-3-4 Go

Let’s take a look at a simple but effective exercise that will develop kick-ass alternate-picking chops for you, and synchronize your picking and fretting hands like you won’t believe.

The cool thing about this exercise is how simple the premise is, and that it can be plugged into just about any scale formation you like — chromatic, major, minor, etc. For this post, we’re going to use our old faithful basic pentatonic box. The only rule is strict alternate picking, you can start with a downstroke or an upstroke. Of course, you should definitely use a metronome.

1234-01

Easy enough, right? Okay, now let’s play through the scale again — but this time, play each note twice.

1234-02

Play the entire pattern, and observe throughout how your picking motion changes from playing each note once to playing each note twice.

You can see where this is going now, but let’s throw in rhythmic variations to keep it interesting. Play the sextuplet figure shown below:

1234-03a

Now play the same thing in a “straight four” rhythm. Notice how it affects your sense of picking and rhythm, even though it’s the exact same sequence of notes.

1234-03b

Let’s move on to playing each note four times.

1234-04a

Finally, the same 4-note figure played in triplet/sextuplet rhythm. Check it out:

1234-04b

The possibilities for this idea are practically infinite — you can (and should!) do this with all five pentatonic boxes, as well as any scale, any pattern, any melodic sequence, any number of strings. You can of course keep going in terms of numbers, repeating each note five, six, seven times or more.

Pay close attention to how your picking motion changes, from odd numbers of notes to even numbers, and at points where you go from one string to another. Refining the picking and string-crossing motions are the most important part of developing a solid alternate-picking technique.

Here’s the printable PDF for all parts of this exercise:

1234

Refer back through the various scale and pattern exercises here if you need ideas to work through. At the very least, you can work through major, minor, harmonic minor, and chromatic scales, in all the various positions and string combinations (3-note-per-string; 4-note-per-string; single-string; etc.). Melodic sequencing patterns, string skipping, and arpeggios are also fair game.

Definitely use the metronome to keep your rhythm tight (especially for the 3-on-4 and 4-on-3 variations) and track your tempo and progress. Work toward minimizing picking-hand motion and distance moved for alternate picking and string crossing. As simple as the idea is, you can see how applying it everywhere and anywhere will keep you busy for some time. Have fun!

5 Basic Warm-ups

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:

  1. Fretting — This includes all fingering sequences and combinations, first on a single string, then incorporating more strings.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

BW_1-01

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:

BW_1-02

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:

BW_1-03

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.

BW_1-04

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:

BW_2-01

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.

BW_2-02

The third pattern changes from triplet rhythm to straight fours, another minor but important change.

BW_3-01

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).

BW_3-02

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.

BW_3-03

As always, combining the horizontal and vertical is where both hands achieve maximum efficiency, and technique starts improving:

BW_3-04

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:

BW_4-01

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):

BW_4-02

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:

BW_4-03

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.

BW_5-01

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:

BW_5-02

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.

BW_5-03

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.

5 Basic Warm-ups

We’ll cover intermediate and advanced warm-up patterns in future posts. Have fun!

The Right Mindset

Have you ever made a resolution for the new year, and failed to follow through on it? Losing weight, getting in shape, learning a foreign language, mastering a musical instrument — most of us have at one time or another made a promise to ourselves, and by the end of January, have given up on it. It happens to the best of us.

Concepts such as “excellence” and “mastery” are loaded terms, in that they tend to produce unrealistic expectations. The culture bombards us with quick-fix solutions, promising to “solve” your “problem” in five minutes or less. It’s as easy as taking a pill.

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, and pardon my French, but that’s bullshit, folks. Things like excellence and mastery are indeed goals worth striving for, but it must be understood that those things are produced by habits, and as such, don’t have a tidy, finite timeline. They shouldn’t take huge amounts of time or ability, but they do require consistency.

Most of us are familiar with the idea that if you do something for about 28 consecutive days (the number varies, usually between 21 and 30 days), it becomes an ingrained habit. This is true for just about anything you set about doing to improve yourself. If you eat less and exercise more, and keep track of your intake and your weight as you go along, you will almost definitely see real results.

On the other hand, if you binge-diet and have a marathon workout session on Saturday, but sit around and gorge on pizza the rest of the week, not only will you not lose weight, but you’ll probably be sore, because your muscles will not be conditioned to be punished once a week. Your body is a machine, and will respond according to how you treat it.

The same goes for your brain, which is where good habits are built and maintained. So it’s important to get in the right frame of mind. The first and most important thing to remember is that, while the ideas can be learned in just a few minutes, and can be maintained in probably 30-45 minutes a day, 4-5 times per week, you still have to do it. Think of it like the game of chess — it takes about ten minutes to learn the rules, but years, even lifetimes to master.

The next thing is to be realistic about your expectations. Most of us are motivated to make the jump from listener to player because we heard someone who inspired us with their talent. It could be speed, precision, musicality, the perfect melody over the perfect chord progression, any or all of those things. I can guarantee you that nobody gets that good overnight. It takes patience, practice, persistence. It takes time.

You have to be willing to give yourself enough time. If you pick up the guitar as a rank beginner on January 1st, you have to understand going into it that you will not be Eddie Van Halen by January 31st. You won’t be EVH by January 31st of the next year. But if you develop consistent practice habits, take it a bite at a time, and work on the right materials with clear, realistic short-term goals, you will see progress, guaranteed.

So don’t be too hard on yourself if you’re not as far along as you think you should be at a given moment. Observe your strengths as a player, and work on them, because those are the elements that will be the foundation of your style. Observe also the things you need to improve, and find and develop materials to address them. Use a metronome and track your progress. Then do it all over again tomorrow, and the next day, and so on.

No one is Paul Gilbert or Joe Satriani right out of the box — those players will be the first ones to tell you the same thing. In guitar, just as in the rest of life, persistence beats talent in the long run, every time; in fact, persistence is what it takes to develop talent.

Set realistic short-term goals for yourself, such as learning a new scale in several different positions in a week, or six or eight songs in a month. Some goals you’ll meet right on schedule, some you might come close but not quite “on time.” That’s fine, just finish up and move on to the next goal. You’ll be pleasantly surprised how quickly all those modest goals build into a formidable technique and style.

As always, play hard and have fun!

6 Essential Pentatonic Licks and Sequences

Let’s take a look at some more melodic phrases and patterns from the pentatonic minor scale. These are based on the first two of the five A minor boxes, and you should definitely work the patterns across all the boxes, on all strings, in as many keys as you can think of. Check out the Pentatonic cheat sheet from the Resources page for reference on all five boxes (in A minor).

The first two boxes, with the b5 note (blues scale):

Box1   Box2

The first pattern is a classic 2-finger, 2-string riff, fretted with just the index and pinky fingers. Check out the tab below:

Pent_01

Try out both picking suggestions, straight down-up alternate picking and with some legato thrown in, for a smoother sound.

For even more legato, try the variation below:

Pent_01a

As always with legato, try to keep a smooth, even tone and consistent volume for all the notes in the phrase. The picking directions are suggestions; if another way works better for you, stick with that.

Here’s another cool 2-string phrase, which might be easier to play at higher speeds; again trying alternate picking and legato variations:

Pent_02

This is a good phrase to get maximum legato with:

Pent_02a

Two-finger phrases are ideal, since they’re easy to play fast, and simple to move around the fretboard. This repeating sequence is based in the middle of the first box, and incorporates the flatted fifth “blue note” (Eb):

Pent_03

Phrases with 3 and 6 notes sound really cool played in groups of four. Try the above phrase as a quick four-on-the-floor sequence:

Pent_04a1

Pent_04a2

Now try it an octave higher, which puts the phrase on the B and high E strings, and moves up to the 2nd pentatonic box:

Pent_04b

Melodic sequences are fun to play and sound cool when played at a fast tempo, but it’s important to apply parts of those sequences into actual melodic phrases that really sing in a solo. Check out the tab below, which throws in some nice chromatic phrasing with the sequence, ending up in the first pentatonic box:

Pent_05

The final lick has more chromatic notes thrown in the mix than the previous example, and again moves from the second box to the first. Dig in on the closing notes for added emphasis.

Pent_06

It’s great to have an arsenal of licks that use multiple positions, and navigate around the neck. Again, refer to the cheat sheet on the Resources page, and work through all five boxes, and come up with phrases of your own that weave through two, three, or all five boxes.

Coming Soon — More PTG Books for Kindle!

Hope you’ve all been enjoying the Kindle books we’ve released here at PTG all summer. We have several more in various stages of development, including one that is nearing completion and should be ready for release early September.

This next book will be a departure from the classically-oriented material we’ve been doing, and it’s something we’ve had a lot of folks asking for. The book will review the five pentatonic boxes, and will dozens of cool phrases you can use in each of those boxes.

There will also be brief explanations, for less experienced players, on how and why this stuff works, and how to use all the little “vocal” sounds the guitar can make that most other instruments can’t. If you’re looking for something that will take your playing to the next level, and that you can put to use right away, this is the book for you!

Stay tuned, we’ll have release dates coming soon, plus free download dates for the entire PTG library!