Melodic Warm-up Exercise

Here’s a cool 16-bar run I’ve been using a lot lately for a warmup exercise. It focuses on a couple of important techniques, gets your hands moving quickly, and gives your ears something to listen to besides straight scales and chromatics. Let’s break it down into two sections.

First things first:  the entire piece is in sextuplets, in 6/8 time. As always, every note should be alternate-picked until you feel like you’ve mastered the progression at a decent tempo, at which point you can and should experiment with the usual dynamics (especially palm-muting and legato). Usually with a warmup piece you don’t really worry so much about using a metronome and keeping strict tempo, but for this piece it would probably help to use one at first, again to the point that you feel comfortable with the progression and techniques.

The piece breaks down into two main sections, six and ten bars respectively. Let’s break down the first six-bar section:

Bars 1-4

mw01

This is a six-note motif, with the root note descending chromatically against a repeated C-D-D#-D-C line, until bar 4, where the 5-note line played against the root becomes C-D-C-F#-C and the picking scheme changes substantially from having that F# note played on the D string instead of the G string. Take that 4th bar slowly at first, until the slight difference in picking sequence feels comfortable.

Bars 5-6 (see above)

One of my favorite melodic maneuvers, ascending triads using chromatic inversions. This sequence essentially functions as the melodic “bridge” between the two main sections. Check the chord implications throughout the piece, and use them for ideas for your own study pieces, progressions, or songs.

Bars 7-10

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The rest of the piece is string skipping, so if you’re not comfortable with that technique, you should be fluent with it after mastering this short piece. Bars 7 and 9 are identical, and 8 and 10 are symmetrical, as diminished triads repeat every three frets, and are musically enharmonic. That’s why in bar 10 the arpeggio is shown as C#° (A#°/G°/E°), as it is technically all four of those things, because of the symmetrical nature of the diminished scale.

Bars 11-16

mw03 mw04

The string-skipping progression continues chromatically in bars 11-12, before heading into a “classical” cycle-of-fifths (E-B-D-A-C-G) progression in bars 13-15, before resolving on the B in the final bar. The stretches in bar 12 are wide, and a simple alternative to that is shown below. It can be either alternate or sweep picked; obviously, I would suggest you try both.

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As always, get the progression comfortable under your fingers, increase the tempo, try various guitar dynamics, and especially throw in some melodic and harmonic changes of your own. As long as it sounds good, warms up your hands and ears, and gets you working on specific techniques, it’s good. Have fun!

More Riffs for Technique

A great way to build technical chops and musicality, and get a break from running the same old scales and patterns over and over, is to take a song or riff that can be used to highlight a certain technique, and use it as warm-up material. Let’s take a look at a few quick and easy riffs from classic (if lesser-known) songs, that will build finger independence and picking technique.

The first example is very similar to the melodic riff from the beginning and end to Rush’s ’70s epic Xanadu.

MR_01

Probably the first thing you’ll notice here is that it’s in a 7/8 time signature. If you haven’t played much outside of 4/4 or 3/4, this is a good opportunity to try out a fairly simple odd time signature. It’s as simple as counting out a beat.

In 4/4 time, you would count “1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and-1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and” to play a single bar, with each counted beat being a 16th note. For the above 7/8 bar, you simply drop the last “4-and”.

So, “1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and-1-and-2-and-3-and”, repeat. It takes a little bit of getting used to, like anything else, but time signatures such as 7/8, 9/8, or 5/4, where a single beat is added or removed, are easier to adjust to.

(Using the above counting example, you would count out a 9/8 beat as “1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and-1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and-5-and“. Stick with nailing the feel for 7/8 for now.)

The next thing you’ll see is that the riff is simply the same 7-note pattern played twice, and because of the odd number, in strict down-up alternate picking, the picking pattern for the second time is exactly reversed from the first. So the first note, E (9th fret, G string) is played with a downstroke the first time, an upstroke the second time. This is a really handy riff for practicing “inside” and “outside” picking, for adjacent and skipped strings.

Finally, all four fretting fingers are used to play the riff (which is a sequenced E major scale), and in patterns you may not have practiced before.

So in one mighty little riff, you get to work on:

  • Odd time signature
  • Inside and outside picking
  • String skipping
  • Melodic sequencing
  • Finger independence

Pretty cool.

The next riff is similar to the late-’80 Yngwie Malmsteen song, Déja Vu.

MR02a MR02b

The first two bars of the riff are played four times, before shifting to the third bar. The best way to go about learning this riff is one bar at a time, putting the first two together before moving on to the third bar. Make sure you can play the first two bars together, repeated in a continuous loop (at least 4-5 times without stopping) at a modest tempo (at least 96-100 bpm) before working on the third bar.

The riff and song are in F#m, a good key for rock and metal playing. The first bar is simply a four-note ascending sequence, moving up the F#m scale (F# G# A B C# D E) one step at a time. Before getting to the E (7th degree) in the scale, the second bar of the riff shifts to a nice descending pedal-point sequence, which requires a tricky shift toward the end of the bar. Take it slow, work it up to speed, and pair it up with the first bar, before moving on to the third bar off the riff, which is an extended F#m arpeggio.

Notice that the suggested picking for the third bar mostly involves sweep picking. The fingering is only a suggestion, try different fingers, depending on where and how you decide to shift as you go through the arpeggio. The main thing, as far as the picking and fretting suggestions go, is to keep it sounding smooth and effortless.

It will take some doing to get any or all of this riff up to the tempo that Malmsteen plays in the original song, but the primary goal is just to highlight some specific techniques:

  • Alternate picking
  • Sweep picking
  • Melodic sequencing
  • Pedal point
  • Position shifting
  • Arpeggios

The final riff we’ll look at is similar to one of the main riffs from Dream Theater’s The Root of All Evil. John Petrucci is a master of fast, tricky, melodically sequenced riffs, and this is actually one of his simpler ones.

MR03

Simple is frequently more effective than complex, as far as writing songs and riffs goes, and this riff is a good example of that principle. And yet every finger is utilized, and there’s some position shifting, and the beats on which you cross from one string to the other may be a bit unpredictable at first. Melodically, Petrucci incorporates chromatic notes to nice effect.

  • Alternate picking
  • Position shifting
  • Finger independence
  • Chromatics

Have fun with these riffs, and try to think of others from songs you enjoy, that help pinpoint specifics techniques you want to work on.

Intermediate Warm-ups: Using Riffs to Build Technique

Continuing from the recent post on warm-up routines, let’s take a look at some ideas that will help you connect technical ideas with musical ideas. One of the best ways to do that is by finding familiar songs and riffs that highlight particular techniques, and use them as practice pieces.

We’re going to look at three riffs in the style of classic rock/metal songs that will build your picking hand strength, stamina, and accuracy. For the most part, use down-up alternate picking, except as indicated. Definitely use a metronome. Strive not only to play the riff at its original tempo, but to exceed that tempo if possible.

The first riff is similar to Ozzy’s classic Crazy Train. Take it slow until the pattern feels comfortable. Maintain strict alternate picking throughout, and use the suggested fingering. This is a great riff to work on those tricky 1-3-4 fingering combinations.

R01

Next up is the opening riff to Guns ‘n’ Roses Sweet Child o’ Mine. Slash has mentioned in interviews over the years that it was a warm-up exercise long before it became the intro to a massively popular song.

R02

Try the suggested fingering, and definitely use alternate picking throughout. This is a fantastic riff for string skipping, and for working on the 3-4 fingering combination.

The third song we’ll look at is a true metal classic, and one of my favorite songs ever to just fire up the amp and play loud. Pantera’s Cowboys from Hell is one of those killer Dimebag Darrell riffs that, if you walk into a guitar shop and crank it out with conviction and authority, with a good crunchy tone, people will stop what they’re doing and listen. It’s a fun, deceptively simple riff, played in two octaves. Let’s take a look at the upper octave, which kicks off the song:

R03

Note the accents on each downstroke, and the palm muting through most of the riff. If you haven’t worked much with palm muting, it’s a fun technique that sounds cool with a fat distorted tone.

The main riff then descends an octave, to the open E string.

R04a

Notice the change in fingering, which takes advantage of using the open position. Here’s a different way to play the lower-octave riff, that takes advantage of the extra punch of the low E string:

R04b

Try them both, throw in palm mutes and pinch harmonics, in the Dime style. Learn all these riffs as mechanical exercises that enhance technique, and as pieces of music, that you can add flavor to as you see fit.

Chances are that the biggest challenge with playing this riff at higher speeds is crossing back and forth between strings. So let’s head back up to the 12th position, to the higher intro riff, and break it down a bit. Here’s the first two beats (each four-note group of 16th notes is a “beat” in this case) of the riff:

R05a

Just play that section over and over again, building speed only when it’s accurate. Remember, if it sounds sloppy slow, it’s going to sound really sloppy at faster tempos. Anything played clean and tight at a slower tempo will sound better and more technically proficient than something “close enough” at a faster tempo.

From the second beat to the third beat of the riff shows the transition of the riff, which is basically a sequenced blues box to begin with.

R05b

You can probably see right away where nailing this section will do wonders for your picking hand. Additionally, you should be able to come up with plenty of variations of your own, based on this sequence, that will sound cool, work the rest of the fretting hand, and possibly be useful in your own songs.

If you work those two bars up to tempo, and put them together, you should be able to nail the end of the riff pretty easily. Keep an eye throughout on the range of motion for your picking hand when going from one string to the next; this is one of the most essential keys to technical mastery.

So while these riffs (and any others you may think of) should keep you busy for a while, as a small bonus, let’s take a look at some of the techniques and tricks Dime uses throughout the Cowboys solo. After an introductory four bars of tritones, Dime uncorks a sweet pattern across the neck. Utilizing a 1-2-4 fingering, this pattern will give your hands a nice stretch and broaden your range on the fretboard.

R06a

This is a tough one to put into theoretical terms; like Eddie Van Halen, many of Dime’s solos and riffs don’t fall clearly along this or that scale. This is a great example of how, if you play something with great tone and conviction, it really doesn’t matter what scale it corresponds to — if it sounds good, it is good.

Let’s take the shape and work it up to speed on any one given string (in this case, the low E):

R06b

Notice the picking indications, try alternating between the palm-muted triplet and the legato triplet with straight down-up alternate picking, or down-stroking the first note of the legato phrase on the accented beat. Either way works, whatever sounds better and feels right.

Starting at the thirteenth bar of the solo, Dime hits a nifty little chromatic lick that falls nicely across the E5 (minor blues) key. Here’s one way to play it, which again at higher speeds will test your picking hand:

R07a

Now try playing the same lick all on the G string, which makes it a decent chromatic stretching exercise:

R07b

Finally, the rhythmic breakdown at the end of the solo contains a really nice shifting scalar lick, in two octaves:

R08

Keep the slides tight, rhythmically and dynamically, and see how many other scale forms you can map this sort of thing out on, if you’re comfortable with it.

Definitely look for more riffs you can use for technical warm-ups and exercises, and of course develop as many of your own as you can. Play hard and 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!

Drill, Baby, Drill!

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:

Drill01

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:

Drill02

Pretty simple pattern, right? Here’s a variation that will really come in handy in working on 3-note-per-string scales:

Drill03

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.

Drill04

Continue reading “Drill, Baby, Drill!”

Killer Chromatic Warm-ups

A good warm-up routine should get both hands going quickly and effectively. It’s the same idea as stretching before a workout, to not only get the muscles up to speed, but to loosen them up, to prevent stiffness and soreness.

Chromatic warm-ups are ideal for getting all the fingers on the fretting hand limbered up. While this is best accomplished with routine exercises that you’ve internalized over the course of many practice sessions, it’s also good to shake things up a bit, and bring in some new ideas to keep your brain and fingers fresh.

Here’s the basic chromatic position run utilizing all four fingers:

There are two main types of variations on this standard pattern that we’ll look at in this post. The first type of variation utilizes displacement along the strings, which forces both hands to synchronize along more complicated patterns. The next example shows the basic run with every other note displaced to the next adjacent string:

Take this one nice and slow at first, keeping a strict down-up alternate picking pattern as indicated. Since this is a very fundamental mechanical exercise, really take the time at slower tempos to observe the motion and mechanics of each hand; they should be economized as much as possible.

Now let’s take the displacement idea, and run it across four strings at a time, one for each finger:

Stick with alternate picking at first, but the really cool thing about this particular exercise is that it also works great for sweep picking:

 If you’re unfamiliar with sweep picking, this is a great way to get more comfortable with that technique. Work just the basic pattern first, without changing string sets or positions at all, just the first two beats of the first bar, back and forth. Take it slow, and concentrate on keeping the notes smooth and even. They should not ring together, you’re not strumming a chord. That’s one of the biggest challenges with learning sweep picking, getting each note to play fully and evenly, yet keeping it from running into the next note.

If you’re feeling really ambitious, this variation will either keep you busy or give you nightmares:

Although we’re tabbing these patterns starting from the first fret, it may be easier to start from a higher position, such as the fifth or seventh fret, and keep working up the neck, or to start further up at the 12th or 15th fret, and work your way down the neck. Don’t be shy about moving these around for more comfort and ease of play. If at any point you start feeling actual pain in either hand, stop immediately and rest your hands for a few.

The other main variation of chromatic exercises involves multiply picked notes, instead of just doing each note singly up through the pattern. Each successive note grouping requires the hands to synchronize just a little differently than you might be used to. Here’s the double pattern:

The triple pattern can be played either as regular triplets/sextuplets, or as a “3-on-4” pattern as regular 16th notes. Check out each variation, definitely play each one, and note how each affects alternate picking.

Chances are that the 3-on-4 pattern will present some difficulty at first, but it’s a very cool-sounding technique at higher tempos. Take it slow at first and use a metronome, and you should be able to get a feel for it before too long..

Finally, the quad pattern:

Collectively, this is a ton of stuff to work with, so as always, take it a piece at a time, work the patterns in as many areas of the neck as possible, and benchmark your maximum tempo on each pattern, to determine appropriate warm-up speeds. Devise variations of your own and work them into your warm-up routines. Have fun!