Exercise that Builds Strength, Stamina, and Accuracy
Dan Lis | Editor, Composer’s Toolbox
Basic left-hand exercise for beginner guitarists that builds strength, stamina, and accuracy, and also serves as a warm-up for advanced guitarists.
The Left Hand
In guitar playing, the left hand is as hard as you need it to be. If you’re playing only power chords, you will encounter a learning curve, but not as hard a curve as playing two or three lines of counterpoint in an etude. The left hand is really as hard as you want it to be; you can go easy or go crazy, and still make good music.
However, you will need strength, stamina, and accuracy in your left-hand playing regardless of your current playing style or learning curve.
When I was a cellist (in a past life), my cello teacher challenged me to play etudes without the bow—i.e. with only my left hand. On a cello, that means:
- Really hard-hitting hammer-ons
- Really strong pull-offs
- The need for dead-on accuracy and intonation (there are no frets!)
I learned from that challenge that while the difficulty of playing a stringed instrument is multi-fold, the left hand is the main driver of what is accomplished. Everything is based off, and relates to, the left hand. To follow that thought: one needs to be able to play one’s instrument as if one only has a left hand. This means your hand must be strong, last throughout an entire piece/song, and not misstep—i.e. it has to be dead on in-tune whether you have frets or not.
Exercise to Build Strength, Stamina, and Accuracy
This exercise is actually a series of exercises, and is derived from cello etudes that emphasize intonation, fingerboard knowledge, and cleanliness. These goals transfer well to guitar. After all, we need intonation, we need to know the fretboard inside and out, and a clean guitar player is a good guitar player.
Part A: 1-2-3-4-3-2-1
Starting on fret 1 on the 1st string, fret and play frets 1, 2, 3, 4, 3, 2, and 1, in that order. Use one finger for each fret, from the index to the pinky and back again. This should be done in equal rhythm, with a metronome. Start as slow as you need to. It is worth noting that you should be playing 7 notes.
Work on this pattern on the first fret until you can play cleanly, evenly, and with good coordination between your left and right hands. You can use only down-picking, only up-picking, or alternate picking. Pick the way that gives you the most freedom to focus on the left hand.
Part B: Move up the 1st string
The next step is to move this exercise up and down the fretboard. So, you will be playing, with a metronome, groups of 7 notes as follows (also notated above):
You will need to shift your hand up the fretboard one fret (one semitone) for each group of 7 notes. Please note that even though I broke the numbers into separate bars and lines, there should be no interruption in the constant string of even, metronomic notes. There is no pause between bars or lines.
Part C: Move down the 1st string
As we move up the fretboard, we will eventually run out of frets. What do we do when our pinky hits the top fret? We play the pattern, moving down one fret at a time (so the pattern with a 1-fret shift down the neck). Please note that the pattern stays the same; we are still starting on our first finger, then second, third, fourth, third, second, and first. We are just shifting down a fret after completing the pattern.
Part D: Variants
There are many more variants you can do to make this exercise even more challenging. These variants do not even change the pattern of the left hand, but please note that you can take any left-hand pattern that happens on a single string and do this set of exercises.
Variant 1: Go up string 1, and when you run out of frets go down string 2. Go up string 3, and once out of frets go down string 4. Go up string 5, down string 6. Then, go up string 6, down string 5, up string 4, down string 3, etc.
Variant 2: Play the pattern once on string 1, fret 1, then once on string 2, fret 1. Then, play the pattern string 1, fret 2, then on string 2, fret 2. Then, on string 1, fret 3, and string 2, fret 3, etc. Do this with no gaps in between notes and in a steady rhythm.
Variant 3: Play the exercise without a pick (only hammer-ons, pull-offs, and slides—legato technique).
Variant 4: Play this with a clean tone, crunch tone, distorted tone, acoustic guitar, palm muted, open, and/or any type of tone you can. It should sound clean no matter the timbre or playing style.
So, what is this exercise doing?
This exercise builds:
- Coordination between left and right hands.
- Intonation: you will have to hit each note exactly behind each fret in order to get each note to sound clear. You will have to be precise in both the pattern and your shifting.
- Technique: your fingers will become more dexterous, and your left thumb will grow more precise and efficient in its movements.
- Speed: always start slow. But, by working slow and with a metronome, this exercise can get going quickly, real quickly.
- Knowledge of the fretboard: know which note name your first finger is on each time you shift. As you develop fretboard knowledge, you should begin to know which note name your second finger is on each time you shift, and your third, and your fourth.
- Strength and endurance: you cannot sustain this exercise for long unless you have strong calluses. In addition, this is a very tiring exercise. You may not be able to make it up the fretboard in one try the first day (or week) without getting tired and messing up. (And remember, it’s okay to mess up! That’s the whole point of practice time!)
- Right-hand technique: this is also a great way to learn, synchronize, and ultimately perfect your alternate picking.
This exercise has been a staple of my practising for years. You can create so many variants of it, too. I hope you find it useful as well and that you create your own expansions of this technique!
About the Author
Composer Dan Lis fuses rock and contemporary concert music to create dynamic, rhythmically-driven works for the full range of performers and electroacoustic media. His three albums Soul Refuge, Exercise Music, and Fraternity with all those good and beautiful things are available on all major digital music platforms. A committed educator, his blog Composer’s Toolbox focuses on technical, technological, and aesthetic issues relevant to today’s emerging composers.
He is published by DWL Publishing. For more information please visit www.composerstoolbox.com.
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