The Best Exercises for Guitarists
How do we strengthen our fingers? How do we make those chord changes faster? Or our picking more accurate? We know that we need to improve in these areas but it’s hard to know how to efficiently practice in order to achieve these goals. With this in mind, I’ve highlighted a few exercises to target different areas to unpack finger strength and technique. These exercises are useful for guitarists of all levels – from beginner to expert. I used these when I was learning and I still use these to further enhance my technique.
Left-hand strength and stretching:
“Chromatic” scales (not actually chromatic):
Start with fingers planted 1 per fret (i.e. 1st finger on 1st fret, 2nd finger 2nd fret etc.), move up the strings one finger at a time, then one fret across and come back down the fretboard. These are very straightforward but very effective. Focus on keeping your fingers stretched out and poised near the fretboard no more than 1cm away the whole time and always play out near the frets.
After this, to improve stretching, try putting a gap of a fret between two of your fingers (e.g between 3rd and 4th finger – like in the diagram), then change which fingers have the gap.
This one is a bit more advanced, also working the co-ordination between different strings. Again, keep one finger per fret. Please see the example.
Start with a very, very simple strumming pattern, such as one downstroke on the first beat of every 2 bars, keeping your right hand constantly moving in semiquavers/16th notes the whole time. After that, very slowly build up the pattern, adding in a few light strums here and there. Work on your dynamics throughout by hitting fewer strings – remember that dynamics is more often and not brought out through sparseness rather that hitting the strings harder or softer. Do this until you have a very full, busy rhythm, then try stripping it back slowly until you are back at your original strumming. Try to make this whole process as smooth as possible.
For some people right-hand co-ordination is a real hindrance, it seems no matter how hard they try they just keep hitting the wrong strings. Here is one exercise that can get the string skipping happening a bit more naturally. In this example, I’m just playing an E chord, but that is mostly just so it sounds a bit more appealing while still involving all 6 strings.
The next picking patterns are designed to also work one of the fingers on the left hand, in this case the 3rd (I used these particular examples as a certain student sprung to mind), but these exercises can of course be adapted to target other fingers and you can also plant your fingers on other strings:
The method I use for nailing any chord change is quite simple and is essentially done through incremental exercises:
1) Single strum chord changes – here you are focusing on just the chord change itself, building the strength and muscle memory in your fingers. Move back and forth from one chord to the other slowly, ensuring that your fingers move as minimally as possible, and all at the same time so that they land on the chord and apply pressure all at the same time.
2) 4 strums: Once you have mastered that, then try changing in between 4 simple down strums. This gives you time to think about the next chord and then a full crotchet/quarter note to make the change. After this, you can try applying the changes to different strumming patterns.
Scales are one of the most efficient things we can do in our practice time. They help us gain knowledge of the fretboard while also drilling our technique and time. But it is very easy to just do scales in the most basic format and not use them to their full potential. So here are some ideas.
Move in 2nds: Start on the 2nd note of a scale, then move back to the first. After this play the 3rd, followed by the 2nd, and so on, so that you are playing in a pattern like so: 2-1-3-2-4-3-5-4-6-5-7-6 etc. The diagram does this in the 1st pattern of the major scale in G up to the 2nd pattern.
Move in 3rd: Same principle, but this time going 3-1-4-2-5-3-6-4 etc. Then try 4ths, 5ths, 6ths and 7ths. The wider the gap, the more advanced these become, but you can also hear some great lick ideas doing these.
Shuffle/Swing: Accent the down stroke for a shuffle or the up stroke for a swing feel. Try with even timing between up and down strokes, and then with the down stroke extended (like a typical shuffle or swing feel).
Triplets/Semiquavers (16th notes): Be sure to do your scales using different note values, even try changing between them each 4 beats or so in order to work on your sub-dividing skills.
Hammer ons/Pull offs: You can never get these smoother, practicing them in scales will help greatly.
Exercises Away From The Guitar:
Realistically speaking, even if you are a professional guitarist, you aren’t always going to get to be around a guitar, so how can we maximize this time? Obviously running things through in our mind is useful and so is analyzing music that we are listening to. On top of that, here are a couple useful exercises:
Poly-rhythmic tapping: This is quite a challenge and a lot of fun and will also help you get a bit more of a drummer’s or conductor’s mindset. Start simple – tap 2 beats in one hand in the same time frame as 3 beats in the other (effectively called 3 over 2). Then switch hands. Then try 4 over 3, then 5 over 4, 7 over 4, etc. It is very useful as well to break down when to hit each hand in comparison to the other. For example, in 3 over 2, one hand is going to be tapping for 1.5 beats that the other hand is tapping – understanding this can help you really nail it.
Finger stretching is a normal thing for any musician, but it needs to be done right. The most common and useful one is stretching the gap between 2 fingers. However, when you do this, ensure that your other fingers aren’t bent out of shape, otherwise you may undo some of the hard work you’ve done on the fretboard.
Moving fingers independently:
Put your fingers against your leg and tap them independently in patterns – can be any pattern (though scale patterns are great for this). Keep them all curved as if you were playing the guitar. Then try this in the air where there is no resting support.
About the Author
Paul Roth is a professional performer and teacher. He has played around the world as a contract musician and is now running a teaching business “Teach Me The Guitar” as well as performing original music with Esimorp and as a solo artist.
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