Guitar Exercises: Beginner-friendly Practice Tips to Improve Your Skills
You know that playing the guitar is cool. But, after your first lesson and practice session, you feel everything but cool. You’ve probably watched endless YouTube videos of classic guitar heroes (Hendrix, Van Halen, Satriani, Vai, Clapton, SRV, are the first that come to mind) plus the internet sensations; or, as I like to call them, the almost anonymous icons (Guthrie Govan, Andy Wood, Pete Thorn, to name a few) who seem to effortlessly skate over the fretboard.
Suddenly, the pangs of frustration set in.
This is normal in the development of guitar greatness and every fleet–fingered hopeful has traveled through this lonely passageway so you’re in good company.
When developing the idea for this article, the thought of putting together yet another archive of 1001 nightmarish exercises did cross my mind.
However, the practicality of that type of article did not seem reasonable. Instead, I’ve opted to address an issue that looms over that empty morning-after feeling that follows the first lessons and beginnings of lonely hours of metronome-clicking exercises.
How to Get the Most Out Your Practice Sessions
In lieu of more exercises, I’ve elected to share with you an exercise philosophy that can be applied to other guitar exercises with the hopes of making your practice sessions more interesting, inspired and creative.
In the video below, I set the stage for this article and demonstrate some of the exercises I'll be writing about:
That being said, we do need a starting point. I call this the 24s (as in 24 finger combinations) that I have used since my early playing days. I was introduced to this concept by Rob Balducci, a childhood friend and guitar virtuoso. Initially it was a simple set of finger combinations that has become a teaching philosophy and device that I’ve applied to other playing techniques (see my article, 24 Essential Fingerpicking Patterns Every Guitarist Should Know).
Every guitar teacher has a series of go-to exercises that are used as warmups. Many of these originated as simple exercises that are intended to:
Strengthen the fret-hand fingers
Develop right- and left-hand coordination
Improve right- and left-hand synchronization
Enhance muscle memory
And, many more benefits, too numerous to mention
The 24s (24 Finger Patterns)
The idea is the chromatic finger exercise is to provide each finger with equal playing time. Let’s face it, left to our own devices, many of us would never use our pinky. Therefore, these types of exercises help us develop the necessary physical skills that it takes to play those jaw-dropping solos that are racing around in your head.
The 24s is based on the concept that there are 6 different finger combinations beginning with each finger. The patterns are based on the idea that the fingers are not repeated. And, by playing every combination, the fingers develop an independence and interdependence that allows for the learning of more difficult scales and melodies as you improve.
The finger numbers of the fret hand
1 = index finger
2 = middle finger
3 = ring finger
4 = pinky
Below is a chart of the 24 finger combinations. It may seem a little daunting from this perspective; however, once you begin to apply them, you’ll find that they are easy to memorize and form a logical progression between patterns.
|1st finger||2nd finger||3rd finger||4th finger|
Applying the 24s
I like to begin in the middle of the fretboard (at the 5th position). I do this for two reasons:
It’s the middle of the neck and comfortable for players of all hand sizes.
I like playing in the middle of the neck.
Look at the example below. Notice that each system introduces a new finger pattern. I’ve deliberately chosen to only notate the patterns beginning with the first finger. Once you understand the system, then you’ll find it easy to apply to the other patterns.
Your first task should be to get used to the finger patterns. Although they are presented here as eighth notes, you don’t need to play them as eighth notes only. You can begin with whole notes, half notes or quarter notes. And, for the more adventurous in spirit, you can play them as sixteenths.
The most important aspect to focus on is playing evenly and musically. Think about it… If you can make these exercises sounds interesting and pleasing to the ear then wait till you get your fingers on a melody!
Focus on memorizing the finger pattern and cleanly executing the sequences.
Concentrate on developing your alternate picking technique. Downstroke on the down beats and upstroke on the upbeats. Notice the notation for downstrokes and upstrokes.
We’re going to focus on developing our legato phrasing techniques. What’s legato? I’m glad that you asked. It’s simply means playing in a smooth manner. In the case of guitar playing, it means using hammerons and pulloffs to create these smooth and silky phrases.
Due to the nature of the 24s, you will have an equal amount of hammerons and pulloffs to execute and finger combinations that range from easy to quite challenging.
For this exercise, we will pick every other note (with a downstroke) then hammeron or pulloff to the unpicked notes. Notice the changes to the shape and texture of the same sequences that you been practicing.
Again, look at the music example and see how the hammerons and pulloffs are notated using a slur. I find it important to see how the music notation reflects the technique. This makes it easier to understand standard music notation in the future.
This is a variation on the previous example. For this exercise, we will pick every other note then hammeron or pulloff to the unpicked notes. The difference is that we will alternate pick between legato phrases.
The Philosophy Behind the Exercises
One of the difficulties that beginners are faced with is that everything is new and there’s so much to think about.
Which finger am I using?
What fret am I on?
What string am I playing?
How do I hold the pick?
Do I release the previous finger?
It can be, and often is, downright overwhelming.
The idea is not to play the exercises exactly — you can and are certainly welcome to — but, rather, to understand the concept.
Many students hate the metronome and finger exercises — or, any type of guitar exercise for that matter. However, I don’t choose to look at guitar exercises as a necessary evil, instead I look at them as a tool that can be applied to developing a new technique or retraining my fingers to execute a not-often used guitar skill.
Overcoming Boredom and Frustration
Boredom and frustration are two different side effects that occur during the practice of guitar exercises. And, they are quite often misinterpreted as the same thing.
Boredom is the result of the guitar exercises becoming too easy and you’re just going through the motions.
Frustration is that the guitar exercises are too challenging or you’re not achieving the results that you want fast enough.
A simple solution is to stop and take a break. I’m not suggesting that you give up. I’m suggesting that you take a moment a reevaluate your practice routine. Try creating a variation of the same exercise. For example, skip strings or divide the technique across string sets (1st and 2nd string, or 2nd and 3rd string, then move up or down chromatically), skip frets (two or three fret shifts in either direction), etc.
Guitar exercises don’t have to be boring. You can use your creativity to come up with different ways to incorporate these exercises while continuing to improve your playing.
Thanks for hanging with me!