Warming up is an often overlooked and understated area of practice. Like pro athletes, musicians can vastly improve their mental and physical conditioning by implementing a consistent warm-up routine. We’ve created a list of seven of our top warm-up drills to help up your guitar playing. You can use these exercises before practice, at the start of a rehearsal or recording, or even before you hit the stage for a performance. Let’s get started.
Breathe, Stretch, Shake.
So many artists don’t consider the immense amount of mental and physical conditioning a live show or long rehearsal requires. You can improve your rate of progress and efficiency by warming up your muscles before even lifting a guitar. Take into account that carrying a guitar places strain on your neck, back, and shoulders. Warm these muscles up with some light stretching so that you can be as comfortable as possible while playing.
Once these muscles are warm, shift your attention to your hands and fingers. Your hands and fingers consist of a complex arrangement of muscles and tendons. The more you loosen up your fingers and hands, the smoother your practice or performance will feel.
Spider Walking is generally the first step that most artists take when warming up. The most significant advantage of this exercise is that it doesn’t require a lot of intense mental focus and gives your hands an easy pattern to loosen up with.
Starting at the first fret on the first string, play each successive note until you have reached your pinky finger on the left hand. This would be the notes F to G sharp. Once you’ve reached our pinky finger, move down each string in the same pattern until you hit the high E string. Move over one fret and work your way back up, like a spider slowly zig-zagging up and down a garden wall. When you get to your highest fret, do the entire exercise in reverse.
Scales / Arpeggios
You can use scales and arpeggios as an entry point for your hand-eye coordination. You can also perform these exercises using a plectrum or fingerpicking as the primary focus is on the left hand. Pick one or a few scales that you would like to master or improve. For this example, we’ll use a major scale and a minor harmonic scale.
Moving chromatically or across the circle of fifths, try to complete a complete cycle of scales without stopping. You can do a full cycle of major scales and then follow it with a cycle of harmonic minors or alternate scales as you move from key to key. The level of complexity in this exercise is entirely up to you, and you can expand your scale/arpeggio combinations as your skill level improves.
Repeat the same exercise above, but this time focus primarily on your right-hand techniques. Try to alternate between a few right-hand techniques: fingerstyle, standard picking, hybrid picking, and economy picking. It’s better to perform this exercise with a scale or exercise that is very familiar to you, as switching finger styles can be mentally taxing. Try to simplify the exercise as much as possible and only up the difficulty level once you perform a complete cycle of scales without any dead notes or mistakes.
Chords on Chords
A solid natural progression in your warm-up routine would be to move from scales through to chords. Chords generally place a bit more strain on the hands than scales, relative to your playing style. Start by playing an open chord and then moving through each power chord version of that chord up and down the neck. You’ll often have to jump around the fretboard to find every chord, as this is the point of the exercise.
If you’d like to make this exercise slightly more complex, try finding the shape of each chord within the CAGED system. The CAGED system shows us how to play the same chord, scale, etc., in different positions on the neck. For example, you can place Cmajor in six different positions on the neck. This system is a terrific method to help map out every playable note on the fretboard within a specific key.
Intermediate guitar playing generally requires some more dynamic movement around the neck. Regular exercises and scales usually make your move in a single line up and down the fretboard, which doesn’t necessarily reflect the demands of playing a normal composition or set.
You can remedy this by placing gaps in your exercises. The easiest map to use is octaves. The guitar usually offers a three-octave range on most exercises. Take out the middle octave, and you’ve given yourself a considerable gap to jump while running exercises.
A slightly more complicated way to approach this concept is to place gaps in your CAGED system. Try switching from position 1 to position three and then position 5, or select your configuration to navigate the CAGED system.
Flea – legendary bass player for rock icons Red Hot Chili Peppers – swears by a set of pre-show rituals and routines that involve a lot more mental practice than physical. Before shows, he sets time aside in a small room and writes out his setlist. He does a short meditation and runs a few mental drills where he states that he “considers the songs, considers the space, considers the performance. The idea behind this is to get away from any distractions or outside stimulations that may fog or hinder your performance. The result of Flea’s pre-show rituals speaks for themselves, and he always seems to master the tightrope between intense concentration and boundless energy.
Music is as demanding on the body and the soul as it is on the body. The best musicians understand and nurture these sides of themselves so that they’re not just going through the motions and remain present and motivated for their musical demands. While this last exercise may not involve any active warming, most professionals can vouch for the idea that self-care is imperative to put out your best work consistently.
Every musician’s playing ability and musicality is unique to who they are. Warming up helps you mess around in the sandpit before building any sandcastles on stage, in the studio, or even at home practicing. You do not have to use every exercise listed above, but you can select the ones that both complement and challenge your playing equally. Thanks for reading through our list of seven warm-up exercises to improve your guitar playing. Happy jamming!