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Hot Guitar Warm Ups

by Tom Swan

You probably know that, before a strenuous workout, it’s always a good idea to warm up. At least do a little stretching before hitting the treadmill at high speed.

The same advice holds true for playing guitar — it’s always best to grease the knuckles before wiggling the fingers. I know that if I don’t warm up, my fingers tend to stiffen as I play, and that’s obviously never good and it’s not very comfortable.

Here are four Hot Guitar Warm Ups that really work for me.

Warming Up Progressively

The four exercises detailed here, and that I demonstrate in the video, are progressive, starting simply and ending with some not-too-stressful stretching. I do them just about every day.

With your picking hand (the right one for me and most), you can finger pick notes as I do, or you can use a pick. I describe both methods here and in the video.

1. The Slowest Scale You’ll Ever Play

The first exercise is to play a simple scale — any scale will do, but I use C major (see Figure 1). Play slowly, and I mean really slowly. Let each note die out on its own, or very nearly so, before playing the next one.

C Major scale
Figure 1. Figure 1. C Major scale

I use a rest stroke on my right hand (it doesn’t matter which finger) but you can use a pick instead. Either way, play softly with extreme vibrato — the kind violinists use. Let your arm dangle freely. Be loosie goosie.

Feel good? When done with the first exercise, (it shouldn’t take more than a minute), I always feel super relaxed and ready to play.

2. Kitchen Sink Chromatics

This exercise gets the playing fingers moving with a simple chromatic scale (Figure 2). Play the pattern up and down several times with fingers 1-2-3-4. Including open strings, play five notes per string but only four on the G string.

Chromatic scale pattern
Figure 2. Figure 2. Chromatic scale pattern—​play all open strings too
Don’t play the pattern too fast. Remember, this is for warming up, not for mastering scales or improving picking speed. Play at a moderate pace even if you can go faster. Aim for a legato sound, smooth and musical.

For the right hand, I like to use several combinations of the index (i), middle (m), and ring (a) fingers. (I also play it once through with my thumb, or p). I skip the pinky finger — often labeled c for Chico — since I rarely play notes with that finger. Here are the right-hand finger patterns that I use:

i-m -- (i=index, m=middle, a=ring)

You can skip the last one if it’s too hard. (I mistakenly call this i-m-a-a-m-i in the video. The a finger doesn’t repeat.)

If you use a pick, you might alternate up-down, rest- and free-stroke, and "economy" picking techniques.

3. Do the Hand Wave

Hold your hands out in front of you, palms up with thumbs out at 180-degrees from each other. Starting with the index finger of either hand, curl your fingers in, one at a time, until touching the palm, and then curl them back out again.

Keep curling and uncurling your fingers in a fluid motion — to me, resembling the petals of a flower blooming, or maybe legs in a water ballet. Stretch out as much as you can, extending and contracting your fingers within their full range.

Continue curling for about a minute until you feel some warmth building in your fingers. I like to shake out my fingers at this point, keeping my arms at my sides and gently shaking out any last kinks.

I have heard of guitarists injuring themselves by shaking their hands too vigorously. Be easy on yourself! And don’t ever "shake out" unless you are already at least partly warmed up.

4. Help! There’s a Spider On My Fretboard!

The last of my Hot Guitar Warm Ups is the most difficult because it requires some extra stretching — nothing too extreme but perhaps challenging even for experienced players.

It’s called the Spider as published by Scott Tennant in his excellent series "Pumping Nylon." (You should definitely pick up Scott’s books if you play a nylon string guitar!). It’s a little tricky to play until you learn the secret as I explain here. It makes a great warm-up exercise.

It’s called the Spider because, when you play it, your fingers are supposed to resemble a creepy-crawly walking the fretboard. Don’t scream.

The pattern is a series of two-note intervals, physically separated on the B (2nd) and A (5th) strings. Alternating the fingers between these two strings stretches them nicely. Do the exercise in first position (index finger on fret 1), move up a half step and then play it again. Repeat until you reach the top of the neck, and then go back down by half steps.

Click the play button in the audio clip to hear what The Spider sounds like:

Spider audio clip

To learn the pattern, break it into its two parts. Part one is on the B string, just a simple chromatic walk up and down with left-hand fingers in this order: 1-2-3-4-3-2-1. Figure 3 shows the score with the index finger at fret 5 on the B string (note E).

C Major scale
Figure 3. Figure 3. Part 1 of the spider exercise

Part two is on the A string, in the same position, but with the third finger on fret 7 (also note E) (see Figure 4). Play in this order: 3-4-1-2-1-4-3. This will make more sense when you try it.

C Major scale
Figure 4. Figure 4. Part 2 of the spider exercise

To play the full pattern, simply play the two parts together. Use the same fingerings that you used when learning the patterns separately. Use p-i or p-m on the right hand. If you use a pick, pluck bass notes with the plectrum and top notes with your middle or ring finger.

Try to keep your wrist straight in your fingering hand (left for me), with the palm lightly touching the edge of the guitar neck. Ideally, your fingers should curl and move, but your hand should remain relatively motionless and straight.

After Warming Up

One final suggestion: Try to be ready to practice or perform immediately after warming up. Don’t take a very long break, if at all. It probably does no good to warm up and then sit around for an hour before playing.

Give my Hot Guitar Warm Ups a try and please let me know if they work for you as well as they do for me.