Cruel Finger Exercises [Part 1]

Here’s a deceptively simple finger exercise that can serve as a basic warm-up, an overall strength-builder, and, if you take it far enough, the cruelest torture regimen this side of 16th-ventury Spain a great way to expand both your technique and your melodic imagination.

The basic idea is simple, something appropriate for a very first guitar lesson. But as you start adding variations, it can challenge even very advanced players.

Bass players, don’t miss the fun. Everything here applies to you too— only it’s harder given your longer scale.

Here’s the basic idea. (If this seems too easy, jump ahead to Part 2, which introduces a series of increasingly challenging variations.

Align your fingers with the lowest four frets of the sixth string, like so.

Now play the notes beneath the four fingers in ascending order: 1, 2, 3, 4. Listen for evenness of tone. All four notes should have the same volume and clarity. Make them “like identical pearls on a string,” as one of my great old teachers used to say. And keep it slow it first! This can evolve into great speed exercise, but don’t even think about that till all the notes sound identical in volume and clarity. Make sure the notes you fret with your fourth finger sound as solid as those you play with your first finger.

Keeping an even tempo (or better still, playing to a metronome), play the figure on the sixth string, the fifth, the fourth, and so on, and then walk it back down from the first string back to the sixth (but don’t reverse the 1, 2, 3, 4 order as you move from the high-pitched strings back to the lower ones).

Keep it in tempo, with no breaks as you transition from string to string. Play as legato as possible (that is, with no silence between the notes—each one should ring out until the instant you strike the next one). Try to make it so that, when you move from the fourth finger on one string to the first finger on the next, the two notes sound as connected as if they’d been played on the same string.

See if you can minimize unnecessary motion. For example, try to lift you fingers as little as possible from the fretboard, like so:

…and not so much like this:

Don’t feel bad if your pinky sails off into space. It happens to most players, even advanced ones. Just be aware of it for now.

Also, don’t sweat it if you can’t span all four frets in a relaxed way. Just place your second and third fingers, and then your first and fourth, as opposed to planting the first finger and trying to stretch from there. If that’s still impossible, try it up between the 9th and 12th frets. Once that feels comfortable, try it a fret lower. Then a fret lower. It’s like being stretched on the rack, only better for your playing technique. You span will improve over time. And always remember that many great guitarists have small hands. (I shook hands with Angus Young once, and it was like cupping a sparrow.)

Once that feels comfortable, change the fingering pattern from 1, 2, 3, 4 to 1, 2, 4, 3. Then try all 24 possible permutations:

1234, 1243, 1324, 1342, 1423, 1432
2134, 2143, 2314, 2341, 2413, 2431
3124, 3142, 3214, 3241, 3412, 3421
4123, 4132, 4213, 4231, 4312, 4321

Don’t try to tame them all at once—maybe six a week over four weeks. Make a note of your metronome settings, and try gradually increasing it.

Once you get these under your fingers, you can run the whole series in a minute or two. You won’t find a faster, more efficient warm-up.

Too easy? Then get lots of rest in the coming days, because the second part of this series is guaranteed to kick your ass and destroy your fingers challenge your digital dexterity.

In the meantime: Anyone else have a cool exercise to share?

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