Warming Up: Finger Exercises, The 3 T’s And The Necessity Of Mistakes

Pedagogical Errors Were Made

One of the first lessons that guitar students are taught is the 1 note per fret 1-2-3-4 chromatic alternate picking exercise.  While this is typically presented  as an initial exercise to gain coordination – it has a very limited long run value.  As a static exercise, it  should be discarded from your regimen immediately because


you play what you practice

If you want to play semi-chromatic ideas at high speeds moving in 4ths – this is a great exercise to use.  But it’s a boring sound, a boring exercise and doesn’t translate well into everyday performance.

“But Scott”, you might posit, “it’s just  a warm up exercise.  It isn’t something to play at a gig.”  Then it’s a further waste of time as


everything you play should be something that translates to live performance


The Physicality Of Practicing or How To Lose A Gig

Here is a gig nightmare story that illustrates the point of proper technique versus strength.  Since the embarrassment here is all mine, all of the names will be on the record for my moment of shame.  Years ago when I was working at Sandy’s Music, one of my co-workers “Skinny Mike” Feudale wanted to see if I could play a gig with his rockabilly/psychobilly band – The Speed Devils. Mike is a great songwriter and the songs on the Speed Devil’s cd were really strong and lot of fun to play.  The Speed Devils had a gig come up in NY and needed a lead guitarist to sub in.  If it worked out – it could be a regular gig – but there were some rules.


1.  I had to look the part – fortunately the drummer Judd had a vintage bowling shirt I could squeeze into

2.  I had to play a vintage amplifier.  Fortunately I had just gotten my vintage Gibson amp back from Tom at AzTech electronics (truly an amazing amp guy) – which sounded and looked great.

3.  I had to play the Speed Devils guitar.  This was a hollow body that Mike had fixed up and completely vibed out (full flames and dice for volume knobs) with heavy gauge strings and high action to push the volume a little more.

We rehearsed the set once or twice and then went to the gig a couple of days later.

On the way from Boston to NY, I didn’t have time to warm up so I was doing some finger exercises to limber up my hands.  I was experimenting with a lot of grip master type things to strengthen my hands and try to fix my pinky (which was really quiet with hammer ons).  We got to the club and  I found out that there was no mike for my amp.  The only thing going through the PA was the vocals.

This is the point of the story that I should mention that while everything was fine when we had rehearsed at low volumes; my 15 watt amplifier could not compete with the rest of the band in a club setting.  As I was inaudible I started strumming louder, and with the live adrenaline kicking it, I started fretting harder as well.   Between the heavier string gauge, the higher action, the underpowered amp and the over-tensed playing- I blew my hands out by the second tune.

My hands were so shot that chording was difficult and soloing was all but impossible.  I limped through the rest of the performance – but nothing came out the way it was supposed to.  Needless to say, I didn’t get the gig – a sound decision by the band – but I was really angry with myself because I had unknowingly sabotaged myself before I even got there and had I taken a different approach – I would have been able to play the show much better and not let the band (and myself) down.


The Physicality Of Practicing (slight return)

Playing an instrument is a physical endeavour.  You can push your muscles too hard and hurt yourself badly playing the same things over and over. (Trust me – performance related injuries are not fun).

Having said that, this isn’t weightlifting.  You don’t need muscular hands capable of cracking walnuts to play guitar well – you need hands that can move  fingers quickly and independently –  a fast twitch muscle versus a slow twitch muscle. This leads to a little secret that students generally don’t get exposed to in rock guitar lessons


hammer on volume comes from the speed the fingers strike the string not the force

In terms of volume, the most problematic finger is typically the pinky.  One habit that I had to fix (and that I continue to see in a number of players) was the improper attack of the fret hand pinky on the strings. (In case you’re wondering about proper form, I’ve reposted some of the information from the Glass Noodles arpeggio post below).


Here’s a good way to visualize the fret hand finger motion you’re looking for:

Put the palms of your hands on a table.  Now without lifting the palms up, tap your fingertips one at a time on the table starting from the pinky and ending on the index.  You’ll notice that the fingers stay curved and that the large knuckle of each finger is responsible for the tapping.  This motion is what you’re looking for in this process.  Notice that you don’t need to hit the fingertips very hard against the table to get a crisp attack.

The concept of building up your hands like biceps – is just ridiculous.  The goal of guitar performance is to keep your hands relaxed so you don’t blow them out in a gig or on a session.


How I warm up now

When I warm up now – I play scales and arpeggios, switching between chord voicings of tunes I’m working on and improvising around various patterns at low tempos and paying strict attention to


The 3 T’s in Performance: Timing, Tone Production and Tension

(remember these – this awareness could save you untold time and pain later!)


In general –  you just want to make sure that all of your fingers have had a little blood flowing in them before you begin to play for any length of time.  I do this with a timer for 5 minutes (more or less depending on how my hands feel).

External warm up devices are kind of goofy to me.  Have you ever seen a runner go into a gym and max themselves out on a legpress before they went for a long run?  Do you really think that putting mechanized unfocused tension on a finger is going to make it play a musical passage more efficiently?


The necessity of making mistakes

Along with the forthcoming GuitArchitecture books, I have also put substantial time into  a general book of guitar technique.  In addition to discussing specifics of practice and performance methodology – I also took the 1-2-3-4 exercise and broke it down into every possible positional variation as a way to develop technique.  The book is currently 256 pages.  The majority of which are the 864 individual graphics that had to be created and placed in the text.

Midway through this process I started to question the mistake of basing any technical study on such an exercise – or the concept of musical exercises in general.  (Again the point isn’t to have svelte waistline or huge muscles – the point is to be able to play melodic and harmonic ideas more readily.)

I came to the conclusion that if the 1-2-3-4 example could be approached as a way to develop a systematic approach to generating both melodic ideas and melodic variation it could also benefit readers as a technical study as well.


Mistakes are teachable moments

It’s easy to see a mistake as something to learn from in a practice room session but harder to see it at a gig. If I walked away from the Speed Devils show and just said, “That gig sucked – so I must suck as a guitarist” I would have missed a great opportunity to see there was something very wrong in what I was doing. The gig taught me in addition to making sure that I had proper preparation and the right tools for the job that tension does not equal volume – and that lesson has been more beneficial to me than any lesson I could pay for.


I hope this is helpful to you!

Thanks for reading.


Tension And The Soda Can Or Practicing Part III

Practicing Part III

In order to practice properly, attention needs to be paid to a number of different areas.  Today’s post addresses some issues regarding fretting hand tension as a precursor to proper form in practicing.

Fretting Hand Positioning and Tension

Many guitarists begin playing guitar without being aware of how much tension they are exerting on their fretting hand.  While the title refers to fretting hand fingers, hand tension is actually a complex coordination of muscles working in the hand and forearm.  The concept here is to talk about hand tension as it relates to your ability to move your fingers freely.

Here is an example that may help explain how much of a performance issue this can be.

For the purposes of this example, let’s imagine that you have taken a break from the rigors of guitar practice and have gone to spend the day at muscle beach with your friend Charles Atlas.  After arriving there and seeing miles and miles of Herculean figures – you have decided to show off to your friends and crush the can of soda you have been drinking.

Okay – hold your fretting hand out in front of you – like you were holding a soda can you were drinking from.

Really visualize the can.  Try to feel the ice cold metal against the palm of your hand.

Okay, now try to crush it.  But imagine that the can has been replaced with some infinitely strong material that can’t be crushed.  You don’t want to crush the imaginary can – but truly struggle against it.  If you’re doing the exercise properly, your arm is probably shaking from the exertion.

Okay – now try to move your fingers while you crush the can.  You may be able to move them a little but it’s going to be very difficult.  You should feel (or even see) a lot of tension in your forearm.

Now stop trying to crush the can.  Wiggle your fingers.  This should be much easier.

If you grip the guitar neck with too much tension, it’s the same as trying to crush the soda can.  If you are carrying tension it will be very difficult to move your fingers freely.

What follows is an exercise that can help with proper hand tension.

Proper Fretting Hand Tension Exercise

Sit in a comfortable chair (preferably without armrests) with your guitar around your neck as if you were going to play (you are wearing a strap aren’t you? If not you may want to read the last post.)

Relax your fretting hand by letting your arm hang fully extended by your side.  Wiggle your fingers a bit and try to relax as much as possible.

Take a deep breath.  While inhaling on that breath, make a fist.  As you exhale –  fully release the fist.  Just let your hand naturally relax into a position.  Look down at your hand.

Note – this is your hand in a relaxed position.

Now, keeping your hand in position, bend your elbow and bring your hand up to the neck of the guitar as if you were going to play.  Your fingers should be bent slightly at each knuckle (i.e. the fingers should be curved similar to the relaxed position).

Proper Fretting Hand Thumb Tension

Reverting back to the soda can example, it’s important that the thumb remain in the back of the neck as relaxed as possible as to not tense the rest of the hand.   This is something that I never thought about until I had studied with Jack Sanders.  So I need to thank him for bringing this to my attention in my own playing.

It’s also important to note that your hand position will change if you are doing a lot of string bending.  While it is possible to bend strings with your fretting hand thumb in the middle of the neck,  most people will be used to moving the thumb so that it is more on the bass string side of the fretboard to facilitate bending.   Since this isn’t the majority of what most people play on guitar – I view bending hand position as the exception rather than the rule.

The thumb acts as a balance to pressure from the fingers;  so the location of the thumb is very important.  Ideally the thumb should be in the middle of the guitar neck and typically in line with the middle finger or between the middle and ring finger.  What you are trying to do is put the thumb in an area of minimal tension.

Proper Fretting Hand Tension Exercise

Try playing a scale on the guitar.  If you think that your thumb is squeezing the back of the neck hard, try removing the thumb from the back of the fingerboard while you are playing.  Now gently and gradually, move the thumb back to the neck so that it is very lightly touching it.  Repeat as necessary.

Obviously a huge component in hand tension is how the fingers are actually connecting with the strings and that will be the subject of the next post on practicing.

I hope this helps!