How to warm up in 4 stepsAug 25, 2022
When practice time comes in short reserves, it is understandable that we simply want to get straight down to the business of playing. But could a hasty, headlong dive into your practice session be doing your digits a disservice?
1. Why warm up?
Playing the guitar is a rather unnatural physical activity for our anatomy to deal with; there are intricate movements, big stretches and high levels of coordination required just to produce the most rudimentary sounds - not to mention bending tensile lengths of metal!
When embarking on any practice session, it is important that our fingers, hands and body in general, actually respond to the instructions being given to them. It is not unusual for a riff, song, lick or improvisation to run aground because our fingers aren’t doing as they are told!
Sure, we all need better technique - who doesn’t! But the truth is, preparing for the technical challenges you will be facing when playing the guitar (whatever your level), affords you a better chance of getting on with the job in hand - making music!
2. What makes a good warm up routine?
As mentioned, there are a variety of calls placed on you and your fingers when playing. Understanding and addressing these in turn, during your warm up, readies you for any technical obstacle you may encounter. It is worth noting that not all of these are related directly to your fingers!
Even the most rudimentary chords require our fingers to be supple in order to play cleanly. Stretching our fretting hand also ‘wakes up’ the muscles you need to play more efficiently. There are many occasions where guitar parts require more than a one finger per fret stretch and, even this can be tough around the lower frets!
You can devise your own simple stretching warm ups by creating a 3 note pattern on a single string, which emphasises a stretch between certain fingers (frets 9, 12 and 14, with fingers 1, 3 and 4 for example). Once you have this, repeat it on each string. Start the exercise on the higher frets and work your way down the fretboard, encouraging that stretch as you go! As with any exercise - if it hurts, stop!
Sync & Coordination
Bringing our hands together to move in unison can be one of the toughest elements faced by us guitarists.
Our efforts can quickly be derailed by the frustration of constantly hitting the wrong strings. It is essential, therefore, that we get our picking and fretting hands talking to each other before practicing in earnest.
Syncing your picking and fretting hands is best done with challenging and unpredictable movements - i.e. nothing which falls within the category of muscle memory. String skipping and random numbers of notes on each string are a sure fire way to link both hands and awaken your coordination.
Try a simple four note, one finger per string pattern - frets 5,6,7 and 8, with fingers 1,2,3 and 4, for example - and shift one finger to an adjacent string, or skip a string with two notes of your choosing.
Timing & Internal Pulse
Possibly the most overlooked warm up of them all! The need to sync our internal metronome. Regardless of what we practice or how we do it, one thing unites all musicians - everything we do has to be played in time.
Hopefully your practice sessions consist of a healthy use of backing tracks, metronome use, drum loops etc.
It is odd to think that our timing is something which requires a warm, but we aren’t readily atuned to syncing with music when we pick up the guitar for that first time during the day.
A simple way to musically sync yourself is to put on a backing track or song and, without your guitar, nod your head and tap your foot to the pulse of the music; try to lock in with the beat, the snare drum accents etc. Now try a percussive warm up with one note over the same track (find any note which fits); improvise a rhythm and listen to how well you are syncing with the music.
3. How long should I spend warming up?
There is no set time for this but, much like the more ‘exercisey’ based parts of your guitar practice, things get boring pretty quickly. As a guide, aim to portion no more than ten minutes - at the start of your practice session - for warm ups.
As you can see, from the previous points, there really isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ warm up, so try to find or create a short set of warm ups which address our three key areas, mentioned above.
Remember - warming up is independent to developing speed or technique. These need their own slot within your practice routine. Don’t concern yourself with playing faster or attributing these to particular licks or scale patterns.
Immediately follow any warm up with something fun - learn a new song, practice your soloing, jam to track you already know etc. This will help distance yourself from the exercise-like nature of your warm up and prevent it from feeling like a chore.
4. Getting creative; warm ups in context
So far, we have taken a more abstract approach to warm ups - finger patterns and atonal shapes. But a good warm up also presents an opportunity for you to isolate and focus on any technical aspect of a song, lick or guitar part which is causing you strife.
We all have that one lick or run which completely befuddles us, often stopping us in our tracks. We can’t move on with learning that solo or song because of a particular technical road block. Sound familiar?
Why not identify and isolate that one part and create a warm up from it? This could be a simple as replicating the same picking sequence with another scale or easy finger pattern. A particularly tough movement between notes can be taken out of context and played across different string sets or frets.
Got a lick thats frying your fingers? Break it down into smaller chunks and create a series of warm ups.