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Warming up before playing

Though they’re often overlooked by many players, warm ups are, or at least should be, a key part of your practicing and performing routine. Not only do they help you avoid strains and injuries, but they also allow you to start your practice/performance by playing at the best of your ability. As a Guitar Teacher I try and encourage my students to warm up before attending lessons, and make a point of doing the same myself most mornings.

Here’s a little stretch and warm up routine I try to go through before I play. I sometimes skip the massage part, but it’s really useful on cold days!

*note* if any of these stretches, or any guitar playing in general, causes you any discomfort you should stop. ‘No Pain No Gain’ is a stupid saying. Just because something rhymes doesn’t make it true! I promise you that anybody who has lived by that mantra has had to take at least a month off from their hobby or career due to some sort of injury.

1. Start with a small massage of the wrists and hands. Grip your forearm just below the elbow with your thumb on the inside. Make small circles with your thumb moving it slightly further long your arm each time. You should feel like you are moving the tension in your arm towards your hand. Reduce the pressure when you get closer to your wrist. Your joints are sensitive and shouldn’t be massaged in the same way as your muscles. Perform this three times on both sides of each arm.

2. Move on to your hands, starting on your palm and working the tension out towards the end of each finger.

3. Next, place your palms together with your fingers pointing upwards. Extend your elbows outwards and bring your hands down slowly until your hands are at right angles to your arms. Hold this for ten seconds.

From here, keep your knuckles touching and separate your palms until your arms and hands form a W shape. Do this slowly so as not to place too great a strain on your wrist.

Now you’re ready to move on to the guitar. I always like my guitar warms ups to also have a practical relationship to elements of playing technique, so I’ll be describing these too.

1. Begin by playing the exercise tabbed out below on every string. I call this one ‘the worm’ because of the way your fingers look if you play it correctly. This one emphasises two things. Firstly it’s good for teaching your fingers and your picking hand to work together. They should be synchronised perfectly before you try to increase the speed. Secondly it’s useful for encouraging use of your little finger. Something not every guitarist is good at! Try to keep each finger on its fret until after you have played the following note. This should give the exercise a smooth sound. If you have access to a metronome try doing this for the first time at 60BPM. Each time you do it try and play it a little faster than the day before.

2. Now move on to the chromatic scale. This is similar in a lot of ways to the worm, but will also encourage you to move laterally across the guitar with your left hand and work on your alternate/economy picking across strings. It’s also a useful scale to know for blues and jazz playing. Again start at 60BPM and work your way up to a harder tempo each time you practice. The key here is to be honest with yourself. If you didn’t feel in control of your playing at a certain speed, keep working at that speed until it feels normal.

This exercise is one that some of my students have affectionately nicknamed ‘The Bastard.’ It’s fairly close to impossible without proper hand positioning, and even then requires a decent level of dexterity to get your ring and little fingers to move independently of your other fingers.

Start at the 7th fret with your index finger. Walk your way up from the low E string to the high e string playing the 7th fret with your index finger, and the 8th with your middle. Each note should ring clearly, and you should not lift one finger until you have played the note with the other. When you get to the high E string leave your index finger where it is, and continue the next exercise without lifting it

Walk back down the strings with your middle and ring finger. Your middle finger should be playing the 8th freth, and your ring finger the 9th. Again, each note should ring clearly. And when you get back to the low E string you should leave your middle finger on the 8th fret, and continue to hold your index finger on the 7th fret of the high E string.

Finally walk back up the strings using your ring and little fingers on the 8th and 9th frets. Do not lift your index or middle fingers, and try to move your middle finger without lifting your little finger at the same time.

To do this exercise properly your thumb should be in the back of the centre of the neck, placed in the centre of where your four fingers are. This is the ideal position for most (but not all) guitar playing. If you ever find you’re having trouble with dexterity, this exercise is a good way of forcing yourself in to a good position.

Now you should be ready to play. If you have a warm up routine of your own, or have any requests for lessons and advice, feel free to post them in the comments below.

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