10 Guitar Exercises to Improve Your Overall Level of Playing

For more than a decade, my progress on the guitar was much slower than I would have liked it to be. I was practicing hard, doing numerous guitar exercises, reading articles, following books, and trying different teachers.

Even doing exams and getting good grades.

Yet, I couldn’t express myself on the guitar the way I wanted.

Then, I discovered something that caused me to improve every single time I picked up the guitar and practiced it.

Nowadays, I realize this is the secret sauce to learning the guitar fast without faking it.

When I teach this to my students, they progress from a beginner to an intermediate level, or from an intermediate to an advanced level, on the guitar much faster than they would have otherwise.

It’s something very simple, which I’ll explain in the following phrase and show you how to do it in the guitar exercises throughout the rest of this lesson:

Focus first on the weaknesses that are holding your strengths back and are keeping you from reaching your musical goals.

Notice that I didn’t say “focus on your weaknesses”, but only on a specific group of weaknesses: those that are an obstacle between where you are now and where you want to be in your guitar playing.

Let me give you an example.

Ten years ago, I would have considered both fingerpicking and knowledge of the guitar fretboard to be weaknesses.

Today, I’m very fluent in the guitar fretboard, but my fingerpicking hasn’t improved much.

Since my main goal is to play rock and heavy metal guitar licks, riffs, and solos as well as to write songs and improvise, fingerpicking would have come to little use in reaching my goals.

However, my lack of knowledge of the guitar fretboard severely limited my ability to create music with ease and harmed the creative process because I had to focus on where to find the notes, scales, or chords on the fretboard rather than creating melodies and expressing myself.

Because I was already fairly advanced in areas such as technique and music theory, when I began studying the fretboard, the results were almost immediate because it allowed me to better apply the skills I already possessed.

Now, this is based on my musical goals. Yours may be completely different.

Thus, in the following guitar exercises, I’m going to go through different areas of guitar playing and give you an exercise in each so that you can identify which ones you are finding hard.

Or whether there’s an area that’s completely new to you.

Then, ask yourself this question:

Will focusing more on this area of guitar practice help me reach my musical goals sooner? Will doing so have a huge impact, a little impact, or no impact at all on my progress on the guitar?

This should help you decide what areas you need to focus on right now to start seeing results quickly.

Guitar exercise 1: Correct left-hand finger position

The first exercise is pretty straightforward, but rather than playing it up and down mindlessly, I want you to ask these questions that will help you identify bad habits in your playing:

  1. Am I hitting each note with the tip of my finger?
  2. Are my fingers pressing each note just before the fret—not above it, but neither far from it?
  3. Does my playing sound like the audio below, or is there a small silence between each note?
Tabs created with Guitar Pro

Guitar exercise 2: Right-hand string orientation

Does your right hand find the strings it wants to hit with ease?

Practice this exercise on open strings. If it gives you a hard time, you may need to give your guitar picking some more attention.

Guitar exercise 3: Two-hand Synchronization

In the first exercise in this lesson, your right hand doesn’t have much to do except for playing consecutive downstrokes and upstrokes.

In the second exercise, the left hand had nothing to do since you were only playing open strings.

In the next exercise, I want you to focus on the synchronization between both hands, using the suggested picking pattern, and ask this question:

Does one of my hands need to catch up with the other?

If yes, either play this exercise slower so that both hands can play it with ease or spend some more time practicing the weaker hand before trying the exercise again.

Guitar exercise 4: Playing on time

Go through the first three exercises and this time play them with a metronome.

In each case, you should play the first note on the click and the next note between clicks.

Lower the tempo of the metronome as much as you need, what matters is that you play each note on time.

Note: In the exercises above, only one note value is being used, the quaver. Learn about the other basic components of rhythm here.

Guitar exercises 5: Chords

Building a vocabulary of guitar chords is another very important factor in learning the instrument.

The first chords you need to learn are major chords, minor chords, and dominant 7th chords, both as open chords and as barre chords.

However, there are many more chords you can learn, and for the purpose of this lesson, I’ll be giving you an example using suspended chords. These kinds of chords have a tendency to resolve to a major or minor chord and do not sound good on their own.

After you learn the exercise, ask yourself this question:

  1. Am I able to change between one chord and another smoothly and on time?
  2. Do I need to learn more chords to be able to express myself the way I want on the guitar?

Guitar exercises 6: Scales

Learning guitar scales have more than one benefit, but they’re particularly useful when it comes to improvising on guitar, which we’ll deal with later on in this lesson.

As an example, I’ll give you the most commonly used scale on the guitar, the minor pentatonic.

Building a vocabulary of guitar scales is very important in your guitar learning curve, however, it is more important to learn how to use the scales you already know than learn as many as possible.

Guitar exercises 7: Applied music theory

Many guitar players think they don’t need music theory.

If your goal is just to learn songs other people have composed, and entertain your friends playing them, or play in a cover band, music theory is something you can do without.

However, if you also want to create your own music on the guitar, music theory will make life a lot easier since it explains what’s going on and gives you guidelines you can follow.

Or not follow, since music theory is not a set of rules but the study of what has been tried and tested before by the great musicians before us.

To cover this topic, I won’t be giving you an exercise but links to lessons that cover the topic of music theory applied to guitar playing:

  1. Learn the notes on the guitar fretboard.
  2. How guitar notes, intervals, scales, and chords relate to each other.
  3. How to find guitar chords in their respective key.
  4. Guitar chord progressions.

Guitar exercises 8: Guitar phrasing techniques

Guitar scales, chords, and chord progressions help you find what notes to play.

Phrasing techniques are different ways you can play the notes, something that is equally important and often neglected.

There are many phrasing techniques at your disposal including vibrato, string bending,  hammer ons and pull offs, slides, palm muting, rakes and pinch harmonics among others.

The following piece of music makes use of three of these phrasing techniques which are vibrato in the first and last bar, string bending in bars 2 – 4, as well as pull offs in bar 4.

Guitar exercises 9: Guitar riffs

The guitar riff is present in a lot of musical genres that involve the guitar. It is the driving force behind the song in genres like Blues, Rock, Punk, and Heavy Metal.

The following is an example of a guitar riff. Go to this lesson to learn more guitar riffs, and this one to learn Heavy Metal guitar riffs.

In this riff, I make use of two other phrasing techniques mentioned above, palm muting in every bar, and a slide between the last two notes of bar four.

Guitar exercises 10: Improvisation

Improvisation on the guitar means making music on the spot. For some, it may seem next to impossible, but it’s not really hard if you have the other areas mentioned above in place.

What you need is a method and a dose of creativity.

I can give you the method on how to start improvising on the guitar but you should also set your creativity free and use these guidelines just as a stepping stone to express yourself musically.

Note: Never tell yourself you can’t improvise because you’re “not a creative person”. Creativity can be trained, through use. If you push your brain to be creative, in this case musically, eventually it will become as such.

Conclusion: Is this all there is to learn the guitar?

As you may have noticed, learning to play the guitar is a set of skills that must be combined.

Each of the exercises above covers one or more important aspects of guitar playing, and if you realize that one (or more) of them is a weakness that is limiting your strengths, as described at the beginning of this lesson, begin focusing more practice time on that specific area.

There are some topics we haven’t covered here, such as ear training, but the list above covers a lot of ground for electric guitar players.

Other areas that haven’t been mentioned are more genre-specific.

These are areas in which you need to decide if you need to be able to play your favorite genres.

For instance, if you want to play fast guitar solos in a Neo-classical Metal band you will need to spend time learning how to sweep pick. If you want to play Country music you may want to learn how to chicken-pick, an entirely different technique, used in Country but not in Metal.

I may have gone to some extremes here, but what I want to drive home is that the basics of the guitar and the fundamentals of music are the same whatever your favorite genre/s but as you improve, start mastering the techniques mostly used in the style of music you want to express yourself in.

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