If there is one thing guitar students of this era have in abundance, it is guitar exercises.
There are millions of exercises on the Internet, some pretty generic, some aimed to teach you a specific topic.
Needless to say, this is amazing.
We had to scrape together what little money we had to find books and magazines with the lessons and exercises we needed back in the day.
We did have one advantage, though!
Because there were few guitar lessons and exercises available, when we found what we needed in a magazine, we would study it thoroughly.
When you do that, you’ll gain a lot more from practicing that exercise, as we’ll see below.
In this lesson, I will not be giving you a lot of guitar exercises to practice.
In fact, I’ll be giving you just one exercise, which I’ll then show you how to practice in-depth and squeeze all the benefits you can from it.
Once you know how to practice guitar exercises at this level of depth, you can apply the same process to any exercise you find on the Internet or elsewhere.
The following is the exercise we’re going to use as an example. Just take a look at it and listen to it for now.
Then, below the exercise, you will find the layers you can apply to practice it thoroughly.
Step one: Learn the exercise roughly
The first step to practicing this exercise is to find the right notes and play them with the right fingers.
Don’t worry if you’re not completely on time, occasionally hit the wrong strings, and can’t get the vibrato sound right at this point.
Also, and this is very important, do not practice the exercise at the given speed.
Practice it very slowly.
We’ll be working on technique and speed in other steps.
Step 2: Use the correct picking directions
My preferred style of picking is directional picking where alternate picking is used on the same strings, but when you change strings, you always pick towards the direction of the string you’re going to.
Learn more about directional picking in this lesson.
The following is the exercise we’re learning how to practice, together with suggested picking directions.
Step 3: Isolate difficult parts/techniques
As guitar players, we have a variety of techniques at our disposal.
These include hammer ons and pull offs, string bending, vibrato, slides, whammy bar techniques and pinch harmonics, among others.
Unless you’re fluent in the techniques used in the exercise you’re practicing, you’re going to find the parts that have these techniques applied to them hard.
This is great – because it is getting fluent in these techniques (and other aspects of guitar playing which we’ll explore in today’s lesson) that makes you progress as a guitarist, not the number of exercises you have learned.
In this exercise we’re using mainly three of these techniques:
You may have noticed that from the fifth note of the second bar, the exercise becomes harder to play.
The reason is that we’re now playing wider intervals and thus, skipping strings.
To practice string skipping technique as used in this exercise, you can isolate from the second half of bar two to the first half of bar four, and practice that part repeatedly:
You can also go to this lesson with more exercises using string skipping technique to master this area of guitar playing.
In this exercise, vibrato is only used once – on the first note of bar 4.
Practice vibrato on that note, so that it will come as natural when you play it in the context of the exercise.
The secret to practicing vibrato correctly is using your ear.
You’re not just wiggling a note up and down, you want to gain a specific sound that makes that note sound more expressive.
If it doesn’t sound right, it’s not right. Even if you feel like you’re making the right finger movements.
Keep adjusting until you get a vibrato sound you’re happy with.
Every note in this exercise is picked with your right hand, but the last note is slided into with your left hand finger.
Slides are another expressive phrasing technique guitar players have at their disposal.
Once again, practice this slide on its own if you’re not yet fluent in this
You should also be practicing different types of slides, using different fingers and on different areas of the fretboard to master this commonly used technique.
Step 4: Getting the rhythm right
In this exercise, we’re mainly using two rhythmic elements: Consecutive quavers (eighth notes) in the first three bars, and triplets in the last two.
The former should be easy to play, but triplets may give you some trouble if you’ve never played them before.
In this lesson, I go into depth on getting the feel of the triplet and give you exercises to practice triplets on the guitar.
Step 5: Put everything in context.
Practice the exercise in its entirety once again, as you did in the first step, but this time try to be as accurate as possible.
If any technique or rhythmic pattern is giving you trouble, it means you need to practice it more in isolation.
Step 6: Confirm with the metronome
Some guitar students never use a metronome which leads to a bad sense of
On the other extreme though – using a metronome all (or most) of the time you’re practicing is equally detrimental.
It is only at this stage, when you can play the right notes, using the right technique and at the right time, that you should switch on the metronome. To confirm that your timing actually is right.
If you rarely use a metronome, you’ll probably find out that your timing actually isn’t right.
Once again this is great since it means there’s another area of your guitar playing you’ll improve on once you work on it.
In this lesson I give you a set of exercises you can use to improve your timing on the guitar.
Step 7: Increase the speed
It is only at this stage that you should start even considering playing fast.
You may have practiced this exercise at a slower speed than that of the given example.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. If you’ve implemented the other six steps, increasing the tempo to that speed shouldn’t be hard.
If you can already play it at the given speed, you may keep improving your technique and reaching faster speeds with this exercise, such as:
In this lesson I give you a set of exercises you can practice increasing your speed on.
Make sure you go through the first six steps above before you actually do increase the speed.
Step 8: Variation and improvisation
One of the goals of practicing such guitar exercises is to get skills and ideas when it comes to improvising music of your own.
A good way to train yourself to do this is to practice the same exercises you’re playing but change things like the order of the notes, their duration, and the techniques used.
The following is an example of a variation I created from the above exercise:
Tip: Ever heard them say that it’s good to “steal” to create good guitar improvisations and solos?
This doesn’t mean you can rip off someone else’s solos, but that you can take these very short motivic ideas, develop them and play them in different forms of variations to create something completely new.
The goal of this lesson is to teach you how to practice guitar exercises and milk every benefit you can to improve your guitar playing.
If you apply this approach to any guitar exercise, riff, lick, or solo that you learn, you will have fewer chops in your repertoire at first (since it takes much longer to learn each).
However, once you have mastered a technique, or got the feel of a rhythmic
pattern, it will become easier to play any future exercise that incorporates that technique or makes use of that rhythmic pattern.
This will make learning anything on the guitar easier, and thus, you’ll actually have a bigger repertoire of things you can play correctly in the longer run.
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