If you want to get good at playing the guitar, you need to develop the right skills. Developing the right skills involves increasing your hand strength and finger dexterity. You also need to improve the coordination between your hands. Many guitarists look to guitar exercises to develop these skills.
Do a Google search for “guitar exercises,” and countless articles come up in the search results. These articles promise to whip your fingers into shape, help you play better, and sound amazing. All you need to do is practice a list of daily drills. The drills usually involve using all four fingers to play challenging note arrangments string to string. If you have ever tried these types of exercises, you know they feel like you’re playing a game of Twister on the fretboard.
So, do these finger exercises really whip you into shape so you can play guitar better?
In my opinion, no. In fact, I think they are a waste of time. Let me explain…
The problem with most guitar exercises is they require you to play things that sound nothing like real music. And the fingerings needed to perform the exercises are nothing like the fingerings used in real music. As a result, you don’t get any better at playing real music.
#1 Best Exercise to Improve Your Guitar Playing
While most exercises won’t help you get better at playing songs, do you know what will? Playing songs! In fact, I consider playing songs to be the #1 best exercise you can do to improve your guitar playing. But there’s a little more to it than that. Instead of merely playing songs, take parts from songs and turn them into exercises.
For example, let’s say you’re a beginner guitarist trying to play a song for the first time. Make exercises out of the song. Learn the basic chords. Learn how to place your fingers on the notes, so the chord rings clearly. Practice switching between the chords and learn how to fill space with strum patterns that fit the feel of the music. Play along with the song. Work toward keeping in time with the music like you’re part of the band. Doing these things is the only way to develop the specific skills needed to play real music.
Suppose you’re a more advanced guitarist struggling to play a guitar solo from one of your favorite songs. Instead of practicing exercises unrelated to the passages in the solo you’re trying to play, use the passages themselves as your exercises. Break the passages down into segments and repeat each segment over and over until you make improvements. Determine the fingerings and picking schemes that enable you to play your best. Figure out in which scale patterns the solo is played and practice those patterns. Slow down the solo and practice it by playing along with a metronome click.
When the songs you play guide how you practice, you ensure your practice time is productive in the best way possible. You develop the precise skills needed to play songs when you play songs. Your song-playing skills improve as your song repertoire grows. You enjoy your practice time more when you spend it playing real music.
While you follow this process of using songs as exercises, be sure to select songs that are appropriate for your playing level. If you’re just getting started with the guitar, don’t start with complicated songs. Learn how to play simple songs first. Master the simple songs, then move on to songs that are slightly more challenging for you to play. Get your rhythm guitar skills in order before you try anything else. Learn simple riffs and melodies before you try your hand at playing guitar solos. Make sure everything you attempt to play is within reach. Don’t get ahead of yourself. Back up and fill in any gaps in your playing when you find yourself in over your head.
Guitar Scale Exercises
Aside from playing songs, one “exercise” I’ve found useful for myself and my students is playing scales. Playing scales is a great way to limber up your fingers, sharpen your picking technique, and get to know your way around the fretboard. Practicing scales also prepares you to play the melodies, riffs, and solos you hear in popular styles of music. However, you need to practice the right scales. It won’t do you much good to practice scales you will not use when playing songs. So, to make the best use of your time, you should practice playing pentatonic scale patterns and major scale patterns because they are used extensively throughout music.
Melodic Pattern Exercises
You can make your scale practice even more of an exercise by using a playing technique called melodic patterns. As the name suggests, melodic patterns are ways to play through scale patterns that make the scales sound more melodic.
For example, instead of playing straight up and down a scale like this:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 and so on
Play a melodic pattern in groups of 3 like this:
1 2 3, 2 3 4, 3 4 5, 4 5 6, 5 6 7, and so on
The same idea can be used in reverse, too, playing a descending scale.
Common melodic pattern exercises include:
- Playing in groups of 2 (2 1, 3 2, 4 3, 5 4, and so on)
- Playing in groups of 3 (1 2 3, 2 3 4, 3 4 5, and so on)
- Playing in groups of 4 (1 2 3 4, 2 3 4 5, 3 4 5 6, and so on)
- Playing in 3rds (1 3, 2 4, 3 5, 4 6, and so on)
You can use these melodic patterns while playing in both pentatonic and major scale patterns. The exercise will not only be an excellent workout for your fretting-hand fingers, but you will test your picking hand as well. And since melodic patterns are often used in music, you’ll develop practical skills that will equip you to play songs better. Just don’t get ahead of yourself. Melodic patterns are best used by players who are well past the beginning stages of learning guitar and have no trouble playing complete songs.
I have one final thought on guitar exercises. If you enjoy playing the type of non-musical exercises that I am not a fan of, don’t let me hold you back from doing what you like. Go ahead and add them to your practice routine if it makes you happy. But remember, exercises are no substitute for playing music. If you want to get good at playing real music, you must practice playing real music in the form of songs. So, keep the time you spend on exercises short and put as much time as possible into playing songs.