Guitar Warm-ups: Why and How?
Want to play guitar for many years? Learn why guitarists warm up, and how to warm up properly.
Countless times I’ve played with other band members, and we often try and play without warming up.
So why warm up in the first place? To answer this question, some people will use a sports analogy (running without warming up, etc.), but I’ll use plain English.
We warm up before playing because:
- it is healthy for your hands & posture
- it is good for your dexterity
- it is good for improving your playing
Too often I jam with guitarists who don’t warm up before practice or even playing live. I play sloppily if I don’t warm up.
In any lesson I’ve done, I always tell the student to warm up first, and cool down after playing is done.
I also recommend keeping nails short.
My warm-ups last anywhere from 2–5 minutes, including stretches and a few guitar exercises.
Sometimes I warm up for 30 minutes. It all depends on how long you plan to play!
When playing guitar for a prolonged time, one can easily feel cramps, tight fingers, sore hands, and inflexible movements. Without proper warm-ups and stretches, complex movements become harder to do over time.
“So if all of this is true, how should I warm up?”, you might be asking.
Here is what I recommend below:
Start with Stretches
Stretching includes your fingers, between your fingers, your hand, wrist, and even arm. I recommend stretching the shoulders and neck as well.
Sometimes a jam session can last hours. As you get older, you’ll realize that playing guitar can do a number on you:
- makes posture worse
- feel pain and tightness in your hands
- shoulders/neck feel tight
- …if those areas are not taken care of
If you’re a new learner, it may be hard to play complex movements without warming up and practicing properly.
Here are a few points to keep you on-track with warming up:
- stretch all your fingers first: stretch each finger backwards until you feel a stretch for 5–10 seconds each, then shake it off.
- stretch the muscles between your fingers: I use the widest part of the guitar neck, and ease it between each of my fingers (between index and middle finger, then middle and ring finger, etc.). You can also slowly work each gap into your fist as well.
- Stretch and warm up the hands and wrists: a mobile, loose wrist is key for hitting sensitive dynamics while playing, and prepares the player for strumming and arpeggiated sequences/sweep picking.
- stretch your neck and shoulders: if you start with a tight neck and shoulders, then you’ll feel tighter in the end. Start loose, and end loose. If you have back issues, do some light posture work too. I find foam rollers and SNPE wave pillows are great to release muscle tension.
- stretch a little at the end of the session: once practice is over, stretch a little so you don’t carry the tightness into your next activity.
Younger folks can feel pain too, if you’re a guitar junkie. Build some good habits early, yeah?
Your body will high-five you later.
Next, Do Dexterity Work
Once stretches are good to go, do a bit of dexterity work to get the hands and body used to the constant movement (and slouching over the guitar for a while).
You can do this as little or as much as you need. I usually warm up according to how long I plan to play.
For a short session, I warm up very briefly.
Here are some exercises that work for me:
- do the Joe Satriani: search for videos online of Joe’s guitar warm-ups. He especially does one where all 4 fretting fingers alternate chord positions in a kind of chromatic climb up the neck. He has many great warm-ups.
- the “spider walk”: there are many spider walk exercises. The most common is a chromatic scale run, 5 pitches (half-steps) per string. There are many others (alternate picking, string skipping, etc.) on YouTube. These will help your fretting hand move with precision.
- rapid chord transitions: play a sequence of chords, and transition rapidly. One chord sequence I like playing is G D A Bm, then back through A D G. I do this as fast as I can, as cleanly as I can. I find looping Bm Em A F works great too. Try making one that is doable for you.
- the octave exercise: this one helps you find notes on the neck. It helps speed as well. For example, play notes B and C on every octave on the guitar. You can make it fancy by playing a little neoclassical pedal at a tempo: C B C. Start at C3 and go to higher pitches. Then play back down to C3.
- picking hand exercise: rest the fretting hand, and practice alternate picking with the right hand. Just pick the strings, and make sure it sounds even. Clean up where you find uneven picking. Pick 3 times per string from low E to high e, then back. Then try picking 4 times per string, etc.
- syncing the picking and fretting hands: on the high e string (6-string guitar, standard tuning), try playing this sequence: G E A E B E C E. The E here is on an open string. The picking hand should be precise here, and the fretting hand should sync with the picking hand.
The faster you play, the sloppier it’ll get. That means syncing your hands should be a priority at those speeds.
Note: players don’t need to do all these exercises. Just pick a few that may be challenging, and work through them a bit every day!
By committing to somewhat challenging exercises, players can improve over time.
Those exercises should help you play a little more cleanly during your session, as well as over time.
After Practice, Cool Down
Just do some light stretching so your body isn’t tight at the end.
No need for dexterity work here.
Taking regular breaks is a good idea, too. Shake the tightness out of your hands and wrist wherever you can.
Let me tell a quick story about how not warming up can be detrimental:
I had to see a chiropractor and a physiotherapist during the pandemic. All I did was work on my laptop and play guitar, day and night. I played at least 1 to 2 hours a day. Sometimes much longer (it can be an addiction).
I had posture pains and hand cramps. Stretching and light exercise before and after playing guitar worked for me.
For the gym junkies out there, that applies to you, too. Working out makes you tight, and doubly so if you play guitar.
Warm up and take care of the fingers and hands! Just use some sense and take care of your body, that’s all.
Warming up regularly can help you improve your play over time, prepare your body for a longer session/practice, and keep your hands loose and limber.
Remember: tight, strained hands play sloppily.
With all that said, keep jamming folks.
The world needs music, and you can become the culture that we need.
’Til next time, see you in the next blog!