When someone talks about a warm-up for playing guitar, the temptation for many is to roll their eyes, turn away, and to just go on playing their favourite tunes instead.
The trouble is, many beginner guitarists struggle to actually play these tunes well and struggle with the physical aspects of playing them, so not only do the songs sound a bit rough but they also feel uncomfortable to play. In this post, I’ll explain why, if you don’t warm up, you should!
You can use just 3–4 minutes per day to make your playing much more comfortable and enjoyable and actually sound far better.
For a small bit of effort, you will get a lot back from a good warm-up in return.
If you suffer with any kind of arthritis, joint issues, or lack of confidence on the guitar, the warm-up is even more crucial for you.
The warm-up should be comfortable
The key to a good warm-up is to make it so that it is comfortable for you to play well…
The idea behind a warm-up is not to try to make massive improvements or learn anything new. It is simply to pick up from the point you last left off at, and to wake up the muscles and the brain.
This will help you get ready to play for your practice session and will also help you learn with confidence if you are learning anything new during this time.
There is nothing worse for a student than to pick up the guitar and right away try to learn something that is tricky and out of their comfort zone.
More often than not, as they are not warmed up, they will make errors and this knocks their confidence and self-belief.
The warm-up must be something comfortable for you to play.
There are both physical and psychological factors for why the warm-up has to be comfortable.
You need it to be comfortable as if it is too hard for you at this stage then you are not going to get much benefit from it. You will be forcing things, your fingers may be working too hard, and everything will be tense.
You wouldn’t start a training session with a sprint, for instance. Rather, you would start with a brisk walk or gentle jog.
A big reason to start off with a warm-up that is comfortable for you is that you want to start your session off on a good foot.
You don’t want the first thing you play to have mistakes in it. This knocks your confidence for the rest of the session and if this happens a lot can really knock your long-term beliefs about your ability as a guitarist.
Why not just start off with an easy song?
It’s a good question, and a fair one too. The trouble with starting off with an easy song, let’s say “Let It Be” (a great one to learn, by the way), is that you are not fully warming up all aspects of your playing.
For something like my version of “Let It Be” you will only be practicing four chords and a simple strum pattern with a little riff in there, too.
You won’t be working your fingers in a variety of ways and therefore won’t be fully warmed up.
Your picking hand won’t be ready for any fingerpicking, riffs, or melodies, and your fretting hand won’t be fully stretched and loosened up.
You will probably only be 20–30% properly warmed up by the time you have finished it.
What if I warm up with an easy song and then a tougher one?
You could, of course, warm up with “Let It Be” and then do a fingerpicking one such as one of these in my course.
You’ll still have the same issues, though, as your fretting hand won’t be fully stretched — unless you use a song that’s got lots of stretches in it.
You will also be diving in right at the deep end with your picking hand, which means you will be more likely to make mistakes.
Okay, so I should warm up and then play these songs?
Yes, do a simple warm-up and both hands will be ready to play the songs you want to play as well as be ready to do any technique-building exercises.
Your fretting hand will be fully loosened up, ready for the big stretches that many basic chords such as C Major require, and you will be playing notes cleanly without buzzes.
Your picking hand will be in the groove with a nice bright tone that is clear and doesn’t have any of that horrid scratching sound if picking, and your strumming will be bright and crisp.
Both hands will also be nicely coordinated, so mistakes will be kept to a minimum (many mistakes come from the two hands not working in sync with each other).
You will gain confidence from doing a nice simple warm-up well, which will make the rest of the stuff you are going to practice much more likely to be played better.
You can use a song as a pre-warmup
This is what I usually do with students. Instead of starting every lesson off with a warm-up, often to keep things fresh we will start with a song they can play really well.
We will often just do a minute or two on this song and then go into the proper warm-up to get the rest of the lesson going in the direction we want.
Sometimes, you won’t feel like doing an actual warm-up — you will just want to go into a song. For instance, if you have had a tough day at work and want to just relax, you can spend a few minutes playing bits of songs you are comfortable with and then do the proper warm up.
The key thing, though, is when you are looking at learning something new or improving something, you should do the warm-up first.
If not, you will probably find that you don’t make much progress and/or it takes a while to really get ‘into it’ before you make progress. A good warm-up will help you get right into it.
There are lots of things you can do to warm up
These include playing the chords you already know (with a capo, if you struggle to get them sounding good in the open position), such as a:
- Scale – a simple one, such as the minor pentatonic scale
- Riff – any of these from my list of 50 progressively harder riffs will work great
- Technical exercises – such as hammer-ons, pull-offs, stretching exercises
- Picking patterns – either fingerstyle or with a pick
There are of course more things you can do, but remember the key to a good warm-up is to wake up the mind and body and get them really ready for a good practice session ahead — whether that be a 15-minute practice or 45-minute practice.
If your practice is shorter, you can shorten the warm-up accordingly.
In a future post, I’ll detail a sample 3–4 min warm-up that covers all those bases. Students who have enrolled in the Pro or VIP versions of my Fingerpicking Classics course will know about my fingerpicking warm-up, which is highly effective.
For everyone else, it doesn’t matter what style you play — strumming, rock riffs, or blues, etc. Get a short warm-up together that is specific to what you are doing, or want to be able to do on the guitar, and play it regularly!
If you don’t already warm up, consider it! You’ll enjoy your practice more and make better progress.