Guitar exercises should benefit you in four ways: Strength, speed, dexterity and accuracy, should all improve as a result of any worthwhile guitar exercise.
However, the one that often seems to get lost in the weeds is accuracy.
Strength and speed are always high priorities, but it's common to see accuracy get left by the wayside or, heaven forbid, ignored entirely. Even in my own playing, I've at times noticed that I'm playing the simplest runs with accuracy-related mistakes. If you really start to pick apart your playing, you'll probably notice that you're missing or "fumbling" a lot of notes as well.
And that's what this entire article is meant to fix.
Because if you could actually be intentional about improving your accuracy on the guitar and the fretboard, wouldn’t you want to do it? Wouldn't you be glad to eliminate those nagging mistakes and missed notes? Every guitar exercise here (and there are a lot) is designed to help you do that.
If you want to get into other topics, we've published a full, how-to guitar lesson covering the six most important concepts.
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Where can accuracy improve?
First, we need to think about where accuracy comes into play and is most relevant. Focus on accuracy in the context of the following three areas:
- Chord Changes and Arpeggios
- Scales and Modes
We need to know how to exercise accuracy for all three of these categories, beginning with intervals, since they are the most basic aspects of fretboard movement. Additionally, if your accuracy improves when it comes to intervals, it’ll improve in the other two areas as well.
"But wait…what is an interval?" Not everybody is familiar with the concept, so if you’d like to brush up, here are a few resources that explain them succinctly:
Even if you don’t totally “get” intervals, you can still begin working through this content. I’ll explain it as we go.
Guitar Exercises, Accuracy and Best Practices
Regardless of the guitar exercises you might employ, there are some universal best practices that should be applied when you’re trying to develop better accuracy. There are primarily four of them:
- Memorizing the fretboard dots
- Aiming for the middle of the fret
- Play annoyingly slow
- Staying close to the fretboard
Let's look at the implications and practical workings of each one:
1. Memorize the Fretboard Dots
The dots on top of the fretboard can be seen looking straight down at your guitar’s neck. They typically occur on the following frets:
- Third Fret
- Fifth Fret
- Seventh Fret
- Ninth Fret
- 12th Fret
The pattern then repeats above the 12th fret.
What you need to do here is simple: Memorize the notes on the sixth and fifth strings at these spots on the fretboard.
Because they mark the locations of the most common root notes and positions that you’ll use. If you know where they are, you’ll be able to more quickly and accurately identify where your fingers need to go, simply by using the dots as references.
Here’s a cheat sheet for finding the notes on the sixth and fifth strings:
It’s really helpful to memorize every note on these first two strings, though pay particularly close attention to notes on the “dot frets” that we’ve marked out. Memorize those notes first. They’ll be your ticket to more accurate playing, especially when you’re looking for specific chords and keys.
2. Aim for the Middle of the Fret
The standard for every note you play should be that your finger would land smack-dab in the middle of each fret. Not only does this improve your chances of avoiding the dreaded “buzzing” note, but it also helps you train yourself to target the fretboard intentionally. It’s kind of like raising your own standard, meaning you aren’t going to allow yourself to be satisfied with simply hitting the right fret, but instead you make it your goal to hit the perfect center of the right fret.
Accuracy, and the clarity of your playing, will both improve as a result.
3. Play Annoyingly Slowly
I’m sure you’ve heard this before. “Play slow.” We know that it’s the better way. Yet our tendency - especially during guitar exercises - is to always play to the ceiling of our ability. In other words, we’re pushing past our comfort zone.
The task when practicing accuracy, is to dial things back and stop pushing for speed. It’ll feel weird and counter intuitive, but for improving accuracy, it needs to be done.
Make sure you’re playing slow enough that all your notes are ringing clear.
4. Learn to Stay Close to the Fretboard
If you watch the pros, you’ll notice their fingers and hands never stray far from the fretboard. This is part of why they’re so accurate. They simply keep things close enough to minimize the chances of hitting wrong notes. There are a few things you can do to help form the same habit:
- Slide between chords without moving fingers off strings.
- Learn and employ proper left arm and wrist form.
- When moving your hand to a different fret, let at least one finger slide over top of the thicker strings.
For some guitar players, this is already habit. If that describes you, keep doing what you’re doing. Otherwise, start making it a point to keep your fingers as close to the fretboard as possible. Eventually it’ll become second nature. As we cover each exercise, keep all of these best practices in mind and try your best to implement them as we go.
Download tab sheet here.
The Most Basic Guitar Finger Exercises: Minor and Major Second Intervals
We can use the minor and major second intervals to develop our first exercises. First, note that these intervals equate to the following:
- Minor Second: Notes Separated by 1 Fret (semitone)
- Major Second: Notes Separated by 2 Frets (whole tone)
It might sound too easy, but starting off with your one and two fret exercises is going to be a tremendous help to your accuracy, especially when you start to develop speed.
We can still make these movements varied in difficulty. Let’s start with something easy:
Minor Second Exercises
Perhaps it’s not “easy” in the strictest sense of the word, but this will get you started skipping strings (brings accuracy more to the forefront) and allows you to develop a little bit of speed.
Let’s do a similar pattern, but this time with all four fingers.
I would recommend using all four fingers to complete each set of four notes. For example, the first 3, 4, 5 and 6 should be played with your pointer, middle, ring and pinky finger respectively. We’ll add three more exercises that highlight the minor second interval:
Basically I’m isolating short, chromatic movements to each individual string, which means you can vary it however you’d like. Change strings, frets - it doesn’t matter. Just make sure you spend plenty of time with this type of exercise. I can guarantee that it’ll pay off well.
Major Second Exercises
These exercises incorporate two fret jumps, or more formally, the major second interval. First, something basic:
This is just so your fingers can get used to the interval and isn’t likely to challenge you significantly. Don’t spend too much time on it. To challenge our accuracy we can incorporate a pattern similar to what we used in the first minor second tab.
Let’s add another major second to each line:
Finger selection for each note is important here and, for the first three notes, should go in this order: First - Second - Fourth. So, pointer, middle and pinky finger for the third, fifth and seventh frets. If you aren’t used to this movement, expect it to stretch your fingers a bit. Let’s adjust the shape to incorporate all four fingers.
I broke up the pattern into three measures so you can see how the notes are grouped. For each group of four notes, you’ll want to use your first, second, third and fourth fingers (in that order) to play each note. With the third note in each block (fifth fret and fifth string) you’ll need to tuck your third finger behind the second note, which is also on the fifth fret.
The next one looks easy, but it’ll feel fairly counter-intuitive.
We can move the pattern up to different frets to make it more challenging:
For this second tab, the finger order for the first four notes should be first - third - fourth - second. Basically you’ll play the first two notes with your pointer and ring finger and then slide your pinky finger up to the seventh fret, then drop the note down to the fifth fret with your middle finger, or whatever is comfortable at that spot. The pattern can then repeat on up the fretboard.
Major Second Continued: Increasing Distance
If we’re going to improve accuracy, we need to get better at covering longer distances on the fretboard. We’ll still use groups of the major second interval, but we’ll separate them by a larger number of frets and play the interval in both spots.
Here’s a simple, structural example:
The intervals are separated by at least five semitones.
What you’ll want to do here is try and develop some speed, up to the point where you’re making mistakes. Once you find that spot, dial it back just enough to avoid missed notes and that will be your target pace.
We’ve utilized the same structure here but added the complexity of another string.
Combining the Major and Minor Second Intervals into One Exercise
Now that we’ve covered both intervals, as well as some fretboard distance, we can start to run exercises that combine all three. The simplest way to start is to base our exercise off the following three-note sequence:
Given three notes, we now have two intervals:
- Minor Second: Between the second and third fret
- Major Second: Between the third and fifth fret
Now we can use this sequence to construct our exercises. Here’s what I came up with:
This pattern takes the same sequence of three notes and moves it around to three different strings. Now, instead of jumping from the third to the 10th fret, let’s look at an exercise that let’s us climb there:
We’ll now stack the intervals one after another on each string:
Repetition (unfortunately) is key to making these exercises really work for you, so there will be some boredom involved. At the same time, we’re providing a lot of variety here, so you can switch around to different exercises at your leisure, which would also allow you to challenge the muscles in your fingers.
As far as the minor and major second intervals go, we’ve covered enough that we can move onto a more difficult topic - accuracy in chord changes.
Chord Changes and Arpeggiated Exercises
One of the best ways to exercise your fingers for guitar chords is to break the chord up into an arpeggio and focus on one note at a time. For our first few exercises, that’s exactly what we’ll do. Let’s begin with a basic open C major chord:
We’ve moved the pattern up one fret so we can incorporate all four fingers into the exercise. Let’s continue by moving the shape up the fretboard:
Repeat for the D major:
For A minor:
For G major:
For B minor:
And for F major:
Once you’ve gotten comfortable with some (or all) of these arpeggios, the next step is to isolate a few common chord progressions to practice in this form. Practicing accuracy should be contextualized as much as possible. Thus, identifying chord progressions that we most often play will provide that context. Let’s start with the most common chord progressions in the key of C:
Exercising the C, F and G Progression
Exercising the C, Am, F and G Progression
If you want to make the progressions tougher, move everything up one fret so you can’t rely on open notes, like we did for exercises 20 - 26. We’ll continue with chord progressions in the key of G:
Exercising the G, C and D Progression
Exercising the G, Em, C and D Progression
Let’s continue in the key of E:
Exercising the E, A and B Progression
Exercising the E, C♯m, A and B Progression
The last one we’ll do is the key of F:
Exercising the F, B♭ and C Progression
Focusing on Barre Chord Shapes
The next step in increasing our chord changing accuracy is to exercise barre chord shapes in a similar manner. Once again we’ll go through the following steps:
- Find a common chord progression
- Arpeggiate it with power/barre chords
- Play through the pattern as an accuracy-building guitar exercise
What we’ll do is start with a shape that is a power chord and not strictly a barre chord, with only the root note and fifth interval. Take the G, C and D progression for example: If we know that the root notes for G, C and D occur on the third, eighth and tenth fret respectively, we can set up our power chord exercise this way:
G, C and D Round Two
This is an easy exercise that shouldn’t take you long to get the hang of. You can even build some speed here if you want to. Now, to make the progression more complex and to challenge our accuracy, we can just start adding notes until we form a full barre chord for each arpeggio.
We can do the same exercise using the F, B♭ and C barre chords in an arpeggiated pattern. In this case, I’ll tab out only the first and last form of the exercise.
F, B♭ and C Round Two
Focusing on Triads
The formal definition of a triad is the following:
A chord made up of three notes that are stacked in third intervals.
Thus a triad will have three components:
- Root Note
- Third Interval
- Fifth Interval
You can read more about triads if you’d like, though the definition isn’t explicitly relevant for doing guitar exercises. Just know that it’s what the tabs and sequences are loosely based off of. If we look at our interval cheat sheet we can establish the following distances for each interval:
- Minor Third Interval (three semitones)
- Major Third Interval (four semitones)
- Diminished Fifth (six semitones)
- Perfect Fifth (seven semitones)
- Augmented Fifth (eight semitones)
Any combination where you have a root note, one of these third intervals and then one of the fifths would be considered a triad. This is what we’ll use to build our exercises. Let’s start with something easy, in the key of C:
Though it’s short, this run does present a distinctly challenging note at the third fret on the first string. If we stretch the pattern up the fretboard, we can start to challenge our accuracy on both a horizontal and vertical plane.
I’d recommend using your middle, pointer and pinky finger in that order. If it’s easier to grab the third note with your ring finger, that’s fine too. Perhaps alternating between both would be helpful. We’ll move onto our second triad:
This minor triadic arpeggio makes for a fantastic exercise, because it feels backwards and challenges your fingers with a position that they’re likely not used to. Ring finger, middle finger and pointer finger in that order. Just like before we can continue the exercise up the neck:
We can repeat the movement vertically as well:
The intervals get shifted once we hit the second string (open B), but the value we get out of the exercise is still the same.
Once again we’re backing down the fretboard after beginning the pattern with our ring finger.
You could easily employ a chromatic advance up the fretboard as well:
How you arrange the sequence is up to you. Let’s add one in a major key, just for fun:
Intervals and triads give us contextual ways to improve our finger strength and develope more accuracy on the fretboard. So now that we’ve covered those two categories, we can move onto a more challenging group of exercises based on scales and modes.
Let’s jump in.
Scales and Modes Exercises
The easiest way to get started is to just play an easy scale as an exercise. Because in essence, that’s what they really are - exercises with a little more meaning and music behind them. Begin with a basic C major scale:
EXERCISE #49 - The C Major Scale
Here it is in a guitar scale diagram as well:
We mentioned that this would focus on scales and modes. How do we get to modes?
Well, a mode is sort of a variation of a given scale, which means a good follow up exercise would be to come up with a tab that takes us from the C major scale to the C Lydian mode. Something like this:
You’ll note that there’s only one note difference between the two shapes. The Lydian mode is just a Major scale with the fourth degree raised one half step. Move back and forth between these two shapes, both for the accuracy benefit and so you can start to hear the difference between them.
Let’s try another one. This time we’ll employ the E major Pentatonic scale:
And once again, the diagram version:
This shape on its own isn’t particularly challenging. In fact, it’s fairly intuitive. But let’s repeat the process we used for the C major scale and apply an adjacent mode to this exercise so we can jump back and forth between scale and mode.
This time I’ll use the Dorian mode in the key of E. Tab sheet first:
Then the diagram:
Note that the scale would continue onto the second and first strings. I’ve cut it off at the root note on the ninth fret for simplicity. Now we can combine the two in a tab sheet, just like we did with the Major scale and Lydian mode.
From just these few scales we can derive patterns that can be re-purposed as individual exercises that loosely mimic the scale’s shape. Take the Dorian mode, for example. What if we were to create an exercise based on the three-note pattern on the sixth string?
It would look something like this:
Each sequence of three notes should be handled by the first, third and fourth finger respectively. Let’s flip it around so we’re using the first, second and fourth finger, simply by dropping the note at the ninth fret, to the eighth fret.
Any variance of this exercise can be helpful, and left up to the imagination, there are plenty of other possibilities. Think of them as more repetitive versions of guitar finger exercises 15 thru 19. These patterns continue to build accuracy with familiar intervals and patterns, which will in turn help you when you go back to playing a more musical sequence of notes.
More Advanced Guitar Finger Exercises
In this section, I'll provide a few more advanced guitar exercises. We'll start with some warm up tactics (for those who have simply skipped to this section).
Warming up, as it relates to the guitar, does two things for your playing:
- It prepares you for performance.
- It strengthens you for the long term.
In other words, these warm ups aren’t just prep. On their own, as standalone exercises, they can make you a better player. We have five total.
Warm Up Exercise #1 | Chord Inversion
This one is straight from a Joe Satriani lesson video that I can no longer find and forget the name of. It’s essentially an inverted chord shape that he repeats all the way up the fretboard. We’ll start on the third fret and go to the fifth.
We can also break the shape up into a single-note arpeggio:
I only did the third and fifth frets, but you get the idea. Repeat this pattern up and down the fretboard, going as far as your comfort-level affords you.
Warm Up Exercise #2 | Pentatonic Minor in the Key of C
This shape is based off the Minor Pentatonic mode in the key of C, which climbs down from the B♭ at the 11th fret, all the way to the E♭ at the eighth fret. The descent should begin with the pinky finger and end with your pointer finger.
It’s only six notes, but you would be surprised how often you’ll hear mistakes and inconsistencies when rolling through a similar pattern in a scale or solo. Increase the speed of this descent until you’re making mistakes, then camp out at that speed to help you improve the transitions from the second to the third string.
Warm Up Exercise #3 | Basic Chromatic Pattern
This one is simple, boring and effective. I’ve edited the shape a bit to create a more bluesy and pentatonic feel, making it more applicable.
We loosely follow the Pentatonic Minor pattern in order to make the chromatic shape “musical” and familiar. I’d suggest moving the shape to start at other frets and practice the descending version of the pattern as well. You can probably tell, there are plenty of ways to mix all of these up. Feel free to do so.
Warm Up Exercise #4 | Seventh Chord Shape
In this exercise we take an E7 chord, brake up the notes, and use the resulting arpeggio as our exercise. Here’s the shape:
In this case our root is an E, so you can move the last note (on the second string) one and a half steps higher to give yourself another variation to work with.
In the first pattern I showed you, lead off with your ring finger (it’s the tougher of the two). In the second pattern, lead off with your middle finger and grab the last note on the eighth fret with your pinky.
Warm Up Exercise #5 | The Tetrachord Shift
A tetrachord is basically half of a major scale. We play them a lot without even realizing it, and their familiar patterns make good exercises. Here’s our tetrachord pattern:
And here’s our exercise:
Basically we’re breaking the tetrachord up into two patterns and repeating them back to back. This will stretch your fingers and improve your speed. If you really want to make this one tricky (though we’ll get into this later) you can move the pattern back and forth between different strings.
Using Scales and Scale Segments
At that point, we can craft exercises that are largely based on the scales we’ve already examined. For example, if we want to functionally exercise our fingers to be able to play and memorize the Lydian mode, we’ll simply pull the short Lydian pattern from the scale and use it to create an exercise that follows the same note pattern.
We can use movement, repetition and positioning to make it more challenging, but it will still sound Lydian, or will at least prepare you for that scale’s shape and movement. We’ll begin by going back to the Pentatonic scale and starting from there, since it is one of the more commonly-used scales.
1. Pentatonic Run I
You can arrange the Pentatonic scale a number of different ways on the guitar. For our own purposes, we’re looking at the Pentatonic Major scale shape, in the key of E at the seventh-fret position, extended through all six strings. Here’s our scale diagram:
We’ll use this shape to build three guitar scale exercises. First, consider that the scale - in and of itself - is an exercise worth spending time on. Thus, running through the full pattern a few times won’t hurt. However, we’re going to break this shape up into smaller increments in order to concentrate our efforts.
For the first shape, we’ll lead off with our pinky finger on the root note at the ninth fret, concentrating on the notes from only the second and third strings. Here’s our tab:
Increase speed until you’re challenged to keep up, then camp at that pace for awhile.
For our second exercise we pull a note from each of the four strings in the middle of the scale (one note per string) giving us a kind of broken up and arpeggiated pattern. This helps with developing accuracy and jumping from string to string, as well as fret to fret.
In this example I’ve come up with a descending pattern, but an ascending pattern could also be used.
I’d recommend running through both.
The last shape we’ll pull out of this scale is a simple one, where we utilize the first eight notes of the scale. It gives us an opportunity to lead with our middle finger and use our pinky finger on every line. Here’s the tab:
This stretches your fingers and gets your fourth finger some strength training in the process. Make sure you use it to fret the last note in both measures. And that’s pretty much it. We just break the scale up and use it to develop practical guitar exercises.
Let’s try a more difficult pentatonic scale.
2. Pentatonic Run II
For our second Pentatonic scale exercise, we’ll go back to the key of C and build our pattern around the corresponding root note at the eighth fret. We’ll also use what’s called the Pentatonic Blues scale, instead of the major variation we looked at earlier.
Here’s our diagram:
It’s easy to see that this shape is going to give us more exercises to work it. Let’s begin with the most obvious pattern, by taking the notes from the sixth and fifth strings to create our first tab.
We’ll start with the root C on the sixth string (eighth fret) and use our fourth finger to grab the second note on that line. The scale then shifts to a short, chromatic pattern between the eighth and 10th frets.
Here’s how I’d craft the exercise:
Speed should be a focus here. Push yourself until you’re making a few mistakes. Once you get there, that’s your target speed until you can go a little quicker without missed or incomplete notes.
Our next exercise is essentially an arpeggiated chord shape that begins on the first string at the high root C and ends at the root C found on the 10th fret.
Here’s our tab:
There are different ways to approach this shape, though I would advise barring the first two notes on the eighth fret with your pointer finger, then using your third and fourth finger for the last two notes on the tenth fret. As you may have gathered, this shape can easily be moved to different frets in order to add variety to the exercise.
For our third exercise, we’re going to setup a simple run, that is likely to be less intuitive to your fingers. We’ll use only the two highest strings (B and E) and almost all of the notes that fall on them in the scale diagram.
Again, we’ll look to build speed and accuracy.
Here's the tab:
Initially, this doesn’t look like much.
However, If you begin with your ring finger - on the first note at the eighth fret - and follow the diagram, you’ll find that this movement takes some careful thought and concentration. Part of the reason is that you’ve got two notes stacked one on top of the other on the eighth fret. Typically, our fingers will be used to notes that are farther apart.
In this case, we’re forced to work in closer proximity. I’d recommend working up some speed, then moving the shape, perhaps like this:
Note the slide up to the last interval.
Though it’s simpler in construction, this exercise might be one of the more difficult ones to get coming out clean and sterile, since we’re playing notes on the second and fifth strings, back to back.
The difficulty is in making the jump from one line of strings to the next, going in either direction. Work on it until you get that shift to come out clean without any botched notes.
Pentatonic Minor Speed Building Exercises
We’ve already looked at the Pentatonic Minor shape, but we’re going to bring it back into focus and use it to produce guitar exercises that help us build speed. And the good news is that it won’t take long to build speed using this method. You’ll get faster and more accurate simply by running through these tabs on a regular basis.
However, here's what you’ve got to remember: If you’re able to play fast but keep skipping, missing and butchering notes, you’re not really playing fast.
To avoid this, let’s outline a few goals for building speed:
- Build speed in manageable increments.
- Know the difference between your performance speed and practice speed.
- Recognize that all notes need to come out clear, on a consistent basis before speeding up.
Now, you might be wondering: What is “performance speed” and “practice speed?”
Performance speed is what you could comfortably and accurately demonstrate, while practice speed is the speed you push yourself to in order to challenge your abilities and improve. In this case we’re working on practice speed, but recognize that your performance speed will always be a little bit slower (maybe a lot slower) than the pace you set during a speed-improving practice session.
The Pentatonic Minor Scale in the Key of C
Just for a quick review, here’s our Pentatonic minor scale, back in the key of C and stationed at the eighth fret.
For speed exercises (and guitar scale exercises in general), the fret position and key doesn’t really matter, outside of having to deal with bigger or smaller frets. That choice is yours to make. Now, as for our exercises:
The first thing I like to do with this shape is chromatisize the entire scale and run through it. Let’s tab it out:
I’ve broken it up into two segments:
Now, this run is not at all complicated, but it will be tiring. Part of that is because you’re involving all of your fingers, without any real break. And while you might find that the three-note runs in the middle three strings are a bit easier, the exercise is meant to keep your hands moving and get them used to the overall shape.
Here’s a good practice sequence to follow:
- Slow - Ascending: 4x
- Slow - Descending: 4x
- Quick - Ascending: 4x
- Quick - Descending: 4x
- Slow - Ascending: 2x
- Fastest - Ascending 2x
You don’t have to stick to that method, but if the structure helps, it’s what I would recommend. Let’s move on and look at some other speed-building techniques from this scale. Exercise #2
For our second exercise, we’ll go ahead and move the shape a couple frets in both directions. Start with this pattern, which is basically taken from the three high strings (third, second and first):
Now, drop the pattern down one whole step to the sixth fret and repeat the same intervals:
You can repeat this process on any fret in either direction. For example, you could run through the shape on the third, fifth, seventh and tenth frets, or you could advance in a more chromatic pattern (third, fourth fifth, etc.). We can also thicken the shape up by adding notes.
For the last pattern, we’re going to add a note to the original scale diagram. First, a review of that diagram:
Now, imagine we were playing into this shape, but that we weren’t starting at the root note on the eight fret. It sounds complicated, but all we need to do is extend the scale in at least one direction. In this case, I've added two notes that are a whole step below the root and the fourth of the original scale shape.
These two notes do change the musical properties of the scale (notice they occur at other points in the original scale), but that’s not the concern here. We just want to come up with a functional, fretboard pattern. Basically, we want to extend the number of frets that we can cover in one exercise. In this case, we’re going from the sixth fret, all the way to the 11th.
It’s pretty simple, but again gives you a common soloing shape to work with. You can add notes in the middle to make the pattern more chromatic, or you can add additional intervals. For example, we can expand our shape at the end of this tab (on the second string) on up to the 13th fret.
Working in that shape will help you develop speed and familiarity with modern soloing structures. At this point, variations should be easy to come up with. Let’s move on.
High Strings to Low Strings
Though we’ve already touched on it, navigating from the top to the bottom of the fretboard (and vice versa) deserves its own category. We’ll divide it up into two portions: High to Low and Low to High. You’ll notice that Steve Vai is a master when it comes to this technique. He’ll be ringing a melody on the higher register, then all of a sudden he’s down a few octaves lower on the fifth and sixth strings.
Learning the mechanics of that technique is rather simple. We’ll begin with high strings to low strings or “thinner to thicker.”
For starters, we just need to work on getting from the higher register to the lower notes. Keep in mind: These tabs are without regard to melodic and musical value.
Then, move straight to the last three strings:
No doubt, it’s boring. But this is one you should do a lot of, until you can work up some speed and get every grueling note to come out clean. Once you do, we can change things up a bit.
Try the following shape:
We can lengthen the exercise by dropping a whole step at the fifth string pattern, such as:
Simple enough, but let’s move into something a little more challenging.
In this run we’re using two patterns and simply moving them. Here’s a short example:
We can move the shape in either direction to expand the exercise. I’ve chosen to go up one whole step to the seventh fret. Let’s complicate things a bit more:
This time we’re descending on the first string, then arppegiating an A major chord. For the second segment, the descent occurs on the second string, while the chord is an E major that omits the open E root note. Let’s continue working on our descending speed using a different pattern entirely.
Try a descending shape with a little more horizontal (fret-to-fret) movement. This shape uses the beginning of the previous tab, but then changes the descending interval, moving laterally on each string.
These patterns - and many of their variations - are helpful ways to exercise and improve your speed going from the higher strings to the lower. Lets apply some of the same ideas and principles in the opposite direction, now going low to high.
Low Strings to High Strings
Instead of going high to low, we’re focusing on low to high. That means we’ll usually begin our runs on the low E string and finish on the high E or B.
Patterns will have a similar sound as what you heard in the last section.
A reasonable level of speed should be easily attained.
Your fingers will stretch a lot on this one, especially since we’re staying at the third fret. To make it an easier stretch, just transpose the shape to a higher fret (perhaps the seventh or eighth) since those frets aren’t as wide as the lower ones.
Note that you can also ascend through the High to Low exercises, so that you’re starting on the low strings and working your way to the top. You just work backwards. All this “High to Low” and “Low to High” content gives you plenty of material and exercises to help get to either vertical extremes of the fretboard.
Once you’re comfortable with that, we’ll wrap things up with a modal example.
Modal Exercises: Lydian Example
For our first modal workout, we’ll use the Lydian mode to draw out some simple patterns that will accomplish two things:
- Familiarize our ears with the Lydian melody (mental memory)
- Help to increase our speed and dexterity (muscle memory)
There’s a musical and physical element to a modal workout. We won’t review the entire mode, but will cover a simple definition.
The Lydian mode is simply a major scale with a raised fourth degree.
For example, the Lydian mode in the key of F, would be the following notes: F G A B C D E F. In an F major scale, the highlighted B would be one semitone lower, a B♭. We simply raise it to a B, in order to give us our Lydian mode.
Our first tab:
The note at the fourth fret is our raised fourth (fourth scale degree), in a tab that is simply representative of an octave to octave Lydian mode scale shape. Repeat the pattern several times, until you can build up a little speed.
For our first exercise, we’ll simply jump back and forth between the first two tab lines:
That second line is the important one, where we have our raised fourth note, giving the entire scale a Lydian-sounding tone. Let’s keep this shape, but switch back and forth between the major scale and Lydian mode.
This will help us hear the difference in the two shapes, while also improving our speed and responsiveness to quick, repetitive note changes.
We’ll pull one more shape out of the Lydian mode and use it to climb up the fretboard.
This process can be repeated with any number of modes, provided you take the time to learn their patterns. All I’m doing is coming up with short exercises that highlight the most prominent tones of the mode. You can easily replicate the process.
Guitar Dexterity Exercises for Quicker Development
You can expedite the process of building speed by using exercises that develop your finger’s motor skills. As you learn and engage these exercises, all movement on the fretboard becomes easier. This lets you worry more about music and less about not being quick or strong enough. Specifically, here’s what we’ll accomplish in this chapter:
- Improve the autonomy of your fingers
- Build better accuracy
- Encourage longer stretching between fingers
- Develop muscle memory in your hands and fingers
Once again, let’s start with a warm up.
Some simple chromatic runs will get you started.
Now add the pinky finger and grab the sixth fret.
Walk back down the same tab, starting with your pinky finger.
Now we’ll break up the pattern and put each note on a separate ascending string.
Invert the pattern so you've got to curl your hand the opposite way:
Take the pattern you've just played and push each line into a chord, like this:
Now the inverse:
This should be somewhat familiar to you if you went through the warm up exercises in the advanced section.
Broken Chromatic Pattern
Our first exercise is a twist on the warm up exercises. We’re still using a chromatic run, but we’re staggering each note between two strings, so that half of them are on one string and half are on another. We’re also moving all the way up the fretboard.
The pattern starts on the first fret. Use, first, second, third and fourth fingers in that order:
When you’re ready, move the shape up the fretboard.
Move as far up as you want, then reverse the pattern and climb back down to the starting point.
Staggered Chromatic Stretch
We’ll make a couple adjustments to our previous exercise that force us to stretch our second and fourth fingers more than one fret. This one is tough on the bigger frets, so start higher at first. Somewhere around the fifth or sixth fret will work best.
The stretch should occur between your first and second finger and your third and fourth finger.
Single String Walk Down
In this case, the string choice is completely up to you. I’m using the high E since it’s lighter. The exercise is simple, so you’ll want to repeat it a lot to build strength. We’re simply moving down a couple intervals starting with our third finger, then our fourth. Here’s the pattern.
Slow to moderate speed with alternate picking.
Now we stretch a little further to the 15th fret.
Again, we’ll pull off the note on the 12th fret (E) to ring out the bass note (D) on the 10th fret. Let's move our hands down the fretboard with the full pattern.
Chord Shape Stretch (second and fourth fingers)
This pattern can be moveable or can stay on the same fret. You’re starting with your pointer finger anchoring on the third fret, while grabbing the next two notes with your second and fourth fingers. Repeat the process for the next line.
What we want to do now is switch that spacing so that the two fret spaces comes first. You’ll go from using your second finger on the fourth fret, to using your third finger (ring finger) on the fifth fret.
Continue to anchor the note at the third fret with your first finger.
Chord Shape Crawl
Two different arpeggios get us from the sixth string all the way up to the first. Our first arrangement:
Where you see the two notes at the ninth fret you’ll grab the first with your pinky finger, then tuck your pointer finger underneath to grab the second and move your hand in position to play the last two notes.
The same concept applies to the above tab.
Chord Shape Crawl for Muscle Memory
We’ll use the same shape from before, but simply repeat the movement going up and down the fretboard. This will help our fingers remember the movement while improving speed and accuracy.
Form and Speed
With these exercises, keep your speed low so that you can comfortably get through each movement without fudging notes or getting lost. Once every note is ringing clear on a regular basis, then you can speed up. Until then, good form will act as a foundation for speed to naturally occur. If you have the choice of focusing on one or the other, start with form first.
Remember that we’re trying to stretch our fingers and get each one working autonomously with better dexterity and range. That needs to be in place before you can start playing quicker.
Developing Speed with Melody
Pursuing guitar exercises for speed and accuracy means something different today. The traditional guitar solo is no longer a popular element of mainstream music and when you’re running in the circles of today’s popular musicians, you’ll find few “shredders” in the traditional sense of the term.
Sure, many of the greats are still here. Joe Satriani, Jimmy Page, Steve Vai and others are continuing to give us something to hold on to when it comes to fast and technical guitar playing. But one thing that needs to be understood by aspiring speedsters is this:
The way guitar players use their speed is changing.
Fast isn’t good enough anymore, which is evidenced by the fact that there are a lot of really fast guitar players out there that no one cares to listen to. The reason guys like Page, Vai and Satch have stuck around for so long is because, in addition to being fast and technically brilliant, they’re extremely musical and melodic.
Melody and Good Music
Notice that when Satch plays quickly he’s always anchored by a certain melody. "Summer Song" is an excellent example:
He’s getting a lot of speed in this song, but all of it is building off the original melody which he sets up in the beginning seconds of the track. Making that melody obvious to the listener is a big part of succeeding when you do start to play fast. If no one ever really gets the melody than fast playing is going to be little more than fun to watch and maybe not even that. Instead, your guitar playing should provide a melody and allow the rest of the song, your soling included, to build out from that melody.
Why does any of this matter?
Because good music, above all else, should invoke an emotional response.
Sure, it can be technical and fun to watch, but even the most talented musicians and composers were driven to create intensely emotional and inspirational pieces that transcended musical technicality.
Their technical abilities only made that experience better. Our challenge, and the goal of these exercises, is to help you build speed on the guitar, but also show you how to do so within the melody and emotion of basic musical constructs.
Melodic Distance Stretching
Let's start with some string-to-string distance stretching. Run through the following exercises at your own pace.
The fingers you use for each note should be the following order:
The finger order here is what makes this a stretch, so only use your pointer and middle finger on this one: Pointer-Middle-Pointer-Middle-Pointer-Middle.
Note: Repeat this one with both your middle and ring finger, as well as your ring and pinky finger.
Stretching for Chromatic Speed
Riffs that incorporate a lot of quickness will typically span three or four frets at a time. Thus your stretching should focus on building speed over a set group of three or four frets and should promote movements that help you increase fluidity within those patterns.
No pressure to play fast though.
First measure: Pointer-Middle-Pinky
Second measure: Pointer-Ring-Pinky
Building Lead Patterns
Since we've gone over so many established guitar exercises and patterns, we can now build our own from the ground up. Remember, we want melody and music, in addition to technical prowess. Let’s start by combing some simple interval shapes, like we did earlier in this article.
Here are our three intervals:
We'll use varying combinations of these intervals to create the following patterns:
The first run combines all three intervals:
Now, before we start trying to build speed, we need to cover a couple topics related to technique.
It’s entirely possible that you’re doing this already without even noticing. If not, it simply means picking on both the down and up movements as you swipe the pick across the string(s). While referring to the above tab, we alternate between picking on the down and upswing as we play. This is crucial to being able to develop speed, so if you’re not used to it make sure you get it in your system.
For further illustration, the brackets are down strokes, while the points are up strokes, on the following tab:
In case you’re not familiar, a hammer-on is where you strike a note with your chording hand and cause it to ring out without ever picking the note with your strumming hand.
When and where you use this technique is mostly up to you. I’ve found it helpful to spread them throughout a given run. That way you don’t have to pick every single note, allowing you to build more speed.
Building off the first lead pattern, we’ll use a similar sequence to bring the run up to the seventh fret.
If we look at this tab closely, it's easy to spot a portion of the major barre chord shape at the fifth and fourth frets:
You can pick out elements of a triadic chord from the scale.
While still using basic intervals, we’ll switch strings and start our run on the low E.
At this point you should be getting familiar with the basic feel of these movements while also starting to develop a little bit of speed. As the pace quickens, keep the following guidelines in mind, to make sure you don't begin to sacrifice accuracy:
Listen for buzzing or missing notes: If you have too many of either, you’re probably playing too fast.
Don’t let your left hand outplay your right hand: Assuming your left hand is handling the fretboard, don’t move through notes faster than what your right hand can pick, particularly as you work on alternate picking.
Pay attention to the patterns: Don’t increase speed so much that you lose track of what you’re doing. Always be keyed into the pattern you’re following and why you’re playing what you’re playing.
We started with a simple major second and are now (hopefully) moving around the fretboard with a fair amount of comfort. The next step is to begin working with some basic modes.
While intervals and chord shapes give us useful building blocks for playing faster, modes are going to open up a lot more movement and possibilities on the fretboard. They’ll also provide the framework we need to develop speed that’s musical and melodic.
Using Basic Modes
The two most commonly used modes on the guitar would be blues and pentatonic. Particularly when you’re dealing with the kind of music today’s guitarists are playing (heavy rock, pop and alternative), those two modes provide the groundwork for a lot of what’s going on melodically.
That makes them a good place to pick up after we’ve covered intervals and chord shapes.
Pentatonic Neutral in C
We’ll start by learning the Pentatonic Neutral mode in the key of C as it does several things for you:
- Gives you a foundational starting point
- Introduces you to the blues sound
- Gives you an easy run to start building speed
Here’s the actual scale:
The pentatonic neutral scale in C is a great place to start building speed.
To simplify things even further, I’ll go ahead and say that on the sixth string, where you see the jump from the third fret to the sixth fret, you can even things out and just jump to the fifth fret, if you so choose.
Either way works for me.
Expanding on the Pattern
What’s the takeaway here? If you know what key to play in and can find that key on the fretboard, playing through this lead pattern (or a form of it) will usually work. For example, since we’re in the key of C, let’s assume a common chord progression: C-F-G. Since you know that the scale is in the key of C, you can play through the notes in that scale for a workable lead pattern.
If the progression were E-A-B, you would simply move the pattern up to where the root note was an E, which in this case would mean you start the sequence at the seventh fret.
Now that we get the concept and what’s going on musically, how do we build speed?
Building Speed with the Pentatonic Neutral Mode
We’ll use the same mode and go through several different patterns like we did earlier. First, we’ll add a few notes within the bounds of the mode itself.
We’ve added just a couple notes on the lower register (highlighted in red) one of which was the optional note I mentioned earlier.
Here we’ve simply filled out three-note sequences on the first four strings. If you want to practice this movement specifically, go ahead and pull the tab out just to work on playing those three notes in a row. My advice would be to break the exercise up into segments, like the following three bits.
Now we’ve added our extra notes on the higher register on the second and first strings.
At this point we’ve broken away from the scale a bit and moved up to the sixth and seventh frets.
Once again we’re breaking ranks from the original scale and moving further up the fretboard.
Developing Speed within the Patterns
I’ve always been of the opinion that the real challenge isn’t to simply be able to play fast, but to know the musical patterns and sequences that provide the foundation for technical proficiency. Not only does that encourage speed, but it increases our chances of playing accurately as well. That’s why we’ve focused so extensively on intervals, chords and common scales.
They’re the most basic patterns we can learn on the guitar. If we’re comfortable with them, then speed and accuracy will come with practice and will be easier to turn into something musical and entertaining as opposed to just something technical.
If you develop your speed within the scales and patterns that you already know, the rest will be much easier.
Smooth and Subtle Movement
The other benefit is that as you use exercises like this, your playing will become smoother and more subtle. Increasing your accuracy allows you to do more with less movement, which is beneficial when you’re trying to optimize your playing and take command of the fretboard.
Thus, subtlety and accuracy should be at the top of your priority list. The more you strengthen your fingers with guitar exercises, the easier those things will be.
Concluding and Further Study
Guitar exercises can be somewhat mind-numbing, and I’m not going to tell you there’s a way around that. To be honest, I don’t believe there is. Weight-lifting, drills in sports and most other “practice” elements of getting good at something, are inherently, a bit dull to one degree or another.
But to perform, you’ve got to put in this kind of work.
Especially with the guitar.
Fight the boredom and keep pushing for better accuracy and a stronger overall command of the fretboard.
Do you have guitar exercises you’ve used to improve accuracy? We’d love to hear about them. Give us a shout in the comments section below.