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Fretboard Workshop: A Bitter Pill to Swallow

I had been in the hospital for nearly four months with a heart condition. Two of those months I just laid flat in bed. So when I got back home and started to play again, I tried to pick up where I had left off. Wrong!

Theory: Beginner
Lesson Overview:
• Learn how to properly warm up before a gig or practice session.
• Develop your fingerstyle technique through the use of tremolo.
• Create finger-twisting exercises for your fretting hand.

“Why don’t you take your own advice?” she asked me. “What do you mean?” I said. “Well, for a long time you’ve been teaching people to slow down and get it right before moving on. Why don’t you try it yourself? After all it’s been nearly four months since you’ve played your guitar.”

Once again, my wife was right. I had been in the hospital for nearly four months with a heart condition. Two of those months I just laid flat in bed. So when I got back home and started to play again, I tried to pick up where I had left off. Wrong! I could barely play a D chord, much less an actual tune. I was so frustrated that I would play for 15 minutes and then put my guitar down for a few days before trying again. I told her that maybe I didn’t need to play guitar anymore. I’d played enough for one lifetime and perhaps it was time I did something else.

She simply smiled and said she didn’t think that was the answer. But each time I would try to play my arrangement of “I Got Rhythm” or “Superstition” or something else that used to be so easy for me, I just could not do it. So I took her advice and decided to listen to what I had been telling others for so long. As hard as it was, I had to go back to square one. Literally. And I found out that it works!

So what I’m presenting here are three exercises for you to try. Now bear in mind that I was at a fairly high level of playing when I got sick so, as luck would have it, I was able to progress fairly quickly upon my return home. Which means these exercises are going to progress fairly rapidly, as well. I recommend you try each exercise and then look for ways to expand it into something of your own. The process has been a very good one for me—though it’s still ongoing—and I think it will be good for you as well.

Let’s begin with Fig. 1. Start slowly with your metronome set at 80 bpm and work it up gradually. Make sure that you connect all the notes. This means your fretting hand has to stay in place until the last second, then shift all your fingers at once. Notice that the chords are not the same ascending as they are descending. I need to have some variety when I’m practicing, and it makes a simple exercise a little more musical. For real variety try doing this exercise in D minor. Hint: Think in the key of F.

Fig. 2 is a great workout for your fretting hand. Be very careful to play this cleanly. Remember, we are not talking about speed. What we are looking for is accuracy. When you play this one, move your first and third fingers at the same time and do the same with your second and fourth fingers. Move them in one quick motion. It will be tricky at first, but then one day it will make sense and you’ll see how it helps other things you play.

Start the metronome at about 70 bpm, and move the passage up the neck one fret at a time. This means you’ll begin at the 2nd fret with your left first finger and then do the whole pattern. Then start at the 3rd fret and do the whole pattern. Take it up the neck as far as your frets will allow, then work your way back down. This should take about 10 minutes. Finally, play something you already know and see how free your left hand feels!

Okay, now it’s getting tough. Fig. 3 is an exercise I used to do first thing in the morning to wake up my fingers. I would do this and others like it for about 15 minutes, and then, as far as my right hand was concerned, I was ready for anything. To do a nice smooth tremolo takes a long, long time. Work this out very slowly at first—like 50 bpm—until it feels really smooth. Then build your speed gradually—bumping up about 5 bpm at a time—until you reach 140 bpm. Then slow it down. You’ve got to be painfully honest with yourself on this one, because if you try to speed it up before you’re ready, it will just sound like a mess.

Pete Huttlinger has become widely known as one of the most awe-inspiring acoustic guitar players in the world. His unique arrangements and spellbinding musicality and precision have entertained audiences from Los Angeles to Milan. As a recording artist, Huttlinger has released numerous albums and performed at all three of the Crossroads Festivals. For more information about his latest release, Finger Picking Wonder-The Music of Stevie Wonder, visit Photo by Paul Schatzkin.