Nail Multiple Guitar Skills at Once with This Simple Exercise

Read Time 5 Minutes

Confessions of a Sufferer of 21st Century Syndrome

You know what 21st Century Syndrome is? It’s when you’re so used to the world we live in where instant results are an expectation that the mere utterance of the word “patience” is like being punched in the face by a sumo wrestler wearing a cowboy hat.

What precipitated this article included me sitting on my duff with a guitar in my lap. Reruns of House M.D. illuminated the otherwise light-absent walls as I contemplated how bored I’d grown with my practice regime. Truth be known I don’t particularly enjoy practicing. I’ve grown capable of the things that interest me, but as a result I’ve suffered in other areas. You know what happens after that? Boredom. And if there’s anything worse than practice it’s boredom.

So I’ve concluded I need to freshen things up and practice new things, but because of my 21st Century Syndrome I’m not entirely willing to sit down and just study new scales or chords. Instead I want to develop as many different aspects at the same time. And that brings us to…

Multi-Task Practice

When I sat down and figured out how I was going to convince myself I wanted to practice I considered everything that I needed to improve on and everything I wanted to add to to my repertoire.  Soon after I began piecing together exercises that allowed me to practice everything I wanted to improve in one shot.

Sweeping and Alternate Picking
Fig 1

Thus an article was born and now I’m sharing with you how I’ve built a practice routine that can hold my attention span.

The first thing I wanted to improve was my speed and accuracy. I can play at some higher tempos, but I’m sloppy. It’s well known that if you want to play cleanly at high tempos you have to master slower tempos.  So, I’ve made part 1 to do as much as I can within the span of 80 bpm exclusively. It’s a good base speed to start anything with. If I wanted to work on getting faster I’d just start cramming more notes between each beat instead. The plus side to that is speed is relative. Playing 10 notes per beat at 80 bpm will translate to playing 1/16 notes at 200 bpm.

Another benefit to this is you’ll always have a much easier time noticing when you’re on the beat and when you’re off. Being able to notice when you’re screwing up clearly and isolating the problem alone is integral to improving.

In a quick recap I’ve laid the groundwork to improve my speed and accuracy by getting my metronome out and picking a manageable tempo to start with.

Music Theory Stuff

This part is a bit up to whomever is reading this to decide what is right for them. Personally I wanted to brush up a bit on some of my chords and arpeggios, so I’ve isolated those, but it’s not difficult to replace those with scale patterns, or melodies you’ve written, or passages from a song you’re trying to learn.

Sweeping, Alternate Picking, and Tapping
Fig 2

In my case it was chords and arpeggios and you can see in the Fig. 1 (above) what I was doing. I picked four string arpeggios from A major, but truth be known the specific key is completely peripheral to the point here. While pattern memorization is a part of this, reliance on any one particular position can become a bit of a crutch.

It’s like how anything in the key of E is typically a guitarist’s go-to key. We want to abolish that automatic habit. To do that, every day I’ve chosen a different key to start in. That way the intervals and shapes feel natural regardless of what position I begin in. And therein lies an invaluable skill for anything music related. Being able to readily play in any key (per the mentoring of my old teacher) will make you even more invaluable than the next guitarist. That goes for chord progressions, melodies, solos, and anything else you can throw at the fretboard. Patterns are handy, but they can be restricting in their own way.

In summary I’ve decided what my fretting hand will be doing.  I’ve chosen arpeggio patterns that can be moved easily around the fretboard.  This focuses the exercise and prevents from resorting to habits or aimless noodling around the neck.

Technique Stuff

Ok. At this point I’d come to the conclusion the tempo I was settling on and what I was to play. Next is to decide how to play the piece. The technical side.

Sweeping, Alternate Picking, Tapping, and String Skipping
Fig 3

As you can see from the pictures I’d chosen sweep picking as an integral part of the exercise. I’m a sweep junkie, so I enthusiastically chose that as my starting point. After tinkering with the sweeps in a few different keys I’d started including some modest taps at the end of each arpeggio, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

As techniques are gradually introduced you can morph the exercise into whatever you want. Sweeps, taps, string skipping, alternate picking, finger picking. Whatever you like.

Then on top of that you can work some ear training in there too.  Try singing along with everything you play while practicing.  Believe you me, my singing voice is about as alluring as the sounds picked up by a microphone crammed down my pants while I sleep.  Singing is not a skill I attempt to exercise too often (no serenading for me), but the fact remains that singing is arguably the greatest asset to training your ears.  All you have to do is match the pitch and before you know it you’ll be recognizing intervals and chords in songs on the radio.

Here I’ve chosen how I’m going to play the exercise. I’ve decided what kinds of techniques I’m going to focus on and how I’m going to impliment them into the exercise.

Taking it to the Next Level

At face value this doesn’t seem like much, but the real magic happens when you combine different patterns for your fretting hand and different techniques for your right.  Take a look at Fig. 3.  What began as a basic arpeggio exercise has now merged tapping and string skipping into one big exercise.  And while focusing exclusively on one technique at one time has its benefits, practicing being able to switch from one style of picking to another, then to start tapping or switching from sextuplets to 1/8 notes has immeasurable benefits on its own.

To put it in perspective, in one shot this exercises:

  • Speed
  • Accuracy
  • String Skipping
  • Sweeping
  • Alternate Picking
  • Tapping
  • Arpeggios

In Closing

When it comes to practicing there is a bit of an art to making it interesting, and it can be easy to overlook. After all we’re not practicing live for people, so the potential fun gets kinda pulled out from under our feet. The point of practice is to challenge ourselves, but it can be a bit of a balancing act to make it challenging, but also to not make things overwhelming.  Just remember how simple the exercise is depicted in the first picture.  That’s where I started with this exercise.  The following pictures are just how it’s evolved.  Remember. You don’t start at 200 bpm on day one for a reason.

The rest is up to you to decide how this concept is applied in your own routine.

Now go do your stretches and happy practicing to you all.


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Kyle Smitchens

Kyle Smitchens is the Guitar-Muse Managing Editor, super hero extraordinaire, and all around great guy. He has been playing guitar since his late teens and writing personal biographies almost as long. An appreciator of all music, his biggest influences include Tchaikovsky, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Steve Vai, Therion, and Jon Levasseur of Cryptopsy.

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