Guitar Finger Exercises for Strength, Flexibility, and Independence
Guitar finger exercises are a proven way to improve our guitar skills. Whether just beginning or highly advanced, daily finger exercise continues to help us progress. When we add a few minutes of exercise routines to our day, we see more improvement in less time.
Before anything too strenuous, it’s healthy and smart to warm up the muscles. If we jump into difficult exercises too fast, we risk injury and pain. So exercises are often best saved until later in a guitar practice session.
For any guitar exercise, use good form and positioning. This will keep your fingers safe, and make the exercises more effective and beneficial. Make sure you know how to hold a guitar and practice with attention and focus.
Below you’ll find 12 guitar exercises to help you develop your left and right hands. Watch each video to see if it sparks your interest. Enjoy!
1. First Guitar Exercise for Beginners
Here is a wonderful exercise to get your fingers moving and learning the guitar. It’s simple enough to memorize quickly. And gives you just enough challenge to build your skills. Expect improved control and dexterity in a short time with this routine.
We can call this exercise “1234’s” for the sake of simplicity. You can use any right-hand finger to play the notes. Or you can just press the strings with the left and omit the right. This makes for quiet but productive guitar practice.
To make this fingering exercise more challenging, we can use alternate picking in the right hand (alternate index finger and middle finger).
- Set a slow pace and place each finger just behind the fret. Increase the speed bit by bit.
- You may notice difficulty stretching between the 2nd and 3rd (middle and ring) fingers. No worries. Just do your best and it will improve.
2. Finger Independence Exercise – Simple but Challenging!
Next, we can use the “1234” exercise above but add another challenge.
Here we hold all four fingers on the string. Then we move a finger at a time to the next string. The other fingers stay where they are.
Here’s how it works (also see the video):
- Place each of the four left fingers on each of four frets on a string (you can start with the first fret of the low e string if you like, or any other).
- Keep all the other fingers still. Then move just the first finger to over to the next string (same fret).
- Keeping all other fingers in place (including the first finger you just moved), move only the second finger over to the string with the first finger.
- Do the same for the third, then fourth fingers.
- Go slow. If you speed up, you may lift fingers early without realizing it. Speed is not the goal of this exercise. The goal is for each finger to move independently. You can increase speed so long as you can keep the form and movements precise.
- Keep a nice “C” shape, with the big knuckles parallel to the guitar neck.
- Stop if you feel any discomfort or pain.
3. Hammer-Ons as a Guitar Finger Exercise
This and the next exercise are two of the best for training the left hand on the guitar. It develops strength, precision, and control for any guitar player.
In classical guitar, we often call these “slurs.” In Spanish flamenco tradition, they are often called guitar “ligado.” “Hammer-on” is a more descriptive name.
And as a bonus, we use these in music. So as you progress, you’ll use these more and more in your daily playing. This is true of any style of guitar playing, from classical to rock, folk to metal, polka to cha-cha-cha.
To play hammer-ons, first place a finger (not the little finger) on one fret (any string). Play that note. Then, while the note rings, place another finger on a higher-sounding fret on the same string. The new note will also ring, without plucking a second time. The right-hand plays once for every two notes in the left.
We can choose two fingers and perform the exercise on each string. We can also use the “1234” format and play once per string, sounding all four notes as hammer-ons.
You may not get to each of these every day, but it is helpful to cycle through them.
- Mind your form and position. Keep a nice “C” shape at all times. Keep the little finger over the string you’re playing.
- Keep a steady rhythm. Use a metronome if you can.
- If you find a finger combination more difficult than the others, start with it each day.
- Focus on placing the hammered note just behind the fret.
- Speed will come with time, but accuracy is a better goal. The more accurate you play these, the less pressure you need to sound the note.
4. Pull-Offs: Perhaps the Best All-Around Guitar Fingering Exercise
Pull-offs are the descending counterpart to the hammer-ons described above. The hammer-on goes from lower pitch to higher. Pull-offs start with the higher note and sound a lower note.
Of all the available guitar finger exercises in existence, pull-offs may be the best for overall control, strength, and independence. They do wonders for the left hand.
Fair warning – most people find pull-offs difficult at first. This is normal. If they were easy, they wouldn’t make for such a good finger exercise.
To play a pull off, place two fingers on the same string, behind 2 frets. Then, play the string. This will sound the upper note.
To perform the pull-off, pull the upper finger down and into the fretboard. It will slide off the string and pluck and lower note.
Be careful not to flip the upper finger up into the air. This makes for weak pull-offs and lackluster exercise. (More on this in the video.)
Like the hammer-ons, the left-hand plays two notes for every one stroke in the right.
Use the same finger combinations found above in the Hammer-ons section.
- Play in a steady rhythm. Use a metronome if you can.
- Keep a slow tempo and focus on form and movement. No extra points for sloppy reps.
- Hold a nice “C” shape.
- Spend more time on finger combination with which you struggle.
- Click here for 3 more tips to make pull-offs easier and more comfortable.
5. Extension Exercises for Both Hands – Rasgueados (No Guitar Required!)
This exercise uses a Spanish flamenco strumming technique called rasgueados (pronounced “rahs-kay-ahh’-dohs”). But instead of playing it on the guitar, we use both hands to work out on our lap.
Since no guitar is needed, you can do this guitar exercise many times throughout the day. They are also useful for travel.
If you add this to your daily schedule, expect to see drastic improvements in a short time. A month of these and you’ll be a completely different guitar player.
Here’s the exercise routine:
1. Shape your hand as if you were holding a tennis ball. Now place this shape onto your thigh (sitting). Your fingernails should curl under and touch your leg. And you’ll have an open space within your palm.
2. Now, in a quick burst, flick your pinkies (fourth fingers) out straight, leaving the other fingers where they are.
3. Then, without pulling your pinky back in, push out your ring fingers (3rd fingers).
4. Next continue with your middle and index fingers on both hands, one at a time.
5. Lather, rinse, repeat in a steady rhythm. Feel the burn! This can be strenuous, like lifting weights. You’ll feel it in the top of your forearms.
The more downward pressure with which you push, the harder it is to flick your fingers outward. You get more resistance.
- Make sure to keep your wrists straight. Think of your fingers coming out from your elbows.
- Don’t overdo it! If you do this too much, you can inflame your knuckles. This is true with any exercise. Injuries are major setbacks. Ease into it.
6. Compound Slur Exercises Using Digital Patterns
This routine combines a few of the previous ones. We use our 1234 pattern, as well as changing the finger order. And we use both hammer ons and pull offs.
One of the advantageous things about this finger exercise is that it uses the little finger more than any other. This gives it the extra training it needs to meet the ability of the others.
This exercise works on any string, from the low E to the high E. And you can start on any fret. To create more interest, move up a fret with each repetition, then back down. This acts as a score-keeper for a set number of reps as a goal.
You can take this exercise in stages if you like. To begin with, you can do only the first half. This means you play 1234 as hammer-ons (playing only the first note with the right hand, then the 234 as hammer ons).
Then you pluck the string on the 4, then do pull offs for 321.
The full pattern is: 1234-4321-1434-1424
The right plays on the first note of each grouping. So the right-hand plays once for every four notes in the left.
- If you’re a beginner, save this routine for later. Instead, spend time on the hammer on and pull off routines above.
- Quality over quantity. Be sure to do clean pull-offs, pulling your fingers down and into the fretboard.
- Listen to each note in turn. Stay focused on the current moment.
- Keep a steady rhythm. Again, a metronome is helpful here.
- Have fun!
7. Guitar Exercise for Speed and Precision
This is a guitar speed exercise. We practice going from one speed (quarter notes below) to double that speed (8ths below). With practice, you’ll launch into fast passages with accuracy and aplomb. You’ll increase your overall speed and accuracy.
For this practice routine, we begin using four adjacent frets on one string, played with all four left fingers. This is called a “chromatic” scale or pattern.
In other words, first fret, second fret, third fret, fourth fret. Up one note a time.
In the right hand, use quick-prepping with I and M alternation (index finger and middle finger alternating back and forth). The technique of “quick-prepping” helps us become more confident and precise in our movements. This type of “alternate picking” improves both scales and pattern-playing. It synchronizes the hands and leads to greater confidence and security.
- Make sure to keep a very steady rhythm and focus on one fret at a time.
- Pay close attention to the first few notes in the quicker section. Make sure the rhythm is secure, right from the start.
- Maintain form and position and play just behind the frets.
- Listen for any buzzes or string noise, and seek to clean them up.
8. “Scissors” Exercise for the Right Hand
This right-hand exercise helps build awareness of the “out stroke” when alternating the index finger and middle finger. I/M alternation is commonly used for scales and melodic playing. This can lead to more clarity, speed, and precise rhythm in your alternate picking.
In all guitar finger exercises, it’s important to play in a steady rhythm. When we do, our work can transfer over to making better music.
In the “scissors” exercise for guitar, you can use the following rhythm, or make up your own.
- Your fingers should straighten from the big knuckle. But your finger does not have to come all the way out (in line with the top of your hand).
- If you haven’t been practicing extension exercises, like the rasgueados exercise above, go easy at first. If you overdo it you could inflame your joints.
9. Odair’s Favorite Drill – An Advanced Finger Exercise
This is a challenging exercise for guitar players, and one worth digging into. Beginners may want to leave this for later.
This exercise uses two strings. The fingers move between the two strings in a given pattern. As we choose strings further apart, the exercise becomes more difficult.
In this exercise, there are two main goals: the musical and the physical. The physical is obvious, but the musical goal is easier to miss.
The Musical Goal
The musical goal of this exercise is to see it as two separate musical lines, and play it so that each line is smooth and connected (legato).
Playing this, we can listen for each note connecting smoothly to the next. Stems up connect to stems up. Stems down connect to stems down.
- Listen closely to one note connecting to the next.
- Separate each movement in your mind. Make each as clean and controlled as you can.
- Start on strings that are close together. Increase the stretch as you feel able. (But don’t overdo it!)
- Maintain a slow tempo and stay mindful, and you’ll be crawling over the neck in no time.
10. Sergio Assad’s Ultimate Guitar Exercise for Left Hand Mastery
Sergio Assad is one of the top figures in the classical guitar world today. He and his brother, Odair (from #11 above), have performed as a guitar duo for over 50(!) years. Sergio is also well-respected as a composer and arranger. And he’s is on the guitar faculty at the San Francisco Conservatory.
He’s also as nice a guy as you could ask to meet. He’s friendly, warm, and humble.
This finger exercise is his method for developing the left fingers. It starts off fairly easy and gets progressively more difficult.
This method of exercising the left hand for guitar use two main movements. One is the up and down movement of pressing a fret. The other is the back and forth across the neck movement.
Here we take each separately, then combine them. With practice, this leads to much better control and facility on the guitar strings. You’ll increase your independence, as well as stretch and dexterity.
This routine starts at a beginner level and progresses to advanced. So you can grow with it.
- You don’t have to do the entire routine each day. Just go as far as is feasible in the time given.
- Form and positioning are important, so watch out for any variance from the optimal.
- Be patient and give this one time.
11. Guitar Finger Games for Independence (No Guitar Required)
Finger games are not normal guitar exercises. They don’t work your muscles for strength. But they do train your finger independence. And even more importantly, they train your hands to work together.
Finger games train the brain and muscle connections. They remove the risk of injuries and can be done away from the guitar.
We can think of these guitar finger games as tongue-twisters or brain-teasers for the fingers. When we practice them, our brains create and strengthen new connections. We become more coordinated. Plus, they remove the risk of injuries and can be done away from the guitar.
All this leads to better guitar playing. And as a bonus, they’re fun!
You can read the full article for more examples. But as a taste, try this:
Tap on the surface in front of you, your legs (or just move your fingers in the air) in the following patterns. You can do each side separately to learn the pattern first if you like. Then do the hands together.
Right: I M I M – I M I M etc. (index and middle fingers)
Left: 4 3 2 1 – 4 3 2 1 etc. (4 = little finger, 1 = index finger)
As you get these two patterns moving together, you’ll feel your mind working. As you improve, you can impress your friends and loved ones with your guitar finger prowess!
- As always, keep a steady rhythm. Slow down if you’re making too many mistakes.
- Make confident finger-movements. Ideally, each finger hitting the table makes a sound (or would, if you were on a table).
12: Switching Chord Shapes as a Guitar Exercise
One of the best skills we can build on guitar is that of switching quickly between chords shapes. Chords happen in pieces of music and are used in most styles and genres.
To practice changing chords, first, choose two chord shapes. Then switch between them in a steady rhythm. We can then add a third shape, and/or speed up the chord changes.
To make this exercise more effective, practice placing a chosen finger down first on each chord. For example, for each chord shape, press your first finger down before the others. Practice switching chords in this way. Next, change to the second finger as the leading finger. Then the third finger, etc.
This exercise, along with the hammer-ons and pull-offs above, will directly improve the music you play, as well as more generally toning your hands.
- Make sure you begin with chord shapes that are challenging for you.
- Try to always stay in an even rhythm. Even if you get to a chord early, strum on the steady beat.
Tip: Use a Metronome for Guitar Exercises
The main goal of guitar finger exercises is to train our skills. This is so we can play guitar more beautifully. But music is made of more than just muscle. It’s also made in real-time.
A metronome can help us train our inner sense of rhythm. This is important because it will help us to play in a steady beat.
Working with a metronome can feel confusing and disorienting at first. This is normal. But with practice, it makes a big difference.
You can find metronome apps for your phone or pad, or search for an online version. As another option, you can get an analog metronome that serves as a piece of art in your practice space.
Further Reading: How to use a metronome in guitar practice. (You can access a free 14-day metronome course at the link as well.)
Guitar Hand Exerciser Machines: A Waste of Time and Money
There are many guitar hand exerciser gizmos available for purchase. These offer few if any benefits, and could cause injury. Save your money and do the guitar exercises above.
Here’s why: We grasp and squeeze things all day long. We don’t need more strength. To progress on guitar, we need to control the strength we already have.
It takes very little strength to hold down strings on a guitar. But we have to use the right muscles with the right amount of pressure. And this takes practice. We have to learn how to use our muscles.
Instead of using a machine, you’ll benefit more from practicing chord shapes and guitar exercises.
Exercises on the guitar help us play guitar. So do extension exercises and independence exercises.
The squeeze-based exerciser machines yield little improvement in actual guitar skills.
Pick a Guitar Exercise and Stick With It
There are loads of finger exercises out there. If we’re not careful, we can flit from one to the next without getting much benefit from any of them.
For best results, pick an exercise that is challenging but manageable for you. Then stay with that one fingering exercise long enough to get the good it offers.
If you’re just beginning, the first guitar exercise on this page is a perfect one. Do it daily until you can perform it quickly and easily, and the challenge fades. Then move to the next.
Also, there is more to the guitar than just moving our fingers. While exercises are fun, we also need to practice other things. Guitar technique is always useful. And learning how to play pieces of music is rewarding and engaging.
Exercises are a wonderful addition to any practice. And this is doubly so when we keep a steady rhythm and stay aware and focused on the current moment.
Hi, I’m Allen Mathews.
I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two stellar teachers – one focused on the technical, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully. Click here for a sample formula.
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