Before you start playing, whether for practice or at gig, starting with a basic warm up is a great idea. With a good warm up, you can work out some kinks like stiff fingers or bad playing headspace before getting in to the real work.
I’ve found when I’m working on a song in practice or getting ready for a gig, there are three main types of warm ups really help – Arpeggio runs, Chord movements, and Double Stops. By mapping these out before playing a song in my warm ups, it’s a lot easier to focus on the nuances of a tune rather than the mechanics. While I use these as warm ups often, they are great additions to any practice routine as well.
Each exercise be played in two ways:
Across Positions: Play the exercise in an open position, then all closed in first position, then shift up the neck further to get into higher positions.
Shifting Positions: Play the exercise moving the bass note up and down the neck.
In addition to varying the position of playing, varying the beats played is also a great way to get your warm up going. Using a metronome, start on a slow tempo and play the exercises in whole notes (single beat per measure), half notes (two beats per measure), quarter notes (four beats), eighth notes, and sixteenth notes. Tremelo and triplets are great too!
You don’t have to play through all exercises so feel free to play as much or as little of them as you feel is needed – or just focus on one type of warm up. No matter how you warm up, a little bit of focused warm up before you play can make the more complex stuff a lot easier. Also, this is written for mandolin, but easily applies to other instruments as well.
Choose a basic progression (like a simple 1 4 5 blues, 1 4 1 5 1 church cadence, or a song you are working on or about to play) and play through it using the below exercises. In all cases, you’ll play through your progression in time – so if the first measure is a G chord followed by a D chord, you’ll play the exercises in G for 1 measure and D for 1 measure etc. When in doubt, the Church Cadence is my go to practice.
This exercise is simply playing through the chord progression you’ve chosen in various ways. By understanding all the possible chord positions for your progression, you’ll have an easier time moving around the fingerboard to create more interesting rhythm progressions and solos.
Across Positions: Start off playing the chords of your song in a completely open position across the position to a metronome at at little slower to whatever time feels comfortable. Once you’ve played it through without any mistakes, shift up one position and repeat the process. Do this up the neck as far as you can go, then work your way back to the open position. Repeat this through the song.
Shifting Positions: Start with an open position, then shift up one position for the next chord and continue this as far up the neck as you can, then play the chords one position at a time back down the neck. Repeat this through the song. If you want to make it more interesting – try doing this with only unique chord voicings.
An Arpeggio is simply playing each note of a chord one at a time. In the case of the G major chord, that’d be G B D (or the 1 3 5 of the scale) while G7 would be G B D F (or the 1 3 5 b7 of the scale). Arpeggios have many cool functions including being the “Safe Notes” because if you play one of these notes over the corresponding chord, it’ll always sound good. Knowing where these notes are on the fingerboard is a great way to anchor your playing – both as a soloist and a rhythm player.
Across Positions: Similar to the Chord Movements, you’ll start off playing across the open position – but this time from the low G string to the high E string, then back to the low G string. Once you’ve done that, shift the position and repeat all the way up the neck as far as you can go, then work your way back.
Shifting Positions: Again start with the lowest note in the arpeggio on the low G string and play the first 3 notes, then shift position playing the next 3, and repeat as far up the neck as you can, then work your way back. This exercise also is a great position shifting exercise and has a lot of potential variations.
Variation: Changing where you shift positions – for example, on the way up the neck try shifting on the low G, then the D, then A, and finally the E (reverse that on the way back).
A double stop is simply playing two notes of a given chord at once. For example, a G major double stop could be any combination of G D, D G, G B, B G, B D or D B. For G7, there are more options because you add the F (so F D, F B, F G etc are options in addition to the other G major options). These are very useful tools to move around the neck and to different positions. You’ll hear these used often by some of the best players.
Across Positions: Similar to the Arpeggio exercise, you’ll start with the lowest note possible on the G string – but this time you’ll add another note on the D string. From here you can either play that same chord as a double stop across the position OR you can play through the progression.
Shifting Positions: Play the same double stop as you started before, then move to the second lowest note on the G string and to the next note in the arpeggio on the D string. Repeat this up the neck as far as you can go, then work back. Once you go this on the G and D string, repeat on the D and A strings, then A and E strings.
By incorporating these warm ups in to your playing routine, I hope you’ll have an easier time moving past the mechanics of playing faster so you can stop thinking about playing while you play 😉