No Pain, No Strain — Warming Up to Avoid Hand Injuries

Here's a classic Guitar World column by Marty Friedman.

I'd like to discuss a topic that a bunch of you have written in asking about recently: warming up. This is a subject I touched on back in the November 1994 issue of "Guitar School," and it's so important that it's definitely worth revisiting again.

Whenever you're going to do any form of strenuous exercise, you should always warm up first if you want to avoid possibly hurting yourself. If you were playing baseball you wouldn't just get up there and start hitting balls with all your strength -- you'd swing the bat a few times before you tried to hit a home run.

So I believe it's important to warm up before you do pretty much anything on the guitar, be it recording, playing a gig or rehearsing. There are many bones, tendons and muscles involved in moving your fingers around, so before you start flailing 'em around recklessly, you should really do some form of warm up.

Injury Prevention

Warming up not only helps your technique, it also helps prevent injuries. I've met so many guitarists who've been forced to stop playing because of tendonitis and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. I never used to warm up and I ended up fucking up my right (picking) hand really bad when I first joined Megadeth. In fact, it was so bad that the first doctor I saw told me that I should stop playing guitar forever if I wanted to use my arm again!

I got a second opinion and, fortunately, after a year of intense physical therapy, my hand got better. I was really lucky, I guess, because I was right on the edge there for a while.

Fair Warning

Having said all this, I'm still guilty of not always warming up. Despite my nightmare experience, sometimes I just grab my guitar and let rip. I really should know better, though, because every doctor I've seen has told me it's really important to at least stretch your fingers out before going for broke.

If you don't, you could mess up your hands, and then your guitar playing could be done for good. Because of this, whenever I pick up the guitar I usually try to do something that uses both hands and moves all of my left-hand fingers slowly. You'll be surprised how much this kind of "slowhand" warm-up helps get the juices flowing.

If you come out of the gate blazing then you're missing the whole point of warming up. In fact, if you start off too fast then it's probably gonna do you more harm than good. You don't have to perform some kind of concerto and definitely not "Flight of the Bumblebee!" The purpose of warming up is to "awaken" all your guitar-playing muscles, tendons and ligaments and prepare them for the vigorous demands you're about to make on them.

Draw The Line

As you're about to discover, none of my warm-up exercises really have any musical value that I can think of -- they're just different ways to move my fingers. Some players get too caught up in trying to make their warm-up and technique exercises sound like real music and end up using their exercises in their songs. I think it's better to warm up by playing something musically meaningless because there's less chance that you will allow your technical goals to interfere with your aesthetic sense.

When I'm warming up, I really don't care what notes I hit or whether they make musical sense. I just instinctively play anything that involves using all my fingers while playing slowly and cleanly. Keeping my warm-up exercises obviously non-musical helps me prevent them from invading my compositional mindset.

Slow Ride

A real simple warm-up exercise that uses all your left-hand fingers and the least amount of thought would obviously be a straight chromatic scale pattern like that shown in FIGURE 1. Another thing I like doing is taking a simple pattern that covers three strings and then moving it across the neck.

FIGURE 2 is a chromatic example of this idea while FIGURE 3 involves a bit of left-hand stretching. At the risk of being redundant, remember that slow and sure is the key with all of these warm-up exercises. The objective here is only to get your fingers and hands warmed up, period. I can't say that doing these sort of exercises will make you a better guitarist because there's really no direct relationship between them and how well you can play. It's only about moving your muscles for the well-being of your hands.

Go Your Own Way

These few warm-up ideas are purely intended to illustrate my point and are probably not any better than something you can come up with yourself. So use your imagination and create some exercises that may be better suited to your fingers. If you treat your hands with the respect they deserve, you should be able to get more mileage from them.