February 27, 2012

The Best Guitar Exercise, Period

Simon Cowell, X Factor

The longer I teach guitar, the more I’ve become unafraid to make bold statements.

In a world where everybody’s told not to judge for fear of offending someone – boo hoo – I’m ready to go all Simon Cowell and take a musical stand, unwavering and unapologetic: My guitar exercise is better than yours.

There. I said it. And in the immortal words of James Brown, “I feel good.”

I knew that I would.

Listen, it’s not that your guitar exercises are bad; they’re probably perfectly fine. It’s just that mine is better. Way better. My exercise is the Chris Daughtry to your Taylor Hicks. The Carrie Underwood to your Ruben Studdard.

You can have all the Medieval Finger Torture exercises you can handle and all the Crab Walks you can stomach, but in terms of full-on, bang-for-your-buck value, Finger Combinations are clearly superior.

And beyond the fact that they are absolutely the best exercise for beginners, Finger Combos are also great for intermediate and advanced players looking to maintain or polish up their technique. Not many guitar exercises can boast across-the-board effectiveness like this. Basically, Finger Combos do it all!

Prove Yourself

I see you over there rolling your eyes. But I speak the truth. Let me prove it to you.

This one exercise teaches or reinforces virtually ALL of your single-note technique needs:

    – Individual finger strength and fine motor control (dexterity)
    – Hand-eye coordination
    – Proper thumb rotation and hand positioning
    – Location of the “sweet spot” for each finger on each string
    – Alternate picking technique
    – The “sliding anchor” concept on the bridge

Impressive, huh? But wait, there’s more!

Finger Combos can also be expanded to incorporate slurs, such as hammer-ons and pull-offs, and greater complexity can be achieved by using your imagination and varying the finger, fret and string orders. That means intermediate and advanced players can customize the challenge level for themselves quite easily.

And did I mention that Finger Combos are incredibly easy to understand? Score!

Of course, I didn’t invent this exercise; some form or another of it has been around for years, I’m sure. But even if I’d never seen it anywhere, it runs on pure logic, so literally ANYONE could invent it on the spot. I’ve just pulled together its best elements and made it my own, for me and my students, while incorporating the right hand stuff, and expanding it with slurs and more complex maneuvers. When taken as a whole, this one exercise can cover a ton of ground in guitar technique!

Some Guidelines

NOTE: I’ve embedded the video (originally in my article Talkin’ ‘Bout Practice), as well as a downloadable PDF of the exercises in TAB, at the end of this lesson post.

Finger Combinations can be played at any fret position, but I like to use 5th position (index finger at fret 5) because it’s nicely located in the middle of the neck. Beginners would likely have a hard time managing their technique on the lower frets because of the reach, so I settled long ago on 5th fret. But knock yourself out and play it anywhere you like, as long as you play it well.

The only other guideline is that we’ll use the concept of one finger per fret. Therefore, finger 1 covers all notes at fret 5, finger 2 covers all notes at fret 6, finger 3 covers all notes at fret 7, and finger 4 covers all notes at fret 8.

Two-finger Combos

The most fundamental Finger Combo exercise is based on two fingers. These are the building blocks of the three- and four-finger combos. The ones featuring the dominant fingers (1 and 2) are a little easier to coordinate, while the ones featuring non-dominant fingers (3 and 4) are significantly more tricky. Let’s set up the first combination; every other combo will be a similar idea.

The first two-finger combo is 1-2. We’ll play it ascending the strings (string 6 to string 1) in order of finger 1 followed by finger 2:

String 6/finger 1, string 6/finger 2
String 5/finger 1, string 5/finger 2, etc.

Once you’ve completed the combo on string 1, play it descending the strings (string 1 to string 6) in reverse order of finger 2 followed by finger 1:

String 1/finger 2, string 1/finger 1
String 2/finger 2, string 2/finger 1, etc.

Every other combo should be played exactly the same way, ascending in order and descending in reverse order. The complete set of two-finger combos, in order of dominant fingers/relative difficulty:

    Combo 1-2 (2-1)
    Combo 1-3 (3-1)
    Combo 1-4 (4-1)
    Combo 2-3 (3-2)
    Combo 2-4 (4-2)
    Combo 3-4 (4-3)

Technique Points

Ronnie James Dio

It’s extremely important that you play the Finger Combos with the very best technique you’re capable of. Here are a few important technique points for the left (fretting) hand:


1 – Make sure that when you reach across the fretboard to the lower strings (6, 5 and 4), your thumb is rotated back behind the neck, the same as when you hold a barre chord or power chord. I use the cue, “hold the sandwich”, because the thumb will be opposite the fingers as if you are holding a sandwich with one hand. The thumb will start to rotate up as you play string 4.

2 – As you travel through the higher strings (3, 2 and 1), you should be gradually rotating your thumb up to the default position. I teach my students to find the point at which the “colors change” (where the fretboard color meets the neck color) on the side of the neck and plant their thumb there.

3 – There is no good reason for your thumb to travel so far up the side of the neck that it comes over the top. Save that thumb position for bending or muting strings, neither of which applies here.


1 – When reaching across to the lowest strings, your fingers should be “laying down”; that is, the angle of fingertip to string is very shallow and your fingers should also be relatively parallel to the frets. If your thumb is rotated back properly, these things will take care of themselves.

2 – As you travel toward the middle strings (4, 3) and then the highest strings (2, 1), your fingers will rise up higher on the tips, creating a steeper angle to the strings. Your fingers should also start to point down the fretboard toward the bridge. If your thumb rises up to default position properly, these things will take care of themselves.

3 – When reaching across to the 6th string with the pinky, and trying to “hold the sandwich”, you may find it difficult to get the pinky finger all the way across and onto the sweet spot. Tuck your elbow into your side – without raising your shoulder or changing your arm in any other way – and you should find that the pinky naturally moves into correct position. As you make your way across the fretboard toward string 1, the elbow can release – the severe angle is not necessary any more.

4 – Be sure to always “seesaw” your fingers. That is, your fingers should essentially “cross paths” as you move from note to note, with the fretting finger letting go of its note at the same time the next finger plays its note.


1 – Make sure that you anchor the hand lightly on the bridge as you pick. This ensures that your hand won’t be floating in mid-air while you’re trying to execute pick strokes with fine motor control. Some folks like to plant the pinky finger, but I think that is ultimately inferior to just lightly resting the hand on the bridge, since it forces you to reach for the strings rather than move to the strings. I cue my students with, “karate chop the bridge”.

2 – Use strict alternate picking for each combo. You should always start with a downstroke and follow with an upstroke; this applies to ascending the strings (6 to 1) as well as descending (1-6). This is a little tricky because when you descend the strings, you reverse the finger order but keep the alternate picking down/up.

3 – To make sure that the pick is attacking each string flush, you have to be willing to move your hand down and up the bridge as you pick. You can think of it as a “sliding anchor”; if you focus on pushing your hand downward with every downstroke, then your pick should wind up on string 1 at the same angle it picked string 6. If you don’t slide the hand, but rather keep it pinned to the bridge around string 6, then you’ll be reaching all the way to string 1, which means your pick will not meet the string flush.

When descending the strings, from 1 to 6, focus on pulling the hand upward with every upstroke. This will ensure the pick is flush on each string, as discussed before.

Three-finger Combos

The three-finger combos are really just combinations of two of the two-finger combos. Got that?

For example, the combo 1-2-3 is really just 1-2 plus 2-3. That’s why getting the two-finger combos down well is so important – they factor into every other larger combination.

Here is the complete set of three-finger combos, in order of dominant fingers/relative difficulty. Remember to play them ascending in order and descending in reverse order:

    Combo 1-2-3 (3-2-1)
    Combo 1-2-4 (4-2-1)
    Combo 1-3-4 (4-3-1)
    Combo 2-3-4 (4-3-2)

Left hand technique is the same here as for two-finger combos. However, for the right hand, there is a significant alternate picking adjustment. Since we now play an odd number of notes (three) per string, our even number of pick strokes (two) will not work out evenly on each string anymore – if we strictly alternate, we get a down/up/down followed by an up/down/up, etc.:

String 6 = down/up/down
String 5 = up/down/up
String 4 = down/up/down
String 3 = up/down/up
String 2 = down/up/down
String 1 = up/down/up

Same as for the two-finger combos, start descending the strings (1 to 6) with a downstroke.

Four-finger Combo

There is only one four-finger combo. It is, of course:

    Combo 1-2-3-4 (4-3-2-1)

Since we’re now playing an even number of notes per string again, the pick strokes work out to be even- down/up/down/up – on each string.

Incorporate Slurs

When you are consistent and competent at alternate picking each combo – be honest with yourself – it’s time to incorporate hammer-ons and pull-offs. It’s simple: instead of alternate picking, hammer-on each combo ascending the strings, and pull-off each combo descending the strings. Hammer up, pull down!

Consecutive pull-offs tend to be harder to play cleanly than consecutive hammer-ons, so be patient and play slowly enough that you can nail the proper technique (again, check out The Definitive Lesson: Hammer-ons and The Definitive Lesson: Pull-offs to review).

Additionally, the three- and four-finger combos will be significantly more difficult to slur than the two-finger combos; the control required to keep a consistent rhythm, where each note is uniform in length, cannot be underestimated.

Expand It

The late intermediate and advanced players can use their imagination to vary the order of fingers, frets and/or strings to increase the challenge. While every player can benefit from adding some “horsepower” to their technique, the type of music you play may impact how much you work this particular angle. For instance, jazz, metal and classical styles require higher level chops than other styles, so expanding on the finger combos and increasing the challenge for these players makes sense.

One mildly finger-twisting example:

    Combo 1-3-2-4 (4-2-3-1)

This lesson is already pretty long, so I’ll do a future post with some whacked-out Finger Combos for advanced players soon!

The Video and the TAB

Finger Combinations (PDF)

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  1. […] control. If you haven’t gotten a decent level of mastery with those elements yet, check out The Best Guitar Exercise, Period. That should […]

  2. Justin Johnson says:

    Great lesson. Had some easy fundamentals that were like a light bulb going off as I was watching it. Had couple of “ddaa” and “Hahaaa” moments. Thanks for taking your time to create and post the video.

  3. Gabriel says:

    Appreciate these tips. I am re teaching myself again and starting from the very basic to try to break some bad habits. I believe this lesson will help me tremendously and will definitely incorporate them into to my practices. I been primarily a chords guy and now really want to get some lead going. Any advice on how to train my ears to listen or is it just repetition? Thanks!

  4. jim says:

    Not exactly sure what you mean by “train my ears to listen”, but if you want to get your lead playing going, one of the best things to do is just build a fundamental vocabulary of phrases. Make sure to check out my article “The Ten Basic Moves”. Here’s the link: http://www.jimbowley.com/2012/03/for-lead-guitarists-ten-basic-moves/

    Glad you enjoyed the post – good luck!

  5. Mac says:

    Thanks for taking the time to put up this free lesson. I’ve recently got an electric so learning lead soloing for the first time and this has been really useful.

  6. wameres says:

    I like these exercises but…..my fingers fly out during these exercises, especially my pinky.
    tough to keep it near the fret board.

    • jim says:

      When your fingers keep tensing up and pulling away, I usually recommend something kind of odd: “play” the Finger Combo by lightly tapping on the left hand fingers and use the RIGHT HAND to gently lay down over the flying fingers as they tap the frets. Think of your fingers “dancing” on the fretboard.

      You may have to do it a few times to train your left hand to stay put; after a few reps, test it again to see if your fingers are able to relax on their own. If you’re really tense, this may actually take a few days. Good luck!

  7. […] you’ve seen my lesson entitled The Best Guitar Exercise, Period, then you know that I am a big fan of keeping the technique drills simple but effective. I […]

  8. […] highly technical music. On the other hand, your average, everyday guitar hero will flourish with “meat and potatoes” exercises that meet the requirements of mainstream musical styles, like pop, rock, blues, country, and […]

  9. Oswaldo says:

    Thank you very much for all of these free lessons! I really liked this exercise in particular. Keep up the good work :]



  10. mike says:

    hi. great lesson as always. on the seesaw technique, is that what a person should start out w/1st & later progress to barely moving the fingers up & down later? in other words, to minimize flyaway?

    • jim says:

      Mike, the “see saw” technique is conceptual in that you time the release of the first note with the fretting of the second note. It really has nothing to do with how big or small you make the movement. I usually demonstrate the move a little bigger so folks can really see it, but ideally you would make the move only as big as necessary. You’re correct in that you don’t want your fingers flying away! jb

      • mjt11860 says:

        as i get better on each set, do i use a metronome to increase speed? also, is it critical to slide the thumb btwn the default & behind the neck, or is it ok to keep the thumb close to the default as long as the hand is rotating to the proper position? i find it hard to slide my thumb back & forth since my neck is not slick. thanx from a former marylander.

        • jim says:

          Using a metronome is a great idea, although the Finger Combos are really more about developing finger independence, coordination, etc. than speed. Therefore I find myself usually executing these at a moderate tempo. I do, however, use a metronome for increasing speed with scales.

          For the thumb, it’s a somewhat subtle move from behind the neck to default position, so no need to be too dramatic. Do what is comfortable for you as long as what is happening on TOP of the neck is solid and sounds good. A “sticky” neck can be problematic; I know that some pros actually buff the neck to make it easier to move their thumbs. Good luck, former Marylander!

  11. Robert says:

    Jim…I don’t do Facebook or twitter…so let me just say that the guitar finger exercises are decent. Question on the placement of my right hand ..using a strat…when I put my hand on the bridge my pick ends up over the pickup and I am not comfortable picking over the p/u…any suggestions, Robert

    • jim says:

      You didn’t say if your pick ends up over the bridge or middle pickup. But if your hand is fairly normal sized and you’re sitting on the bridge “normally” – just past the saddles – then your pick should probably end up in between middle and bridge, usually just behind the middle. Without watching you play, the easy answer would be to adjust your hand until your pick is sitting just behind the middle pickup. Hope this helps.


    Just came across this exercise and I love it!! Thanks so much!! But I always hovered my picking hand over the strings so now I’m trying to retrain myself to anchor it.
    Also I think it’s very helpful to mute the strings with my left hand and just concentrate solely on my alternate picking, then after a while, without picking at all just to concentrate on my finger patterns for maximum accuracy. Then combine the both. Works for me anyway.
    Keep on rocking!!!

    • jim says:

      Glad you found this lesson and liked it – it sounds like you’ve got a great practice approach too (separate the hands, then combine them)! Cheers, jb

  13. No name says:

    Um, this might be bullshit

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Jim Bowley is a professional guitarist, teacher and blogger. A native of Baltimore, he has over 30 years of playing experience and an advanced degree in Music Education from Towson University. Jim lives in Bel Air, MD where he maintains a thriving private lesson studio and performs with his band, Remains of Radio.

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