As guitarists, we dream of the perfect hands – hands that can stretch and contort and perform all the acrobatics that music requires.
But in practice, we come face-to-face with our own limitations.
We struggle with that certain stretch. We can’t seem to make a melody or bass line sing like we want it to. And the problem isn’t always evident.
This is where exercises can help. And one in particular….
What’s the Point of an Exercise?
Before we spend our precious practice time on any exercise, it helps to know the point.
- Why this exercise?
- What will it do for me?
- What should I pay attention to?
- How will I know when I’m doing it well and seeing the benefits?
If we do our exercises mindlessly, we could not only be missing out on better improvement, but we also be training in bad habits.
Even though we’re doing exercises, we can still be practicing. (There is a difference between practicing and exercising.)
So for any exercise, we want to find the main points. Some are obvious. Others, not so much.
Odair’s Favorite Drill
In his popular book, Pumping Nylon, Scott Tennant shares an exercise he saw Odair Assad play in a masterclass. He dubbed this “Odair’s Favorite Drill”. And the name stuck.
In this exercise there are two main goals: the musical and the physical. The physical is obvious, but the musical 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).
When we practice, we can listen for each note connecting smoothly to the next in its line.
This demands we hold notes longer than we may otherwise. And it also means we need to listen to both lines at once, or rather back and forth quickly.
The Physical Challenges
The first physical challenge of this exercise is to master the general pattern.
Next, we focus on the connection of notes within each line, as mentioned above in the musical goals.
Lastly, we increase the number of strings between each line, creating more and more stretch. For instance, we may begin on strings one and three. Then we increase the stretch by moving to strings one and four. Then one and five, etc.
The wider the stretches, the more difficult it becomes to connect the notes smoothly.
So this exercise can grow with us as we become more skillful with it.
Listen for Connecting Notes
It can be tempting to ignore the musical goals of connecting the lines and just focus on sounding the notes.
This robs us of some of the main benefit of the exercise. We will surely play music that requires this musical skill. If we pay attention here, it will come easier in our pieces.
Use Balance to Bring Out One Voice
One way to make sure we’re connecting the voices (lines) is to play one louder than the other.
If performing this exercise on the second and fourth strings, for example, we can play the notes on the second string loudly. The notes on the fourth string we play quietly.
Then we switch.
This allows us to focus on just one of the lines at a time. And it also helps us to train our balance of voices, which will make our music more beautiful.
Tip: Go slow. Make sure you can hear each note connecting to the next. Speed creates the illusion of perfection.
Start Small and Grow
When we first begin the exercise, it may seem monstrously difficult and confusing.
And once we’ve got the pattern in our hands, we’ll want to test the boundaries of our stretch. This is natural.
But once we find our limits, we benefit most by coming back to a comfortable position and focusing on the musical goals of connecting the lines.
The sooner we focus on connecting the lines, the better we’ll get and the more improvement we’ll see for the time we invest.
Over time, we can push our limits and increase the stretch, while maintaining good form and the integrity of the musical line.
And this translates directly to playing our music more beautifully.