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Learn John Petrucci's ultimate guitar warm-up routine

There’s no doubt about it: John Petrucci is one of the most technically advanced electric guitar players in history, and, with prog metal giants Dream Theater, he continues to push back the frontiers of what is deemed technically possible on the guitar. 

Way back in 2012, behind the scenes at London’s Wembley Arena, with a cover interview in the bag and before Petrucci hit the stage, we picked John’s brains on-camera about methodical practising and effective warm-up techniques. And, with Distance Over Time about to drop, what better time to revisit the shred ace’s technical workout?

Have your playing judged by John Petrucci!

(Image credit: James Sharrock / Future)

Enter Guitarist of the Year 2019

Follow John’s exercises and you’ll learn how to get the most out of your practice time and ensure your fretting and picking hands are working to their full potential. The first thing you need to do is set up an area where you can play comfortably with good posture and no distractions.

John favours a classical posture, with the guitar placed on his left leg and his left foot supported on a footrest. This keeps your back straight and helps prevent any muscular strains or cramps.

To help you manage your practice time, John recommends devoting equal attention to each exercise.

“I set the clock to five-minute intervals,” John explains, so if you have a 30-minute practice slot, you should comfortably be able to fit in five exercises, including rest time. You will also need a metronome to help you stay in time.

Petrucci’s ‘hit and miss’ philosophy

John has a clever way of building speed - he calls it his “hit and miss philosophy”.

The idea is that you play faster than you are capable, and, rather than thinking about hitting each individual note, you think about keeping your hands in sync.

As John says: “I wouldn’t recommend you do it all the time, but it’s a useful tool and you can gain a lot of speed from it.”

Try applying John’s ‘hit and miss’ method to his arpeggio exercises. After you’ve done five minutes of controlled practice with a metronome, finish off by blasting through the pieces at high speed.

At first, you’ll probably miss more notes than you hit, but the point is to let your hands experience the ‘feeling’ of moving fast. At some point your hands will hopefully synchronise.

Legato warm-up

I do things in a very methodical way,” states John when introducing this fret hand warm-up. “The purpose of this exercise is to get the blood flowing.” 

By this, John means that you should begin your warm-up by just loosening up with some easy scale fragments, which we’ve tabbed here. No metronome and no pressure, at least to begin with.

With a basic warm-up under your belt, you can move on to John’s other exercises that ensure no muscle group is left out.

Remember, these patterns don’t fit within a particular scale and are not meant to sound musical, but it is vital that each note sounds crisp and clear.

Ascending/descending scale fragments

These scale fragments make up the full exercise that follows. As John explains: “The fact that it’s legato means we’re not really going to pick too much.” In fact, you only pick the first note on each new string when ascending the five-note phrase. When descending with the six-note phrase, don’t pick at all.

Chromatic variation

After playing Petrucci’s scale fragments in one position, slide up one fret and start again. John suggests starting at the 1st fret, repeating the pattern fret by fret all the way up to the 12th fret, then coming back down.

So, it’s the same exercise as before, you just start one fret higher. It’s a great way to develop any scale exercise. This is a stamina exercise, so the most important thing is not to stop. If your hand starts to feel tired, slow down until it recovers enough to pick up speed again.

Ascending/descending scale exercise

Here, John plays those five- and six-note fragments again, this time crossing all six strings. The notes should be phrased in constant 16th notes with no breaks or rests, which results in a slightly syncopated feel. Use your fourth finger to hammer on to each new string as you descend the six-note phrases.

Finger combinations

The next stage in Petrucci’s legato warm-up is what he calls “finger combinations”. These fret box diagrams show each combination. The first two patterns cover four frets and John uses fingers 1, 3, 4 and 1, 2, 4 respectively. 

“Then I’ll do a stretch,” continues John, as shown in the second two diagrams. This time the patterns cover five frets and John uses fingers 1, 2, 4, followed by 1, 3, 4. Simply play through each combination from low to high, like a scale. Pick the first note on each string followed by hammer-ons for the rest of the notes.

Picking warm-up

John says: “Definitely an important aspect of my playing is keeping my hands in sync,” which means it’s time to turn your attention to your picking hand.

John’s approach to picking practice is, once again, extremely methodical: “I’ll start with one-note per-string exercises, then two-note per-string, then three, then four.”

Here, we’re focusing on the one-note per-string idea, which is an approach ideally suited for arpeggios, but rather than sweep picking John prefers to alternate-pick in order to articulate every note and, as John explains, “it takes care of inside and outside the string picking”.

One note-per-string arpeggio

John plays this G major arpeggio to demonstrate the difference between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ picking. Play a downstroke on the first string followed by an upstroke on the second string. This is inside picking because your pick approaches the two strings from the gap in between them. The reverse approach is outside picking.

Arpeggio etude

Here, John demonstrates a short etude using major, minor and diminished arpeggios from the key of C major. Use your first, second and fourth fingers for the major and minor patterns and your first, third and fourth fingers for the diminished arpeggio in bar 3. Keep your pick hand moving down and up consistently throughout.

Ascending six-string arpeggios

John wraps up proceedings with this challenging six-string arpeggio exercise inspired by Steve Morse. Ensure that each note is separated from the next by only having one finger on the fretboard at any time. Roll your third and first fingers across the strings at the 10th and 8th frets in the C arpeggio.