Speed Secrets – Part 1

For some styles of music, like metal, bebop, and bluegrass, fast guitar runs are an essential element of the genre. And no matter what style you play, a well placed display of speed can often be impressive. As a result, lots of guitarists put speed development on the practice agenda.

In this brief series, I’m going to reveal some of the ways you can make your playing speed faster – in fact, most guitarists will be able to play MUCH faster in a relatively short period of time.

In my teaching, I’ve noticed three barriers to developing speed: excess motion, excess tension, and a lack of coordination between the hands. Excluding virtuosi, we all suffer from one or more of these barriers. We’ll deal with them one at a time.

Excess motion is moving your fingers (or your pick, which I’ll get to in a moment) farther than you have to in executing a series of notes. Distance equals time: the more you lift your fingers, the harder you’ll have to work to achieve the same speed. If you lift your fingers one inch off the strings, your fingers must move EIGHT TIMES faster than a guitarist who only lifts an eighth of an inch!

You’ve probably heard the maxim “˜you learn to play fast by playing slow’. What this really means is rarely explained: playing slowly allows you to focus on your technique. Repeating a technical drill over and over at a very slow speed lets you build a habit, and once you have a habit ingrained, it becomes second nature – it’s what you’ll naturally do every time you play.

As you work through scales and other exercises you’ll find or develop on your own, start by slowing down… WAY down. 30-50% of your top speed is probably about right. Watch your fretting hand, and focus on keeping your fingers as close to the strings as possible. Don’t be impatient; it’s going to take a lot of slow practice sessions to make it habitual, so in the beginning I’d do only slow practice for a week or three before ramping up the tempo.

The picking hand needs the same attention, but in addition there’s a gear factor: the pick you choose. When I started working on developing my speed, I made the same mistake I’ve seen other guitarists make over and over – I switched to a thin pick, thinking it would move more easily through the strings.

As I got faster, I realized the problem with this thinking: thin picks are very flexible. As they pass through the string, they bend… and the point of the pick has to snap back into place before you can pick the next note. You’ll actually reach higher speeds with a stiff pick.

Since heavy picks are harder to force through the string, you’ll probably have to make an adjustment or two in how your pick hits the strings. The more pick you’re using (i.e., the farther your pick extends through the plane of the strings as you play), the more resistance there’s going to be. Devote some of your practice time to focusing on your picking hand, and trying to minimize the amount of pick you use – an eighth of an inch, or even less, is enough to get the string to sound.

Another adjustment you can make is to “˜cock’ your grip – instead of holding the pick parallel to the string, strike at an angle… the edge of the pick should be the surface hitting the string. This lets the rounded point glide across the string, instead of having to forcing the face of the pick through it.

To get the correct grip for this, start by holding the pick flat against a string. Without changing the placement of your hand, tip the point of your thumb either up or down; that will rotate the pick slightly, and you’ll be presenting the edge of the pick to the string. I cock my thumb down, but I know a few guitarists who are more comfortable cocking it up, bending the thumb joint slightly backward. Either way will result in less resistance than striking the string “˜flat’ with the pick.

Tom (“Noteboat”) Serb is a longtime Guitar Noise contributor and founder of the Midwest Music Academyin Plainfield, Illinois. This advice first appeared in Volume 4 # 4 of Guitar Noise News. Sign-up for our newsletter to receive more free tips like this by email.

© 2011, Tom Serb

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