Speed Secrets – Part 2

Jun24

Now that we’ve covered the basic mechanics of distance, and how to practice slowly, we’ll move on to eliminating tension. Many guitarists “˜choke up’ their muscles when they need to play a fast run, and the resulting tension creates fatigue. You might be able to squeeze out a quick burst this way, but you won’t be able to sustain it.

One of the keys to staying relaxed when you’re playing fast is using the correct muscles to drive the pick. Picking strings can be done with three different sets of muscles: the fingers, the wrist, or the forearm.

Picking with the fingers alone involves holding the hand stationary, and moving the pick up and down using only the motion of the thumb going down, and the index finger going up. The muscles used to create this picking motion are largely those in the hand and fingers. This approach is most useful for slow, quiet passages, or for very short runs – I’ll use this technique for things like a quick subdivision, where I’m playing 3-5 notes in the space of a half of a beat.

Picking from the wrist keeps the arm stationary, but moves the hand up and down over the strings. When you pick from the wrist, you’re using the larger muscles of the forearm instead of those of the hand and fingers – and bigger muscles don’t get tired as quickly. Wrist picking probably accounts for 85% or more of the picking I do, and it’s probably where you’ll spend most of your time practicing.

Picking from the forearm transfers the workload even farther up, and uses mostly the bicep and triceps muscles to drive the pick. This is done by “˜locking’ the wrist, and making the motion from the elbow. Since these are the largest muscles you can use in picking, they can handle the most sustained effort. This approach is best for tremolo picking, and it’s also useful for sweep picking.

To practice the various techniques and make them habit, it’s best to isolate the picking hand at first. That means you’ll practice while repeating a single note (which can even be an open string if you’d like). This is where you’ll eventually discover your ultimate top speed, as you’ll never be able to pick a complicated run any faster than you’ll be able to move the pick back and forth across a single string.

After you’ve decided what muscles you’ll use for the exercise, concentrate on staying loose. If you find you’re becoming tense, slow down! A useful exercise for developing your speed by staying loose is one I borrowed from the “˜fartlek’ (speed play) training that runners do: you’ll start picking slowly, build up the speed, back off a bit, and repeat. A typical drill for this sort of practice might look like this:

  • 50% speed for 10 seconds
  • 75% speed for 5 seconds
  • 90% speed for 5 seconds
  • 75% speed for 10 seconds
  • 90% speed for 10 seconds
  • 100% speed for 5 seconds
  • 75% speed for 5 seconds
  • 50% speed for 10 seconds

Notice that the drill takes just one minute. After that, shake out your picking arm, relax for a minute or so, and then repeat it. As with slow practice, you want to be focused on your goal: changing speed without increasing the tension in your muscles.

You’ll also want to devote some practice sessions to eliminating tension in your fretting hand. Many players tend to increase the force of their fingers when they increase the speed, and this creates tension that ultimately limits your top speed. Playing fast requires a light touch; your fingers need to dance across the fretboard, not stomp on the strings. Fartlek type drills can be useful for this; just concentrate on using as light a touch as possible without sacrificing your tone – it’s probably a lot less pressure than you think.

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 # 5 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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About Tom Serb

Tom Serb is a Chicago area guitarist who has been making music professionally since 1978. Over the course of the past twenty-five years he has managed to amuse himself by teaching, writing, performing, producing and composing. He is the author of Music Theory for Guitarists (NoteBoat, Inc., 2003), and a frequent contributor to the Guitar Noise forums.

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