Speed Secrets – Part 3

Breaking the third barrier to speed requires working on the coordination between your hands. It’s useful to break our picking motions down into categories for this, as each will require a different type of motion; efficient speed practice means developing drills that work that specific motion.

Fretting hand motions can be broken down into notes on a single string, notes on strings in order (as in a scale run), and string skipping. Picking hand motions fall into four categories: uni-directional, alternate picking, economy (or “˜directional’) picking, and sweep picking.

All uni-directional picking is technically limiting, because you have to bring the pick back into playing position between each note. Because of this, most players wouldn’t consider it “˜speed picking’. But this type of picking is stylistically demanded for certain genres – punk rock is often all downstrokes, and reggae can make use of all upstrokes for extended periods of time. If that’s the kind of music you play, you’ll want to practice increasing your recovery time – the amount of time it takes you to “˜reset’ your hand for the next note. The key here is slow practice, focusing on moving the pick as little as possible to get through the strings – plural, because in punk it’s two- or three-string power chords, and in reggae it’s typically three-string voicings on the highest strings. On the recovery stroke, focus on brining your hand up or down ONLY as far as you need to for the next attack.

Alternate picking is theoretically twice as fast as uni-directional picking, because you’ll produce an additional note on the recovery stroke. It’s also a prerequisite for economy picking, so you’ll want to spend a fair amount of your speed work on alternate picking drills. To illustrate developing this technique, we’ll combine it with our first fretting hand category, notes on a single string.

Pick any spot on the neck and place your index finger on a fret. You’ll downstroke this note; as soon as you’ve played it, your pick will reverse direction, and you’ll play the same string with an upstroke – but you’ll play the note at the next fret with your second finger. Here I’ve illustrated this drill in fifth position:


Once you’re comfortable with this approach, you’ll use metronome drills to increase your speed. I’ll cover using a metronome in a future part of this series.

It’s important to develop your speed in all of your fingers, and you’ll want to use it with any combination of fingers that a passage might require. Using two fingers, there are six possibilities: 1-2, 1-3, 1-4, 2-3, 2-4, and 3-4. Practice each combination on a single string. The hardest ones will be 1-4, 2-4, and 3-4; be sure you stop if your hand starts to cramp up!

One more thing before forging ahead: you’ll want to do these drills two different ways: holding down the first finger, and lifting the first finger as you play the second note. Keeping the original finger down is easy to master, but it can be limiting depending on your melody – there will be plenty of times you’ll need that finger on another string for the next note, and lifting it as soon as you can makes it easier to get that next note in time. In actual performance, you’ll keep the finger down when you return to the same note, and you’ll lift it if you need that finger for the next note. So be sure to prepare yourself by practicing it both ways!

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 # 7 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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