Before we dive into the realm of developing speed, let’s dispel a few misconceptions about it. Firstly, speed in and of itself is irrelevant. However, speed used within the context of a good piece of music and with taste is a good thing. The second misconception of speed is one that I have covered in a previous article about practice and that is most believe in order to play fast you must practice fast. While you will eventually need to practice fast in order to play fast you need to develop some basic techniques in order to get the tools in order to start working up to your goal. It’s these techniques that need to be developed SLOWLY.
The first things we need to develop are our knowledge of scales in general. As a guitarist you have probably noticed that the guitar favors certain keys (C maj., D maj., A maj., E maj., Fmaj and all their relative minor keys). The reason we favor certain keys is because of the resonance of open strings and other strings sympathetic vibrations to some notes within these keys. Also, the most popular reason is that excessive barring ( in such keys like Db major) can be quite exhausting. Even though we hardly play in those keys, you do need to know them, they will improve your musicianship, and increase your knowledge of the fingerboard. Being, familiar with scales however is not enough, you must know them cold. Practice your visualization techniques with scales, it’s a really great way to get them firmly planted in your brain. If you are not familiar with visualization techniques see my article on practice, The Art of Practice.
The key to fast scales? The key is not only to practice flexing the finger (what the finger actually does to pluck the string) but practice extending the finger as well. From the time we were born our hands have grabbed things, and we have held on to them tight, thus, developing the flexors. It is our lack of strength in the extensors that need the catching up. One of the best ways to develop this is to practice Rasgueados ( Raas-Gee-ah-doe). I have a full article on the rasgueado coming so for now I’ll keep it brief.
Rest your thumb on the sixth string, be sure to rest it lightly. Now, strum the strings with your fingers in the following order: c, a, m, i. Doing this over and over again is a sure way to develop the extensors. If the Rasgueado gets a little to monotonous try practicing your scales with a prepared stroke, for the purpose of getting your fingers to prepare on the string as fast as possible (the act of preparing the finger is an extension movement). Just remember strive for good tone, even rhythm, and balance between the notes.
Also, you have to develop what Ben Verdery calls your “big guns”. In order to play scales fast you have to really develop a finger combination that you can really rip your scales at any time. For some people that is i and m or i and a, some people use three finger scales using a, m, and i. Whatever your combination you need to work it free stroke and rest stroke, with a metronome.
One of the biggest hindrances when it comes to speed is excessive position shifting. The first is an example of two different ways to finger a two octave C Major scale. If you look at number 1 you will notice the shifting that occurs on the third string is what is called an open shift (any position shift of two or more frets). The open shift is tricky because it forces the hand to jump around to much, for example when the second finger must jump up to the c on the third string crossing over the 3. In The second scale between the fourth and third strings we see what is called a pinch shift (a shift of a half step). While it is still a shift (they are unavoidable) it is easier on the hand because it allows the natural succession of fingers to occur, and the moving of the hand is kept to a minimum. In the first scale we have two shifts, the open shift and a pinch shift, and the natural order of the fingers are interrupted. In the second scale we have two pinch shifts and no interruption of the fingers natural order. So, keep the fingers moving and next week we will discuss speed bursts.