Want to play faster? Build speed? Want to shred your guitar? Are you getting frustrated because nothing seems to work? I spent decades (no… seriously… decades) trying to figure out how to build speed without sacrificing accuracy, without hurting myself and without hating the process. I read every guitar magazine and watched every instructional video I could find. Nothing worked. Finally I decided to stop being insane and try a completely different approach. After wiping the slate clean and forcing myself to forget everything that I thought I knew about the guitar, I came up with these five guiding principles of building speed. These days I can build speed without spending 14 hours a day getting repetitive motion injuries and bloody fingertips.
These principles are not tied to any set of exercises, although they can be applied to exercises if that’s what you want to do. You can also, however, apply these principles to learning songs, especially difficult, fast passages in guitar solos, which can make the process of building speed infinitely more enjoyable than spending all your time doing chromatic exercises (gag).
- Learn each motion individually – If you only take one thing away from this article, let it be this principle. Most of us do the exact opposite of what we should be doing when we try to build speed. We try to play way faster than we’re capable of playing and as a result our motions become what I like to call “deer in the headlights” motions. We have not taught our fingers the series of movements necessary to play a given passage at a high tempo (or any tempo, for that matter), so our fingers try to move in many directions at the same time. The result is debilitating tension and awful-sounding guitar playing. We need to slow down, but it’s WHY we need to slow down that’s important. Our bodies are FANTASTIC at speeding up a series of motions that have been well defined. Our bodies are HORRIBLE at extracting a series of well defined motions from a jumbled mess of sloppy practice. So, yes, slow down, but slow down with a purpose: to learn each individual motion of a given passage, one note at a time.
- Free, authoritative motion – Your movements should be both free and authoritative. Free motion is an absolute necessity for getting faster. Think about great athletes and the movements they make: swinging, kicking, throwing, etc. Do any of these motions look small and tense? NO! They look free and easy. The other half of this equation is authority of motion. Free motion can tend to get “floppy,” which we don’t want. Floppy motions can work at slower tempos, but not at higher tempos because they aren’t fast enough or precise enough. Play each note like you mean it. Free motion and authoritative motion can be difficult to practice at the same time at first. Get too free (floppy) and you’ll lose your authority. Get too authoritative and you’ll lose freedom of motion. Practice them each individually at first. Focus on just free motion for a while, then focus on just authoritative motion, then try to put them together.
- Slow tempo, fast motions – Did you know you can get faster by practicing at slower tempos? Well, you can. Try to make each motion quick and precise, but leave lots of space between each motion. This helps with coordination and prevents the excess tension associated with “practicing for speed.” Keep the tempo down, but make each movement crisp and snappy. Now when you start playing faster all you have to do is shorten the amount of time between each note instead of trying to figure out how to move in a whole new way. This is a great principle to practice in combination with principles #1 and #2.
- Weights and balances – Your arms and hands have weight. Use that weight to your advantage instead of working against it. When you fret a note, you’re balancing the weight of your arm on the tip of your finger. Feel the weight and the balance. Get comfortable with it. When you switch from note to note you are shifting the balance of your arm from the tip of one finger to the tip of another finger. Feel the shift and get comfortable with it. When you pick a downstroke, you are moving in the direction that gravity is trying tot take your arm. Feel it. Feel the weight of your arm move through the string as you pick the note. When you pick an upstroke, you’re moving against gravity. Feel that too. Feel your hand and arm move upward through the string against gravity.
- Hand independence – I’ve heard this described as “hand synchronization” before, but I think it’s more beneficial to think of it as hand independence. Can each of your hands play through the passage without adversely affecting the other? For months recently I thought that my picking hand was holding me back, but it turned out that my fretting hand was lazy and that laziness was messing up my picking hand. Play through the passage fretting hand only, then play it through picking hand only. Is one of them weak? Focus on the weaker hand and you’ll get better faster.
If you came to this article looking for exercises, I’m sorry to disappoint you. Actually, I’m not sorry. There are thousands of free examples all over the web of exercises that you can do to build speed, and not one of them will help you unless you apply these principles while you’re practicing them. Got it? Good.