Why Trying to Play Guitar Fast is Pointless Without These Tips
When we take our first
steps as an infant, we may
stumble trying to get to our destination. However, we soon
learn that trying to run before we can properly walk results in a face
full of carpet (and hopefully no worse than that).
We give up trying
to run and focus on straightening out those shakey baby steps, one step
at a time. And, in what seems like no time at all, we're running around like headless chickens, driving mum and dad mental.
You need to apply exactly the same mindset to playing guitar fast (bet
you didn't see that coming... yeh right!). So first, we need to establish the golden rule:
Stop trying to make your fingers move faster than they can!
If you've been trying to play fast and getting frustrated, ask yourself
this question: how well can I play this slow?
blocks in a guitarist's progress are caused by trying to jump
ahead of their current
ability, usually due to impatience. I know, it's tempting to take shortcuts - we all do
it, and sometimes it's good to push yourself and test your limits.
But that's all it should be - a test. As soon as you realise you're
only getting through the first four or five notes before making a
mistake, it's time to wind back that metronome.
When you try
to play fast, you're focusing on the speed rather than the application.
Your fingers need to "memorise" every movement before they can get up
to speed. That's called muscle memory, and it's easy to forget
(huh-huh) just how crucial it is to speed and co-ordination.
Realise now that once you're able to play fast, there is no "try",
just "do". It's the result of building up your speed gradually, knowing
the lick/pattern intimately enough that your fingers have grown into it.
Speed then becomes just another form of expression you can use
intuitively and in the moment, like a bend, hammer-on, slide or
vibrato. And that's why some guitarists make it look so easy. But
remember that, behind the scenes, they've been bleeding their fingers
over this stuff (ok, not literally). They've built up speed and stamina
so gradually, with near inhuman levels of patience, that they probably
don't even think about how fast they can play anymore.
Now, from what I've said there, you're probably dreading a long road of
chinese-water-torture-style metronome clicking and finger-aching drills
ahead of you. Well, nobody said it would be easy, but there is some
good news. There ARE practical ways to speed up... quicker. Here are 10
of the most important tips for playing guitar faster...
1. Relax and breathe
A lot of players tense up when they try to play fast, and this affects
two things - the flexibility of their joints and their breathing. You
need to be flexible in order to avoid unnecessary obstruction. Your
muscles need oxygen, especially when under endurance. Playing guitar is
more physically demanding than you probably realise, and not just on
A lot of the time you won't even realise you're tensing up.
Think about it every so often and check up on yourself.
Spend ten-or-so minutes stretching
your fingers before you pick up the
guitar. This will help with things like finger independence, blood flow
(again, oxygen to the muscles!), and joint dexterity.
Many guitarists simply forget to stretch before they play and then
wonder why their fingers feel more stubborn on certain days. Stretch
those finger joints and you will find speed comes a lot easier (and
3. Ten is the magic number
what you want to learn slow, whether it's a lick, chord changes or
scale pattern and speed up gradually. I recommend using increments of 10 BPM on the metronome,
notching it up when you can play at the current tempo without mistakes
By only using small increments like this, your fingers don't feel so
much of a jump in physical demand. 80 BPM doesn't sound that
distinguishable from 70 to the human ear, and your fingers won't feel
it to be either - but with increments of 10 you'll soon get to 100,
then 140, 180.
4. Use legato to play faster
Sometimes you'll listen to someone playing a fast solo and think "how
the hell did they pick that fast?", well you might want to take a
closer listen, because in many cases they're not picking -
they're using hammer-ons and pull-offs, also known as legato playing or
"note slurring". Playing without picking.
Legato is one of the keys to unlocking
speed on guitar,
as often it's
your pick hand what slows you down. Mastering legato techniques means
you can let your fret hand fingers do their thing without having to
co-ordinate a pick stroke with every note.
It might sound lazy, but legato is also favoured for the tone
it produces. It has a smoother, rolling sound that is often preferable
to the more percussive attack of a pick stroke.
5. Economise your picking
There's a lot of debate surrounding economy picking vs alternate
picking. In reality, this is a false dichotomy, because economy picking
is about using BOTH sweep and alternate picking when it's most
efficient to use them.
Economy picking simply means, when you can, pick in the direction of travel
from one string to the next. So if you end on a down stroke on the D
string and want to move to the G string, you'd continue that downstroke
in one smooth motion
(known as a sweep pick) so it follows through to the G string.
The tab below shows a 3-note-per-string A major scale pattern played
using economy picking...
This may help you play quicker because you're minimising the
unnecessary movement of your pick, and therefore you can move more
directly from one string to another.
Remember, though, there are some blazingly quick guitarists
who exclusively use strict alternate picking (combined with legato). So
economy picking is not a necessary
skill for speed playing, but it may help you get their quicker.
Aside from economy picking, just ensuring you only move your pick as
much as you need to is a good general rule. Keep your pick strokes
tight around the string.
6. Press the strings only as hard as you need to
Not many players think about this. How hard are you pressing the
strings to get the note? To play fast,
you need to be able to glide over the frets, touching the string
against them just enough to get a clean, defined note. Any harder than
that is unnecessary and may compromise your speed.
Practice using different amounts of pressure as you play through a
scale or exercise. It'll take time to find the perfect balance, but it
might just be the subtle change you need to speed up your fingering.
7. Practice "finger twisters"
Your fingers will be required to make some awkward movements on guitar,
which will slow you down at first. There are exercises you can do which
have been referred to as "tongue twisters for your fingers" that will
help with building both "linear" and "vertical" speed. Here are a few
examples to get you started, but be inventive and come up with your
own. Good luck!
They may not sound very musical, but they make great post-stretching
warmups for 10-or-so minutes and will prepare you for similar movements
you'll encounter in
licks. They'll also encourage you to explore the fretboard in more
8. Lower the action on your guitar
Set up your guitar (either DIY or by hiring the services of a local
so that the action is as low as possible without causing fret buzz.
This is more of a challenge for cheaper guitars, but it makes sense to
get it as low as possible so that you don't have to physically press
the strings down as far, which will help speed things up.
holding your pick more like in the picture to the right >>
So you're cutting across the string more with the edge of the pick
rather than picking flat against it - less surface area to obstruct
your pick movement.
You may also find using a thinner pick will help to play faster (it did
10. Give it a rest!
Also in the picture above, my hand is rested on the bridge of the
guitar. I found this helps to stabilise my hand and create a more fixed
pivot point, which translates to more co-ordination with the strings
and therefore potentially faster playing.
However, this is more of an experiment than a "must do". There are
drawbacks to this as far as getting the tone you want - with your pick
hand fixed on the bridge, you're confined to the middle pick position.
If you want that fat, warm neck position tone, you'll have to either
find an alternative way to stabilise your hand (e.g. rest your pinky
finger on the pick guard) or learn to play without that stabiliser.
So, you're now in the right mindset and have the steps you need to
develop speed without frustration or hindrence.