Tips for Increasing Your Playing Speed
Many new (and not so new) guitarists equate speed with being a good guitarist. They spend hours a day attempting to play faster than they are capable of playing, sacrificing accuracy for urgency, and end up tense and frustrated for their efforts. What some guitarists fail to realize is that speed is a byproduct of a high skill level. There are many different elements that must be mastered in order to play guitar fast and clean.
Three words to keep in mind when trying to build speed are practice, precision, and patience. If you are struggling to play something at the speed you want, it only means that you haven't yet refined your technique to a high enough level, or that you are not using practice approaches that are effective enough. For those of you looking to improve your playing speed, the following are important insights to help get you where you want to go that much faster.
You would never lace up and hit the pavement for a run without first doing some leg stretches. Neither should you pick up the guitar and launch into a blistering solo without first having stretched and warmed up the muscles in your hands and arms. Playing guitar is one of the most strenuous exercises you can do with your fingers, hands, and forearms. Stretching helps to keep muscles loose and limber. It increases flexibility and warms up muscle tissues and joint fluids.
When you try to play faster, your hands tend to tense up. Tension slows you down, so try to stay relaxed while you're playing. Be aware of tension not only in your hands, but in your wrists, arms, shoulders and back as well. They all have an effect on your playing.
Before you even pick up your guitar, spend a moment looking for and releasing any tension in your shoulders, arms and hands. Take some slow, deep breaths, roll your head around a little, flex your wrists, shake your arms out, whatever helps you get good and loose. Then, while playing normally, periodically check in with these parts for signs of tension, especially in your shoulders and arms. Reducing muscular tension from your body when playing can really help you to achieve greater fluidity, accuracy, and speed.
In case you haven't guessed by now, all things skill related begin and end with practice. The ability to play really fast and with accuracy takes time and dedication. Practice helps you build "muscle memory" through repetition, eventually allowing you to play without conscious effort. The movements become automatic. Much as you've built muscle memory in many everyday activities like riding a bike, typing on a keyboard, and manipulating your video game controller, you can too start to get a "feel" for the notes you are playing. This, in turn, will help you increase your speed.
But it's not only how much you practice that will determine how quickly you can play fast, it's also how you practice.
To play fast you first need to play slow. Most people know this already but don't have the patience to take it slow. So many of us want to go fast now, from the get-go, not later. But what is the point of playing a piece of music so fast that it is rendered unrecognizable by sloppy technique?
Just as you had to learn to walk before you could run, so too you've got to start playing slow in order to play fast. Don't rush things. Take a song and break it up into manageable parts. Concentrate on learning one part really well before moving onto the next part. Make sure you play with proper hand position and good posture. Once you have all the parts down, put the whole song together and play it slowly. Don't speed it up until you can play each note clearly, correctly and comfortably, and you can play all the notes this way consistently. Don't sacrifice skill for speed.
Once you've mastered a song playing it slow, you're then ready to ramp things up—sometimes even a little faster than you think you can handle. You can compare it to weight lifting. Sometimes you want to try to lift some heavier weights, a bit heavier than you're used to, just to try to exceed your limits. Then you'll take a short rest and pick up some lighter weights. You'll notice the lighter weights have become easier to handle than before.
The same principle can be applied to practicing speed. Sometimes you need to turn up the BPM (beats per minute) on your metronome and go a little faster than you're used to in order to exceed your limits. Stretch a bit.
Synchronize Your Fretting and Picking Hands
Most guitar players think that the basis of real speed is a good fret hand technique. They believe that if your fret hand is fast, you will be able to play fast. This is the reason many players focus so much attention on their fretting hand, and leave the picking hand to fend for itself. But in order to play at higher and higher speeds, both hands must be equally strong and working together.
Can your hands play independently of one another? Can one hand play through a passage without adversely affecting the other? As an experiment, play through a passage with the fretting hand only, then play it through with picking hand only. Is one hand lazier or weaker than the other? If so, turn your focus on the weaker hand and work to get it up to speed with your more dominant hand. Making sure both hands are pulling their weight will get you better faster.
Use Alternate Picking
The most used picking technique for playing strings fast and fluently with the least possible effort is alternate picking. As the name implies, you pick one note with a downstroke and the next with an upstroke in a continuous run. By utilizing alternating downward and upward pick strokes, you are able to double the amount of notes you play in the same amount of time. This will help with speed and arm fatigue.
Use Sweep Picking
Sweep picking is a technique that requires both hands working in sync to achieve the desired effect. The basic idea of sweeping is to play arpeggios (notes of a chord picked in rapid succession instead of simultaneously), both ascending and descending, so the notes sound out individually instead of like a chord. You don't want to lift up your pick for each individual note. Instead, just let it glide (sweep) across the surface of the strings, sort of like you're strumming, but you will articulate each note rather than play all the notes together as one chord. Sweep picking requires that you synchronize your hands so that your pick and your fretting fingers make contact with the string at the exact same moment.
Use Economy Picking
Economy picking is a key factor to building speed. It maximizes speed with minimal effort. A hybrid of alternate and sweep picking, economy picking involves using alternate picking except when changing strings. In this case the guitarist changes to sweep picking, picking in the direction of travel: an upstroke if changing to a lower (pitch) string, a downstroke if changing to a higher (pitch) string. The aim is to minimize movement in the picking hand, and avoid the motion of jumping over a string prior to picking it, as often occurs in alternate picking. You never want to waste time and effort by passing over a string that you're going to pick.
When it comes to increasing your guitar speed, most guitarists typically focus on becoming faster with only one technique at a time. For example, you may practice your sweep picking for 15 minutes, then move on to 15 minutes of legato, followed by 15 minutes of two-hand tapping. Although this approach will help you to improve at these techniques when isolated, you also need to specifically practice using all of these techniques together in the same way that you will find them used in real guitar solos. Neglecting to do this will make your guitar playing sound unnatural and choppy as you struggle to play a song consistently well using a variety of guitar techniques at once.
Guitar players who eventually develop a lot of physical guitar speed in their hands often find their next challenge is to overcome slow mental processing. This means that the hands actually outrun the mind's ability to analyze what is going on in real time. Two-hand synchronization problems, rhythmic timing errors of the lead guitar solo against the rhythm of the song, inconsistent articulation, excess guitar string noise, the inability to smoothly shift positions on the guitar neck are just a few of the common problems that occur when mental processing breaks down as the hands are playing at high speeds.
If you aren't sure if your mental analysis is accurate, record yourself and then listen back to your recording. Do you now hear things that you didn't hear before when you were playing? If so, you have identified a mental processing issue that needs to be fixed. If not, then increase the speed on the metronome gradually until you do find a mental processing problem.
Once you discover a problem, you need to slow down the speed on the metronome and spend some time practicing at speeds where you can fully hear (and think about) what is really going on in your guitar playing. The goal is to shorten the time it takes for your brain to analyze what is going on and then make the necessary adjustments in your physical guitar playing in real time and at full speed. As you play, focus on the problem you have identified and try to make the adjustments needed to fix it while playing without stopping.
Use a Metronome
To learn to play accurately and get your speed up, you need to learn to play with a metronome. Unlike the concept of guitar speed, practicing guitar with a metronome is a very critical part of what actually develops your ability to play guitar in time. As you play, you can tell easily if your guitar playing is in time if you can make the sound of the metronome click "disappear" on most (or all) of the strong beats of the music. If you are playing in perfect time, the notes you are playing will line up precisely on top of the metronome click, creating an illusion that the click has disappeared.
The metronome can also be used as a way to test how well you have mastered various guitar techniques. There are specific elements that go into guitar speed that must be trained and refined, often at super slow speeds without a metronome. The speed at which you can play any one technique with a metronome will indicate whether or not you need to do additional practicing (without using the metronome) to overcome the technical flaws preventing you from playing guitar as fast as you want.
You can also use the metronome to challenge yourself by setting it at ever-increasing increments. When you find your technique getting sloppy at a certain speed, then that's your top speed for that practice session. Back up the metronome a few clicks to a comfortable speed again, and then finish the practice session by playing a few one-minute repetitions at your highest relaxed and clean speed.
You can get a metronome at your local guitar store, download a metronome app, or you can find one in the toolbar of the GT website.
Analyze Your Playing
Analyze your playing every time you practice. Study your left and right hands. Where do you come up short? What doesn't work the way you want it to and why? To see where you stand on any particular song or exercise, rate your progress as:
1. Effortless - You can play it in your sleep.
2. Easy - You can play it well, but you must be careful and pay attention.
3. Tiring - You can play it for a while, but you soon get tired and sloppy.
4. Broken - You can only play fragments of the phrase, here and there.
5. Impossible - You just can't play it at all at this speed.
Make notes from your observations. Be creative and come up with exercises or solutions for improvement. For example, if your ring finger and pinky are too weak to speed up, then create an exercise for just those two fingers to help strengthen them.
Another great way to see what you are actually doing and how you're doing it is to videotape yourself playing. You can really take a close look at your hand position and posture this way. You'll see things you probably won't notice otherwise. Taping yourself is also a good way to track your progress and to see the difference in your technique and speed over time. It will also give you an opportunity to hear what your playing really sounds like and take corrective action where and if needed.
Although there is much you can do to speed up the rate of your progress on the guitar, you must remember that some processes simply cannot be rushed. To put it another way, there is much you can do to avoid common problems that needlessly slow you down, but there isn't much you can do to rush the process of becoming a true musician.
You must learn to be patient during the process of developing your musical skills, and remember that the journey of being a musician is a never-ending one. There will always be new things to learn and new skills to develop in your guitar playing for as long as you choose to be a musician. Every guitar player goes through the same process, without exception. So relax and focus on the steps you must take to reach the speeds that you desire in your guitar playing.
In closing, remember this: It's not how fast you play that makes you a truly expressive and creative musician, but how well you play when you play fast. In the end, your playing should be effortless at any and all tempos.
For more on how to increase your playing speed, be sure to check out Ben Lindholm's Speed Building and Christopher Schlegel's Speedy Ideas Series 1.
Photo credit:Guitarist Pat Bergeson playing his 1967 Fender Esquire at the 3rd annual Tommy Emmanuel Guitar Festival in Rietberg/Germany, Aug 18 2006, By Enamelhead