Improving Your Guitar Speed

So, you’ve arrived at the speedy part of that solo or have designs on melting some faces with your alternate picking. Hold on champ, before you reach for the metronome here are some tips to muse over

From a purely technical perspective, it can be one of guitar’s biggest mountains - speed. Getting faster and matching the velocity of your wood shedding heroes can leave you feeling like you are destined to be stuck in the slow lane forever. Play slow first they say, use a metronome. All good advice but this often sees you pushing towards an upper limit of speed to which you know will always be your stopping point. Whats the answer? Here are a few tried and tested speed training approaches which could help you break through that barrier.

1. Train Like A Sprinter

Consider, for a moment, that you want to run fast - would you open your front door and run as fast as you can, in one direction, for as long as you can? Neither would an athlete. Sprinters develop their speed through interval training, their goal is to be able to deliver a short burst of speed when needed, rather than a prolonged fast run.

The traditional method of running that lick, scale or exercise over long period of time to a steadily increasing metronome can simply lead to burn out - by the time you reach your speed goal, your fingers are often to fried to deliver the notes accurately. What’s the alternative? Use the running analogy - try jogging and sprinting. Find a metronome or drum machine speed to which you can comfortably play your chosen line; jog a while at this tempo and then, at intervals, double your speed for a bar or two before returning to your prior comfortable jog.

The point of this is to develop short and accurate bursts of speed whilst simultaneously working on the muscle memory side of the things. Unless you plan on delivering a two minute barrage of shred licks, then this is also a method for developing usable speed within a musical context.

2. Minimise Movements

Keeping with the running metaphor - you will rarely see an Olympic sprinter taking off for the finish line with their legs and arms windmilling like a dancing monkey. The larger your movements, from both your fretting fingers and picking hand, the harder it will be to impart any degree of acceleration to your playing.

The first, and often overlooked, remedy for those flappy fingers is actually the placement of your thumb. If you are delivering a line which involves your pinky, this can be a real speed killer. Be sure to place your thumb in the centre of your hand position and keep it permanently placed on the back of the neck, running down the centre as you move; effectively tracing the line of your truss rod.

To experience the effect this has on your economy of movement - try playing in front of a mirror, look at how much your fingers move when your thumb pokes its way up over the neck; put your thumb out of sight and take note of how your digits, particularly your pinky, all behave themselves and intuitively make smaller movements as you play.

As a disclaimer - this rule of thumb (pun intended) doesn’t apply to good old fashioned blues licks and string bending, just those moments when a finger per fret scale line or pinky dependent lick is called into action.

3. Think Sync

Attached to the notion of moving your fingers less to achieve faster speeds, sometimes your barrier can be sync related. In simple terms - where one hand is moving faster than the other - with your picking hand failing to match the movements of your fretting hand.

Moving your fingers less, as per the previous point, is often an instant cure for this problem - alleviating the technical equivalent of hitting a fast moving target; moving your fingers in wider arcs makes it harder for your picking hand to strike at the appropriate time, thus causing sync issues.

It is also worth considering that the more traditional picking exercises may not improve your sync - straight chromatic or scale runs, with a very predictable and repeating picking pattern on each string, actually don’t provide a sync challenge. Instead, seek out exercises, sequences or parts which challenge your hands to stay in sync: unpredictable and odd numbers of notes on each string, string skipping, mixes of ascending and descending notes and passages which prove challenging to place your fretting and picking hand on the same string.

4. Beware Of Tension

Even though we have covered this in a previous blog, this brief yet paramount point is worth another mention. It is all too common to tense up when approaching any physically challenging aspect of playing.

When it comes to building speed or hitting that one quick lick or run, our instinctual reaction is to go stiff - from our fingers to our arms and shoulders. This is a prime enemy of the speedy guitar player. Despite delivering aggressive and intense fast runs, true speed kings like John Petrucci or Yngwie Malmsteen will never look like a ball of taught nerves and muscles when engaging the fast switch.

Be mindful of your tension, relax your arms and shoulders. A good exercise to relieve any tension, which may be created around speed drills or licks, is to simply play the passage/lick once and then breathe deeply for the same period of time - put into practice this can be as simple as: breathe for a bar, play fast for a bar.

5. Know Your Subdivisions

We’ve all been there, you hit the fast button and go for it, with the simple goal of producing something speedy. But speed without rhythmic substance or context can sound out of place and prove hard to fit within a musical setting.

This is all about ensuring that your faster runs still fit on the rhythmic grid somewhere - in simple terms, they’ve gotta be in time!

Over a conservative BPM, things start to be classed as ‘fast’ once we breach the 16th note (four notes per beat) mark. Beyond this lies the adrenaline inducing subdivisions of 16th note triplets (6 notes per beat) and 32nd notes (8 notes per beat). Make sure you can feel these at a slow tempo and hit them with a single note or easy single string exercise to internalise them. The chances are that, when you encounter one of those shreddier runs, they fall into these two subdivisions.

On a final note, in the words of every boring grown up out there; be conscious of the quality of your playing and the importance you place on playing fast. Fast has its value but playing clean and accurately comes first. If your aim is to work towards including some shred runs within your improvisation then see these as punctuation points within your solos rather than the feature itself.