How to Play Fast, Part 3: Accuracy before Speed

Hi, and welcome to the third and final installment of a three-part series called “How to Play Guitar, Fast”.

In part one, we talked about relaxation.  In part two, we talked about efficient movement.

Part three is about playing accurately before trying to increase the speed of your playing.

Sometimes people tackle the speed issue by trying to muscle through it.  In other words, they keep slamming into the same mistakes over and over in the hopes that they’ll make a breakthrough one day. As a result of making the same mistake over and over, this eventually becomes “muscle-memory” and you’ll be stuck having to break these habits before you can progress. Why not avoid this situation and wasting time? Get it right, at the start.

Start slowly. Impatience is the biggest enemy here but it actually doesn’t add much to your practice time.  In some situations, you can see a dramatic increase in your ability to play fast even after 30 minutes of focused practice.  Make sure to articulate each note, avoiding fret-buzz and incomplete notes.  If you’re using alternate picking, then make sure your pick stroke directions are correct.

When people play fast but inaccurately, it is the musical equivalent of talking in a fast and slurred speech. It can be distracting and take someone out of the moment of an amazing musical experience. However, there are some musicians who are not technically accurate but still manage to convey strong emotion.  Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin) comes to mind. While he may have figured out a way around his technical limitations, it’s important we don’t use it as an excuse to be lazy about our own playing. He is an exception to the rule.

Thanks for reading part 3! Next time, I will follow up with a few practical exercises that apply the three principles we’ve talked about.

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How to Play Fast, Part 2: Efficiency

Welcome to the second part of a three part series on how to play the guitar, fast!

In the first part, we talked about relaxation of the hands and body.  The idea was to not try and muscle through difficult musical passages but to only use the minimum effort required.

Now we’ll talk about efficiency. In other words, we’ll be getting rid of any excess movement that doesn’t help us do our job of playing music.

We will start by focusing on the hands again.  The left hand tends to be guilty of moving the fingers too far from the fingerboard after playing a note, especially the third and fourth fingers. This creates more distance for the finger to travel to the next note, and a split second can make a difference in a fast flurry of notes. Also try and keep the fretting hand in a consistent position (ideally, the “classical position”) so that it doesn’t need to make sudden, large movements to get to the next note. This is most pronounced when there’s a stretch involved.

Sometimes a player’s picking hand can travel too far from the strings, especially if the player develops a habit of picking outward from the guitar.  The pick has to travel a longer distance to get back to the strings and can accidentally land on a different string. Try and pick directly downwards, or even a little bit towards the guitar to remedy this issue.

The next point might ruffle some people’s feathers: avoid excessive foot tapping, swaying, dancing, etc. Some people are really emotionally attached to the movements they make when playing, as a form of physical expression of the music.  I’m okay with that, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of your playing. Quite often, it will be painfully obvious that this is a huge detriment to a musician. Don’t let your physical movements dictate what you can and can’t play; learn to execute the music properly then let your body move naturally.

That’s it for now! Keep an eye out for part 3, and a practical exercise to tie all three concepts together.

How to Play Fast, Part 1: Relax

telewallpaper011Hello and welcome to the first of a three part series on how to play the guitar, fast!

Regardless of the technique or style employed by the guitarist, I’ve observed these three principles that almost all of them were following.

The first principle I want to talk about is relaxation. The basic idea is that excessive tension throughout your hands and body will tire your muscles quickly. It will also make it difficult to play accurately, and in worst case scenarios it will lead to injury (eg. carpel tunnel). We’ll apply the principle to the hands and then the rest of the body.

Left hand: Make sure you apply good fretting technique.  IE fret with your fingertips and as close to the frets as possible.  You would be surprised to find how little pressure it requires to get a clear sounding note when you’re doing everything else right.

Right hand: Avoid gripping the pick too tight and picking too hard. Many people have a fear of dropping the pick when playing, but it’s actually a good sign that shows you’re not gripping too hard.  Volume can be an issue in loud settings, but hopefully you’ll have amplification so that you can avoid slamming on the strings.

Let’s take this one step further and observe how to relax other parts of the body too. This is important because the body is an interconnected system where tension in other body parts may affect your playing.  For example, I notice a lot of hunching and raised shoulders with my students when playing challenging music.  After a few minutes of practice, they’ll often need to stretch or take a break to address the soreness that builds.

Keeping good posture is fundamental to a relaxing other body parts.  If you’re standing, make sure your feet are planted roughly shoulder-width apart and your spine is upright in an S curve. If you tend to sway when playing, this will keep your body balanced and stable. The same concepts apply when you’re seated.  Watch out that you don’t start to hunch over the guitar.

I often see dramatic and immediate improvements in speed and accuracy when these concepts are applied by my students. I hope they work just as well for you!

Keep an eye out for part 2 and 3, and then a practical exercise to apply the three concepts to tie it all together.