Whether you’re learning how to play guitar solos on electric guitar, Paganini on a classical, or quick chord changes in a jazz band, playing fast on guitar is an illusive and widely sought-after skill. It’s something that many beginners (and even well-seasoned players) often struggle with, but it’s important to remember that speed isn’t a goal -it’s a tool used for a musical purpose.
For seasoned players, it’s likely a combination of poor practice habits and a lack of mental awareness that results in that all-too-familiar feeling of tense hands that won’t go any faster. For beginners struggling to play fast, it’s likely that your technique simply isn’t there yet. Don’t take it personally. You’re not bad at guitar and you’re not less of a musician if you can’t play fast yet. It just takes time and practice.
Fundamentally, speed comes with clarity of articulation, relaxed technique, and a lot of good old fashioned repetition. I like to refer to that last bit as, “grunt-work,” because it’s the stuff we all want to skip. Ever heard the phrase, “slow is smooth and smooth is fast”? Well, you can’t be fast until you’re smooth, and that takes grunt-work. Here are some tips and techniques that I’ve had success with. The first tip might seem obvious, but-
I love to watch real virtuosic players let loose (who doesn’t, right?). You can learn a ton just by carefully watching. Compare and contrast the technique of some of your favorite world-class players (cue Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Sergio Assad, Manuel Barrueco, and John Jorgenson). You’ll probably notice that their playing shares some common technical characteristics.
They all make it look easy.
How, you might ask? -Relaxation. Do you see ANY tension in their hands, necks, shoulders, faces? -Not much, if any at all, right? The hardest part about playing fast is staying relaxed, but staying relaxed is what makes it easy.
They’re always looking ahead with their eyes.
If you have a scale in the first position that immediately jumps to the ninth position, use your eyes to look at the ninth fret BEFORE you need to shift. This keeps your mind engaged which helps you relax.
Speaking of keeping your mind engaged, they’re definitely always thinking ahead. There’s nothing quite as difficult as trying to play quickly when your mind is only focused on one note at a time. Try thinking in groups of notes/phrases, and always think one step ahead.
They’ve done thousands and thousands of hours of the real, nitty-gritty grunt-work that it takes to play at such a high level (and speed).
Did I mention that they’re relaxed?
Does playing fast feel difficult or effortless? Are you able to play steadily with a metronome? (If not, keep reading and pay close attention to the sections on practice and metronome work)
Record yourself on video and watch to see where your technical problems arise. You might be surprised to find that you’re doing things you didn’t realize you were doing (this happens to everyone -you’re not alone).
Then, rewatch and analyze, and rewatch again and again. Take notes like you’re a scientist in a lab performing experiments on yourself.
Once you have a list of things you need to adjust, watch yourself in a mirror and slowly make technical adjustments in real time.
Make sure to get plenty of good repetitions once you’ve made adjustments. Do this again slowly (and multiple times) over the course of a few days to get that stuff into your long-term memory.
Maybe this should have been the first point, but what is practice, really? You get your guitar, sit down and start playing something -are you really practicing? A wise man once told me, “practice is making decisions and mastering those decisions through mindful and controlled repetition.”
When you begin learning something new, every movement you make while attempting to play, “new notes,” (notes you’re learning) is essentially recorded in your muscle memory. That being said, if you want to play something fast, pay very close attention to everything you possibly can at this stage.
Break your music down into small, manageable sections. Two to four measures is a good length, depending on how well you already know your music. Then ask yourself these questions, make adjustments as needed, and repeat until you can play it perfectly seven times in a row.
How do both of your hands feel playing this note/passage? -If not relaxed, go slower -really- as slow as you need to relax.
How does this note/chord/scale sound? Clear? Good tone? -If not, try making adjustments.
What purpose does this note serve in the context of the music? -Knowing this will mean the difference between you sounding musical and sounding like a robot.
Taking the time to be mindful of your playing early on will save you hours of fixing problems down the road. If you’re beyond the stage of learning new notes but make the same mistakes and can’t seem to play your music up to tempo, slow down and try going through the steps above. Don’t keep trying the same thing until you get it right, PRACTICE it until you can’t get it wrong. Then you can work your new muscle memory back up to speed by doing some-
If you’ve never played with a metronome, today is the day to start. The metronome is your best friend. It is the unwavering foundation upon which you will build speed into your guitar playing. You can either buy one from a music shop, or download a metronome app onto a smart-phone or tablet.
Simply put, the metronome keeps time and is measured in beats per minute (BPM). To begin metronome work, you should set the metronome to the speed at which you tap your foot or feel the pulse (you might find a tempo marking on your sheet music or tablature as well), and then slow it down.
If you want to play fast and clean, you have to start slow & controlled, and gradually increase the tempo (about 2-3 BPM at a time) as your hands become comfortable playing at higher speeds (while maintaining relaxation and control). Don’t get me wrong -push yourself to the limit at least once a day, but make sure to always end a practice session with comfortable, relaxed, and controlled repetitions.
Don’t expect to be able to work your riff/song/piece all the way up to tempo in one day. It may take weeks (or even months) of mindful and controlled repetition with a metronome before you have the new technique built into your hands well enough. But don’t be discouraged, that’s why it’s called grunt-work afterall.
Practicing each hand separately will help to synchronize them. Speed and synchronization go hand in hand. It might be a little tricky at first, but practice your right hand alone without using the left hand at all, and vice versa (paying close attention to string crossings). Doing this will help to clarify exactly what’s going on, and give you more control. You might notice a huge difference the next time you play the fast passage with both hands together.
This is something you can do anywhere -waiting in line for a coffee, walking down the street, sitting in class (you didn’t hear that from me), etc. Get creative. The idea is to be intentional. Don’t just vaguely picture what the left hand is doing -try naming each note as they come, including which finger you’re using and what number fret you’re on. Then imagine how your hands feel as you’re playing the passage in your head. Repeat this process until you can visualize the passage faster and faster.
Take your visualization to the next level and go through the same process, but with the right hand. If you’re playing fingerstyle or classical, what finger is plucking which string? If you’re using a pick, which direction are you picking -up or down, and on which string? Pay close attention to string crossings here as well.
Take the time to go through the process of visualizing and I guarantee your speed and clarity will improve. You might find a spot where your visual memory is lacking, and that might correspond directly to a spot where you’ve been having tempo or tension troubles.
If you’re learning anything that you eventually want to play fast, vary the rhythm from time to time. Practice small sections of the passage in speed bursts of 2-4 notes. Try playing the entire passage as triplets, or try playing it with a swing feel. The idea of varying the rhythm is to play the same notes in different contexts. This helps you become even more familiar with the notes, and works your fast-twitch muscle fibers.
You’ll find you might be able to play three or four consecutive notes up to tempo, but not the entire passage. Try isolating the following three or four notes up to tempo, and the following four after that. Isolating short segments into speed bursts will give your playing a whole new level of clarity and control when you eventually piece them all together.
If you didn’t make as much progress as you wanted today, take note of the progress you did make and try again tomorrow (and remember that speed is a tool -not a goal). Celebrate your small victories. One doesn’t need to play fast in order to be a good player (despite how much fun it is).
You will run into roadblocks. Sometimes you might feel like you’ll never be able to get it up to tempo. Let me reassure you that you’re going to get there as long as you stay disciplined and consistent. Most importantly -for emphasis- playing guitar is just fun. So make sure to do that too!