Thor is the Norse god of thunder and lightning, and a lot of guitarists (especially metalheads) like to imagine themselves to be something like him. They hit that low chunky chord and it rumbles like thunder before they start a fast shredding solo and lightning sparks from their hands! Of course, this is never what happens, but it still doesn't stop the aspect of "lightning fast" to be applied to some players. But how do they achieve this blazing speed? Well both the short and long answers are tons of specific practice. So that's what I want to cover in this article. We're going to look at the physical aspects of and ways to build your playing speed on the guitar.
First Things First: The Physicals Of Playing
A major part of playing fast is how efficient you play. There are plenty of people who say you must practice efficient playing to build your speed, but what I've always seen with students is your efficiency develops naturally as you practice to build speed. For example, as you get to playing faster, you will naturally control how far from the strings your fingers will move between notes. Obviously the closer your fingers stay to the strings, the less effort it takes to place your fingers back on the strings. Despite the tendency for natural development, it still doesn't hurt to keep this physical aspect in mind when building your speed.
I've heard some jazz guitarists call the idea "the feather touch," which just means to use only the necessary amount of pressure to produce a quality tone. Here the core concept is to minimize tension in your hands when playing making it easier to move quickly. A similar approach is applied to picking where the focus is on minimizing the distance away from the string the pick travels. Some guitarists also choose to learn economy picking which is intended to maintain directional flow when picking. For those of you not familiar with economy picking, it is a hybrid of alternate and sweep picking where the core concept is that you use alternate picking except when changing strings and a sweeping motion can be applied.
One of the most useful and heavily required tools for building your playing speed is the metronome. This is the quintessential piece of equipment for your rehearsals. Being able to play to a metronome click is a very useful ability and pretty much necessary when trying to increase your speed. In addition to a metronome, there are numerous hand and finger exercisers you can try but none of those will take the place of practicing with a guitar in your hands.
Before you learned to walk, you first learned to crawl and scoot around. Before you could say complete sentences, you first learned to say single words like yes and no. The same aspect applies to speed building. You must crawl before you run. Many guitarists make the mistake of just trying to play as fast as they can right from the start either because they don't understand the ineffectiveness of this or they are impatient. To truly develop your playing speed and be able to maintain your playing quality, you must start slow. Starting at a slower tempo allows you to have more control over the physical movement of your hands and fingers to aid in developing better playing technique. You can also focus on keeping your muscles more relaxed at slower tempos.
Start by picking a tempo on the metronome where you can play a specific phrase comfortably. Once you find this starting point, you then start to slowly increase your tempo until you hit a point where you can't play it well anymore. Then you simply focus on incrementally building your speed by starting where you can comfortably play the part well and building to where you cannot play the part well. Depending on the difficulty of what you are working on, you may wish to increase your tempo by 2 bpm each time or as much as 10 bpm each time.
Reaching The Plateau
Athletes involved in things like running fast or for long distances, or weightlifters often encounter what is called a "plateau." The concept comes from the fact that a plateau has steep cliff sides but a flat top. A weightlifter may reach a point where they stop improving. They may be stuck at this point for weeks, unable to increase their weight amount. Then suddenly one day they can lift the weight they've been stuck on. Not only that but they can lift slightly beyond it as well.
Musicians experience the same thing. You may be steadily improving but suddenly get stuck. For weeks you may be unable to move beyond your current playing level on a particular song. The one day, for no apparent reason, you can suddenly play the song or phrase with ease. The problem is many guitarists never break though their plateaus because they don't have the patience to keep at it. They get frustrated and give up saying things like "I just can't do it." To break through your plateaus and increase your playing speed substantially will require a lot of patience and effort.
Hacking Your Brain
There is a psychological trick that you can use to help break past your plateau. Unfortunately, what I'm referring to is not a Matrix-style hack to help you instantly unlock superhuman speed. The concept is simple though, and you will have already experienced this just driving down the road. It's about altering your perception. When you drive at a high speed for a while then have to slow down significantly, you tend to feel like you're crawling along. What happens is you adjust to the higher speed causing the slower speed to seem even slower than you would typically perceive it to be. We can take the same concept and use it with the guitar.
Let's say the song is at a tempo of 140 BPM. You are rehearsing it starting at 60 BPM and make steady improvements up till 120 BPM. That's where you hit your plateau. For two weeks you continue practicing and cannot successfully get past 120 BPM. To "trick" your perception, you just go ahead and set the metronome to 140 BPM and do your absolute best to nail it at that tempo. But you don't. So now, instead of slowing back down, you speed up even more to 160 BPM. Again you do your very best to play at that tempo and of course fail. Okay, so obviously trying to play faster when you can't play it at a lower tempo doesn't help. Or does it? What happens now is after you keep pushing to play ever faster despite failing each time, when you return back to 120 BPM you "feel" it isn't as fast as it was. You're not actually any faster, but you "perceive" that the tempo is slower.
With my students that I teach in person, I typically make use of the app Transcribe! from SeventhString for this. The core function is an audio "slow-downer" similar to other software that does the same thing. Transcribe! simply has a few more useful features which is why I prefer it. It allows you to load in an mp3 and either slow down or speed up the song without changing pitch. So whenever I see a student hitting a plateau on a particular song, I will test them by making them attempt to play at different speeds. Once I have them struggling to play the part they are stuck on at faster than normal tempo, the switch back to their "plateau" tempo has them able to play it nearly perfect every time.
Building speed is not an overnight effort. It takes a lot of focused practice to build up real speed. While there are numerous exercises, exercise tools, and such to aid you, maintaining your dedication to achieving that speed is probably the most crucial part of it. If you can't keep yourself dedicated, then all other tips, tricks, exercises, and so on won't help.
James Higgins is a performing guitarist and teacher with 14 years of experience. Check out his blog Unveil Music to get the inside scoop on being an independent musician or book an online lesson with James.