It is important for all guitarists, not just “shredders,” virtuosos, or Neo-classical metal players, to learn how to play the guitar faster than their previous level of speed.
The reason for this is that being able to play fast gives you an advantage over everything you play at a slower tempo.
Let me give you an example.
If you can play a guitar lick perfectly at 110bpm, you might be surprised that you can’t play it perfectly live or in the studio.
The reason for this is that you were used to playing it flawlessly:
- Sitting down
- When no one’s looking
- When there are no repercussions if you get it wrong (even if the repercussions are minor, such as spending a little more time at the studio, thinking about them adds to the tension you’re feeling)
- In your chosen setting
- After fully warming up.
- Using your usual sound settings.
When you play that lick with new elements of discomfort or tension, it becomes more difficult to perform.
Pro guitarists counteract this with various practicing techniques (such as standing up and walking around, visualizing a crowd, tension release processes, and so on), but they also learn their licks and solos faster than they need to record or perform them.
How fast is fast?
If you like virtuosos like Yngwie Malmsteen, Steve Vai, Michael Angelo Batio, Jason Becker, and Joe Satriani, you’ll know that playing fast on guitar can reach astronomical speeds (such as 16th note triplets at 224 bpm).
If that’s where you want to go, all of the actionable steps in this lesson apply to you, but pay special attention to point 10 because it can lead you to speed levels you never thought possible.
If you enjoy music genres where speed is less important (such as Blues, Rock, Pop, Punk, and Funk; you will find shredders in these genres, but unlike say, neo-classical heavy metal, playing very fast is not a requirement), how fast is fast is completely subjective, and for the purposes of this lesson it is to be understood as:
Playing any lick (riff, solo, etc.) at a faster tempo than your previous one without losing clarity or accuracy.
When you can play anything you already know faster, your overall level of guitar playing improves because playing slowly becomes easier.
The following are ten things you can do right now to improve your guitar playing speed.
After you’ve finished reading this article, pick a lick, riff, or solo and apply one of the suggestions to your practice to begin increasing your speed.
If you don’t have a specific lick, use this as an example:
Note: This lick and the examples in this lesson take 110 bpm as a default. If you’re using the given lick and it’s too fast for you to play it perfectly, slow it down as much as you need to. And if it becomes too easy for you, feel free to speed up – as long as you don’t sacrifice cleanliness or accuracy.
- Learn it slow accurately
Due to impatience many guitar students start increasing the speed of their licks before they can play them accurately and on time.
Before starting to increase the speed of your practice item, make sure that there’s a specific tempo (no matter how slow) in which you can play it perfectly with a metronome.
- Start using a metronome/use the metronome less
Many guitar students have one of these two relationships with the metronome:
- They never (or rarely) use it
- They use it all the time
Both relationships are unhealthy, or rather, inefficient.
If you never use a metronome you cannot:
- Know if you can play the music on time.
- Measure your progress. It’s hard to know if you’re playing the guitar faster if you’re not measuring your speed.
On the other hand, if you use the metronome all the time, the learning process will be much harder. When you’re figuring out where the notes are, which fingers to use, the picking motions, or figuring out the rhythm, you cannot be focused on playing on time with a metronome at the same time.
Thus, you should use a metronome, but only strategically, namely when checking if you can play something on time and when you’re measuring your speed.
- Practice at various speeds
The common sense approach to increasing the speed of a lick you can play at 110 bpm to, say, 170 bpm is to do so incrementally such as by 2 bpm at a time.
You can learn how to play the lick faster this way but the process is slow and you may hit speed plateaus where you can’t go any faster.
A better approach to building speed would be practicing the lick at tempos significantly lower than 110 bmp, as well as significantly higher, each time focusing on different things.
This will be addressed in the next step.
- Practice with different focuses
If you can play a lick perfectly at 110 bpm, why should you practice it at 60 bpm, and how are you going to practice it at 130 bpm?
The answer is that you’ll be practicing the lick but focusing on something different each time.
Here are a few examples (the bpm given is here approximate. The actual tempo should be determined by your specific circumstances).
100 bpm – And concentrate on being perfectly on time
70 bpm – Check for and fix any unwanted string noise (such as open strings buzzing).
90 bpm – Pick each note with you right hand as hard as possible (to make it feel easier when picking normally).
130 bpm – At this tempo, you can’t play the lick without making mistakes, but you can play it with them. Take note of the mistakes and what is causing them. Then, at a slower pace, fix them.
60 bpm – And focus on releasing tension.
This leads us to the next step.
- Release unnecessary tension
Have you ever found yourself doing any of these things while practicing?
- Taking shallow breaths (or not breathing at all)
- Clenching your teeth
- Have your jaw, tongue, shoulders, feet and other parts of your body you don’t use to play the guitar all tensed up.
When you face a challenge while practicing the guitar, chances are you feel unnecessary tension in your body.
And this tension makes everything you do harder, especially when you’re playing at a faster pace than usual.
The first step to eliminating tension is being aware of it. It’s easy not to notice unnecessary tension when you become used to it (but it’s still hurting your playing).
The second step is to practice eliminating it. This article is a good place to start.
If the example lick given above is too hard to learn, you can instantly make it easier not only by reducing the tempo, but also by learning a smaller group of notes at a time.
When you chunk a small group of notes together (in the above lick, the notes appear to chunk naturally in three groups, approximately one every bar, but you can chunk notes in smaller or larger groups), they become easier to learn and play faster.
For example, if you can play the above lick perfectly at 110 bpm you should be able to play each chunked group of notes on their own significantly faster.
After you’ve practiced each note chunk separately, make sure you practice them in the context of the entire lick.
- Take micro-breaks
A micro-break, which can be as short as one or a few seconds, allows your mind to process information between each take at a lick (or chunked group of notes).
Let’s go back to the previous example and assume you can play it perfectly at 110bpm.
One technique for improving speed is to play a chunked group of notes at 130 bpm with micro breaks, as shown below:
- Practice playing guitar faster when fully warmed up
The ability to play the guitar fast increases significantly when you’re fully warmed up.
The problem is that fully warming up can take a long time, especially if the temperature is cold.
Here are two things you can do to counter this problem (apart from increasing the room temperature when applicable)
- Warm up by practicing the same items you’re going to play fast, but slowly.
- Practice things that require mental effort first. If you’re figuring out say, triad inversions, you can’t do so at a fast speed since your mind needs to focus on finding the notes and patterns. But while practicing them you’re still warming up.
- Practice each hand in isolation
If you can play a lick perfectly at 110 bmp, it means that at that speed both your hands are doing a different set of motions, and are in complete synchronization with each other.
If each hand performs the same motions independently, your mind has a much easier job and can thus reach higher levels of speed.
As a result, one method for increasing the speed of a lick is to:
- Practice just the fretting hand. Play the notes like you’re picking them. It’s a good idea to practice with distortion so that the notes make a little sound, but this isn’t the priority. Even if you can’t hear the sound, muscle memory is formed when your fretting hand finger goes through the motion.
Begin slowly and make sure your motions are perfect first. Because your mind is no longer distracted by the picking hand, the fretting hand will eventually be able to play the lick at a much faster tempo.
- Do the same with the picking hand. The fretting hand can also be used to mute the strings. Make sure you practice the exact same picking motions as when you were playing with both hands.
- Synchronize your hands back together and play the lick again. If you’ve done the above correctly and for enough time, you should be able to play it at a significantly higher tempo.
- Take a free course from a guitar virtuoso
The suggestions in this article can all be implemented to play the guitar faster, but if you want to take your speed to extremely fast levels, the ones that seem impossible, there are more pieces to the puzzle than this.
Thankfully some guitar virtuosos teach the science of building incredible levels of speed on the guitar.
One such virtuoso is Tom Hess and if one of your guitar-playing goals is building a lot of speed, I suggest that you start from this free email course.
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