Most guitarists, at some point, decide that they want to be able to play fast.
I can definitely relate to this. In my formative years, I spent a lot of time working on my rhythm guitar chops, so while I was pretty creative and even adaptive in my approach to writing and playing riffs, my leads left something to be desired.
Then I learned about players like Paul Gilbert, Yngwie Malmsteen and Nuno Bettencourt, and knew that I wanted to upgrade my lead guitar skills.
Speed isn't everything, but when used alongside other techniques and playing styles, it can really enhance your playing. As a guitarist, it's always nice to have more options rather than fewer.
So let's talk about how you can improve your guitar playing speed.
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What You Can Play Accurately & Slowly, You Can Learn To Play Fast
Muscle memory plays a huge part in speed. Some guitarists can play a passage of music a few times and master it, while for others it takes dozens of times to drill the same musical passage into their psyche. No matter what type of learner you are, you must take the time to get your muscle memory working for you.
Anybody can learn to play fast, but you can't expect to play fast what you haven't taken the time to learn to play slowly.
If you can play something slowly and accurately, I'll show you a player who can easily speed it up. If you can't play it slowly and accurately, I'm sorry, but you won't be able to speed it up without making mistakes.
If you don't take this seriously, then speed will never be yours. Period. Learn to play everything accurately and slowly.
Learn Your Scales
Here's a simple, inescapable truth – if you haven't mastered a scale, you won't be able to play it fast.
And you don't really need to know dozens of scales to get started either – you really just need to learn one at a time.
The pentatonic scale is probably the best one to start with, because it provides a “skeleton” for many other scales. By adding additional notes in the right spots, you can easily create the blues scale, major scale, minor scale, and pretty well all of the modes of the major scale.
So start by learning the pentatonic scale and its five patterns. Play it forwards and backwards. Play it in seconds and thirds. Play it in every conceivable way you can think of! Only then can you truly say that you've “mastered” a scale, that you're totally comfortable playing it.
The skills you develop while learning your scales will prove invaluable to just about any kind of lead playing you're going to be doing, and will help you develop speed too.
Master Alternate Picking
Another technique that's key to playing fast is alternate picking. If your guitar teacher didn't show you how to alternate pick from the very first lesson, they're definitely shortchanging you.
It isn't hard to do, but it must be practiced. It's simply a technique in which you pick a string down, and then up. Alternating allows you to be more efficient.
Don't get me wrong – when you listen to or even watch “fast playing”, in many cases, not all of the notes are actually being picked. There's a lot you can do with just hammer-ons and pull-offs on your non-picking hand – especially if you've built up your finger strength.
But it's a lot easier to not pick than to pick, which means picking adds to the challenge of playing fast. That's why you must achieve peak efficiency with your picking hand.
Practice With A Metronome
Does anybody really enjoy practicing with a metronome? I don't know too many people that do.
But when it comes to practice, it isn't all about what you want to do and what you enjoy – it's about what's good for you. Exercise is the same way, right? You may not like abdominal crunches or squats, but you probably like the results.
No matter what you're playing, you should start at a really laid-back tempo, like 80 BPM. Even 60 BPM isn't too slow. Then, you should only increase gradually – I mean really gradually, maybe 5 BPM at a time. Practice at the new speed, and only move on when you really feel comfortable with it.
You're not going to be able to go really fast when you're first getting started, so don't push yourself too hard. Maybe 120 BPM will feel a little uncomfortable at first. Work your way up the speed dial over time – and by that I mean months and years, not days or weeks!
Get Good At Identifying Your Problem Areas
Finally, without the ability to identify your problem areas, you have no hope of overcoming the plateaus you're almost certainly going to run up against.
Playing an instrument is really an exercise in self-awareness, and without that, you could think you're pretty amazing, while onlookers clap politely at your performance to avoid unwanted confrontation (i.e. they think you suck!).
You have to be able to spot your inefficiencies and look for ways to solve them. Maybe you have a hard time keeping your fretting fingers close to the fretboard as possible at all times (I have this problem). Maybe you have trouble with string-skipping, and you get caught on strings you shouldn't be picking. Maybe those big stretch riffs really bug you.
The challenges you encounter will change at every level of playing, which means you could be stuck at the same plateau for a long time if you do not address problem areas quickly.
Finally, you're not going to get anywhere without practice. You don't need to take things to the extreme, but if you're practicing three hours every day, at least one hour should be dedicated to speed drills, working on your problem areas and figuring out how to overcome them. Contrary to popular belief, one hour of intensely focused practice can do wonders for your playing.
Speed is generally applied to lead playing, which means you have to get really comfortable with scales. There's just no way around that.
And don't forget – a huge part of guitar playing is muscle memory. If you have to think about what you're playing, you haven't reached the point where your fingers can take over for you yet.