With so many lessons espousing the latest sweep techniques, and speed picking, the title of this lesson must stand out like a sore thumb. But by the end, you'll be a believer, and, I hope it allows you to progress further as a student of the guitar.
We all want to play fast. That's not the problem.
We all want to play, fast. As in... now. Therein lies the problem.
The number one enemy to our progress is impatience. There is a mental stumbling block already set up before we ever get a pick in our hands, and that is:
We know how fast the song is SUPPOSED TO GO. The moment we hear this, we expect to be able to play it, and we want to play it right then, with minimal effort. Impatience wins over patience. In our zeal to get up to speed, our accuracy and clean technique takes a hit.
The speed in which we expect to learn is our biggest enemy to progress. We all hear, take it slow, practice slowly. But we don't want to play a sweep at 100 bpm in quarter notes, we want 140 in 16ths, and the second we think we can, we are slopping our way through the lick, subconsciously convincing ourselves that speed = the lick.
Instead it starts us on a path of mediocrity and taking longer to reach these goals, if we reach them at all.
I want to talk about muscle memory. In the final analysis, the muscles are exercised so many times that it becomes second nature. The problem is it can memorize things either way... Bad or good, and once the muscles are programmed incorrectly, they are programmed, and it takes a lot of effort to change it.
The brain is always "rolling tape". The second you start learning something, the brain is saying "Oh... ah okay thats how you do it...I get it now...". And it thinks its learning, it doesn't make distinction as to whether what you are showing it is good or bad, itr is locked in the process of LEARNING IT.
So, if you start out trying something sloppily, guess what the brain is doing? It's saying..."Oh....ah....OK....I get it". Then, it will try to replicate that when you play next, and each time it will learn it a little more, till it can play sloppily without effort.
So, learning slowly gives the brain a chance to get it right, it learns accurately, it learns the amount of pressure the fingertips need, the position of the fingertip between the frets, the precise area of the fingertip that is making contact. Textures, position, pressure, sound... All go into the data banks of the brain. The brain is brilliant, working like a supercomputer to perfect things you wouldn't even imagine, when it comes to learning a piece.
So practice it slowly, and as you do you will notice after maybe 10 times playing a part slowly, that its not so difficult anymore, the fingers seem to "know" where to go. That's proper and effective programming in action. The part becomes more automatic, the muscles seem to know exactly where to go. The hardest parts suddenly feel familiar. With time and deliberate programming, you achieve not only speed but accuracy. I would estimate that with proper programming you can do it in about 1/4th the time it would take to get 80% of the way had you tried it haphazardly. With muscle memory comes control.
Our enemy to progress, isn't lack of ability, or technique, its our own mental attitude about learning things slowly, its our own impatience.
Henceforth, resolve to "program" not practice. Take personal responsibility to ensure that every bit of data is being correctly fed to the brain, so that while it rolls tape, it is receiving only valid data on how to play the part.
Here's more advice. Let's look at an oft butcherd riff among guitarists. The Intro to Sweet Child of Mine. A classic riff with some unusual pick requirements, and string skipping:
Lets take a look:
First of all we see 8 notes. So, we might split this into two sections of 4. Now we will work to master these 4 notes. Working on it slowly we can decide:
1. Which fingers to use for which notes.
2. What picking directions are best for each note.
3. Any special techniques needed? (Partial barre, pivot, finger roll, etc)
Practicing slowly and deliberately with these ideas in mind, does a couple of things. First, it allows us to take our mind off having to play it to speed, and second it allows us to focus on the accuracy of the section.
In this case, when we teach this song to the students at our Academy, we use a down-up-down-up picking direction on the first 4 notes of this riff. This gives us a connected yet staccato sound and the picking direction "binds" the riff together and gives us more direct picking control.
Within 2 to 5 minutes of slow deliberate practice, this section is already starting to manifest in the students muscle memory (But it is only short term...consistent, regular and frequent practice is needed before it is second nature, long term).
Now, it is time to tackle the second set of notes. In messing with the last 4 notes, we have a string skip, and some picking challenges. After a little time we discovered that the best sequence is an Up-Down-Up-Down pattern. This effectively brings us to a rather unique pattern that our muscle memory has started to internalize: D-U-D-U, U-D-U-D. Slowly as we practice it, it feels good, there is no problem with sloppy picking, theres no slipping of the pick to unwanted notes, string slop...all because of the deliberate way we approached learning. Try it yourself on this example. In addition determine what fingers need to do what to make the last 4 notes work. Do they take a partial barre, or a finger roll? Maybe a little of both? At a slow speed you can play cleaner. And that allows you to play with more control as well.
So, utilizing these core ideas about how we are going to approach any piece of music, we can more quickly master and use the very techniques we are wanting to have. So, our speed does kill, but paradoxically, SLOW = FAST. The slower and more deliberately we play something the faster we are going to get it.
I hope this insight hits home and saves you many years of marginal or sloppy playing. If you've coasted to this point with sloppy playing, I hope this inspires and challenges you to "get it right".
Remember the brain is always "rolling tape". It's up to you, what it's going to learn.