Speed Kills

The number one enemy of guitar technique is speed. Read why.

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Now that I have your attention, I'd like you to read this with an open mind.

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:
------------------15------14--------------
-----15-----------------------------------
--------14-12---------14-----14-----------
-12---------------------------------------
------------------------------------------
------------------------------------------
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.

Best, Sean

41 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    Bismarck32757
    I heard this before and it makes good sense. And it does work...we just need to learn to slow down.
    leeboy032686
    this is gonna make me really take a look from now on at my technique of learning when im trying a new song out, thanks!!
    Sean0913
    banrnon wrote: this makes sense but its not always true. for instance, when i was learning the sweet child riff i was impatient and played through it sloppily and it sounded terrible. but i never had to slow down or change my picking technique, i just learned along the way. it might be true that you can learn riffs faster if you play them right, and slowly, the first time, but its not the only way
    Well in the case of the Sweet Child Riff, I have actually had this challenge with a guy who supposedly "Knew how to play the riff" in the way that you described. We put on a CD of the song, and there is a percussive attack when you do the upstroke, that he could not replicate with the down stroke, so while he played all the notes, the bringing it together, where it had the subtle authenticity of the original, he couldn't do it. There are ways to play songs, and then there are authentic intangibles that you don't quite notice except something tells you it is missing. Theres a common ringing of double stops as well. As a result of this challenge (By the way I put the guitar behind my back and played it, just to demonstrate how easy it was when you can bind the riff together with the proper picking....the point was made. 2 months later I saw his band play and he was playing the song the way I did. So, yes, one can learn the part with a different order, but it wouldn't likely have that pop upstroke attack, it would sound closer to a sweep that was staccato, and those are two different vibes. Thanks for your comment!
    Sean0913
    {Ѵņŏmőůş} wrote: I use an old guitar players trick I learned from a teacher of mine to know when to bump up the speed a bit. When I feel fairly comfortable with my playing at a VERY slow speed (with a metronome of course), I lay out 10 guitar picks facing toward me. Every time I play it perfectly I turn one pick around, every time I screw it up, I reset them all. If I screw up enough, I know to slow down. It's a fun way to do your practicing imo.
    That is an awesome way to do it. I really really like this one. In our Academy, when I teach, the common thread is impatience. This is a very tangible way to show their progress/patience. I think I will have our Academy Instructors use this idea, and I will suggest it to our online students! Thanks for the great tip!
    470562166
    I'm Chinese.And my English is poor. - - I read it slowly . Thank you very much!
    Sean0913
    470562166 wrote: I'm Chinese.And my English is poor. - - I read it slowly . Thank you very much!
    You are welcome. I don't mind about your English skills. Just know, if I can ever help you out with any questions, just let me know - we are all the same, people who have a passion for music and the guitar! Best, Sean
    470562166
    Sean0913 wrote: 470562166 wrote: I'm Chinese.And my English is poor. - - I read it slowly . Thank you very much! You are welcome. I don't mind about your English skills. Just know, if I can ever help you out with any questions, just let me know - we are all the same, people who have a passion for music and the guitar! Best, Sean
    You are so kind, it's the first time that I have been here .I am very touched by your words. I could just say thank you! As you said ,I just have a passion. Best, Wesley
    chixsofobia
    wow great advice!! it will really change my practicing habits from hasty to slowly(but surely)... it really helped a lot...
    banrnon
    this makes sense but its not always true. for instance, when i was learning the sweet child riff i was impatient and played through it sloppily and it sounded terrible. but i never had to slow down or change my picking technique, i just learned along the way. it might be true that you can learn riffs faster if you play them right, and slowly, the first time, but its not the only way
    Ergo_proxy
    I'm 25 now and finally brought myself to buy a guitar and start the practice. Though i had been playing the acoustic for about 5 weeks my passion lies with the electric. Hence i bought myself a 1993 Ibanez EX360 with Vox VT15 amp for a good bargain. The advice you give feels accurate. I do want to play songs fast right off the bat. But i also agree with the fact that brushing up your techniques is far more important than the speed you put into it. I decided to do all the slow practice on the acoustic and also do the speed, dex and accuracy lesson evo posted on this site. When i feel comfortable on the acoustic ill switch to electric. Furthermore i like to be jamming with some friends. Mostly i just use one or two snares and do something simple. Doing this i notice i get the musical feeling and the rhytm that goes along with it real fast. I feel that being able to get in touch with the rythm will eventually make you a musician instead of someone who knows how to play the guitar. Any Tips or hints to give to a beginning guitar player are ever so welcome. And might i ask if you happen to know a couple of good songs to start off with. (and i dont mean old mc donald I already get those from my teacher. But id like to play some cool songs to keep my motivation up.
    Sean0913
    I think of learning guitar a lot like playing poker. We know what to do, but it's the discipline to stay with it that becomes our personal obstacle to over come. For example, when learning the game of poker, a beginner is taught to fold every hand except the 10 strongest hands, when you play Hold Em. If they do so, their chances of losing are far less. So thats the basics. Fold every hand except these. Let the stronger players battle it out. Well the problem is you'll play in few hands, and miss a lot of the action. So, the person starts playing more hands and then more. They have not managed to win the battle of self discipline for their level of the game, and instead they get pulled into playing someone else's game. So, they lose. Their first problem was that they didn't have the discipline to stick to their game. Instead of advice, I'll offer you some encouragement. The number one thing you have going is the correct attitude. It will take disciple to maintain that attitude. Stick to that "game" and you will come out on top. The brain learns quickly. Like the beginning poker player, don't try to do too much too soon. While you may like jamming, maybe concentrate a bit on having something to jam to. The best advise to becoming a musician, is to use your ears, and gradually start your journey towards learning music theory. As for songs, and such, PM me here, and I will ask a few more questions to better help answer what songs might be useful for you. Best, Sean
    Ergo_proxy wrote: I'm 25 now and finally brought myself to buy a guitar and start the practice. Though i had been playing the acoustic for about 5 weeks my passion lies with the electric. Hence i bought myself a 1993 Ibanez EX360 with Vox VT15 amp for a good bargain. The advice you give feels accurate. I do want to play songs fast right off the bat. But i also agree with the fact that brushing up your techniques is far more important than the speed you put into it. I decided to do all the slow practice on the acoustic and also do the speed, dex and accuracy lesson evo posted on this site. When i feel comfortable on the acoustic ill switch to electric. Furthermore i like to be jamming with some friends. Mostly i just use one or two snares and do something simple. Doing this i notice i get the musical feeling and the rhytm that goes along with it real fast. I feel that being able to get in touch with the rythm will eventually make you a musician instead of someone who knows how to play the guitar. Any Tips or hints to give to a beginning guitar player are ever so welcome. And might i ask if you happen to know a couple of good songs to start off with. (and i dont mean old mc donald I already get those from my teacher. But id like to play some cool songs to keep my motivation up.
    Sy_B
    Hi, great article! I've been guilty of trying to play something fast right away...I attempt a solo that was so fast I had to slow it down in a program to understand it...big fan of Dream Theater you see. But, my guitar sounds nothing like what I'd like it to, and though most of it might be blame to the guitar (Epiphone SG Special with bad tuning pegs), and amp (Fender 15R) it's probably sloppy playing that never seemed to get better after 2 years. So for 2 years I've played riffs like this one with down-picking...sometimes hitting the string I'm not supposed to on one note. I alternate picking...but not from string to string, just tremelo picking I think it's called. Since you say the brain records information like that, should I take a complete break...until I "forget" my bad habits? Also, yes I agree the brain is an amazing thing...sometimes even just visualization serves as practice for me for certain things.
    Slowlylearning
    Great article, just syarted playing and could not get anything right, this helped a lot. Thanks.
    String_Thing
    Now I understand why I jump from song to song and only partly learn the opening notes or chords, then decide its not the right song for me at this time and start playing basic "2 string" Barre noises and then put my guitar down for a couple of days...then repeat. THANKS FOR THE OBVIOUS SLAP IN THE FACE - I GET IT!!!
    deftools
    As someone who has picked up the guitar for second time in my life after a long absence I can honestly say this is the BEST advice you can give a beginner, my love of speed metal left me with a terrible picking technique the first time round, mainly due to try to force myself to tremolo pick to fast, i always had to much tension in my wrist as a result. If you've just picked up the guitar this lesson should be your approach to learning riffs, whole songs or scales or anything basically!! speed will come and when you can play a riff not only fast but cleanly, you'll agree it was worth the time and effort!
    seniag
    wow. great lesson. im an advanced player and i had the same problem with slowing down. and i used the sweet child o' mine riff to learn a bunch of different techniques. it was a very well written lesson and easy to follow. keep up the good work
    Sean0913
    seniag wrote: wow. great lesson. im an advanced player and i had the same problem with slowing down. and i used the sweet child o' mine riff to learn a bunch of different techniques. it was a very well written lesson and easy to follow. keep up the good work
    Thanks man, appreciate the feedback. Hope your progress continues!
    {Ѵëņŏmőůş}
    I use an old guitar players trick I learned from a teacher of mine to know when to bump up the speed a bit. When I feel fairly comfortable with my playing at a VERY slow speed (with a metronome of course), I lay out 10 guitar picks facing toward me. Every time I play it perfectly I turn one pick around, every time I screw it up, I reset them all. If I screw up enough, I know to slow down. It's a fun way to do your practicing imo.
    Ted K
    great lesson. every guitar player has to have patience, you start slowly, and as you get better and play smoother you add more speed to it, and that's how you learn how to play fast, on any instrument basiclly (bass guitar - same thing). exellent lesson.
    izzyvercetty
    Wow, im the very first to comment here, good lesson btw... But how long do i practice a riff sl0wly? I guess til i can play it very confortable at that speed or higher, right? I guess you should talk about that, becouse some people keep playing at a slower speed the entire life and never "get better"... Thats what we call horizontal growth
    mity88
    Yup,i agree,i learned the hard way...i had to play bullet for my valentine at like half tempo,get it right and go up a little,this takes very long,but its worth it in the end!gr8 article btw
    efgeise
    Once you can play the riff perfectly at the slow practice speed (without having to think about any part), then you can bump up the speed.
    efgeise
    Meant to say that it was a good lesson. I am always impatient, so hopefully I'll be less inclined to do so.
    Sean0913
    izzyvercetty wrote: Wow, im the very first to comment here, good lesson btw... But how long do i practice a riff sl0wly? I guess til i can play it very confortable at that speed or higher, right? I guess you should talk about that, becouse some people keep playing at a slower speed the entire life and never "get better"... Thats what we call horizontal growth
    The human brain is a very resilient instrument. We don't give it half the credit it deserves. One thing years of teaching hundreds of guitarists has taught me is the human body picks up things quickly. If you practice something slow and deliberate, say 10-15 times in a passage, you will find that muscle memory already finding its comfort zone. Then when you slowly speed up, if you keep a mindset on the things that you did when you went slow, i.e making sure the picking order isnt sloppy etc, then you will find the speed and smoothness will attend your playing, and it feels really good when you realize that it wasnt that hard, the main battle was disciplining yourself NOT to try to play it at speed. Thank you for the comment, and I hope this explanation helped.
    Sean0913
    The reason some people never get better in the times I have seen this, is because int he beginning they did not know how to, or they did not try to look and listen to what they did critically. Down picking all notes for example, in a technical lick is rarely the best approach, but if someone didn't know better, or know how, that is the most natural tack that most guitarists would try when starting out. But we know that at its very best, downstroke picking only, is only half of what they are capable of speed wise. If they alternate picked, for example, they could play a passage twice as fast. In cases where Ive seen a guitairist never get better, its because they've managed to learn an approach that could only take them so far, technique wise, and they've exhausted the limits of that approach (say, all down picking) and so growth and progress has stopped.
    Peixao
    oh my mannn thank you so much i was struggling so hard today with a riff from paul gilbert and then i followed ur advice and noticed i was doing the fingering wrong!! u made my day bro keep it up!
    Amuro Jay
    This is good. I think it's something that needs to be drilled in to our heads constantly before we get it.
    Ideka
    All we need is just a little patience (and a really good monitor man).
    GrimmShadowbane
    Very well done article, man. 5/5. I started guitar really sloppy, but when I went to bass I had learn to play like this and now I incorporate a lot of the techniques that I've learned from guitarists into my bass work.
    Schiffy
    That was very well written. Impaitience has become one of my biggest problems. when i first started playing i had to play slow therefore i learned fairly quickly and now my speed picking technique has come a long way and is pretty decent but i have had a big problem with sweep picking because i think i can do it fast but in reality it sounds very sloppy and thats no good!!
    loganØATH
    Thanks for shedding light on the truths that everyone should know while learning parts!!! This is great!
    vince1991
    thanks, this is very helpful. i'll print this out and pin it to my forehead right away!