It is a fact that the majority of lead guitarists want to increase the speed of their playing. Having virtuoso playing ability is a wonderful way to add a new tool to your arsenal as a musician. However this tool is also one of the most difficult to attain. There have been many articles written on the topic and the most common advice that is often heard is practice slowly and use a metronome. Of course this is very good advice that should definitely be followed. However, there are a great number of struggling guitarists out there who use a metronome daily and practice a lot, yet are still frustrated with their lack of progress. Some of them decide that they don't have talent to attain such high level of ability and give up, while others continue in hopes that one day their work will pay off. From my experience, I feel that there is one very common misconception about practicing for speed development and I will do my best to clear it up with this article.
The part where most people go wrong is in their thinking. Most guitarists assume that speed is something that can be attained directly as in: I'm going to practice this lick for 20 minutes and try to play it faster than I could before. Even those players who practice slowly and then try to increase their speed using a metronome find that a lot of times this approach fails to bring the results that they are looking for.
The root of the problem is in the fact that players focus all of their energy on the end result (being able to play fast) and this is making them miss everything they need to see in order to achieve it. I will explain what I mean.
The problem is in the believing that speed comes directly as a result of practicing. A much more effective way of thinking about it would be to say that practicing should involve becoming very focused on the physical aspects required to play a certain phrase, and speed will naturally develop as a result. Stop! Go back and re-read the last sentence several times and think about it! After the motions become smooth and well ingrained in the muscle memory, they become so easy to execute then you don't even have to think about playing fast, the fingers just do it themselves. A lot of players struggle with speed because their movements are often imprecise and full of tension. Tension is a body's natural reaction to something it is not familiar with. When I had a consultation on virtuoso picking technique with Ney Mello he told me that simply trying to play fast is pointless, because if you don't know the motions, you are telling your hands to speed up something that they have never even learned!, You may be wondering: what specifically should I be focusing on? You can start by thinking about the left hand fingering, the picking pattern, the motions of the right hand, and monitoring levels of tension throughout the body. This very well may require you to practice even slower than you probably ever have before with a metronome. After you work these things out for the lick that you are having trouble with, then you can pull out the metronome and pay attention to keeping your technique the same as you did when you were working out the correct physical motions of playing it.
I can see some students saying that using this approach would require too much unnecessary focus and concentration on something as superficial as technique. Well unfortunately, there is no way around this. If you want to become a great player, you have to put forth a lot of mental energy into mastering the instrument on a physical level. Having great technique will enable you to express your musical ideas exactly the way you hear them. So concentration and mental focus is a price well worth paying to acquire this ability. Also this approach to practicing should be utilized anytime you are having trouble playing something and not only to improve speed.
After you feel like you really have a handle on the motions of playing a lick at a super slow tempo you can pull out your metronome and begin a slow work up through the tempos. If at any point you feel that you've hit a plateau (you can't move up past a certain BPM marking for example), go back to the super slow practice without the metronome and reinforce the correct movements into the muscle memory.
This is a very different mindset than simply trying over and over again to push through the plateau in ability. The point is to get you to think about what you are doing
What I learned from experience was that speed was really a byproduct of accuracy and consistency in learning the motions. After you practice in this way for awhile you will notice that the passage is becoming easier to play and you are able to play it faster than before. Why did this happen? Because the motions are now so well ingrained in your muscles and also because you took the time to really pay attention to playing accurately using the most efficient technique. Once again this a very different mindset than sitting down and mindlessly playing the lick over and over to the metronome. This approach may bring you limited results in the beginning, but it will not bring you virtuoso levels of technique.
So the main point that I want you to take away from this article is that when you sit down to practice something to the metronome, make sure that you think about what you are doing. Pay attention to the fingering and picking that you use. Depending on the phrase you may want to use different mindsets with the right hand that you would for other things. This is important to notice and it is important to practice something slow very accurately with attention to the exact details if you are going to play it fast. This is what I mean when I say that speed is a by product of accuracy and consistency. This seems very obvious but a lot of players use different techniques when the practice a lick at a slow speed and then try to play it fast using different motions that their body hasn't learned yet! No wonder that the rate of progress has diminished.
And by the way, this applies to not only picking through scales, but also to techniques such as sweep picking and legato (and essentially any other musical technique)
So I hope that you understand now that speed should not be a direct goal of your practice, it will develop by itself if you take the time to learn the motions that you use when you play guitar. Remember: focusing on speed as a primary objective will make you miss everything you need to achieve it. Good luck with your practicing and playing!
Mike Philippov is a solo guitarist, music composer and instructor. He has published his instructional articles on many guitar websites that are read by thousands of guitar students worldwide. His music was performed at recitals held at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. Mike has also taught at several guitar clinics including one that was held at Oak Brook Academy of Music and Art in Chicago IL. Mike is also a co-author of several instructional books: The Ultimate Sweep Picker's Guide, and Serious Improvement for the Developing Guitarist.
Currently Mike is busy working on several projects including composing and recording a solo CD featuring music in the neo-classical and progressive rock styles as well as more instructional products that are in the works at this time. Please visit Mikephilippov.com and sign up for a free newsletter which is sent out periodically and contains helpful tips and advice for guitar players.