What Conventional Guitar Practice Wisdom Never Tells You About Building Speed
By Tom Hess
Most guitarists will never build real speed in their playing, because they make one of the following mistakes while trying to do so:
Mistake 1: When practicing for speed, many guitarists put all of their focus into practicing ‘slowly’ (as instructed by their guitar teacher or other resources they learn from). They are told that once they learn to play perfectly at slower speeds, their top speed will automatically increase as a result. Hmmm, ever wonder why those same teachers who give this advice DON'T have a lot of guitar students who can play fast?
Mistake 2: Other guitarists don’t have the patience to practice slowly and ONLY want to play fast, so they simply ‘try to play faster’ every day. They think that simply by trying to increase speed on a regular basis, they will eventually reach their goals.
In nearly all cases, both of the above approaches fail miserably to build serious speed. This happens because both practicing styles on their own have severe shortcomings that are never addressed (by most guitar teachers). In addition, practicing too much in either of the ways above creates severe problems in your technique (without you realizing it). To REALLY build speed on guitar, you must learn ‘when’ and ‘how’ to use BOTH practicing styles of slow and fast playing to counteract the weaknesses of the other.
Here is why always practicing exclusively ‘fast’ or ‘slow’ will prevent you from increasing your guitar playing speed and when/how you should use the opposite approach to build speed faster:
Why ‘Always’ Practicing Slowly Doesn’t Help You Become A Faster Guitarist
Reason 1: You Don’t Identify What REALLY Prevents You From Increasing Your Guitar Speed
In order for your slow practice to be effective in helping you build speed, you need to first understand the technical obstacles/problems that make it impossible for you to play fast NOW. Until and unless you know ‘specifically’ what mistakes are getting in the way of you playing faster, the time spent practicing slowly will only be a waste. You’ll merely be ‘guessing’ what to focus on (if you focus on anything at all) and hoping that your guess turns out to be correct and improves your playing. To reach your guitar speed goals in the shortest time possible, you must ‘know’ (NOT guess) what specific obstacles stand in the way of your ability to play fast. To do this, you must first experience what it’s like to play at faster speeds, and pay attention to what specific mistakes happen while playing at these speeds. You should only begin your slow practice AFTER doing the above analysis, NOT before!
Starting to practice slowly before going through the process above is similar to walking on a balance beam blindfolded and with your hands tied behind your back, hoping that you don’t lose your balance. To take off the blindfold from your eyes and untie your hands, you must identify what things prevent you from playing guitar faster BEFORE doing your slow practice.
Reason 2: You Develop Bad Habits That Make Faster Guitar Playing Impossible
When you exclusively practice guitar at ‘slow’ speeds, you form the bad habit of using big, sloppy motions that are completely different from the motions you would use while playing fast. By having more time between notes, you don’t see the consequences of using wasted motions in your picking and fretting hands (since you can get away with it and still play the notes slowly). When you do get around to playing faster, you try to apply the same sloppy motions and see your playing fall apart and your hands get out of sync.
Here are two frequent examples of this that I see all the time in the guitar playing of my newer students:
- They try to play sweep picking arpeggios by picking each ‘individual’ string of the arpeggio rather than using a single sweeping motion to move across all of the strings at once.
- They play three note per string scales using strict alternate picking. This creates tons of unnecessary picking hand motion in the process, causing MASSIVE slowdown and mistakes. Watch this video about playing guitar fast to see a demonstration of this problem (and its solution)
Reason 3: Practicing Slow All The Time Does Not Prepare Your Mind To Hear Music At Faster Speeds
To play at virtuoso level speeds on guitar, your mind needs to learn how to think/hear notes at the same tempo (or even faster) than the speed you are playing at. If all you do is practice slow ‘all the time’, you never develop your mind's ability to think as fast as your hands can play. This leads to your playing sounding sloppy at faster speeds and your ears/mind not being able to follow the music at those tempos.
To avoid this problem, you need to spend some time training your mind (as well as your hands/fingers) to get used to the demands of faster playing. To see a lot more examples of how to practice in this way, take this free guitar speed mini course.
Why ‘Always’ Playing At Your Max Speed (When You Can’t Do So Cleanly) Will Hurt Your Ability To Play Fast
You now know why it’s ineffective to spend all of your time practicing guitar slowly. However, it’s equally dangerous (and ineffective) to ‘only’ play at fast speeds with music you haven't yet mastered. Here are the reasons why:
Reason 1: Your Guitar Playing Becomes Sloppy
Playing fast ‘all the time’ will prevent you from learning to mentally process notes in the same way as playing slow all the time will not allow you to push your mental capacity to think at faster speeds. This approach is especially dangerous when you play at fast speeds for too long while making a lot of mistakes. By doing this, you become immune to the sound of your own mistakes and start perceiving them as ‘normal’. In other words, you get ‘better’ at playing WITH mistakes! I see these problems often with new students who come to me for help with increasing their guitar speed. To help them play faster, I first point out the mistakes they are making at faster speeds (that they aren’t aware of yet) and then train them ‘how to detect’ these same mistakes in their playing on their own. This is one of the reasons why my guitar students make amazing progress in their progress very quickly.
To avoid this problem, your practicing needs to balance working on ‘perfection’ and accuracy during slow playing together with training the skills that only faster practicing can develop.
Reason 2: You Increase The Likelihood Of Injury
Playing faster with sloppy technique very often leads to injuries that can potentially cripple your ability to play guitar permanently. This comes from not mastering the correct movements at slower speeds so that they become effortless at faster tempos. This is not a joke: I’ve seen many guitar players injure themselves from prolonged playing at faster speeds who had to stop playing guitar for weeks (or months) in order to fully heal.
To prevent this from happening to you, pay close attention to ‘where’ and ‘how much’ tension exists in your body as you increase speeds (this is something you can only observe during faster playing/practicing). Once you have identified any excessive amounts of tension in your playing, begin playing again at a slower speed using only as much tension as needed. Then increase speed once you can play the notes correctly with optimal tension.
Note of caution: NEVER play guitar in pain! If you ever notice pain in your arms while you are playing, stop playing immediately until it goes away.
Now that you understand the problems that exist with conventional approaches to building speed on guitar, watch the video below to see how to practice applying these concepts to improve your speed (with sweep picking):
See the second part of this video about playing faster sweep picking arpeggios.
Learn how to quickly become a better guitar player by taking online guitar lessons.