Having come a long way as a guitarist in the years I’ve spent I’m still struggling in one area: playing fast. More specifically: playing fast solos. I can do fast rhythms and fast lead melodies, but when it somes to solos I’m just not very good. I’ve shared tips on playing faster before, and following them has made me better. Just not good enough. Recently I’ve tried a new approach with the help of my guitar teacher which has helped me alot.
1. Identify your weaknesses
So, you can’t solo as fast as you’d like? You need to find out why. With a lot of time on your hands you can just practice a lot of solo playing of course, but I’m willing to bet you, like me, have more specific problem areas that can be pinpointed.
Most of us speed-impaired have problems in one or more of these specific areas:
- Picking hand too slow
- Picking hand stamina too low
- Fretting hand too slow
- Fretting hand too weak/stamina too low
- Bad sync between hands
How find your weak points
Decide on a target speed, let’s say sixteenths at 140 bpm (at that tempo you can play a lot of solos).
Start by alt picking your open lowest string (E on a standard-tuned guitar). Just up, down, up, down. If you can do that pretty consistently at the target tempo, your picking hand speed is good enough.
Keep on going for at least one minute. If you start to tense up, feel really tired or experience pain of any kind, your picking hand stamina is too low. Always stop and rest if you experience pain, no matter what exercise you’re doing or if you’re playing a song.
To test your fretting hand, do a simple legato like this:
Se if you can get it clean in your target tempo, or even faster. Don’t forget all to test all finger combinations – usuall using your first and second fingers isn’t a problem, but also try fingers 2 and 4 or 3 and 4. If you can do this cleanly your fretting hand speed is good. Try keeping it up for a minute or so to test your fret-hand stamina and strength.
To check your sync, pick just two notes at your target tempo, something like this:
The notes should ring out clearly with no staccato feeling, if they do try a slightly more complicated pattern like this:
If it sounds good at target tempo, your hand sync is probably not the problem.
There are of course other things that could be wrong, but these are the most common. Also remember this is a pretty simplified analysis, just because your speed, strength and sync is fine for these simple tests doesn’t mean that they’re good enough for complicated licks and solos – but they should give you a good indicator on where to focus.
2. Target your specific weaknesses with exercises
Picking hand speed
If your picking isn’t fast or consistent enough, focus on that using a metronome. Don’t involve your fretting hand at all, just alternate pick loose strings. Start with the lowest string (low E in standard tuning) because that is the easiest one, surrounded by just on string. Begin at a slow tempo and make sure that picking is consistent before increasing the bpm. Upstrokes and downstrokes should sound the same. Try to use as small motions as possible, less movement takes less time and you are less likely to hit the wrong string. When you’ve got it down on the lowest string, move on to other strings (still loose, no fretting hand) where you will need more precision and perhaps more precise dampening of the strings you’re not playing.
If you have trouble finding consistency and start tensing up quickly, your picking hand and arm position might be wrong. Watch this video for great tips:
Picking hand stamina
If your picking speed and consistency is good but you can’t keep it up without tensing up or experiencing pain, try practicing in shorter stints – keep going as long as it feels good and then relax and repeat. A relaxed motion is the key to stamina. Again, watch the video above for tips on pick and hand positions.
Fretting hand speed
To get your fretting hand speed up, focus on just that hand. Start with a simple legato pattern with just two notes on one string. Use a metronome to gradually bring you up to the target tempo while maintaining consistency – hammer-ons and pull-offs should sound the same. Most fret-hand speed problems stem from bad technique, not being able to do clean hammer-ons and pull-offs – I mean, almost everyone can move their fingers fast enough.
Alternate which two fingers you are using, and then add more complexity by using three and finally all of the fretting hand fingers.
My guitar teacher really hates these 1-2-3-4 patterns (“it’s not music, you should practice stuff you would play”) but I actually think they are pretty good. They don’t involve any thought and they help you practice hand positioning all over the neck and proper dampening when changing strings.
Fretting hand strength and stamina
Just like with the picking hand, use the same exercises as when building speed but keep them up for longer periods. Do an exercise until you start to feel tired or experience pain, rest and then go again. Try to focus on performing all motions with relaxed muscles, it will get easier and easier as your strength builds.
Use the simple pattern from the section on identifying weeknesses above:
Use a metronome and increase speed slowly. When you have the simple pattern down, move to more complicated patterns. The 1-2-3-4 legato pattern but with each note picked is a great exercise:
Here it is shown in more detail in a video:
Even with just one or a few practice sessions you should see improvement. After having problems with a simple lick like this
I did one hour of just this
and suddenly I could play it really well. A lot of the exercises above are excellent as warmups at the beginning of a practice session. I always find that my sessions are so much better when I do some of those as warmup.
A video describing some of the exercises I’ve described above:
Good luck with your practice and improving your speed!