The scope of this subject is too broad to be fully covered in a single article. After receiving hundreds of requests for advice on this subject of developing speed, it seems an article is long overdue on the topic. Training advanced players to become virtuosos is a very rewarding and fun process for me. (as I'm sure it is for most teachers who teach highly advanced students).
A typical question from a student: What specific strategy should I employ to approach better speed development?
Although my answer varies from person to person, depending on what I know about that person's current abilities and goals (among other things), I generally recommend some variation of the following strategy:
Stage 1: When first learning a new technique, determine (using a metronome of course) your maximum speed you can play cleanly. Write this speed down on paper in a practice log.
Stage 2: Practice at 20%-35% of your maximum speed. Do this for 5 consecutive practice sessions. Resist the temptation to go faster during this stage. Make sure everything is still very clean. There must be no excessive tension anywhere in your arms, hands, wrists, shoulders, neck, head or anywhere else. Watch to make sure you have no excessive or unnecessary movements in either hand. For some guitarists, this first step is very boring. You must remain patient with yourself, and the process, during this time. This is absolutely critical! If you skip this step, you will probably train your hands to play incorrectly, inefficiently and ineffectively. At this stage you are developing the proper muscle memory for this technique. If you are currently studying with a great guitar teacher, your progress will be much faster, easier and better than if you attempt to do this on your own. Once you have mastered stage two, you may move on to stage three, but not before! Above I said you should practice this stage for 5 consecutive practice sessions. That is only a general guideline, after the 5th session, reevaluate your progress. If you have not mastered this step, continue practicing at 20%-35% before moving on to stage 3.
Stage 3: Practice at 50% of your maximum speed. Do this for 3 consecutive practice sessions. Again, make sure everything remains very clean. Play relaxed without tension anywhere in your arms, hands, wrists, shoulders, neck, etc. Watch to make sure you have no excessive or unnecessary movements in either hand. Do not move on until this step is mastered (it could take longer than 3 sessions, but do NOT move on to stage 4 before practicing for 3 sessions.
Stage 4: Practice at 60-65% of your maximum speed. Do this for 3 consecutive practice sessions. Again, with total relaxation and economy of motion (no unnecessary movements).
Stage 5: Practice at 80% of your maximum speed. Do this for 5 consecutive practice sessions.
Stage 6: Practice at 85% of your maximum speed for the next (1) practice session only.
Stage 7: Practice at 90% of your maximum speed for the next 10 practice sessions.
Stage 8: Drill it! Totally rippin'! (translation play at 100%) for an entire week!
Stage 9: After that week evaluate where your new maximum speed is (it will be higher than when you first measured it in stage 1).
Stage 10: In this stage you will rotate every 3 practice sessions like this: Session 1 = 60%. Session 2 = 85%. Session 3 = 95%. At the end of each practice session drill it (100%) for a few minutes.
Once a week, measure your new maximum speed, and adjust your metronome speeds accordingly.
Warning: Never play/practice your guitar in pain. Serious injuries can occur. This is not a joke, I know people personally that have had to have surgeries on their wrists and arms!
Tom Hess is a professional touring guitarist and recording artist. He teaches, trains and mentors musicians from around the world.
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