Most guitarists in the world are unable to play flawlessly at extremely high speeds because they approach guitar practice in one of two ways:
1. They practice almost exclusively at slow speeds because they think that being able to play perfectly in this manner leads to an increase in their max speed. Usually guitar players are told this by their teacher (or they get this kind of advice from other amateur players). In nearly all cases, guitar teachers who give this advice never have guitar students who play at very high speeds.
2. They only want to play at fast speeds and feel bored or impatient with slow practice, so they only work on ‚Äòplaying faster' every time they pick up their guitar. They think that working exclusively on increasing speed every day will help them reach their goals.
The truth is, both of these practicing approaches do not help you increase your guitar playing speed. Although they may seem like ‚Äòcommon sense' approaches to some, each approach has its own problems that are never discussed or solved by most guitar instructors. On top of that, if you practice too much using either one it can actually damage your overall guitar playing (without you even being aware of it). To truly increase your guitar playing speed, you need to understand the advantages of practicing both slow and fast so that you can get the best of both worlds.
Here is an explanation of why you will not build your guitar playing speed when you exclusively practice either ‚Äòfast' or ‚Äòslow' and when/how you should use the opposite approach to counteract any problems you might be facing.
Reason 1: You Develop Poor Habits That Make It Difficult To Make Any Progress Toward Becoming A Fast Guitarist
While practicing guitar at slow speeds as your only means of practice, you begin creating habits of playing with sloppy movements that you would never use while playing fast. It's harder to notice when you are wasting movement in your picking/fretting hands while playing at slow speeds (when you have a lot more time between each note to get it right). If you try to apply the same movements while playing at faster speeds, you will quickly notice a lot of mistakes and it will be hard to keep both hands coordinated together.
Here are two very common examples of this that I see while helping my newer students become better players:
Reason 2: You Don't Know What Prevents You From Increasing Your Speed
In order for slow guitar practice to make you a faster player, you need to understand the problems (inefficient movements, lack of two hand coordination, etc.) that are currently getting in the way of you becoming faster. Until you pinpoint these things, your time spent practicing slowly will just be a waste of time. You'll merely be guessing about what you should be working on - making extremely slow progress at best. In order for you to truly know what to fix, you need to spend some time playing at higher speeds and observing when/why any mistakes happen. Only after you've done this should you begin practicing ‚Äòslow'.
When you practice at slow speeds without going through the steps from above, it's like walking across a tight rope with your hands over your eyes while attempting to keep your balance. To take your hands away from your eyes and maintain your balance (so you can make it across) you have to know what is keeping you from becoming a faster guitarist. Always make sure you understand this before you practice slowly.
Learn more about this process by reading this article (part 4 in this series) about building greater speed on guitar.
Reason 3: You Can't Mentally Process Notes At Faster Speeds By Playing Slow All Of The Time
To play guitar at the highest possible speed, you have to posses the ability to comprehend notes at the same tempo (or faster) that you are playing on. If you never practice at fast speeds, you will never improve your ability to mentally comprehend the notes in a way that is necessary to play cleanly at higher tempos. This will result in sloppy playing at higher speeds and a lack of ability to follow the tempo in faster music.
To avoid this issue, you must invest time into training your mind, picking hand and fretting hand to play at faster speeds. To find out more about this practicing approach, take this free guitar speed development mini course.
Now you understand why practicing guitar slowly all the time will not help you become a faster player. However, it's just as ineffective to exclusively play at fast speeds (when you haven't fully mastered what you are playing yet). Here's why:
Reason 1: Your Guitar Playing Becomes Sloppy
By exclusively playing fast, you will not be able to mentally process notes just like exclusively playing slow will keep you from being able to process notes at faster speeds. This applies specifically when you are playing at faster speeds for a long time while making numerous errors. This causes you to ‚Äòtune out' the mistakes you are making and accept them as a normal part of your playing. In other words, you train yourself to become a sloppy player! I frequently see this happen when new guitar students approach me for help. The first step I take to help them build their playing speed is pointing out the errors in their playing that occur at fast speeds. Next I train them to become aware of these errors so they can fix them on their own. This is exactly why most of my students quickly become really good electric guitar students.
To make sure you don't become a sloppy player, focus your practice time on creating a balance between playing slowly with perfect accuracy and playing fast to master the skills that only faster practicing can build. Learn new approaches for this by reading this guitar speed column and studying the effective guitar speed development strategy in part 2 of this article series.
Reason 2: You Increase The Chances Of Wrist/Arm Injury
A major drawback to playing fast with mistakes is the injuries that can occur from poor, under-developed playing technique. Poor playing technique comes from not learning how to play efficiently/correctly at slower speeds so that you don't use excessive force or movement at higher speeds. This is serious: I've seen many guitarists hurt themselves from continuous playing at high speeds - resulting in many months of recovery time away from guitar.
To make sure this never happens to you, always remain aware of how much tension you are using in your body as you play at faster speeds (you can only observe this while playing fast). Once you have pinpointed any unnecessary tension in your body, slow down and play using only as much tension as you need. Next, play at a faster speed again while using ‚Äòjust enough' tension to play effortlessly.
Notice: Never play guitar if you are feeling pain somewhere in your body (from playing)! If you ever notice pain or discomfort, put down your guitar and take a break.
Now that you know why the most common guitar speed practicing approaches fail, check out the video below to see how to implement the alternative ideas I discussed to quickly develop your speed (while focusing on sweep picking):
Watch the second half of this sweep picking video to learn how to play fast and clean arpeggios.
Tom Hess is a professional touring guitarist and recording artist. He teaches, trains and mentors musicians from around the world.
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