How To Practice for Top Guitar Speed – Part Five: What General Guitar Practice Advice Doesn’t Tell You About Building Speed

Author: Tom Hess

Author: Tom Hess

The majority of guitar players will never achieve incredible speed in their playing because they commit one of the following errors:

Error 1: While practicing to build speed, many players spend the majority of their time practicing ‘slowly’ (usually because they’ve been told this is the right approach by their guitar teacher). They are under the impression that once they can play perfectly at slow speeds, their top speed will increase as well. Guitar teachers who give this advice to their students never end up with many guitar students who can play really fast.

Error 2: Some guitarists only want to play fast because they feel impatient while practicing slowly. This leads them to ‘try to play as fast as possible’ every chance they get. They believe that working on increasing their top speed every day will eventually help them play faster.

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The truth is, both of these practicing approaches do NOT help you increase your guitar playing speed. Although they may seem like ‘common 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 ‘fast’ or ‘slow’ and when/how you should use the opposite approach to counteract any problems you might be facing:

Why You Won’t Become A Faster Guitarist By Always Practicing At Slow Speeds

Reason 1: You Don’t Understand What Is Keeping You From Playing Faster

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 ‘slow’.

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 going through this process in part four of this article series about building guitar speed.

Reason 2: You Take On Poor Playing Habits That Keep Your From Becoming A Faster Player

When you are only practicing guitar slowly, you are prone to forming bad habits by using extended, inefficient movements that are entirely different than the movements used while playing quickly. When you have more time between each note, it is hard to notice inefficiency in the movements of your hands (because you can still play the notes right since you are playing so slowly). Then whenever you play at faster speeds, you try to implement the same inefficient movements into your playing and everything falls apart.

Here are two very common examples of this that I see while helping my newer students become better players:

  • They try to pick each ‘individual’ string within a sweep picking arpeggio pattern instead of using a single sweeping motion to move across all strings simultaneously
  • They play 3 note per string scale patterns with continuous alternate picking technique. This involves excessive and unnecessary picking motion, leading to slower playing and general sloppiness. Check out this video on how to play guitar fast to learn more about this issue and how to fix it.

Reason 3: Constantly Practicing Slow Does Not Prepare You Mentally For Faster Playing Speeds

To play extremely fast on guitar, you must train your mind needs to ‘visualize’ notes at the speed you are playing them at. If you never practice at fast speeds, your mind will not be able to catch up to your hands (resulting in sloppy playing in general and inability to play at faster tempos).

To avoid this issue, you must invest time into training your mind, picking hand and fretting hand to play at faster speeds. To learn more about how to practice this way, take this free guitar speed building mini course.

Why ‘Always’ Playing At Your Highest Speed (With Less Than Perfect Precision) Will Damage Your Ability To Play Fast

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 ‘tune 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 a big reason (among many other reasons) why many of my electric guitar students quickly become really good players.

To make sure you do not run into this problem, balance your guitar practice by practicing for total accuracy as you play slowly while also training the skills that can only be improved through faster playing. To learn guitar practice strategies for this, study part 1 of this guitar speed article series and part 2 for a more complex guitar speed training strategy.

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 avoid this, stay alert of ‘where’ and ‘how much’ tension is being used in your body as you play faster (you can only notice this during fast guitar practice). Once you spot unnecessary tension being used in your body, start playing again at a slow speed while only using as much tension as you need to sound the notes. Once you’ve done this, increase the speed again while using optimal tension.

Note: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 2nd half of this video about playing fast sweep picking arpeggios.

About The Author:

Tom Hess is a highly successful guitar teacher, recording artist and virtuoso guitar player. He teaches guitar players from all over the world in his online guitar lessons. Visit his website tomhess.net to get free guitar playing resources and to read more guitar playing articles.

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Tom Hess is a successful professional guitar teacher, composer and guitarist
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