If you had to guess how players like George Benson, Eric Johnson, or Paco De Lucia play as fast as they do, what would be your answer?
Most likely your answer will involve the words, “practice, metronome, slow and steady” etc.
While these things are all valuable and there are many ways of increasing your speed, the most fundamental way is often not talked about at all.
I’ve been teaching guitar for over 15 years and have never encountered another teacher discuss what I’m about to tell you. This concept was a humungous insight for me as a student and has helped dozens of my students over the years achieve more speed, control and relaxation while playing.
Read more: Best online guitar lessons
Goals of Developing Speed
When discussing speed and playing fast, it’s important that I remind you, speed is not the be-all-end-all. Playing fast should, and must be only a means to an end. If your goal is to play fast so you can impress other guitarists, you’re going to be disappointed, because there will always be a faster and better player than you out there.
Instead, speed must be a musical tool, one that you use to express a certain idea, emotion or feeling.
In other words, speed playing only really has an effect if there are slower licks or passages surrounding the fast ones.
Variation and Musical Impact
The variation in speeds within a solo or song give context to the parts that stand out, so when you inject a super fast lick in between a couple of medium-tempo licks, that fast one stands out and has a specific effect on the listener. On the contrary, if everything is blazing fast all the time, it likely has no musical impact on the listener at all.
Now that we have covered why you shouldn’t be playing fast all the time, but instead using speed as a musical tool, its time to discuss how you can actually achieve this sought after speed.
What is slowing down your fretting hand?
It is more often than not the fretting hand that slows players down, not the picking hand. To illustrate this, try tremolo picking as fast as possible on a single string. The chances are very high that this speed is much greater than the speed at which you can play notes with your fretting hand.
What exactly is slowing down your fretting hand?
It is the way you conceptualize releasing a note to move to the next one.
When players practice slowly, most of them will laboriously lift their finger off a note in order to move to another one, with the aim of going slowly. After all, every great guitarist always says, “practice slowly”. So, understandably, you move your fingers very slowly towards the string until it is fretted, then you slowly release the string and move to the next one.
This slow release of a note is the exact thing that is acting as a barrier to your progress. The reason for this is that when releasing a note, the aim is to use no muscle energy at all. Not a little bit, but actually zero muscle energy.
If you hold a piece of paper and want that paper to be on the table in front of you, you can either place it on the table or you can hold it above the table and just let go. The latter will necessarily use less energy because you aren’t continuing to flex your fingers to hold the paper and you aren’t moving your arm and shoulder to gently place it on the table. You simply let go and it floats to where it needs to be.
This is the same concept for releasing a note on the fretboard.
Practicing a Faster and Easier Release
Try fretting a note right now.
When you go to remove your finger from playing that note think carefully about how you do that. Most likely you use your big knuckle to pull your finger away, thus releasing the fretted note and taking your finger off the string.
Even if you end up very close to the string after the release (which is ideal, because the closer you are the less distance you have to travel to play that finger again), you most likely used muscle energy to move your finger away from the note in the first place.
Now fret that note again, but this time when you remove your finger, simply allow your whole hand to go limp.
This may take a couple of attempts, and is something you need to “feel” and not necessarily watch. But once you feel that instead of actively moving your finger away, you simply go limp and your finger falls away from the string, you’ll immediately understand the importance of this subject.
In order to play fast, especially for longer periods of time, it is essential that you are not using excess energy. In order to conserve precious muscle energy you must play efficiently enough to maintain that speed.
Active VS Passive Hand Movement
The attack towards the string must obviously be an active, muscle-controlled motion, but the removal of the finger cannot be an active motion but must be a passive motion.
Think again about dropping the paper instead of placing it down. That is the same idea here. In order for your muscles to absorb the oxygen they need from your bloodstream, your muscles must relax in order for that blood to flow into the tissue. If they are tense during the fretting and then remain tense during the removal of the finger, there is no time at which the finger is relaxed. This means that there is no fresh oxygen reaching those muscles and thus guarantees that you will tire and slow down very soon.
Check out this video I made on this subject for real-life examples of this technique.
Now, this might mean you need to re-tool how you let go of notes on the fretboard, but ultimately it will be incredibly beneficial. After all, who doesn’t want to play more relaxed and with more speed?
You must remember that the proper motion for releasing a note is not active. The entire process of fretting and releasing is asymmetrical. Where the attack is energy driven and the release is relaxation driven.
Working it Into Speed Drills
With this in mind, begin to work on any speed drills you regularly use.
Start slowly enough that you can focus exclusively on how you release the string. If you are doing it correctly you will likely be under 1cm away from the string after release. When incorrectly using active motion, it is probable that you will pull your finger too far away from the string and then have to move back toward it in order to play again.
This is why when you watch the best players it looks like their hands are hardly moving at all. It’s because they really only move in one direction- toward the string.
When letting go, they simply relax and the finger falls away into its neutral and relaxed position, which should be very close to the string. This proximity to the string allows for a fast re-engaging of that finger.
This process compounded over multiple fingers is what allows players to play with extreme speed.
Thanks for reading and remember, stay relaxed!
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