Building speed: The heart of the matter

Okay, letís face it. Practice is a necessary evil. We donít do it because we love it so much. We do it to play music better. So anything that can make our time more efficient and speed up the rate of improvement will help. Anything that can get us from here to there in less time is welcome. Is there anything like this? Yes, thank God. Fortunately there are a number of 'tools' which can help you accomplish this. All of them -- at their essence -- involve different applications of repetition.

Repetition is the essence of practice. Repetition anchors new skills and patterns into your nervous/muscular system, and builds new synapse "bridges," or neural pathways, in your brain. The correct use of repetition can anchor these skills for more quickly. But it can be a two-edged sword. Done incorrectly, repetition can bore you, burn you out, dry up your creativity, and sap your motivation. So letís take a closer look on how to use it, and not mis-use it

Now Iíll explain it in a little more detail, so you can see what is really going on here and how it relates to that favorite of topics: speed. For beginners, a riff or lick seems like a lot of separate notes, requiring a lot of separate motions. But eventually our brains learn to file much of the required information into our subconscious mind (or "muscular memory" if you prefer), and we stop having to think about every little motion. That is, it has become so ingrained that the Ďcommandsí mostly bypass the conscious level of thinking.

We all develop this to a degree to be able to play guitar at all. Or, for that matter, to perform any skill like walking, chewing food, or talking... anything. I mean, you canít think about every detail or your mind would be flooded with information. So your brain takes care of the fundamentals automatically, which leaves your conscious mind to think about the important things -- the big decisions like what you will do, not the trivia of carrying out every required task.

Practice, then, really comes down to just Ďinputtingí the tasks accurately, so you can whip them out reliably. Itís about building accurate neural/muscular habits. The better you have done this, the more you can rely on that direct link: so-called "muscular memory." This is the basis of speed.

When we play faster, we donít really think faster. We are simply relying more on our unconscious habits or skills, which we anchored previously. Now we think about groups of notes, and a single thought triggers an entire pattern or sequence of patterns, even. You can see that having Ďinputtedí things correctly is crucial! Itís like you are building this huge skyscraper. The fast licks and patterns are like the penthouse floor. It gets all the attention. But how secure and stable will your building be if the foundation isnít solid?

Iíve seen so many guitarists working on speed: Theyíll play a pattern five times fast, and only actually produce what they intended once! Four out of five times were mistakes! Thatís very inefficient. Yeah, youíll will be able to move your fingers fast, but you wonít have much control over them. You want speed AND control. So donít put things in half-assed. Donít put in a lot of confusing garbage, in the form of mistakes. Put it in the right way, and build your skyscraper on solid ground. Then, when a single thought triggers an entire pattern, you donít have to worry about whether itíll come out right. It will ALWAYS comes out right. Mistakes become impossible. And you are free to make music!

Now we can get specific. Hereís my basic recipe for speed exercises, taken from Metal Lead Guitar Volume 1. First, pick a relatively short sequence of notes that you want to speed up, and learn both the right and left hand aspects. Then:

After a while, though, you'll notice that you reach a plateau with this approach. Remember that whole idea about building neural pathways and relegating things to your subconscious mind? Well, after a while, more and more of these patterns get Ďburned intoí your subconscious mind, leaving your conscious mind with less to think about. Eventually the whole exercise can become Ďunthinkingí and you are playing it totally by rote. At that point, it's not doing you any good at all.

You want your conscious mind to stay occupied and engaged. Donít make it just sit there, dumb and empty! If you practice being dumb as a post, donít be surprised when you canít think of where to go when youíre trying to improvise a solo. If you breed mental laziness, your creativity will dry up. So how about repeating the basic pattern of the speed exercise, but doing it in an improvisation way? That is, make the decisions of how many times to repeat, when to shift positions, where to shift to, maybe alter a note within the pattern, maybe change to a different set of strings, etc.: make those decisions "on the fly" as you are practicing at top speed! That should keep your brain busy!

There are a number of other, more advanced ideas like this in Speed Mechanics for Lead Guitar. But enough freeloading! Youíll have to buy the book!

Bottom Line:

Efficient practice has everything to do with the correct use of repetition and variety. Donít practice mistakes. Focus right on the trouble spots and correct them. You can tire out doing the same thing repeatedly and begin making more mistakes than before. Move on and come back to it later. Also, when we play faster, we donít think faster: We simply rely more on the habits we have previously ingrained. So put motions in the right way, because the way it goes in will be the way it tends to comes out. Also keep your mind occupied while you are doing repetitive speed exercises. Improvised speed exercises are one approach to this. And finally, balance this type of repetitive practice with other approaches such as learning and playing songs, or improvising.


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