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
First of all, recognize that you want to build the right neural Ďhighways.í Not the ones responsible for mistakes! So when you repeat things, repeat them correctly. Practicing mistakes will not help. In fact, it is probably worse than simply wasted time: it is likely to be counterproductive. On the other hand, by making the correct motions over and over, you ingrain them as a habit. Then it automatically happens that way every time you tell your fingers to do it, and soon there is no doubt whatsoever in your mind. Mistakes evaporate! So take it as slow as necessary to do the right motions.
The next aspect of the correct use of repetition comes down to choosing the right parts to repeat. For example, going back to the top of a song every time you make a mistake isnít a very effective practice strategy. Say you have a trouble spot which occurs 20 seconds into a song, and every time you get to that spot you screw it up. Do you start over? Well, that trouble spot actually takes about one second to play. What if you figured out just what motion your fingers are having trouble with, and did that motion over and over until you got it? By my calculations, your practicing just became 20 times more efficient! That is, in 20 seconds, you just practiced the part in question 20 times, rather than once. The moral of the story is that whenever you have a problem playing something, isolate the trouble and fix it. Then it will trouble you no more.
That brings us to our next point. Very concentrated attention, like this, is powerful stuff. When you start repeating difficult things over and over again, at first things begin to improve. But after a certain point, youíll actually begin to play it worse, because your neural pathways have become tired and overworked. At this point, the best thing to do is rest. Stop and play something else for a while. Then come back to it again later. There is a physical limit to how fast you can anchor a new skill or motion into your nervous system. Donít fight it, work with it. And when you tire it out, give it a break.
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!
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.