How to Supercharge Your Guitar Speed – #4 Will Surprise You

How do you play fast? Not just a little fast. Really fast! This is the question that many guitar students have asked me over the years. Why do they want to play fast? To impress people. To turn heads. To win the duel in the guitar store.

I think it’s worth exploring how to play fast. And I can give you several tried and true approaches that will help you increase your speed. But let me start by examining why we play fast in the first place.

Speed is not a goal; it’s a tool. Making music allows us to express emotion. To create a mood. Making more expressive music involves heightening contrast, and speed can help you do that.

When I listen to some of the best guitar players in the world, they play the fast passages faster than expected and the slow passages slower than expected. Contrast is heightened. The intermediate player, on the other hand, will tend to play the fast passages slower and the slow passages faster. Contrast is diminished.

It is important to note, however, that playing fast all the time does not heighten contrast. Non-stop fast playing can be entertaining and impressive, but it does not communicate depth of emotion.

Okay, you say, I understand all that. But how do I play fast? Here are some best ways to develop fast guitar playing:

1. Speed Bursts – I got this idea from Scott Tennant of the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet. Scott is ridiculously fast, so I’m always interested in what he says about speed development. In his excellent book, Pumping Nylon, the Classical Guitarist’s Technique Handbook, he lays out the speed burst approach, which I have found very useful. It involves alternating several slow notes with a burst of fast notes. So, for example, play three beats of eighth notes followed by one beat of sixteenth notes.

Example 1

Then return to three beats of eighth notes before playing the next group of sixteenth notes. This allows you to compare the clarity and control you have in playing the eighth notes with the clarity and control you have in playing the sixteenths. Your goal is to play the sixteenths as well as you play the eighths. When this is achieved, you can either gradually lengthen the burst (play two beats of eighths and two beats of sixteenths as seen below) or simply increase the overall tempo.

Example 2

2. Gradual Tempo Increase with Metronome– This is probably the most obvious approach to speed development. But it is also one of the best. Start slow, and gradually increase the tempo with the metronome. At this point, you are probably saying, “Duh!” But there is a nuance here that should not be missed.

When you reach a tempo where you lose accuracy and control, reduce the tempo to just below that point. Repeat the passage with accuracy several times. Then increase the tempo again and see if you can now play faster with accuracy. If so, repeat the passage with accuracy several times at the newly achieved tempo before moving to the next faster tempo. If not, go back to the previous tempo, and repeat the passage with accuracy several times before attempting to increase tempo.

3. Successively Longer Fragments – This is another approach recommended by Scott Tennant, who calls it “evolution of a scale”. At a fast tempo, you play the first five notes of the scale, then the first nine notes, etc. You play increasingly longer sections of the scale until you can do the whole thing.

Example 3b

4. Start Fast and Get Slower – This counterintuitive idea was introduced to me by Stephen Aron in one of his blog posts. In this approach, you start with a metronome marking much faster than you normally play. You visualize playing a short bursts of four sixteenths at this very fast tempo. Then you use the speed burst approach to play at that tempo. You gradually reduce speed until you reach a tempo where you can play accurately. I do not use this as my main strategy for speed development, but I find it can be helpful to do this occasionally to overcome psychological barriers to playing fast.

5. Let it Happen – A challenge associated with the strategies above is that they can lead to tension. If you are becoming tense and stressed by trying to play fast, it may be time to step back and approach speed development organically. Practice for a few days without thinking about speed. If you are practicing accurately and effectively, you will usually increase your ability to play faster without even thinking about it.

You can rotate among these different approaches. All of these have yielded great results for me at various points in my guitar playing life. Give them a try, and you will soon be shredding. Have fun.

Question: What’s your favorite approach to speed development on guitar? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Brendan Bondurant

    Great blog. One thing that I have found very helpful is a combination of #3 and practicing slowly. I will have the student do a fragment of a scale, melody, etc. at a slowish speed, lets say 60. First they do it in quarter notes, then eighth notes, then triplets, sixteenth notes, etc. until they reach a subdivision that is too fast, say, sixteenth note triplets. Then, we would slow the metronome down 5 bpm, and repeat the exercise, with the goal being clean sixteenth note triplets.

    I also like to do this because it is surprisingly difficult to play extremely accurate quarter notes at a slow tempo, it mixes up where the beat is in the scale, and it focuses on understanding the difference between rhythmic values. I want them to be perfectly in time for that measure or two of quarter notes, and switch from eighth notes to triplets with no issues.

    • That is a good strategy and one that I have used successfully as well!

  • bob4health

    First, I think promoting playing fast as a goal in itself is an abomination to good music. Playing
    music is all about playing with feeling and expression, people trying to play fast sound like someone trying to play fast.

    That said, there is the science of how people develop circuits for movement. To play fast
    one must have perfect motion, not waste any. This is accomplished by first praticing so
    slowly that the movements are perfect. There should be no wasted motion, and each time
    the part is played, it must be played identically.

    Then we have the secret We’ve learned that sleep plays several critical roles in learning music, depending on the sleep cycle. In this case, the first deep sleep cycle following REM sleep is where the brain wires up circuits that a person has practiced. If you have praticed
    a perfect movement, however slow, it will build perfect circuits, including building new neurons,
    mylen sheaths, Then the movement is perfect. That the speed can be gradually increased,
    each night letting sleep play it’s critical role.

    With perfect motion, speed will be a natural outcome, and something someone can do naturally while playing with feeling and emotion, musically. The goal is not speed but perfect motion.

    I have a section on my web site on The Brain and Music, where I discuss the latest research in the role sleep plays in learning music and building circuits, http://www.comarow.com

    • Good points! Speed is a tool, not a goal. Elimination of excess motion is important. Adequate sleep ingrains learning and supports peak performance.

  • anna

    I tell my students to focus on playing well. Once they figure out where their hands are and can play the passage cleanly, then they can start adding speed. You can play well, or play fast, but it takes a lot of playing something well slowly before you can play it fast well. And no, playing something poorly fast is not going to fool anyone into thinking you are playing well. #1 reminds me of a piano exercise one of my students was working with this year. You play a scale in quarter notes, then 8th notes, then 16th notes. It can be a very effective exercise. Especially if you suddenly find yourself with piano students after not doing piano for about 5 years. Got my piano skills up pretty quickly after a few reps!

    • I agree that many slow, correct repetitions are important before moving to fast repetitions. Thanks for sharing your experiences!