Recently I increased my playing speed from 78 bpm to 170 bpm on a certain exercise. In two days. That’s an increase of 118%. I never imagined I’d be able to achieve something like that, but it was surprisingly easy — so easy that I am kicking myself in my metal butt for wasting so many years practicing inefficiently.
I’m so excited about this breakthrough that I had to share how I did it so that you can try it yourself. Here’s how I increased my strict alternate picking speed by over 100%, and finally mastered a picking exercise that had eluded me for YEARS, one that I honestly thought I’d NEVER be able to play.
The key, in a nutshell, is slow practice. Yes, to play fast, you have to play slowly first. Really f’n slowly.
Now before you stop reading in disappointment, rushing straight to the comments section to tell me “That’s nothing new — it’s common sense!”, hear me out.
In my experience, most people — even if they start out playing slowly — try to play too fast too soon. And let’s face it, having to play slowly when you really want to play fast is a drag. You get bored and end up hacking away as fast as you can — fooling yourself for instant gratification — and still sounding “OK.”
But who wants to settle for “OK?”
“OK” is for other people; we’re going for MIGHTY.
Here is how to dramatically increase your speed while maintaining clarity, accuracy, and articulation.
Tools needed: metronome, programmable timer, practice diary for recording progress, and PATIENCE.
- Slow way down and carefully analyze your technique until you discover what is holding you back.
- Decide what you need to do to fix your technique.
- Practice this new technique ridiculously slowly, using a metronome.
- Make sure you can play what you are attempting for one minute solid, relaxed with no mistakes, then…
- …increase speed by 1 bpm.
- Repeat until the desired speed is reached, over several sessions if necessary.
If you find your technique getting even slightly sloppy at a certain speed, then that’s your top speed for that practice session. Back up the metronome a few clicks to a comfortable speed again, and finish the practice session by playing a few one-minute repetitions at your highest RELAXED and CLEAN speed. It’s important to finish your session feeling successful so that you will be eager to resume practice the next day.
Remember, the whole point of playing slowly is to give yourself room to analyze your playing, identify any tension or bad habits that are holding you back, experiment to find your optimal technique, and let your brain and muscles gradually learn to consistently get it right. If you are feeling tense, you are playing too fast. To make real progress, you’ll have to fight the natural tendency to want to rush past the boring slow speeds and get to the sexy faster stuff. But if you move slowly move forward, one click at a time, past the frustration point and through the impatience barrier, it will pay off. Guaranteed.
A practical example
Here is the example I started with. It’s an ascending scalar pattern that I’ve wanted to be able to play fast and clean for as long as I can remember, but — no matter how much I practiced it — have never managed (unless you count HACKING my way through it).
Note: in this article BPM refers to quarter notes per minute. The exercise above is sixteenth notes, so at 60 bpm you’d be playing 4×60 =240 notes per minute. At 170 bpm you’d be playing 4×170=680 notes per minute.
I made it my goal to master this pattern. Three notes per string, alternate picking is what I was striving for, but something wasn’t working. Using my original technique I could only play this pattern at 78 bpm without blurring certain notes. Pathetic.
I slowed down to 60 bpm to investigate what I was doing wrong. Carefully observing my picking hand, I discovered that I wasn’t alternate picking all the notes as I thought I was; I was doing some half-assed economy picking here and there. Therein lay the bad habit I needed to fix.
Objectives identified, I started practicing the pattern at 60 bpm following the method described above. (I was reformatting and reinstalling Windows on my laptop at the time, so it gave me something productive to do while waiting.)
By the time Windows and my favorite apps were reinstalled, I had increased my speed to 115 bpm. A couple of times I’d slipped back into my lame economy picking habit and had to slow back down. But by the end of the session I felt confident and relaxed at 115 bpm.
The next day I started at 100 bpm and easily worked my way up to 120 bpm, my goal for that day. In fact, it felt so easy that I kept on going, one metronome click at a time. At this point I reduced the duration for each pass to 45 seconds because it seemed to be enough, but I stuck to increasing speed in one-click increments. In this fashion I gradually reached 140 bpm before starting to feel a bit of tension. I considered 140 my top clean speed for that session.
Then, just as an experiment, the little devil on my shoulder told me to try 150 bpm to see if my technique would fall apart……I tried……It didn’t.
Piece of cake.
Too much tension, but it still sounded good.
At 175 bpm I started having timing problems, so I considered 170 bpm my absolute-if-I-have-to-do-it top speed for that day. The slow playing had definitely paid off.
Above 140 bpm I was just starting to feel tension, so that is the speed I logged in my practice diary. But what’s important is that after a measly TWO DAYS I was playing well enough at 170 bpm to use this technique in a recording if I wanted to. It sounded fine; it was the tension I was unhappy with. It is obvious to me now that by using the same method I will eventually reach a relaxed 170 bpm (heck, why not go for 200?). And if a non-shredder like me can do it, so can you.
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