It was the year 2000. The festival was called Rentak Asia. There I was, backstage at the Kuala Lumpur G3 concert soundcheck with my friend Rithan and a few others. We saw Eric Johnson just a few seconds before and asked for an autograph. Sometime during that day, we were standing right next to Joe Satriani’s guitar tech setting up his guitars. At another point, we saw Steve Vai doing his soundcheck. He was not in his full stage clothes. His hair was tied and he looked different. And then there was that moment when my friend Rithan actually played one of Vai’s song in front of Vai. We were young and energized. In other words, tak malu and grabbed the moment. Years later, Rithan would open for Steve Vai’s concert in Singapore.
We were completely blown away. This is the kind of thing that can change your life and it did for me. Now when I think back about this, I almost can’t believe how lucky I was to be there. Did I mention I saw Derek Trucks play live at this same concert too?
Watching all these amazing people after just playing guitar for about 4 years was a really surreal experience for me. Such virtuosity and thus began my quest to understand more of the music I heard. It would take years and in fact is still a continuing quest.
- Yngwie Malmsteen
- Paco De Lucia
- Pat Martino
- Al DiMeola
- John McLaughlin
- Frank Gambale
- Paul Gilbert
- John Petrucci
These are some of the famous guitarists that have used speed as a part of their distinctive guitar styles. We admire these players because not only they play fast but they play with musical taste. They all achieve their speed using different techniques. Some pick, some play fingerstyle, some use alternate picking, some use economy and sweep picking. The techniques themselves may differ but there are certain principles that these players use.
This blog post is not meant to be a complete guide. It’s more like stepping stones that may open up ideas you may have not explored or at least considered in awhile.
Here are 11 key concepts to help you play fast on guitar:
Are you moving too much? Do you use big strums when all you need is a small strumming movement? Economy helps you achieve speed so record yourself so you can see how your movement is like. What you need to remember about economy in movement is that the economy must come from relaxation and not tension. You might hurt yourself by forcing yourself to tense up to do small movements for the sake of economy.
2. Relaxed hands
This is really one of the most important things in playing fast. Try to make your fingers into a fist as if you are about to punch something. Now try to move your hands around. After that, try to keep your fingers loose and free and move them around. What do you notice? Which hand position seems more rigid or stiff?
For most people keeping your hands open and free make it easier for you to move. If your hands are tense, you’ll have a harder time to move fast and fluidly.
Remember. Be relaxed. Breathe.
Sometimes guitarists think that their picking hand or fretting hand is too slow. At times, it might actually be a lack of coordination. Speed is not only moving fast but synchronizing both hands precisely.
4. Choose your technique
This is something that I learned from one of my Berklee teachers, slide guitar guru David Tronzo. Sometimes people use every possible technique but are unable to do any effectively. David Tronzo suggested that everyone should choose their main technique. By choosing what is your main technique (fingerstyle, pickstyle, thumb) you can develop it further and refine it. This focus and refinement can make a difference when you want to play fast. For example, my main technique is fingerstyle guitar based on classical guitar technique. Although I do play with a pick and am familiar with that technique, it’s still my secondary technique. For most of my work, I play fingerstyle.
That’s the technique I choose. You have to choose what’s right for you.
5. Define your melodies
A lot of lessons on speed focus on the common chromatic finger exercise of each finger playing a note, 1 finger per fret and picking 4 notes per string from the 6th string to the 1st string. There’s a lot of very mechanical exercises floating around the internet. To me, you really need to know what kinds of fast melodies you want to play. There is no real one size fits all approach.
Different melodies require different techniques to achieve them. For example, if you want to play blazing fast neo-classical harmonic minor scale phrases like Yngwie Malmsteen you will need certain kinds of chops. If you want to play chromatic rhythmically intense lines like Wayne Krantz, it a different set of skills.
Think deeply and then study it inside out.
Do you want to play guitar sitting down or standing up? What kind of guitar do you play? What technique do you use to play? All these questions can relate to the posture that you should adopt for fast playing. Some people like to just chill on the couch and play. However, that posture may not be the best for you in the long run (pun intended).
To study about posture, taking a class with an Alexander Technique or Feldenkrais Method instructor may be helpful. Some of my peers also have tried yoga, tai chi, qi gong or other approaches to understand their body better. In my experience, playing guitar at a high level does not just involve your hands but your entire body. Posture is key.
When I play long fast melodies, it’s often a combination of many smaller 4-note patterns and cells combined to create a larger phrase. Chunking is a process of organizing the notes into logical small phrases. Essentially what most fast players experience is the ability to see phrases in longer sections. In addition to chunking, identifying the points where your phrases is typically broken up (like between bars) is important for creating long lines that connect fluidly.
If you play a fast phrase one way the first time and another way afterwards, it becomes difficult to keep that tempo going. Especially in the beginning stages, I recommend understanding the micro-movements in each phrase to master it.
9. Record yourself
This is the single biggest advice I can give to any musician: record yourself! By recording your work, you get a way to understand how you play. As I tell my private lesson students, “Record yourself as a way of discovering what was good and bad about your playing. It is a document of your playing ability.”
Some people never get used to recording themselves. They feel nervous and are too critical about their playing that it stops them from recording themselves. Don’t fall into that trap. Instead, use recordings as a mirror to see how you play.
10. Listen to fast music
Developing your ears is a huge part of MUSICAL fast playing. Some guitarists may be able to play fast but actually rely on their muscle memory and finger movements exclusively without connecting to it internally. Being able to hear the melodies at the actual performance tempo is important. I have to thank Bryan Baker for giving me this advice back around 2007 when I took lessons with him. Bryan was one of the most admired jazz guitarists at Berklee at that time and getting a chance to study with him was helpful to my playing and composing skills in so many ways. His first album Aphotic is still one of my favorite heavy jazz guitar recordings ever.
11. The right gear
Lastly, make sure you have the right equipment for your style of music. Although you can learn to play almost any style of music on any guitar, having the right guitar can inspire you to practice and get the right sound.
These actions steps are almost exactly the same as my post on “How to use chromatic notes in your guitar solos“. The reason is that the process is the same but the topic of study can change. When practicing keep in mind the 11 key concept on playing fast that I wrote above. The more you do it, the better your playing will be. Here are the action steps:
1. Make a playlist
Make a playlist of 10 of your favorite solos/lines/songs that include fast playing. This could be on YouTube, Spotify, iTunes or on a mixtape. The goal is to keep a personal “musical notebook” of the fast sounds YOU like. This will be your reference for discovering, understanding and learning these sounds.
Choose a very small portion of a fast phrase and transcribe it. Some people like to write it down, some may just want to learn it on the instrument directly. Whatever you do, make sure you can play this. It doesn’t have to be at performance tempo yet but that’s part of the eventual goal.
Analyze the phrase inside out. Use whatever knowledge you have to break apart this phrase. Study it again and again as much as you need. Take notes.
Write your own phrase or melodies that use the same concept. Practice and record this.
Now, use the fast phrases you’ve learned in jams and songs that you play with friends. In the beginning, it will sound awkward and uncomfortable. Don’t worry, this is part of the process.
Remember to be patient. Keep exploring, studying, collecting ideas and practicing. The process is the thing!
Hope you found this blog post helpful. Please share this post if you think others might benefit from it!
Now, I’d love to hear from you.
What made you want to play fast?
What’s your favorite fast guitar solo?
What’s the best advice for playing fast that you know?
Leave your answer in the comments below! Remember to share as much detail as possible so that we can all learn from one another. Your insight may help another guitarist from across the world.
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