Playing Guitar - Speed

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Over the last few months I have experienced a push to revisit some of the old classic songs I used to play regularly. I started with a easy classical tune by Fernando Sor and another more complicated classical rendition of Greensleeves. Greensleeves, the way I play it, requires quite a bit of intense pick hand movement. Only this time I am doing all the right hand work finger picking with a pick in my hand.

My right or pick hand technique has been good for a long time, but recently I wanted to see if I could execute the exact same finger picking with a pick involved, instead of just using fingers as required using a strict classical approach.

This new idea has caused me to look at all the notes I play and what fingers I use to play each one. In addition I found I could easily remember all the moves when I played with just my fingers, however, when I used a pick and fingers, I found I had a bunch of trouble remembering how to play the song. It seems much of my memory was locked up in the exact muscle memory of my right hand. I have no other explanation as to why I would have forgotten the part.

Since these songs were committed to memory a long time ago, I didn't initially think I would have to look at each note and figure out how to play it, but adding a pick to the equation greatly changed the dynamics. I basically had to relearn some of the songs.

I was going along fine until I tried to play a song called "Mood For A Day". This demanding song was made popular by Steve Howe of Yes in the 80's. I have always been a big Steve Howe fan, because he was so developed and his music had great meaning to me. I learned this song on a classic guitar using classical techniques. But then I saw him in concert, he used a pick to play the song. I was quite blown away at his ability to play difficult parts by combining finger picking with a pick. I also liked his ability to pick whatever he wanted, the freedom he experienced was awesome.

After I tried playing "Mood For A Day" for a half hour, I noticed that I was making lots of mistakes. Sometimes this happens at first but I can usually clean it up after my hands stretch and warm up. Scales are great for getting your hands to engage. I began to isolate different parts and play them repeatedly. Still there were lots of mistakes and I forgot some of the song for a while (mental block).

Somewhere I realized I was trying to just buzz right through the song like I had been playing it every day. I slowed the piece down and right away got control of the process again. I forgot that I had not played that song for a long time and I needed practice (again). At least after that, I could isolate my weak spots and drill down into the mechanics and get the results I was after.

My biggest problem was the issue of speed. Sometimes we want to inject speed because that is how we remember the song. Performers seem to play songs faster than they really do, and we want to be just like them. I realized I was trying to play the song about 1 1/2 times to fast. I guess I was in a hurry. This is a pretty common problem.

Another reason we like speed is because we think we have to be fast to be good. This is just simply not true. In fact a lot of what passes for speed is a trick, gimmick or special technique. Rock guitarists are famous for this. This use hammer ons up high on the E and B strings and it sounds like they are playing lots of notes really fast, when they are really playing a few notes repeatedly and picking even fewer of these notes.

Speed for the most part only is necessary once in a while. Sure there are lots of exceptions but on the whole, speed is not used as much as you might think. When a guitarist is showing me their new found abilities to play scales, they almost always try to play them too fast. This actually causes them to make some mistakes they usually do not make. It is common to see them fight it and make the problem worse.

After this goes on for a few minutes, I usually stop them and get them to play it half as fast. Their ability to play the scale usually comes right back and the mistakes are cut in half. Then they show me their hard won skills as they emerge. They always have this beaming smile from ear to ear. If they are trying to stonewall me, a few compliments while looking them right in the eye, will make the grin burst out. Always! It's so cool when a person finally gets it!

But when they starting making speed induced mistakes, they get frustrated and tighten up. Slowing things down will relieve much of the stress and engaging the guitar and feeling the control will make you calm down again. Most of this is caused by an inappropriate use of speed.

When you try to play fast, you start pushing against some big barriers. Namely your ability to play at an increased rate of speed and continue to play almost perfectly. If you continue to increase the speed, eventually even the best players will start to make mistakes. The whole process of playing can break down. I've experienced it. All of the sudden I can't play something that I know. I usually take a little break and come back and try it again. Sometimes I lose the speed and other times I don't get it. Ant time I have learned a new part, I always learn it slowly. Otherwise it's too hard to do.

Speed issues seem to be one of the things most people have in common. I see the same reaction from all sorts of guitarists. Have you ever gone to a performance or listened to a live album and noticed they play faster live? Hey, they probably get more excited that the listeners do. It shows up all the time. Sometimes it is the norm, and everything played slowly is an aberration. Maybe it's a symptom of having a busy life. Like I said before, the guitar amplifies the things going on in your life.

I find playing fast (or trying to) some of the most stressful time spent playing. I seem to relax more when I slow things down. I think my heart rate decreases too. I notice I feel each note better and my sound is more emotional when I play slower. I make a bigger connection with the instrument.

Don't get me wrong, I like to play fast too. But I try to work up to it and use it when it is called for. If I start making a bunch of mistakes, I will hopefully try to slow the process down until I get control again. Then I slowly try to insert speed in again, only now it is more controlled.

So my advice is to keep this in mind when you practice. Think about how you change speeds when you play. You may be very good at this now. Not me, I have to try to remember to slow down. But when I do take it into consideration, I experience the benefits right away and I usually get more out of it.