The ability to play at speed (at least some/relative speed) is an important part of guitar playing. Even if you don’t want to be a modern-rock-virtuoso-shredder playing a million notes per click at an ungodly BPM, continuously improving your playing speed is essential for other reasons.
So often a guitarist who isn’t considered “a fast player” will throw in a fast flurry that entirely elevates their solo to the next level. Equally, it’s not good always to be playing at your maximum. The idea being that if your maximum speed is Y, that means that X is comfortable for you, and you can play Y when maxed out. If you increase your maximum speed to Z, suddenly Y becomes more comfortable. So it’s about ratcheting up your playing speed over time, to open up a greater range of possibilities to your guitar playing.
Here are the kinds of exercises you should be working on to increase your playing speed:
1 – Scales
An obvious starting point. Scales require dexterity and clarity on both hands and are the building blocks of so many guitar parts (including all of the remaining nine items below!). You need to memorize scales, and you need to work on your playing speed. So be sensible and do both those tasks in one! Often, a fast run in a solo will be very close to simply playing quickly up or down a scale. So this is also good practice for those kinds of runs.
2 – Arpeggios
Another element that needs to be learned and memorized, so well-worth doing. They also present slightly different challenges (changing strings more often) and benefits (arpeggios are often used in their entirety as licks in guitar solos) to scales, meaning they’re important in their own right.
3 – Single String Exercises
Loads of speedy rock licks involve patterns that shift along a single string, often working rhythmically and repetitively up the neck to a natural climax. So make sure you practice them! They also again tap into a slightly different skill set to scales/arpeggios, as both hands must train to repetitively play on the same string, rather than shifting up or down as required.
4 – Low End Riffs
Important for various reasons. Firstly, the lower strings are often overlooked by many licks and phrases that comprises rock guitar exercises, so it’s important not to neglect them. Additionally — particularly with rock and metal — it’s common to encounter some fast, strong, low-string riffs that form the main body sections of songs, having to carry the song rhythmically and not just be an expressive top-line on an existing canvas. So give low end riffs some attention!
5 – Chordal Exercises
Guitarists can spend hours and hours and hours playing single notes to metronomes, increasing their speed meticulously and gradually, and, in the process, they forget to work on improving the speed of their strumming and switching chords. Make sure you dedicate some time to this. Punk music can be particularly helpful in picking out songs in which the guitar a) strums fast, and b) switches chords fast, too.
6 – Lead Guitar Legato Licks
These licks often make up the fastest sections of the fastest solos and are therefore one of the most important elements of speed playing. The good news is, they’re often repetitive and cyclical by nature, meaning they can be practiced almost hypnotically. This kind of practice is one of the only types with which it’s absolutely fine to be simultaneously watching TV or doing something. Because it’s all about repetition, muscle memory, and time.
7 – Legato Only (No Picking)
This means essentially playing guitar without picking any notes at all. This builds the speed, pressure, and consistency of the fretting hand, meaning legato speed improves; and then also when the picking hand is re-introduced, it acts like a power boost. With exercises like this, you’re building the speed of one hand in isolation.
8 – Picking Only
The exact reverse of the above. Simply alternate pick an open string, or a single fretted note, gradually increasing speed. Just as at point 7 above, making each hand faster multiplies to make you faster overall.
9 – Chromatic Scales
Chromatic scales — meaning basically playing every note in order, as opposed to certain intervals to create a major / minor / other scale — are another great hypnotic, repetitive type practice task. Their inherent symmetry means that while your overall speed is improving, each individual hand’s dexterity and clarity hugely benefits too.
10 – Solos
Now it’s time to apply all of these skills by learning or composing a faster solo then you might previously have done. This is the real reward and payoff for your hard work, and also acts as the fueling inspiration for the next leap up in playing speed.
Bonus – Improvisation
Don’t forget to also try to apply your new speed playing to your improvisation. It’s one thing learning fast licks or fast solos, but it’s really important to also tie your speed in with your creativity and thinking speed too. Whether you’re improvising at a newly higher speed, or throwing in faster flurries than before for effect, make sure you use your new skills for a creative benefit too, to balance out all this technical work!
Be sure to check out these other articles by Alex Bruce: