Because Waiting Sucks
It’s pretty much an outright fact that one of the most commonly pursued skills on the guitar is speed. While I don’t have line graphs showing actual statistics, I do have a history of skulking around guitar forums and possibly the question that surfaces most (aside from how to play an F major chord) is “how do you get faster?”
Well, the answer isn’t really all that in depth. In fact it’s not really even all that interesting, but it is important and there are a lot of tools and techniques at our disposal to reduce the process to little more than a waiting game. With these tips on your side all you’ll really need from yourself is patience and motivation. Sure those two traits are endangered species themselves, but this can be every bit an exercise for the mind as it can be the hands. Now enough philosophy. Onward towards the music.
The Technical Stuff
The number one most important and helpful speed building technique is playing things slowly. To anyone that’s played the guitar for more than a day that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Guitar-Muse is hardly traversing into unexplored territories. Pretty much anyone that has ever written or talked about building speed will tell you just that.
It’s a simple matter of training your muscles at a slow tempo and developing muscle memory and internalizing patterns. Speed itself is little more than a byproduct of proper repetition. Muscle memory is ultimately your best friend in guitar and this concept doesn’t apply to just speed building, but it is pivotal in this topic. It’s because of well honed muscle memory from spending hours playing at slower, more manageable tempos that the greatest guitarists are able to shred away seamlessly without even looking at the neck.
In short speed will kill your pursuit for speed. If you can’t play something slowly then you don’t stand a chance at higher speeds. Unless your goal is to play as slowly as possible, that is.
Another reason why slower tempos are so important is you have much more control over how your muscles in your fingers, hands, and arms react. When we push our muscles further than they are trained to go they naturally tense up. That tension automatically resists against your efforts, and your top speed becomes limited and your technique because sloppy.
The goal is to keep your muscles as relaxed and silk-like as you can. When you play slowly you can consciously remind yourself to stay relaxed and breathe through the experience. As you gradually practice more quickly you will have an easier time remembering to stay at ease. Building speed, I usually tell people, is 100% just light lifting weights. You have to know your limits so you can properly determine what tempos to practice at and when to kick your metronome up a bit more.
Don’t be afraid to practice a few days more at 90 BPM if it means you are doing things 100% properly.
Posture is sometimes overlooked and sometimes disregarded. I mean, when guys like Zakk Wylde have their guitars slung practically down past their knees, then what’s it matter? Well, I’m not that tall of a guy and if I don’t have my guitar up higher my wrist has to bend in a way that is probably not natural. I’ve heard carpal tunnel syndrome does nothing for guitar playing, so it’s a matter of common sense. I imagine I’m not alone in this.
You want to make sure the neck is easy to get to while keeping your wrist straight. Comfort is the key factor.
Now that I’ve expended the primary topics about what you can physically do, there are a number of gadgets and programs that can be used to maximize efficiency.
If you don’t have one. Get one. They’re simple, easy to use, and affordable. No guitarist, nay, no musician should be without at least one. If you want to take it up a notch, get a drum machine. Both offer the ability to get a steady beat going at a variety of tempos and a variety of time signatures. There are even a number of web sites out there that offer free metronomes. You officially don’t have an excuse.
Some programs like Riffstation are mostly there to help figure songs out by ear, which is an invaluable trait to have, but irrelevant here. Riffstation allows you to take a song itself and slow it way down without altering the pitch. It will sound weird as crap at first, but if you’re trying to learn a specific song then playing along with it at a slower tempo isn’t a bad idea. And video games like Rocksmith can offer similar experiences that probably sound a lot better.
Then there are MIDI tab editing programs like Guitar Pro 6, Finale, and the free alternative MuseScore. With programs like these you can practice along with a MIDI file and alter the tempo without the sound getting all whacky. And MIDI files take next to no computer space, so unless the software developer has crammed gigs of sound libraries to make the MIDIs sound less goofy these are generally pretty undemanding on your computer. And do people really care how good a MIDI sounds?
What I used to do was just set about 60 empty bars at a given tempo in a given time signature, turn the metronome on, and practice with the click that way.