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How Your Guitar Heroes Learned to Play So Fast

How Your Guitar Heroes Learned to Play So Fast

Have you ever watched your favorite guitarist and wondered how they got so fast? You may think you’ll never get there, but that’s not true. With guitar, just like anything else, you get out of it what you put into that. That’s the first and most important thing.

Guitar Hero: Jimmy Page

Guitar Hero: Jimmy Page

But there are things you can do to help the process along and progress faster to the speed licks you’d like to be playing.

  1. First the basics: Make sure your guitar is set up properly. If the action is too high, or the neck is warped, or the strings are too heavy or too light for your hands, it’s going to be hard to gain speed. It also won’t be as much fun to play.
  2. Try different picks. Some people like thinner or thicker picks, and you might not be using the right one for you. Many shredders prefer smaller jazz-style picks to the traditional teardrop style. Go spend a couple bucks and pick a large selection of thicknesses and shapes to see what works best for you.
  3. Use a metronome. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is. Start with a slow tempo on your metronome. Really slow. Like 52bpm. Pick out a scale or musical phrase you’d like to work on. When you can accomplish that phrase at that speed 5 times in a row without making a mistake, bump your metronome up just one notch. That’s generally 2-4 bpm faster. Go through the same process there, bumping it up a little bit each time. Within 15-20 minutes you’ll have that phrase blazing fast!
  4. Work on your right hand. We tend to forget about our right hand a lot since the left is where all the action is. But your right hand is the engine driving the action. If it can’t move fast, it won’t matter how fast your left hand can go. Back to your metronome again, take just one note (preferably a fretted one) and practice playing 8th notes and 16th notes. Again bump the tempo up slowly until you’re reaching speeds you want to hear.
  5. Practice left hand finger patterns. Scales and arpeggios are good also, but these 5 finger patterns will give you most every combination you need. Here they are:
    • 1-2-3-4
    • 1-3-2-4
    • 1-2-4-3
    • 1-4-2-3
    • 1-4-3-2.
    • Do these on each string, in both directions, and on different areas of the neck. You can reverse them all.

  6. Keep a written log of your progress. Using this “slow and grow” method, you may not notice that you’re getting faster in regular playing situations. I certainly didn’t. One day it snuck on me while I was listening to a recording from my gig the night before. I heard a blazing fast guitar lick and asked my girlfriend who the heck that was! She reminded me that I was the only guitarist in the band so it must have been me.

So, yes, it does take putting in the hours to get your speed going, but these tips will help you get there faster. As Eddie Van Halen said in a recent interview, “Just keep playing and playing and you’ll eventually find out who you are.”

Get at it!

Post by: Phil Johnson

Guest Post

7 thoughts on “How Your Guitar Heroes Learned to Play So Fast

Professor Funk – Atlanta Soul (UK)Posted on  11:28 am - Apr 4, 2011

I can’t stress enough how important it is to play slowly as suggested by Phil. The secret to playing at speed is practising at a tempo where you are in control and playing with accuracy and efficiency.

The aim is train the mind-body to be successful in the execution of the phrases and passages you wish to play. By speeding up too quickly or too soon, what happens is this… you practise making mistakes. It’s very important to realise this because if you practise making mistakes, you’ll get better at making them, so avoid them and forget them.

When you’re able to play a phrase perfectly, at whatever tempo is appropriate to achieve it, you’re practising, repeating and internalising success and you get better at playing successes.

In a nutshell – speed is a by-product. Don’t make it an aim in itself – allow it to happen and develop as a natural consequence of repeating musical successes. As a good illustration of this, check point 6 in Phil’s post again.

…. and to follow suit and round off with a nice quote:

“Technique is essentially control: control of tone, volume, rhythm and tempo, legato and staccato, dynamics and registration, phrasing and articulation…”/ Guitar Technique, Intermediate to Advanced – Hector Quine, Oxford University Press, 1990/.

The quote from Hector Quine’s book for classical guitarists seems to me just as pertinent for players of other intruments.
May you long enjoy the fruits of your labours!

ConradPosted on  9:32 am - Aug 4, 2011

Not bad – but why on earth illustrate this article with a photo of Jimmy Page, while he’s (or was) no slouch as a guitarist, he’s definitely not an icon for speed! I think I might have gone with a photo of Al Di Meola. Keep up the emails much appreciated.

J.J. VicarsPosted on  10:14 pm - Jan 1, 2012

Joe Pass used to say if you want to play fast you have to think fast. Outside of the practice regimens, all very true, that’s the key. Listening to the right guitarists is also important. Most of the Metal shredders are just running scales and with all the distortion and other effects it’s easy to sound impressive. But listen to Jimmy Bryant or Joe Maphis and the whole idea of playing fast becomes a helluva lot harder. Learn Country and Jazz styles played clean and then you’ll really be playing fast!

Gordon KaswellPosted on  11:56 pm - Jan 1, 2012

The fastest guitarist ever, was probably Shawn Lane. This clip of him playing “Not Again” goes from really good, to excellent, to amazing, to purely stupefying. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’m not a speed player, but as I understand it, Shaun said that he gained is astounding speed (reportedly as fast as 18 notes per second!) by playing as fast as he could, before he really had perfected the techniques for doing so. The logic behind this was to get his mind working at top speed, figuring that his fingers would eventually catch up. For him, it obviously worked.


monsterjonesPosted on  10:02 am - Jan 11, 2013

Okay, young uns’…the reason your guitar heros played so FAST
is because…1. they played night and day 2. they took large amounts
of powerful stimulants night and day 3.had girlfriends with jobs , so they could
play night and day…..for a looong time….right?

MikePosted on  12:39 pm - Jun 15, 2013

Shawn Lane’s left-hand technique is very good. Notice the economy of movement.

Tom FerraroPosted on  4:09 pm - Oct 15, 2014

Speed means nothing if your not saying something, Playing fast is not always playing musical, Working on finger patterns to increase speed is taking away from really playing the instrument. It is sad and crazy to value a musician based on how fast he plays.

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