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How to work and increase your speed?

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A lesson that will provide you with a method of learning how to play quickly. If you want to improve your speed, you're in the right place!

Basics required for this lesson : None
Practice this lesson : None

There are no secrets in guitar: if we want to improve our speed, it takes work and a lot of it. But there are ways of working that can be more or less effective and the goal of this lesson is to offer you a method to work your technique effectively. This method is applicable to any exercise or any video and it only requires time and effort for it to be effective. We will divide the lesson in three parts:

  • For starters, we will discuss some generalities about the speed of the work. Nothing too serious but covering fundamentals that may be helpful.

  • In the second part we will see a ready-to-use method that will surely allow you to improve, provided that you apply it correctly.

  • Finally, some tips that can give you a little boost if you're struggling to overcome your limitations.

Some generalities

To whom is this addressed?

Despite what some may believe, this method of working your speed is addressed to everyone, no matter what your level is. You do not need to be a guitarist with 10 years of experience or be aiming to play concerts at the Stade de France to want to develop your speed. However, nothing says that you have to work on your speed either, so if it does not interest you, do not force yourself and move forward under your own terms.

What are we doing ?

This method can be applied to many things: exercises, bits of songs, chord changes, etc… Any technical work can be accomplished using this method. Meanwhile, I recommend, at least initially, that you apply this method to simple and repetitive exercises. This method aims to develop the speed and the key to working your speed is the economy of movement. The less we move the fingers, the faster we can go. The more we move our fingers, the more we are making useless motions and the more time we are losing. So use simple exercises that you know by heart in order to focus solely on economizing your movement and your speed. You'll have the time to do this on more challenging exercises later on.

Be patient

You will need to pay attention to one very important point if you want to develop your speed: it takes time. A whole lot of time. It isn’t in three days that you will see any real progression, no matter how much work you put into it. Compare it to the work of a sprinter: we don’t develop our sprinting speed in two days. It takes months and months of daily work (after years of following your objective and level) to increase your speed, slowly and steadily.

Working every day

An indispensable element to developing speed is that you have to work every day (for more on this topic, take a look at this lesson on the guitar work). If you do not have the time or motivation to work every day, I do not recommend this method. It will not give you much and you'd be better off working something else. If you miss a day or two in the week it's not a big deal but if you only work on it a day or two during the week, you do not will progress much.

The ever-dreaded metronome

One last, very important point, which is probably the most important but unfortunately, will also upset some of you: if you really want to develop your speed correctly, you will need to use a metronome. The method that I present to you today is based on doing so with the use of a metronome and it is virtually impossible to implement it without a metronome. The advantage of the metronome, besides the fact that it allows you to work in proper rhythm, is that you can use it to measure your progress. It will tell you what tempo to play at and this tempo will be very important to assess how fast you need to work. And as a bonus, you can have even more fun by making statistics to assess your progress and to motivate you to work even more.

So grab a metronome and let’s move on to the second part!

One method

Introduction

The method that I present today will allow you to combine both slow and fast work. And these two elements are essential for proper growth. Why?

On one hand, the slow process allows us to work on economizing our movements. Going slowly, we can focus on our fingers and try to move them as little as possible, in order to optimize the time it takes to move them. And if you're not able to play something slowly, you will be unable to play quickly. Therefore, try to master one exercise slowly at first before trying to play it fast.

On the other hand, if we want to develop speed, we have to work fast. We must push our limits, find the maximum and try to improve gradually. We can revisit the example of a sprinter: he does not develop his speed by walking. He develops his speed by sprinting, as fast as possible.

Training

So to begin this method, one must already figure out, on a given exercise, the maximum speed at which we can play. Now, there aren’t 36 solutions to this: you take your metronome and your guitar, and you play your exercises at a certain speed and you speed up until you can’t go any faster. Once you can’t play any faster, you slow down a little bit and this will be your maximum. This is the speed at which you are still able to play the exercise, it's still clean (no false notes or other), but you feel it's your limit, it requires your full focus in order to be played properly.

Once that is done, it's done. No need to redo this later. Note this maximum speed in a corner on a sheet and do not forget. For the rest of the method, we will use a tempo of 160 as an example of the maximum speed.

The method

Then, there are several steps to implement every day:

First step

First step: we must perform the exercise slowly. No more than half of your maximum speed. It is at this stage that we will really focus on economizing our movements and we generally master the exercise. Spend time on this step, do not neglect it, it is very important.

Second step

Second step: we will gradually accelerate to our maximum speed. The goal is to go forward in stages and work the exercise for a certain length of time at each level. For example, if we start with a tempo of 80 (half of 160), it will accelerate in increments of 5 in 5 or 10 in 10. Following the exercise and the time you have in front of you, we will accelerate with levels that are more or less "large." So if we start from 80 and we speed up in increments of five, we will work with 85, 90, 95, 100, 105, etc. At each step, we will perform the exercise several times, for a certain length of time. Do not accelerate too fast: you need to be comfortable so do not hesitate to spend more time on each level or make smaller accelerations to ensure that you do not get lost.

Third step

Third step: when we get close to our maximum speed (10 or 20 points before the maximum speed), we want to spend a lot more time on it. So to spend more time in the area of tempo, we will first start by spending more time on each level, in order to work the exercise a little longer but also to make the other steps closer to one another. If we were in increments of 5 in 5, we can go to levels of 2 in 2 from 150, to make 142, 144, 146, 148 etc. up to 160. Or even levels of 1 in 1. The goal is to spend a lot of time at our limit or close to our limit.

And what if that doesn’t work ?

It is quite possible that you do not reach the maximum speed you wrote down. This is perfectly normal. There are days where we are in better shape than others and therefore, these are days where we may not play as quickly as others. If you are unable to reach your maximum speed, don’t push it. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. You're just going to upset yourself, you’re going to get frustrated and that would be useless. Take a break, try it again later or the next day but it's not a big deal, it happens to everyone.

And if it works ?

However, if you reach your maximum speed, you will now try to exceed it. We won’t try to blow the record and earn 20 points on the metronome; we're just trying to exceed it by 2-3 points, 5 at the most. We will try to go from 160 to 162, no more. With a little luck, if you’re in good shape, it works; otherwise, it just doesn’t. If it does not pass, it does not matter, you'll try it again tomorrow. If it works, you can still try to win one or two points on the metronome, take a chance on 164 if you're brave. In any case, if it goes to 161, 162, 163 or even more - congratulations, you managed to improve your speed.

But beware: as we’ve already said, there are some days it works and some days it doesn’t. And if it does, you were just in shape this particular day and if you will be unable to, you can try to repeat the feat the following day. So for several days, repeat exactly the same work to try to reach the same maximum speed of 160 and try to overcome it again 2-3 points, as if it was your first time. It is only when you manage to exceed your maximum speed for several days that you'll actually come to improve your speed permanently.

And if it works several times over?

If you have really managed to exceed your maximum speed, in a stable and regular manner, then you have established your new maximum speed. If you have reached 164, this is your new limit, your new record to beat, your new reference speed. So write down your new maximum speed and use it from now with this method.

A few words about progress

Obviously, the progression will depend on lots of factors: the difficulty of the exercise, the time it takes to do the work, your ability to progress, etc ... The progress in terms of speed will change a lot from one exercise to another and from one guitar to another. Do not compare yourself to others, focus on your own progress. As you progress, this is essential. Tell yourself that if you progress by only one point in a week, at the end of the year you will have earned 52 points! (Well, not really: your progress in terms of speed is rarely linear.)

And if it really doesn’t work ?

It is possible that even while using this method for hours every day, you do not come to increase your speed. You have reached a cap that you are unable to overcome. Don’t worry, this is normal, and there are several reasons for this:

  • Perhaps you have reached your maximum physical limits. There are physical laws in the universe that we cannot change and that will prevent us from accelerating indefinitely. So if you reach your maximum potential, it is useless to keep going because even after 150 years, you will not progress any more. But honestly, I doubt that this is your case because such a limit is usually very fast and if you have reached it, you would probably have no use for guitar lessons for beginners.

  • Maybe you have not economized your movements well enough. If your fingers are making unnecessary movements, you are wasting your time and just one single little flaw can prevent you from speeding up. So start your work again very slowly, make sure you have well economized your movements, it is a matter of developing your full potential in this exercise.

  • It is possible that you have not worked enough. The more you will work accurately and quickly, the more it will difficult for you to accelerate any more. It will take hours upon hours to earn one little point on the metronome. You risk reaching a point where the work time you’re investing is not sufficient to move forward in this exercise. If this is the case, you only have two options: work even more or move on something else. It is not necessarily useful to spend hours and hours on a single exercise trying to improve your speed rather than using those hours for something else. See for yourself!

Work time

It remains an important element to be addressed in this method: the management of working time. How much time should we devote to all of this? How long do we have to perform the exercise slowly? How long should we spend at each level?

Well, the answer is vague: it will depend on you. The advantage of this method is that it is flexible and you may very well spend only 10 minutes per exercise or you can spend 2 hours on each exercise. Just know that, logically speaking, the more you spend time on an exercise, the faster you will progress. You just have to adjust the working time of each step in a "proportional" manner. If you have 3 hours to spare for one exercise, you can spend 15 minutes on the first step and after spending 5 minutes on each level, by levels of 2 points, it’s a matter of spending a lot of time. It will be a very long process (suicidal limit) but extremely effective. But if you only have 15 minutes to spare for the exercise, reduce the work time you spend on each step. Spend less time on each level, space out your levels a little more in order to achieve faster top speed, etc. Each step has to be done every day, if you spend all of your time on the first step and you never have time to work quickly, it will not work.

So it's up to you, depending on what you want to do, what your needs are and what your availabilities are.

There is nothing more to say about this method, there are just a few tips remaining that I want to address in the third part in order to help you improve your speed, without replacing this method.

Some tips

Push the limit

The first tip that we will see is sometimes called "push the limit". The goal is simple: once you have applied the method described above and we reach our limits, we can try to play a lot faster. But really, a lot faster, as in 20 or 30 points higher on the metronome.

And this is where it is obvious, we’re going down in style, otherwise you have miscalculated your limit. BUT we will try to keep up with the rhythm. It will be riddled with errors, inaccuracies and it will be horrible to hear but we will nevertheless try to follow the tempo.

The advantage of this technique is that once you've spent a couple of minutes playing too fast, you'll be much more comfortable when you return to your speed limit. Our brain has a relative velocity analysis, meaning that your speed limit will seem very fast if you start with a slow speed but it will seem slow if you compare it to an even faster rate.

When you work your maximum speed again, you will therefore be so much more relaxed and this is sometimes enough to win one or two points on the metronome. It is not very useful to apply this technique every day but every once in a while, it does not hurt.

Doubling the speed

The second tip is more difficult to implement since we need to know about rhythm in order to take it there. So if you drop out in the following text, just leave it for the time being.

You have to understand something about our maximum speed that we spoke about earlier and this is that it is a speed at which we can repeat an exercise over and over again. But in reality, this is not our true maximum speed, we are physically able to play faster but you cannot do it for the entire length, just with a few repetitions.

The goal is to find a way to work at higher speeds than our limit with a small number of repetitions. For this, we will divide our work rate in half. We saw the example of working at 80 rather than working at 160, if 160 is our maximum speed. At this rate, we will inevitably be more comfortable, we'll play it flawless, without tiring ourselves. And then we will repeat the exercise several times, and occasionally we will double the speed we’re using, just by one or two reps, we then come back to 80. The goal is to not stop, we perform very brief accelerations and we return to our slower speed.

Logically, if you halve your maximum speed, it will work very well since you will be at your maximum speed once you reach the fast passages. But where this technique gets interesting is that there is a good chance that you get to an even higher speed. If instead of 80, you start at 85, when you double the speed you will be at 170, which is above your maximum speed. However, as you are only doing this for a very short period of time, you will manage to do it. This way, you will gradually get used to exceeding your limit, little bit by little bit.

Love the unknown

For this last tip, you will have to arm yourself with the metronome on which you can set the tempo by pressing the + / - buttons. There are plenty of models of metronomes that meet this criterion, you will understand the value of this later on.

To put this trick to use, you must change the method that we saw earlier a little bit: starting with a slow speed, it does not change, and we will progress from level to level until we reach our maximum speed. Except in this case, we will try as much as possible to not know how many points you are progress at each level. To do this, you just have to remain ignorant to the number of times you press on the + button on the metronome, without counting them and without looking at the tempo. After a few levels, you won’t have any idea of ​​the tempo at which you are playing.

This way, you never know when you will reach your maximum speed but it doesn’t matter! Continue to accelerate, using undefined levels, until it no longer works. With a little luck, the magic will happen and the speed at which you can no longer manage to do this exercise may be above your maximum speed, or it may even surpass it extensively.

The reason for this is pretty basic: our brain is very useful but it is dumb. If it consciously knows that you are reaching your limit, it will get stressed out and it will clamp down. If it doesn’t realize that you are beyond your maximum speed, chances are that it will happen easily enough because your brain won’t hold you back.

Taking stock

To reiterate: these tips will not replace the serious and regular work you must invest. These tricks do not transform you into a guitar demi-god overnight. These tips will not return your lost love to you.

These tips will just help give you a little boost if you ever get stuck or it may even help you to improve yourself further if you are working properly.

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Music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life.
(Ludwig van Beethoven)