I’m not really into playing fast for the sake of it or the ‘extreme sports’ side of guitar playing but I have noticed a few things over the years concerning speed so here’s my take on the four elements of speed:
1. Sheer Speed vs. Technique-based Speed
I divide fast playing into two categories, the first one is sheer speed or natural speed as players that fall into this category play fast what they play slow i.e. they do not adopt any special techniques to be able to play a fast passage. Eric Johnson is a great example of this, his fast playing is just as melodic and tasteful as his slow playing and indeed almost sounds like his slow playing speeded up. If you study sheer speed players, you’ll notice that their fast playing defies speed techniques. Their fast playing technique varies little from their slow playing technique leading me to the conclusion that sheer speed comes naturally and is not forced in any way.
2. Play Slow to Play Fast
The obvious way to develop sheer speed is not to worry about playing fast but instead concentrate on playing as fast as you can without making the slightest mistake or clam. Your natural speed will increase over time because you are creating a solid base for it by developing control.
3. Economy of Movement
If you’re just starting to build up a little speed or if your fast playing needs a little refining, economy of movement is one of the most important factors. Economy of movement basically means moving both hands in the most minimal way possible in order to facilitate fast playing. This means keeping the pick as close to the strings as you can as well as your fingering hand as close to the strings as possible without muting them.
4. Picking Techniques
There are plenty of picking techniques out there that claim to hold the key to burning up and down the fretboard. Here’s my take on a few of them:
This is probably the most common technique and the one that gets taught the most. I always found it clunky and kind of mechanical. Plus, an upstroke and a downstroke have different sounds and the more you practice alternate picking, the harder it is to break the up down up down thing. Alternate picking also requires you master inside picking. This is when you have to go from an upstroke to a downstroke while passing to the next string and if not taken care of can lead to sloppiness later on.
Sarod picking is basically picking in a circular stirring motion with a loose wrist. It’s similar to tremolo picking but requires much less physical exertion. If you watch Eddie Van Halen when he plays fast you’ll see the technique in action. It takes a while to get up to speed but once you do, it makes playing fast pretty effortless. Sarod picking does have its disadvantages though, you can’t palm mute as you need to keep your wrist slightly at an angle to the fretboard and the learning process can be frustrating.
Frank Gambale’s Picking Technique
This is the one I finally settled on as it really ties together sheer speed, economy of movement and allows you to easily play fast anything you can play slow. It’s basically a combination of sweep picking (don’t be put off) and alternate picking but the interesting thing is the way momentum is maintained when crossing the strings. I don’t know if Frank came up with it himself but it does remind me of the way Allan Holdsworth picks.
Myths about Playing Fast
This is probably a good opportunity to clear up some myths about fast playing.
You need to work out – I’m sure this helps but it’s not essential to fast playing; ask one who can play fast and (if they’re doing it right) they’ll tell you that it takes no greater physical effort to play fast than it does to play slow.
You need to use a metronome – Your speed will increase naturally whether you use a metronome or not. I personally have never used one outside of music college and can’t stand them. Sheer speed is acquired naturally.
Fast playing is self-indulgent and takes the emotion out of a solo - If you’re using fast playing as a trick to impress then yes it will ruin a solo but if the solo calls for it and will take it to another level then by all means go for it.
Speed playing got itself a bad name in the 80s while the 90s went to the other extreme; however, the last decade has seen the emergence of a lot of artists who combine speed with taste.
Alternate picking is the only way to play fast - I don’t know where this myth came from but alternate picking is not the be all and end all of fast playing. As already mentioned, I always found it too mechanical and tiring as you have to pick every note; besides, no one technique will enable you to play fast naturally as sheer speed comes from a combination of techniques not to mention incorporating hammer-ons, pull-offs, legato playing etc.
The Final Word
I’ll let Miles Davis have the final word on when to play fast:
‘If they [the band] play fast, you play slow. If they play slow, you play fast’.
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