The Need For Speed, or “Why Johnny Can’t Shred”
June 7, 2021

Written by Doug Perkins

Every musician needs a certain amount of facility on their instrument to play the music that they are called to perform. As far as determining how much that is, I think Howard Roberts put it very succinctly in one of his books when he said that you need “over technique” to perform whatever it was you wanted to play. What he meant by that was just that your technical playing abilities need to not be at their limits, or in audio recording terms, there needs to be some “head room” so that things don’t “distort” or start to break down in you hands or head while you are playing.

So this is not a call for getting more or less “chops”, but since most musicians – and specifically guitarists in general – are always looking to add some head room to their top speeds, this is about how to effectively build that up. Here’s a series of tips on how to fine tune how you play that HAVE to result in “more speed”.

Being a guitarist is just like being a gymnast or any other kind of athlete, but we are focused on using smaller muscle groups to perform our “routines”. Another similarity with what gymnasts do is the importance of “balance” and weight distribution – what they do flying their whole bodies through the air is exactly what a musician does, but with our hands only.

One of the things that I talk about with students in talking about how they move their fretting hand is to compare it to how as children we learned to cross a stream of water by jumping from rock to rock. The more that we could keep our weight distributed on the rock that we were on and minimize the time we were flying through the air to the next rock, the more probability that we wouldn’t land in the water getting what kids where I grew up called “a soaker”. Translating this into guitar-speak, this means to strive to keep the finger that is currently playing one note to not push off of the fretboard until just barely before the new finger comes down to play the next note.

This of course makes your playing more “legato”, meaning that each note lasts longer – and as any guitar player knows, the hardest thing to do on the guitar is to play a tied whole note -after a volume surge immediately after a note is struck, the string starts to die out, especially with no vibrato applied. But also, this will tend to keep your fingers lower to the fingerboard, making it easier to silence any unwanted open string ring, and most importantly for speed: Increase the efficiency of motion which will AUTOMATICALLY increase your potential “speed head room”.

Efficiency of motion is really what this whole blog is going to be about, because as I always tell my students, “Speed is the natural waste product of efficient playing.” Here’s some of the ways that you can do that and greatly increase your playing speed:

One of the main places where guitarists need to increase their efficiency of motion is in their picking. I would say that at least 90% of guitarists – and this includes me, I work on this all of the time – need to “tighten up” their picking, meaning to decrease the SIZE of their pick strokes. And the number one offender for almost everyone is their UP strokes. Most people’s up strokes are at least twice as long as their down strokes, which are far easier to control for some reason.

How do you work on that? Well, there is a saying that goes something like “most of taking care of a problem is identifying it and being aware that it exists”. So the first thing to do is watch yourself play steady “down-up-down-up” alternative picking on a single string – what do you see? Probably, you will see at least some degree of “wasted motion”, and that wasted motion is for SURE slowing you down.

I am a big fan of Julian Lage, who I consider to be one of the absolute best guitarists in the world and – no surprise – one of the most motion efficient players I’ve ever seen. He does fast multiple string cross picking that you’d see most guitarists strain for with complete relaxation – and that has to do with his study of “The Alexander Technique”, an efficiency of motion method that is taught to people in all walks of life based on Alexander trained motion and relaxation instructors that watch how a person does things. So here’s some things to do if you don’t have an Alexander technique practitioner in your town to help you:

Isolate the up stroke by SLOWLY (and you’re going to see that word used again and again here since most guitarists practice too fast to allow the correcting of inefficiencies in their playing) playing just upstrokes and concentrate on making the stroke smaller.

That might sound overly simplistic, but going slowly and consciously trying to decrease the motion is the only way you will ever change how you’ve learned to play this motion. I know that the whole world now demands “quick fixes”and (my personal favorite expression in on-line guitar teaching to hate) “weird hacks”, but this kind of thing takes time and repetition to change.

So you need to sign on for the long haul and don’t set deadlines for when you are going to give up on this if you aren’t 20 metronome beats faster by, this happens when you have done the work and not before. As I said, “Speed is the natural waste product of efficient playing” – that isn’t just a catchy phase that I made up (although I do have a lot of those), when you think about it, it just has to be true – if you decrease the distance that needs to be traveled, you absolutely 100% of the time will be able to get there and back faster.

So besides isolating the upstroke, do a SLOW tremolo – maybe not at all close to the speed of a tremolo, but just a down up down up – on each of the six strings. I say each strong because depending on the guitar, you might find that it’s more difficult to do it on one string than another. Another thing to look at is having what I call a “point of reference” in your picking hand that lightly touches the surface of the guitar while playing. This is not what is called “an anchor”, which is a finger that stays in one position like a boat anchor (hence the name), but just something that helps you to know where your pick strokes are in relationship to the guitar.

I’m left handed and play right handed and I am still happy that I chose to play that way, but it meant that I have had to spend extra time on picking that right handed player might not need to. If you don’t need a point of reference in your picking hand, more power to you. But overall, most the students I have worked with have benefited a lot by using one. I just have my little finger (you could use others) out in a RELAXED way (and that was hard to develop at first, but you don’t want that finger cocked or straining at all) that just lightly touches the top of the guitar while being able to move around freely.

Now, start to play scales up and down with efficiency of motion in mind – again, SLOWLY – don’t worry at all about speed. I have found that when I warm up slowly that there comes a point when I feel my hands sync together and – you guessed it – speed comes naturally wen the hands are locked together and have learned to do smaller motions to get the job done.

Now start to work on some of the licks etc. that you would really love to “shred”, but have never been able to. Play them SLOWLY looking for areas where you struggle, and ask yourself why that section is a problem. Maybe  you need to change some fingerings because they are awkward – guitarists are notorious for holding on to fingerings that don’t work just because they don’t know the neck well enough to change them (that’s another subject). Maybe you can change the KIND of picking that you are using – alternate picking is a great “universal” picking that everyone should have a good command of, but doing what I call “consecutive picking” or “economy picking” or even “sweep picking” is a great way to get rid of motion and may times sounds better as well.

Lastly, look at your fretting hand wasted motion as well. Can you lower the finger heights that you are lifting your fingers off of the neck? Can you change fingerings so that you are avoiding any leaps in position changes- maybe by improving your weight balance when you shift positions, or by sliding instead to the new position?

You probably never thought that as a musician that you would ever care about “time and motion studies”, but that’s what this whole blog has been about, and you should get VERY interested in them to really achieve your goals in music. An honest self evaluation in this area has helped me a lot over the years to continuously improve, and I really don’t see why these methods won’t work for virtually any musician, regardless of the levels or abilities.

Here’s some great JGS masterclass video lessons that I think really attack this subject really well from some monster players:

Armen Movsesyan (Armov)- Picking Demystified Vol 2

Camilo Velandia – Superimposing Harmony In Solos

Matteo Prefumo – Using Triad Systems in Improvisation

3 responses to “The Need For Speed, or “Why Johnny Can’t Shred””

  1. Riley Wilson says:

    Excellent advice, Doug!

  2. Kirk Steijn says:

    Great stuff!

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