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Speed Techniques

When famous banjo player Earl Scruggs (Beverly Hillbillies theme song) was asked how to play fast, he replied, “Practice playing accurately, and the speed will come…Or it won’t.” There is certainly some element of truth to what he said. Everyone has his own speed threshold – a level beyond which he may never play.  However, I have found that most guitarists never come close to reaching their own speed barrier. But with the proper approach I have seen students maximize their own potential and play faster than they thought possible.

Playing fast is just one tool in the guitarist’s box. It should not be the end goal but rather a means to express musical ideas. To help develop this tool, I suggest working on a musical passage with these three ideas in mind:

Speed – Accuracy – Endurance

Ideally we would like to play with all three. However, at first, choose any two and concentrate on that goal.

Here is an exercise I included in the Parkening Method Book Two and have given to students for years to develop speed technique. It may be played on any string, and many variations are possible. It should be played continuously, although I write it here in four-note groups so you can see the patterns. Here are the frets:

5 8 7 5   4 7 5 4   7 10 8 7   5 8 7 5   8 12 10 8   7 10 8 7   5 8 7 5   4 7 5 4    5

Use alternate picking (down-up with a pick or index-middle fingerstyle). Assign one finger per fret. For example, 5875 would be fingers 1431, and 4754 would be 1421. Keep the 1st finger on the string for the whole exercise and use economy of motion.

Here is how to practice the exercise using the above approach:

A) Play the whole passage (Endurance) with Accuracy and gradually increase the Speed.

B) Play a short passage with as much Speed as possible with Accuracy, and gradually increase the distance (Endurance). I start with one group and always end on the first note of the next group (58754); then do two groups (587547547), etc.

C) Play the whole passage (Endurance) with as much Speed as possible and try to increase the synchronization (Accuracy). This third approach should be used sparingly, as you don’t want to practice bad habits. However, it’s good to experience what it feels like play the whole thing fast without worrying so much about the details. Sometimes by doing so, both hands start to synchronize and it all comes together without much effort.

Use of a metronome will help monitor your progress. I have seen this process quickly achieve great results in students time and again. Try it and see!

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