Avoiding the dreaded "Popeye Arm" when playing at the speed of light.
Opening my eyes I witnessed a relaxed, smiling player having a laugh and able to carry on a conversation with me while keeping up this incredible display of power, speed and finesse. It was no musical exercise, just the only way that anyone could possibly keep up that kind of pace for any reasonable amount of time without blowing his blood pressure sky high! After marveling a for a while about what seemed like no big deal to him I asked him a little about his technique. He just commented back that you have to stay relaxed because there's no way to keep up once you get “Popeye Arm."
Popeye Arm, eh? Makes sense, I think we've all been there before. If you're wondering that that phenomenon is, it's basically what I imagined in my mind with the teeth clenched, bulging eyes and veins bursting. In other words tensing up to the point where you're just one solid muscle until you freeze up. A funny name for a very common problem many people encounter when trying to speed up their licks.
So I thought I'd share a little insight from that day along with some things I apply when playing fast to keep the blood pressure down, the speed flowing, and not letting Popeye enter the picture.
1. Watch your breathing.
Most of us tend to breathe very shallow most of the time unless we're running from a bear. Staying relaxed requires some focus on breathing. Spend a few minutes sitting up straight in a chair while purposely taking in nice, slow and long breaths. Count slowly to 10 while inhaling, hold for 2-3, then exhale for another 10 counts. If you repeat this for several minutes you'll not only feel a lot better about your day, you'll be in a much more relaxed state.
2. Only move as much as you need to.
So much energy is wasted on unnecessary motion for most players. Once you've struck a note with your pick, any travel past the string beyond that is wasted motion if you plan to hit an upstroke anytime soon. With that in mind try practicing alternate picking where as soon as you strike the string, reverse the direction and strike it again. If you concentrate on this (while not holding your breath) you will be able to gain a great deal of speed with little effort. It's simple economy of motion. This technique assumes you are not using your forearm, but your wrist as a pivot point.
3. Warm up…literally.
My hands tend to cramp up and get sore. It's a genetic thing that runs in my family. Sometimes I wake up very stiff in the hand and finger joints, and it's a real drag to play guitar in a state like that. Over the years I've found the best way to take the stiffness away and have my hands ready to play is by soaking them in a hot sink of water. Either that or simply running them under hot water for a few minutes while doing isometric stretches. Slowly open your hands wide and spread your fingers out as far as they can comfortably stretch to. Then relax and let the water dig into the muscles to loosen them up. Repeat this procedure until you feel that all is good in the world.
4. Only move as much as you need to, left hand edition.
As in #2, the left hand can benefit from the same economy of motion. Let's take a poll. How many of you have a lazy pinky? C'mon, you know it isn't as well behaved as those other three fingers. Isn't it strange how it likes to jump way up off the fingerboard and hang out in the jet stream? Watch that little guy and spend time with exercises that reign him in and stop him from drifting up in the air every time he's not being used. In fact, put him to use more and you'll find he can't hang out there because you're calling him in too much! Again, if you slow things down a little and learn to control the actions of your fingering hand you'll have less travel to get to the next note which will allow you to relax again and be more efficient.
I know you've got a killer collection of vintage and boutique amps, but today you can give them a rest. While playing an electric guitar is exhilarating as all get out, sometimes it helps us to relax by not making a bunch of noise. I'm not saying to play an acoustic guitar or get rid of your amps, but every once in a while you can quiet things down, save the marriage and a little bit of your sanity by spending some quiet time with your guitar. Heck, in the process you may even hear those tonal benefits everyone is talking about with that fancy nitro finish.
And finally, SMILE! Too often the rigors of the day and life get to us…it's one of the reasons we all have wrinkles on our foreheads. When you smile you let out all sorts of good energy, and in ways it helps bring about a positive and enlightened spirit that is impossibly contagious. What does this have to do with relaxing and playing fast? Everything. Put a big smile on your face instead of the grimace and you'll definitely feel a lot better. Combine that with slow and deep breathing, loose and free hands, and a solid bit of practice on both your right and left hands and you'll be speeding along in no time…Popeye Arm not included.