• Learn how performing slurs can make your guitar playing two to three times faster.
• Integrate fast licks in the context of songs.
• Use fretboard symmetry to create sophisticated and complex melodic phrases.
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More than 30 years ago, classical guitarist Benjamin Verdery wrote the following line in one of the first guitar magazines I ever bought: “Being able to play fast shouldn’t be your only goal, but it should be one of them since it’s part of the classical universe.” I think that is one of the smartest sentences ever written regarding music and speed, and that quote has resonated with me ever since—although I would say “the musical universe” rather than just “the classical universe.” The ability to play fast is akin to any other technique, it’s a tool to be used when needed and set aside when other tools are required. This lesson will demonstrate how to gain access to the speed tool, as well as how and when to use it effectively.
My number one piece of advice on learning how to play fast is to do it in small steps with short phrases or “bursts” of speed. Ultimately, endurance should become part of your routine but to develop more quickly, start with three- and four-note phrases. Additionally, mastering hammer-ons and pull-offs will also make you faster, as your picking hand will have less work to do.
Ex. 1 is the ideal place to begin this practice, as it is a three-note phrase that includes an open string. Start this phrase slowly, making sure all three notes are at the same volume. This phrase should be repeated several times, then start speeding it up.
Ex. 2 moves the previous across the top three strings. It’s so compelling that you will find it in numerous rockabilly songs like Brian Setzer’s “Rumble in Brighton.” The trickiest part of executing this phrase is keeping the rhythm steady as you move from string to string. That’s not to say you can’t vary the rhythm, just know when you’re varying it (Ex. 3).
Ex. 4 and Ex. 5 put Ex. 2 into practical context, using a 12-bar blues. It’s worthwhile to point out that this symmetrical phrase can be difficult to analyze. This 12-bar blues is supposedly in the key of E, yet the first six notes of the lick imply E Dorian (E–F#–G–A–B–C#–D), and the 3rd string includes a b5 and a b3. It’s good to be aware of the melodic implications, but don’t get hung up on analysis.
Randy Rhoads’ Open-String Riffs
If you slightly modify Ex. 1 our rockabilly riff takes a left turn into heavy metal territory. Ex. 6 can be found countless times in Rhoads’ playing, most notably in the classic “Crazy Train,” but also in “Flying High Again,” and “Dee.” As with all the examples in this lesson, start slowly and keep your volume and rhythm even.
Once you’re comfortable with Ex. 6, put it to work in a song. Examples 7-10 demonstrate a variety of possibilities. Note that Ex. 10 uses a Gin the riff and changes the C# in Ex. 7 to a C natural for a more bluesy sound.
What Do Eddie, Angus, and Randy Have in Common?
The answer? Ex. 11. Or at least variations thereof. My favorite example of this fast lick can be heard in AC/DC’s cover of the Big Joe Williams song “Baby, Please Don’t Go.” This requires more endurance and a bigger stretch than any of the previous examples, so if your hand gets tired or sore halfway through the phrase, stop, stretch, and try again. This example, perhaps more than any of the others, will require patience to play perfectly, so pace yourself.
So what about phrases that don’t use open strings? Well you can move Ex. 1 up the fretboard and end up with Ex. 12. This will be more challenging but once mastered, you’ll notice your speed increasing considerably up and down the neck and in all keys. Ex. 13 and Ex. 14 moves that shape across strings and will gradually build endurance.
Ex. 15 puts the previous examples into a song context. These phrases are comparable to Eddie Van Halen’s fills on “I’m The One” (symmetry in abundance on that song) and Van Halen’s cover of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me.”
The final example in this lesson highlights the exotic Phrygian dominant sound heard in Flamenco music and neo-classical metal (for more on the Phrygian dominant, see my “Inside the Harmonic Minor Scale” lesson). As with all the previous examples, Ex. 16 features short bursts of speed that can be expanded upon.
Speed vs. Endurance
You don’t need a lot of notes to play fast. If anything, the only way to get faster is to start with fewer notes. Focus on mastering a smaller group of notes at tempo before expanding to other strings and scales. Ironically slow and steady wins the race, even when it comes to speed.