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Groupings and Accents

What is the best way to increase picking speed when you seem to have hit the velocity ceiling?

Throughout the years, I’ve been asked many questions, the most popular being: How did I develop my technique? More specifically, what is the best way to increase picking speed when you seem to have hit the velocity ceiling?

We’ve all been there. You know the feeling. You set the metronome to a given speed and play accurately to the beat. As you increase the tempo, you eventually max out at the same point, over and over again. There seems to be a disconnection between different speeds. There’s slow, medium, fast and turbo! (And as you know, all of us aim for turbo, whether or not we want to admit it.)

I contend that reaching that top speed sometimes has more to do with a certain feel than it does just adhering to a strict beat. I think it physically feels different and we honor a whole different set of approaches than at a slower tempo. More so, it’s how we hear or view the notes we’re playing. Let me explain.

When we’re diligently slaving away, playing to a fast beat, we’re usually picking to a standard subdivision of the beat (quarter-note, eighth-note, sixteenth-note, and so on). It’s most likely we view each note singularly and play its subdivisions with an even, unaccented consistency. This approach is valid and has served us well up until this point. Yet now, it’s this point we want to get past.

I’ve noticed that if I group the notes differently in my mind while accenting certain ones I get different results. If I think of a grouping or a phrase of notes instead of just the single notes, I experience a much different feel, and therefore, a different result on the guitar. The key to this is that I accent a certain note in each phrase, and that note becomes my focus point.

As I’m playing this grouping of notes, I make sure that my “focus note” lands on a certain beat. As long as I make sure this note lands consistently on a particular beat, all the other notes in the phrase move accordingly around it. By placing the accent on a certain beat, we automatically delineate the phrase. This gives us our grouping feel.

Fig. 1 shows a scale broken down to groupings. I find that more often than not, the accented note is not the first note in the phrase, but rather the phrase’s highest or last note. The accented note is the key to making this approach work. I aim for it and by doing so, all the other notes in the phrase fall into place. Download example audio...

This approach also translates to other guitar techniques. Take sweep picking, for example. I’ve always viewed sweep picking as a “timeless” technique—not in any historical sense, but in the sense that you can fit a sweep (regardless of how many notes it contains) into a required space by viewing it in groups or phrases.

Now take a look at Fig. 2, where I play some arpeggios with unusual groupings. To accomplish this, I have to treat each arpeggio as one grouping or phrase and make sure that the first note of the group falls on the quarter note (in this example). Don’t be intimidated by the value or numerical grouping of the notes. Remember, this phrase is only as fast as the tempo you choose, so it looks scarier than it really is. The audio example that illustrates this concept is a song called “Magnus 212” from my upcoming CD, 212. You’ll hear some other grouping examples in this audio clip as well. Download example audio...

The advantage of this approach is that it feels different to play these riffs if the notes are grouped and the phrases have an accent in them. I believe that viewing fast lines this way opens up your technique, because it feels different to play with accents and groups instead of playing straight up with the metronome. Where you would think of one note, now you can visualize a phrase around it.

Neil Zaza
Neil Zaza tours the world constantly, playing his own brand of melodic instrumental guitar. He is currently recording his latest album, 212, and you can visit him at as well as