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.

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The difference between playing as fast as possible and really saying something

We guitarists are a strange bunch. Deep inside, many of us harbor an intense fascination with all things technical, challenging, and impressive. We always seek out the riffs that seem impossible and that will make heads turn and jaws drop.

“I swear it looked like he had eight hands when he was playing. I could never do that!”

“Did you see him play that! How could any human physically do that?”

It’s part of our DNA and for most of us, it’s what makes us internally tick as guitarists. It’s like an unspoken language of sneaky winks, inside jokes, and secret handshakes among us 6-stringers.

“Hey, kid in the front row with your arms folded with that ‘impress me/you suck’ look … this riff is for you!”

Leaving the Planet
It’s our one-upmanship that separates the men from the boys, so to speak, and aligns the hierarchy of hero worship with earned respect. We all know the badass guitarists that play like they are from another universe. But as soon as we leave the very tiny world of Planet Guitar, we have to deal with something even more intimidating and challenging—music. Not that being a great guitarist isn’t about music per se (yeah, we deal with notes and all that), but sometimes being a musician can be even more difficult.

It’s one thing to have the tricky, fast licks that others of your kind find impressive, but it’s a whole other deal to turn those raw tools of technique into something that people actually want to hear repeatedly and are emotionally moved by. Ultimately, no one really knows how difficult that riff is or how many months it took you to perfect a technique. It comes down to this: Can they feel it? Are they buying the emotion that you are conveying? Have you made a connection that takes them somewhere different?

In my estimation, it comes down to songs and melody. These are the cornerstones that everything we do should be built on. Think of some of the great guitar music of the last decade or so, whether it’s a whole tune or just the solo. For the most part, everything that comes to mind is going to involve a solid song with a catchy melody or hook.

Who couldn’t be snagged by the great feel and melody of Eric Johnson’s “Cliffs of Dover?” Even though it’s a boogie-feel tune, I’ll bet you can hum just about every part of “Satch Boogie” without fail. “Still Got the Blues” by Gary Moore stands out as one of the greatest, simplest melodies in modern times. For me, Neal Schon has always been at the top of my list because you can basically hum every one of his solos, and constructing melodic solos is an art onto itself. The list can go on and on, but realize that aside from some searing guitar work interspersed in these songs, there is actually melody and a well-written composition. In fact, the solo is the composition!

Get out of The Way
As strange as this sounds, I believe the ability to do this kind of writing and soloing actually stems from putting aside thinking like a guitarist for a moment and approaching the music from another perspective. What line would fit best here? Can I sing it? Are there too many notes? Is there some sort of theme involved? Is the melody line taking you somewhere or telling a story, so to speak? Is there space and room in the playing?

I think there’s a misconception that if you’re playing slowly, you’re playing melodically. Melodic playing has little to do with the rate at which you play the notes, but rather what you are actually saying with them. My example above, “Cliffs of Dover,” is a great study of playing melodically at a fast clip, but still maintaining a theme and a focus that carries through the song, whereas in “Always With You, Always With Me,” Satch opts for a gorgeously slow and expressive line that is easily memorable.

The bottom line is to get out of our own way let the song guide us as to what to play. I’ve been in sessions where musicians refuse to accept the suggestions that the producer (or the tune itself) is presenting because it isn’t flashy enough or is thought to be below a virtuoso level. You know some people have a reputation to maintain!

I was in the studio years ago in a similar situation trying to figure out something to play over an E major progression I had just come up with. I tried all of the various riffs that were in my fingers and every guitar-centric fumbling I knew. Nothing was clicking. Finally, I stepped back to get a fresh perspective on the song. I outlined the progression in simple triads with a bit of ornamentation and the result was what you might know as my tune, “I’m Alright.” It was this lesson of getting out of my own way of preconceived notions of what a guitarist would play and instead let the song dictate my part.

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