THE 10 COMMANDMENTS OF SPEED-PICKING
By Stan Rose
Long before I picked up my first guitar, I heard Jimmy Page’s cascading solo runs on “Communication Breakdown” and I knew that to be truly happy, I would have to learn to play fast guitar. Blazing fast guitar. I wanted to be able to effortlessly play riffs that would tear your face off. And, of course, I wanted to be able to do it all in two weeks.
Unfortunately, soon after picking up my first Strat from a shop on 8th Street in Manhattan, I discovered that my expected natural talent wasn’t sufficient to enable me to outplay Yngwie & Co. after a few lessons and a few days of playing ‘til my fingernails broke (no bleeding fingers, they calloused long before that). The very first thing I learned is that unless you are a musical wunder-kid like Mozart, accomplishing anything on guitar takes hard work; lots and lots of hard work.
I still can’t cleanly play every fast lick that’s out there, but I’ve come a long way toward reaching my goal of being able to match my idols lick for lick. Along the way, I’ve learned from years and years of mistakes, trial and error, and musical ‘AH-hahs’ just what it takes to learn how to become the fasted guitarist you can be. So here it is, fellow Axemen: out of the goodness of my heart (and promises of free beer by Scott) I reveal to you the 10 sure-fire methods of developing ultra-fast technique.
1) If you are just starting out, forget about down-stroke picking. It only took me a couple weeks and listening to a few Tony MacAlpine tunes to realize that this was a big dead end. Unless you want to be the next James Hettfield, get over it and start off right by using only an alternate-picking (That’s up and down, got it?) technique.
2) Use a metronome, or a drum track to keep time and practice scales and licks. When I started out, I figured I could beat the system by practicing without a nerdy metronome. What a huge mistake. So, play with a steady beat and start learning to get a feel for the different tempos.
3) Above all, concentrate on playing cleanly and not on playing fast. I learned this rule from my lessons with John Petrucci, who knows a thing or two about fast playing. This is THE most essential rule to follow if you want to increase your speed. Without this one, nothing else matters! It’s also the hardest thing to accept, because if you are human you’ll want to do what I and countless other Steve Vai wannabes did: cut corners and play fast right off the bat. GET OVER IT! If you need proof that a lick played cleanly at 120 beats per minute sounds significantly faster than a 200 beat per minute lick played sloppily, record yourself and hear for yourself.
4) Here’s a secret that Michael Angelo revealed to me recently, and it’s so true I have to steal it and repeat it: there is only one essential rule to follow for proper speed-picking technique--keep your pick-holding fingers rigid; don’t flex them. I learned long ago from seeing Strunz and Farah (too extremely fast-picking dudes) in concert that there is no one “right” way to efficiently pick. You can use your wrist as a pivot and fan out your fingers, or you can clench your fingers and wrist in a rigid fist; don’t matter one bit. The key is to lock onto that pick and conserve finger motion.
5) That being said, it can be very helpful to study the styles and techniques of players who are known for their speed. I used the late great Shawn Lane as a model of how to get the most of my picking style. Shawn was probably the fastest and most efficient picker around, and I was fortunate enough to see him up close in concert several times. Besides giving me so great ideas on how to tighten up my playing, it also simply inspired me to want to practice more.
6) Speaking of other players, if you are looking for inspiration don’t neglect other styles.
There are some truly blazing classical and jazz guitarists out there to listen too. And one of the greatest shredders I’ve ever seen play was Danny Gatton, a blues/jazz/country guitarist who would have put Yngwie to shame if he had used distortion!
7) I once read someone claim that the key to playing fast was not the physical technique, but the ability to recognize and differentiate specific rhythms when they are played at a very fast speed. I believe this is partly correct--both are important. It’s a pretty tricky concept, because it means you can play more efficiently by learning how to train your ears to recognize what your fingers are doing, rather than train your fingers to play what your ears recognize. Huh?? All I can say is, learn to hear where the accents fall within the pattern you are playing; pay close attention to where your upstrokes and downstrokes are falling within the pattern, and on what notes the beat lands on. It will come to you, trust me.
8) Scales have a place, but playing patterns is much more beneficial to learn speed-picking. The first pattern I ever worked on consisted of simply playing chromatic notes up and down the neck, from low to high strings and back down (for example: F, F#,G,G#;
A#,B,C,C#; etc etc) Horribly boring, but it works! No pain, no gain!
9) Far more fun and an even better way to go is to learn some real cool fast lick and play it over and over as a training exercise. My all-time favorite is the ‘Crossroads’ solo, Paganini Caprice #5. Have at it!
10) Set goals for yourself, and Practice, Practice, Practice.
Happy Shredding! -Stan