It's no secret that virtually every kid who picks up a guitar dreams of one thing—playing super fast. And I don’t blame them. Playing fast is fun. It is exhilarating. And it sounds awesome when done right.
But here's the thing when it comes to guitar playing and speed: It is fairly easy to learn but hard to master.
If you take some of the greatest shredders of our time, for instance, guys like Yngwie Malmsteen, Paul Gilbert, Kiko Loureiro or Jeff Loomis, you'll notice how, even when you slow down their solos to a crawl, each note sounds crisp, clear and purposeful. And therein lies the secret of mastering speed.
One of the most commonly used and effective techniques for building speed is the simple 1-2-3-4 exercise using a metronome. This is where you focus on playing four notes per string, to a metronome and work on developing your speed gradually.
This exercise looks something like this:
This is one of the fundamental exercises guitarists learn, and it's great for building speed, strength and dexterity. But what I have realized with this exercise is that sometimes guitarists can become restrained when it comes to building speed past a certain point. For example, let’s say you are doing the exercise at 120 bpm, playing 16th notes; it can sometimes be hard for you to push the speed envelope past a certain point while remaining faithful to the metronome.
So what I want to do with today’s lesson is introduce you to a little technique that helps you tackle speed from a different angle. I call this technique "bursting."
When you’re doing the basic 1-2-3-4 exercise with the metronome, what you are trying to do is maintain your left hand-right hand coordination while playing the notes to the metronome. But with bursting, what I want you to do is take the first four notes of the basic 1-2-3-4 exercise and try and play them as fast as humanly possible. I want you to forget about making it sound clear (at least for now) and just play it as fast as you can manage.
If I were to tab that out, it would look like this:
If you've never done this before, it's probably going to sound messy at first. But you need to understand that the basic principle of this exercise is completely different from that of the basic 1-2-3-4 exercise.
If you were to think of the basic 1-2-3-4 exercise as jogging to a designated beat, you should think of bursting as sprinting for your life with a pack of dogs running after you. What we want to do here is play these four notes as fast as we can, and then start trying to calibrate it backwards to synchronize the left and right hands.
Now to start introducing synchronization to this exercise, the first thing you should do is separate your left hand and right hand. What we are going to do first is take our picking hand and first focus on picking the four notes as fast as possible. And remember, you don’t need to do this to a specific rhythmic pattern or structure. You just need to focus on playing the four notes as fast as you can, all while maintaining your down-up-down-up picking pattern, making sure you end on the up stroke.
Next what we are going to do is introduce our fretting hand into the mix and try to get it synchronized with the picking hand. But remember, we are not going to try do this by slowing down our picking hand. Instead what we are going to do is try and get our fretting hand to keep up with our picking hand.
So what we are basically doing is trying to line up what we are playing with our fretting hand with the four notes we are picking with our picking hand. During the initial stages of doing this exercise, you will most likely find that your left hand has difficulty keeping up with the right. So it is important that you keep at it until your two hands achieve harmony and synchronization with each other.
It is also quite common for guitarists to realize that their ring and pinky fingers on the fretting hand aren’t strong enough to keep up with the exercise. But don’t worry, as long as you keep working on your finger strength and dexterity, this should get easier over time.
By doing this exercise over and over again, what we are basically doing is approaching the art of building speed from the other end of the spectrum. Whereas with the basic 1-2-3-4 exercise we were focusing on playing cleanly to the metronome while building our strength and technical capacity; with this exercise, what we are doing is sort of flipping things upside down by trying to play as fast as we can and then calibrating backwards for synchronization.
Another thing that I want to mention is that it is important that you keep doing your basic 1-2-3-4 exercises with these bursting exercises. Think of bursting as your incredibly fast shredding speed and your 1-2-3-4s as your fastest possible playing speed. Your plan should be to work on pushing your playing speed upwards until it eventually reaches your bursting speed.
Now the next important step in this exercise, and the step where most players get stuck, is migrating from one string to another. So what we are going to do first is to again isolate our picking hand.
We are going to first focus on playing four notes on one string and then playing one note on the next, while maintaining our down-up-down-up pattern. In other words, your last note on your starting string should always be an up stroke and your starting note on the next string should always be a down stroke. This is what this looks like on a tab:
And once we have mastered that what we are going to do next is add our fretting hand back into the mix, and keep trying to synchronize it with what our picking hand is playing.
When you first start doing these bursting exercises, don’t be surprised if it sounds really sloppy, and don’t be surprised if you aren’t able to do it for long periods of time. As with all things new, it will take you time and a great deal of effort to really see results.
So make sure that you add bursting to your daily exercise routine and stick with it. And make sure that you pay attention to the little things. Be merciless when trying to eliminate any sort of sloppiness when doing this exercise. If you work on it hard enough, you should be playing super fast and super clean in no time.
LessonFace.com offers live online music lessons via videoconference, allowing you to access top teachers in a wide variety of instruments from anywhere with a broadband connection. Steve is offering a live online group class for intermediate players this summer called “The Players Series” via the LessonFace.com platform. More information about live online lessons with Steve is available at lessonface.com/player.