How To Practice Speed On Guitar Without Sacrificing Soul And Feel Part 1
By Antony Reynaert
There are plenty of resources to be found online on the topic of building speed on guitar, but almost all of these are focussed on “shredding styles” such as metal, progressive rock, etc. In the upcoming articles you are going to learn how to approach both speed training specifically and guitar technique in general for blues guitar.
In this first article we’ll look at how to approach the topic of building guitar technique for styles that are derived from blues (such as blues, bluesrock, classic rock, etc.). These principles are fundamental to every genre, but are even more essential in the aforementioned styles.
The reason for this is simple; when you look at guitar exercises for metal and rock guitarists, these exercises are much less likely to be misunderstood. In order to get this, let’s look at the blues tab below.
If you would play riffs like these with the tablature as only reference, then you would probably wind up with a sound that matches the above sound example closely. Take a listen, as you’ll hear every note is attacked very precisely and cleanly. Fact is that in the blues often times we don’t want to attack the strings in such a precise manner. When playing blues rhythm parts we often want to play with a totally different feeling and attack.
Take a look at the tablature below. Here we are using left hand muting to mute the strings that we aren’t playing:
As you can see in this tab, I tabbed out the first three bars from the example above, but instead of playing every note ‘cleanly’, we have to mute all the adjacent strings.
Take a listen to how this sounds in this sound example.
As you notice this type of playing sounds totally different than what we did in the original tab. Only this left hand muting technique makes it possible to accomplish such a feel. The confusing thing for many beginner and intermediate guitarists is that important information such as the left hand muting is left out in many blues guitar tabs. The same holds true for other styles of music, but the blues is very sensitive to these sometimes very subtle nuances.
How To Build Your Guitar Technique If You Want To Play Styles Derived From The Blues
It’s my intention to make you realise that if we only relied on the information in the first tab, we would come up with a very different end result. Without this missing information it’s simply not possible to play this riff properly. This would result in an amateurish sound compared to the way that the riff actually should sound.
When playing blues guitar solos there are plenty of elements that can be technical or rhythmical in nature that are prone to being misinterpreted. There are many little nuances in the blues that need to be heard by listening to the original recordings (but before that is possible you need to learn to perform and distinguish these techniques first).
As mentioned before, some concepts of building up your guitar technique are indeed universal and can be applied to every style, such as learning about different picking techniques. But in highly expressive and nuanced styles such as the blues we need to approach some aspects of building up our guitar technique in another way.
Why ‘Speed Training’ Is Important Even If You Don’t Want To Play Guitar Fast
Take for instance the topic of speed training. When you want to be a ‘shredder’ then you would need to practice everyday to get your maximum speed up on various scales and exercises using specific practice strategies. When you want to become a great blues guitarist on the other hand, then you would need to focus on totally different exercises (while some exercises would still stay the same).
Take for instance the guitar playing of Stevie Ray Vaughan. He never missed a beat, even when playing at the fastest speeds (his classic MTV acoustic performance is a great example of such playing where he performed his up-tempo track ‘Rude Mood’).
I remember watching him play these fast shuffle rhythms and think to myself “how is he able to play that fast and still maintain his accuracy?” You might think to yourself; “Can we as ‘mortals’ get there?” The answer is yes. Let me show you how solid blues guitar technique is build.
How To Train Your Picking Hand For ‘Rhythmical Responsiveness’
Speed training is important even if you don't want to play fast guitar parts. You want to train the rhythmical responsiveness of both your hands; how fast can you play what you hear in your mind, how fast can you correct mistakes? There's a special kind of training necessary for this where we need the metronome.
Imagine you want to improvise over a fast blues guitar shuffle at 160 beats per minute (bpm) in the key of E. You are already familiar with playing the same shuffle but at a slower speed, such as at 120 bpm. The licks, the technique, everything is exactly the same at the faster rhythm, but for some reason you can’t seem to ‘get it down’ at this faster speed.
What is it exactly that’s holding you down? The first thing that is important to realise is that this problem is not a physical block; it’s a mental block. You need to train your mind (and fingers as well) to perform all the necessary motions in real-time.
Let’s take an in-depth look at what this means. When playing at a speed of 160 bpm in sixteenth notes we play roughly 10 notes per second. This means that we only have one tenth of a second to:
1) make a decision (when improvising; what note are we going to play?)
2) act on that decision
While it’s true that through exercise and training much of these things become subconscious, it’s a fact that even in this case we still need to be able to hit the string(s) and have the correct finger on that string in one tenth of a second.
Your fingers might be able to do it, but your mind is still too slow. Training with a metronome is key, because this pushes your mind and fingers to think and perform at faster speeds. When there is a click to play to, this will challenge you to practice at faster speeds.
Like I have mentioned above, this is not only important if you want to play fast guitar parts. Practicing with a metronome is important even when you don’t want to play at high speeds, because you want to train your mind and fingers to make all of the necessary movements in time in any given situation. This can only be achieved when practicing with a rhythm in the background and the metronome is in many situations the best solution for such type of training.
The Dance Of Your Fingers: How To Train Your Body To Make Decisions In Real-Time
View your fingers as dancers, dancing on the fretboard of your guitar. Did you train them long and adequately enough to perform all the necessary steps? You need to be able to make decisions (and act on these decisions) in real-time. As we’ve studied above sometimes we need to make a decision in less than one tenth of a second.
How are we going to do this? You need to train for scenarios such as these:
• Imagine you are in the midst of a blues lick at 160 bpm played in sixteenth notes and you miss a beat. Can you correct yourself in real-time to play the next part of the lick in rhythm again?
• Imagine you play a lick at 160 bpm in eight notes but you accidently hit a wrong note. Can you respond fast enough to alter this note so that the listener doesn’t even hear that you’ve hit a wrong note in the first place (this is what great guitarists do all of the time: they correct their mistakes in real-time so that the listener doesn’t even hear the mistake).
This is what I call ‘responsiveness training’. It trains both of your hands to respond to fast tempos, rhythm changes, mistakes, etc. very fast. There are a lot of exercises that will help you to train to perform in these scenarios. Let’s look at one of the absolute best exercises to train this area of your guitar playing. The exercise itself may seem simple to you, but it isn’t. Here is your assignment: practice everything you know; scales, chord progressions, etc. with upstrokes.
You will find that, over time, your entire guitar technique will improve by focussing on the way your mind and fingers work together. For now, you should most of all keep in mind that training to play with more speed will benefit your guitar playing as a whole. Even if you are not really interested in playing the guitar at a high tempo, you will only see the good effects of speed training. Practicing speed will make the cooperation between your mind and fingers a whole lot better in order to make all the right movements at the right time. Besides being able to play faster, you will also improve your responsiveness. Just like the blues greats, you will be able to correct yourself so fast if you accidentally hit a wrong note, no one will ever know you made a mistake. In the upcoming article, we will go deeper into this topic and you will learn how to practice in order to never play a mistake on the guitar again.
In addition to train your mind and body to play at fast tempos it's important to also know the different styles of picking techniques. That's why I created a Free Guide on Blues Guitar Picking Exercises which you can download.
Learn About The Guitar Soloing Lesson That Will Get Your Blues Lead Guitar Playing To The Next Level