Now that we’ve covered all the basics of speed playing, there are a few practice strategies that I’ve found useful over the years.
First, you’ll need to practice with a metronome. A metronome is a great way to measure your progress, and it helps keep your rhythm honest – you don’t want to become sloppy as the speed increases.
A metronome is useful for two types of drills. The first, which I call “˜laddering’ involves playing with a metronome at a given speed until you can play a drill perfectly. At that point, you’ll increase the speed of the metronome clicks, and start over again. Metronomes come in two basic flavors: mechanical and digital. Mechanical metronomes are basically clocks with a sliding weight that allows you to adjust the speed of the “˜click’ it produces; they typically have divisions ranging from 40bpm (beats per minute) to 208bpm. Digital metronomes, which are available as stand-alone battery or electric units, and as software for computers or iPhones. They can have various whistles and bells – literally. I’ve got one that rings a bell for beat one, and clicks on the other beats in various time signatures. Some will give you other sounds for divisions or subdivisions of a beat, and some will give you the option of a flashing light to accompany the click.
In a laddering drill, you might practice at 60bpm until you have a pattern down solidly, then move to 63, 66, 69, 72, 80, and so on. When you reach the top end of the metronome’s range, just cut the time in half and use subdivisions – eighth notes at 208 are the same speed as 16th notes at 104, so you can start there and move up to 108 and keep building your speed.
The other type of drill is one I call “leaping.” This will build your speed faster than laddering, but there’s a downside: because it forces your speed along, it also risks introducing sloppy behavior. I’d advise doing this leaping strategy only periodically – twice a week at most; the rest of your speed drills should be done with laddering, where you can focus better on your technique.
In a leaping drill, you start by playing at a speed you’re comfortable with. Then adjust the metronome to TWICE that speed and try it again. You won’t be able to keep up. Do your best with it, but just do it ONCE. Then set the metronome to slightly faster than your starting speed – if you started at 80bpm, try it at 84. You might find that you can now play it – in contrast to the frantic pace you were just trying to play, 84 seems a lot slower, even if 80 was your best effort to date. If you can play it properly at 84, leap up to 160 again and try it ONCE. Then try it at 88 – if you succeed, keep repeating until you find the speed where you fall apart.
If you make a mistake at the slower speed, stop! You don’t want to be practicing your mistakes and making them habits! Instead, go back to your original speed (80bpm in this example) and start over.
Finally, keep a log of your progress. Jot down the exercises you did, and the speeds you’ve achieved. That will give you a record of your achievements, and that can help you keep at it when you hit the inevitable plateaus.
Tom (“Noteboat”) Serb is a longtime Guitar Noise contributor and founder of the Midwest Music Academyin Plainfield, Illinois. This advice first appeared in Volume 4 # 9 of Guitar Noise News. Sign-up for our newsletter to receive more free tips like this by email.
© 2011, Tom Serb