Up to Speed: Exercises for Fast Playing
This article originally appeared in She Shreds Magazine Issue #17, released April 2019.
Players of all levels can benefit from lessons focused on speed and agility—whether you’re completely new to guitar, or an experienced player looking for some new exercises. Or maybe you’re someone like me, who daydreams of ripping solos on top of a grand piano in the middle of the desert while donning a top hat. Regardless of how fast you can currently play or your big-picture goals, here are some universal tips and techniques on this magazine’s namesake: shredding.
Tips on Practicing
Practicing is not about how fast you can play; it’s about how well you can play. Start off slow and focus on accuracy, which will increase your muscle memory and clarity. Once these exercises feel effortless to play slowly, you can increase your speed. Be patient with yourself. Speed will come.
Practice consistently. That’s easier said than done, given the fact that life can be busy and demanding, but try practicing these patterns and techniques for at least 30 minutes per day. At first, you’ll want to learn these exercises without any distractions nearby. But once you have them memorized, you can get in the habit of mindlessly letting your fingers practice while watching your favorite TV show, looking at your dog, waiting for your pie to bake, whatever. That’s your muscle memory kicking in.
Chromatic scales are not exactly the most musical exercises, but they’re great ways to get your left and right hands better coordinated, and to build your finger strength and dexterity. Unlike other scales, you can start and end anywhere on the fretboard, on any note. And because these drills are so mechanic, they’re perfect for practicing mindlessly to get in your daily 30 minutes of finger exercise.
Below is a basic finger warm-up exercise. Try going up and down the entire neck, using this pattern on every fret. Use the first finger for the first fret, second finger for the second fret, third finger for the third fret, and the fourth finger for the fourth fret. When you get to the fourth fret of the highest string with your fourth finger, go backwards to end up back at the lowest string with your first finger. Make sure your fingers stay on each fret until you move on to the next string. Maintain this pattern as you move up each fret along the neck. It’s a long journey, but your fingers will be well-exercised by the time you get to the highest fret of the guitar.
Once you have this basic pattern down and can cycle through the scale up and down without stopping, you can try out some other patterns. Using the pattern, work your way up the strings while shifting positions and exercising the pinky.
You can also practice different patterns up and down the strings. Instead of using tabs, try using the pattern below. Here’s what the numbers indicate: 1 = first finger; 2 = second finger; 3 = third finger; 4 = fourth finger. Each set of four notes is to be played on one string. Start with the lowest string on any fret and work your way up each string until you end on the highest string.
1234, 1423, 4132, 1324, 1432, 1342
Practicing scales is a great way to increase your speed and agility. One of my favorite scale exercises is below, using the E harmonic minor scale. It’s a favorite because it sounds kind of “evil” and is perfect for metal riffing.
Work That Pinky
Chances are, your pinky finger (or your fourth finger) is the weakest link. The only way to build pinky strength and independence is to practice purposefully with various drills. It takes time and patience, but when your pinky catches up to the rest of your fingers, you’ll gain the rewards of faster and more fluid playing.
In addition to the chromatic drill shown earlier, below is one of my favorite exercises that helps with pinky finger dexterity. It’s one of the first patterns I learned when I first started playing guitar 20 years ago, and it’s still one of the first practices I dive into when I pick up my guitar today. In this exercise, your pinky gets the biggest workout while your first finger moves the least. You can start on any fret, but the tabs below will start on the seventh fret for the purposes of showing the pattern.
Styles of picking
Alternate picking is the most common way to build speed, but trying out other variations helps to diversify your abilities. This includes creating different patterns, such as down / up / up / down; down / up / down / down; and so on. You can try strumming two strokes per note, three strokes per note, four strokes per note, etc.
Economy picking is great way to combine alternate picking and sweep picking (a downward or upwards motion across strings). When notes are played on the same string, alternate picking is used. When notes are spread across different strings in a sequence, the downward or upward direction of picking motion is maintained while crossing strings. Practicing this technique will result in a faster and more controlled way of picking, and will eventually send you on your way to sweeping arpeggios.
Try this economy picking pattern through an E minor pentatonic:
V = downstroke
^ = upstroke
Playing with a metronome can help improve your timing and speed. Start with a comfortable, easy pace—around 80 beats per minute (bpm). Increase your speed gradually as you become comfortable with each pace, moving on to 100 bpm, 120 bpm, and 140 bpm. When you’re first starting out, play around with the number of notes you hit per click. Start with one note per click, two notes per click, three notes per click, and then four notes per click. What you’re able to master at 80 bpm will eventually feel seamless at 120 bpm.
Vary notes within a scale
Once you have basic scale patterns down, try varying the notes. Using the E harmonic minor scale as an example, try this:
Skip strings within a scale
Try skipping strings to enhance your right hand’s agility. Using the B minor pentatonic, try this exercise:
Practice and be patient. Aside from the self-discipline required to practice regularly, patience will prove to be the most important part of your process. Once you get the hang of these drills, it’s fun to see your fingers fly across your fretboard. If you keep at it, you’ll see the results you’re aiming for. Build that callous, get that muscle memory in place, and you’ll be shredding in no time!