Are You Suppressing Your Inner Speed Demon?

Steve Morse Chromatic Octaves. Yngwie Triplet Sweeps. Paganini Lick. Petrucci X Lick. Gilbert Symmetrical Sequence. Terry Syrek 5-String Legato Sweep. Spider of Doom Lick. Rusty Cooley Video Game Death Lick. Buckethead Roller Coaster on Space Mountain Lick.

You could say I had a little preoccupation in my late teens. Looking through my old practice logs I’m amazed I actually finished high school. I am also amazed I didn’t lose my mind while tracking progress for about 70 licks and their variations right down to the beats per minute. If you saw the sh*t I wrote, you would likely wonder the same.

Fortunately, I have learned a few things since my teenage speed crusade. One of those things involves a device that’s popular with guitarists (read: shredders) worldwide: metronomes.

First of all, this is not another rant about metronomes (Zzzz) but rather an observation about my own playing (particularly alternate picking) I made a few years back. Also, I believe the element of speed in music is, just like everything else, a tool that can be manipulated to create excitement. Slow and fast playing is just like different colors on a painter’s palette; they are used to stir up certain emotions. That being said, there are many guitarists who want to develop their speed but cannot seem to break past a certain point. If you’re a speed-seeking missile who has slaved away on every shred routine in every guitar magazine to no avail, read on.

In the realm of lead guitar, metronomes are great for pretty much one thing and that’s mastering the mechanics of a technique or lick at any speed. Start at a slow bpm and gradually increase the tempo until you sound like the record. This is generally how shredders get fast.

After using this approach for a few years, I eventually moved to Los Angeles and got heavy into…wait for it…nope, not that…not that either…ready? Songwriting. I got a small Pro Tools rig and spent many hours writing and recording songs. I also started watching other guitar players in town. My friend Dave and I would go see guys like Jason Hook (pre-Five Finger Death Punch) and Phil X (pre-Fretted Americana) perform at small clubs in Hollywood. This was huge. Seeing dudes who played rock n’ roll just peeling off these super fast licks from 10 feet away was very inspiring.

Over time, I noticed that whenever I’d start noodling around on the guitar, I would picture all these guitarists in my head and think: I’m gonna play this sh*t f#©king fast…

It was about two years since I had done any serious technique practice, let alone with a metronome. Apparently, none of that mattered because I started picking faster. Way faster. This also came at a time when I began to overcome the social stigma of playing fast licks onstage. Every new band I was in gave me the experience to go further and further with my lead work. Outshine the other guitar player? Check. Keep up with the drummer while picking the keyboard solo to “Highway Star?” Check. Going for 32nd notes during a solo in an acoustic shuffle that I had absolutely no business playing? Check freakin’ mate. These things forced me to play faster but I can honestly say it all started with the visualization that it could actually be done.

I won’t delve into the metaphysical here but visualization can be a powerful tool. For the reader, the only requirement I will add to this practice is that what you visualize should be fueled by inspiration. Inspiration makes everything easier and in this case, it will have a greater impact on how you internalize and manifest the characteristics you desire.

Now, data that you can measure is certainly helpful for seeing your progress. Metronomes and bpm’s have their place but they just don’t tap a raw nerve. The key to breaking through your speed plateau is actually in your head. It’s deep down in your amygdala, screaming for attention…

Time to meet your speed-ego.

A carefully developed relationship with your inner speed racer can skyrocket you through subconscious limitations you may have imposed on yourself over years of growing up.

Numbers and other musical minutiae won’t help.

You need to get pissed.

While you’re at it, start combining synergistic behaviors. As I mentioned in a previous post entitled “Destroy Your Heroes,” you will never play exactly like your idols. This should excite you. Dig into all your little playing eccentricities and embrace your unique coolness. These things will grow with you the longer you play. Even after playing guitar for more than half my life, I continue to evolve. It’s like my fingers are constantly looking for new ways to play the damn thing. I believe that allowing myself to be comfortable in my own skin additionally helped me to tap into my speed-ego, or speego, if you will.

You can do the same. Speed doesn’t care who chooses to harness its glorious power. If you want speed then you must get out of your own way and choose it. Don’t ask for it or hope a metronome will take you the entire way. At some point, you will have to assume the mentality and identity of a guitar player who does play fast (while developing other important musical skills as well). Just like bending strings, playing fast guitar licks is just another tool that can be veiled, or unleashed, at your disposal.

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Below is a lick that changed the course of my lead playing forever. It’s Paul Gilbert’s famous “outside picking” triplet lick on the top two strings from his first Intense Rock video. Try it out but remember, playing it with attitude will increase its benefits twofold.

d = down stroke                                                                                                                   u = up stroke

    d   u   d   u   d   u
E|--------------12-----------|
B|--12--13--15------15--13---| repeat in a loop
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Destroy Your Heroes

One problem, or perhaps excuse, I have often heard from many a musician who profess the desire to write songs is that their efforts always ends up sounding like their favorite bands or artists. I chalk this up to creative growing pains because as derivative as you think you are, you’ll never play, write or peel a potato like your idols. And that’s a good thing. Here’s why:

Every single person on the planet is constantly influenced by everything around him or her whether or not they know it, or admit it. The same applies to music. I owe a lot of the musical preferences (that I’m aware of) to radio and that’s something many people can relate to.

As a guitar player, I wouldn’t have made much progress if it weren’t for the work of others who came long before I did. But whether you’re a modest fan or you like to wear your influences on your sleeve (literally), don’t act like you have none. That’s just being a douche. Douches have no friends because nobody likes douches except pussies…

I remember once in the studio, my friend asked the band’s guitarist what his influences were and the guy actually said he had none but that he listened to a lot of classical music. I’d like to include that this guitarist’s music had to have been the freaking encyclopedia of lead guitar licks featuring a veritable crap-ton of sweep-picked arpeggios.

Now regardless of what this guitarist might have thought in his head, he was not the first guy to do these things. But that’s okay! We’re all products of our time. What makes you a douche and sets off everyone’s BS meter is if you deny that simple reality. So get that straight first and instantly feel the self-imposed burden of hyper-originality evaporate.

You only get better at things you spend most of your time on. If you only write music when you get inspired,” you will probably not get any better anytime soon. If the song you’re writing sounds like a bad Tool cover then you are merely experiencing some “growing pains” in your writing journey that you will eventually outgrow (sooner than you think). Finish the song and move on to the next one.

While I do think it is good exercise for your songwriting muscles and creativity, constantly trying to avoid sounding like an influence can seriously derail the progress of a song, especially for a beginner. You are what you eat musically. Recognize it. Embrace it. If you can’t respect your own musical personality, who will?

Some songwriters just starting out are scared of plagiarizing a known artist but unless that is your goal, it actually becomes very hard to do (especially for an entire song) once you’ve been writing for a while (and a “while” could mean weeks, months or years depending on how often you write). Obviously you don’t want to just rip off someone else’s work but after the first few times you get stuck with a similar sounding riff (it’s gonna happen) you’ll start to develop your own rules for dealing with this.

Let’s say you write a new riff on the guitar but it reminds you of your favorite Aerosmith, Danzig or Huey Lewis (I couldn’t resist) riff. You want to be original so you alter your riff so much that you only succeed in ruining it. Follow my personal protocol for overcoming this common quandary:

1. Tweak your riff for 1 hour (2 if yer green) to see if you can find a more unique version that you actually like better than your original riff AND the famous riff you’re trying to avoid copying. You might be surprised at what you come up with. But if you can’t find anything better…

2. Replace your original riff with the famous riff and if the famous riff just feels the best for that section of the song then just go with it and look for ways to disguise it. But I’m not talking about the riff itself. Just the addition of adjacent sections and vocal rhythms/melodies can effectively disguise a famous-sounding riff in your song. Recording yourself (which I strongly recommend anyways) will instantly make this apparent.

If you want to get better (and more unique) in your songwriting, you’ve got to write. You’ll start many songs and probably finish less but it is important that you do finish as many songs as you can. This takes discipline but it will teach you form and presentation as well as help you develop a style. Otherwise all you’ll have are riffs and ideas. You need to complete whole songs to grow as an artist.

Songwriting gives you the chance to perfectly express how you feel in ways only music can convey. Even if you fear sounding like your influences, as long as you consistently write music from your gut, you’ll increasingly notice how much you sound like, well, yourself.

Remember, it’s not just musical influences that appear in your songs. It’s every place you’ve been, every person you’ve met, every dream or fear you’ve ever had. There’s simply nobody else who can make music like you.

And that’s fucking beautiful.

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Have any songwriting tips to share? Tell me in the comments!