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.
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