Picking speed, I can't move past my plateau

The Viking Gangster

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Mar 22, 2015
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Is playing at 800 to 1000 notes per minute something that you have to develop when you are young? I'm 53 and want to learn to play more difficult songs. Sometime I practice for 3 to 4 hour a day working on the downward slanted picking technique used by Eric Johnson. I practice with a metronome and start off slowly....no matter what, I seem to plateau at 400 to 600 notes per minute. And, that's with scales, not in a song.

Any ideas how to build clean smooth with clarity speed like Joe Bonamassa or Eric Johnson? I'm starting to think it's all a waste of time and that I just need to play songs with more simple technique. No more trying to play songs like Cliffs of Dover by Eric Johnson, or Juice by Steve Via. I should stick to the classics like the Beatles, Stones, Pink Floyd, Paul Simon, James Taylor and so on.

Thanks for any helpful sage advice.
 

ozboy

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I am older and can do 650 playing a blues riff on the bottom strings, maybe 700 if I really pushed. That's to a metronome and based on four repititons per note. A bit slower for one stroke per notes doing three octave scales in triplet form and a bit slower again playing pentagon if two octave scales.

There is clearly a difference based on the amount of lateral movement in the left hand. It's the left hand not the right that is the limit for me.

Also a thicker pick is faster than a lighter pick, since it doesn't have to move so far to make a sound.
 

LSchefman

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There is, unfortunately, a genetic component to musical ability. That doesn't mean that practicing won't help - in fact, it helps everyone regardless of age or ability - but there are certain genetically inherited traits.

From a 2014 article in Scientific American, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-do-great-musicians-have-in-common-dna/

"A similar study forthcoming in Psychological Science by Miriam A. Mosing of Stockholm's Karolinska Institute leans even heavier on the role of genes in musicality. Mosing and colleagues looked at the association between music practice and specific musical abilities like rhythm, melody and pitch discrimination in over 10,000 identical Swedish twins. They reported that the propensity to practice was between 40% and 70% heritable and that there was no difference in musical ability between twins with varying amounts of cumulative practice. "Music practice,” they conclude, “may not causally influence musical ability and … genetic variation among individuals affects both ability and inclination to practice."

In other words, the desire to practice in the first place is partly genetic, and second, the folks with identical genes (identical twins) who have great musical ability can practice different amounts and still have the same musical ability.

Further studies show that unless the musical ability is developed through that combination of genetics and structured study before a kid is in his into adolescence, an adult learner will only get so far. It's like learning a language. Small children pick up languages faster than older folks. Apparently this has something to do with the development of neural pathways and networks in the brain.

So if you're 12 years old and you're very talented, and you're woodshedding and sitting in your room playing guitar every spare moment, you're just going to be a lot better than a person who picks up the instrument later in life, or starts that woodshedding later in life, and not only that, you're going to be able to play with other musicians better, because your innate sense of timing is better, etc.

So yes, by all means, practice, but don't expect to be Eric Johnson if you've reached adulthood, unless you were, in fact, Eric Johnson as a young kid.

I started piano lessons at four, and had some degree of musical talent. Piano has always been effortless for me, and speed isn't an issue.

I took guitar up at 17, and after many years of playing both guitar and piano professionally - I'm in my 60s now - I still feel far more comfortable on piano, I'm faster, and I'm just a far better piano player than guitar player. But...here's the good news.

Some of the greatest guitar solos of all time are not played at 800 notes per minute. I do pretty well at session work playing melodically or playing interesting combinations of notes, at relatively slow speeds, because ultimately, an interesting solo is not based on speed, it's based on note selection, timing, phrasing, etc. A great solo can be played on quarter notes instead of 1/32 notes.

So by all means practice, and at some point you'll hit the speed wall because of who you are, and not just because you need to practice more. But we all still have to play interesting phrases. And that's really the more important issue. Can you improvise an interesting solo? Do you know how to create a good melody? How's your sense of timing when playing with good musicians?
 

DHW

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I've struggled with speed too and have been researching it to death and have come up with a few things that I am working on that are helping a lot.

First I went up to 1.5mm picks from 1mm, Dunlop primetones to be exact and really like them. Less flexing means less waiting for rebound.

Second warm up slowly and stretch. Not just my hands and wrists but my elbows and shoulders, even neck.

Third, practice stuff that is useful. Scales are important but you won't be playing many straight scales. Troy Stetina metal lead books and speed mechanics is plus full of licks that are heavily used in the actual music you will be playing and gives you musical things to practice.

Fourth and most important, rooting out tension... Tension kills my speed really bad. One guy said you need to be like a Zen master while playing and he's right. Obvious tension point is in your fretting hand. Play something lighter and lighter until it no longer rings out and then play it with just a touch more pressure and that's all the pressure that is needed, don't choke it. Don't smash your thumb into the back of the neck, it rests there. The fingers that are not fretting notes should remain moveable, tension will lock them in place. Learn to release a note before moving the finger so you aren't fighting it. Keep your fingers in a soft arch, like you are holding an Apple not like you are trying out for a zombie movie. Move up to your wrist, it should remain flexible as well. It should be relatively straight and not curled up or pushed out to extremes. Elbow should be relaxed and basically in line with your wrist. Your shoulder should be relaxed and down, don't Herman munster it. Neck relaxed. Watch your jaw, don't clench. Keep breathing, don't hold your breath when you get to a challenging section. Now down the picking arm... All the same stuff all the way down, relax your hand. Don't make a fist, don't squeeze so you are tense. Loosey goosey. Keep your back straight and your head over the spine. Don't twist your back around. Don't tense your feet.

I found all this hard to do initially and I really felt out of control but it's getting better and feeling more natural. More importantly it's helping a ton!

Another place I struggle and am making a very conscious effort is releasing tension when some is needed. Vibrato and bends take more tension than simple note fretting. Releasing that tension immediately after instead of incrementing up is important.

Another tip is to memorize what you are working on and then get more into your peripheral vision instead of pinpoint focusing helps to get you into the right side of your brain.

Another of my problem areas is trusting my muscle memory and subconscious... If I look at my hands while I'm playing very much my conscious mind overthinks and causes me to make mistakes which then causes me to tense up...

I used to practice sitting down and that was horrible I found out after I started standing up for my practice. That alone caused a pretty major jump in speed after getting used to it.
 

Michael_DK

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I've struggled with speed too and have been researching it to death and have come up with a few things that I am working on that are helping a lot.

First I went up to 1.5mm picks from 1mm, Dunlop primetones to be exact and really like them. Less flexing means less waiting for rebound.

Second warm up slowly and stretch. Not just my hands and wrists but my elbows and shoulders, even neck.

Third, practice stuff that is useful. Scales are important but you won't be playing many straight scales. Troy Stetina metal lead books and speed mechanics is plus full of licks that are heavily used in the actual music you will be playing and gives you musical things to practice.

Fourth and most important, rooting out tension... Tension kills my speed really bad. One guy said you need to be like a Zen master while playing and he's right. Obvious tension point is in your fretting hand. Play something lighter and lighter until it no longer rings out and then play it with just a touch more pressure and that's all the pressure that is needed, don't choke it. Don't smash your thumb into the back of the neck, it rests there. The fingers that are not fretting notes should remain moveable, tension will lock them in place. Learn to release a note before moving the finger so you aren't fighting it. Keep your fingers in a soft arch, like you are holding an Apple not like you are trying out for a zombie movie. Move up to your wrist, it should remain flexible as well. It should be relatively straight and not curled up or pushed out to extremes. Elbow should be relaxed and basically in line with your wrist. Your shoulder should be relaxed and down, don't Herman munster it. Neck relaxed. Watch your jaw, don't clench. Keep breathing, don't hold your breath when you get to a challenging section. Now down the picking arm... All the same stuff all the way down, relax your hand. Don't make a fist, don't squeeze so you are tense. Loosey goosey. Keep your back straight and your head over the spine. Don't twist your back around. Don't tense your feet.

I found all this hard to do initially and I really felt out of control but it's getting better and feeling more natural. More importantly it's helping a ton!

Another place I struggle and am making a very conscious effort is releasing tension when some is needed. Vibrato and bends take more tension than simple note fretting. Releasing that tension immediately after instead of incrementing up is important.

Another tip is to memorize what you are working on and then get more into your peripheral vision instead of pinpoint focusing helps to get you into the right side of your brain.

Another of my problem areas is trusting my muscle memory and subconscious... If I look at my hands while I'm playing very much my conscious mind overthinks and causes me to make mistakes which then causes me to tense up...

I used to practice sitting down and that was horrible I found out after I started standing up for my practice. That alone caused a pretty major jump in speed after getting used to it.


This post is so great, man! You totally hit the nail on the head!!!

I will add this: Practice all the points about relaxing at an excruciatingly slow speed until it is automatic. That takes some time. Play it slow enough that you can continually focus on relaxing everywhere in the body, and breathing normally. Actually, breathing normally into the stomach, so to speak. It's actually a bit of meditation. It's like Pavlov; you need to perfectly associate relaxation with your playing, and the only way to do that is by BEING relaxed while playing, not allowing tension to come into the picture in any part of the body, really. And you do THAT by playing slowly enough to retain the relaxation, and release it IMMEDIATELY when it does come up. It HAS to be slow when you start working on this.

Also: as mentioned before, rhythm. Tap your foot and KEEP to that rhythm. The left hand and the right hand BOTH need to know when the note shall fall, so it's no use using the left hand as a time anchor for the right or vice versa. The time anchor is the foot. Otherwise one hand strikes before the other.
 

DHW

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Ah yes... Tai Chi style practice! That is a big help too. I need to practice the foot tapping as well... All the way back to middle school band and I've never done it.
 

andy474x

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May 4, 2012
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Can't agree more with Les - while speed is cool, I would much rather play something interesting than something fast. Very few players can combine them well. Randy Rhoads comes to mind as someone that could shred AND be interesting. But, I have also struggled with speed. Less tension is a good thing!
 

garrett

...
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Speed is easy. You just do it like this:


"I was at 200. Let's say that was difficult." I've always loved that line. I had this video and got a lot of good use out of it. He does make a good point about jumping to a faster speed than what you expect to achieve. It makes the slightly slower speed feel easier, similar to how baseball players will swing extra weight while they're waiting on deck.

John really does approach playing like an athlete would approach a sport. He stretches and runs drills and puts in loads of hard, structured practice time. Putting in the work will help get you to your highest level. I say YOUR highest level because that's where I believe genetics kicks in. To Les's point, we don't all have genetics that favor shredding, just like we don't all have the genetics to become pro athletes. By all means push the limits of what you're capable of, but be the best YOU that you can be and don't worry so much about matching someone else.

Bottom line is if you're enjoying yourself, it's not a waste of time. If you're not enjoying yourself, move on to something else that you do enjoy.
 

Huggy B

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Mar 10, 2015
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2,542
Anything is achievable if pursued with conviction, yes there is a cutoff physically that we all have to deal with and the effects of things like arthritis can limit what level of speed and dexterity we can reach as we age. I personally got faster at certain periods of my guitar life and it had less to do with my age and more to do with my environment. In my 20's I got fairly fast playing hard rock and doing the guitar solos of the early 80's, in my 30's I slowed down because I wasn't playing enough improv and a lot of rhythm playing, in my 40's I speeded back up while teaching myself jazz and having fusion jams, now I'm a little fumble fingers because I've just been writing songs and recording backing tracks for singers.

To me it has more to do with environment than anything else. If you're playing with rockers, shredders, fusion heads, or jazz nuts, you're going to get pushed to play faster than if you were strumming chords to a vocal tune. Simple math there.

Sometimes it's not how long you practice, but how you practice. Here's a thought, take a couple of lessons with a shred master, sometimes they can point out some things that can improve your speed and precision, correct things that may be slowing you down, and even the impact of seeing someone do what you want to do in person can inspire much more than a video lesson on youtube. (Even though there are a ton of great lessons on there) There's friend around the corner from me that is a guitar teacher and recording artist that specializes in acoustic playing similar to the Paco De Lucia, Al DiMeola, John Mclaughlin stuff, and he takes jazz guitar lessons from Mimi Fox a recording artist from the area. He wants to get that jazzy vibe first hand.

More than genetics or how many hours are put in, we're all products of our environment, and of you put yourself in an environment of fast players, you're gonna get faster. Otherwise, if you're trying to do it alone your just going to have to be committed to pushing yourself.
 

tabl10s

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Sep 8, 2012
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Fingerstyle killed my picking and it was only two months ago that I was able to hold a pick without it slipping or being dug too deep into the strings.

My bugaboo was/is my little finger on the left hand add it won't stay close to the board like Steve Morse. I went as far as playing in front of a piece of furniture to restrict its upward movement.
 

DHW

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my pinky on my left hand likes to wander behind the neck.
 

ozboy

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I like to think I can play fast enough but in reality or the music I play there are few occasions where 600 are that necessary. Transferring from pick to finger style and back again seamlessly at 120 bpm is a much more necessary skill. I miscalculated above. My limit is 550-600
 

Michael_DK

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Fingerstyle killed my picking and it was only two months ago that I was able to hold a pick without it slipping or being dug too deep into the strings.

My bugaboo was/is my little finger on the left hand add it won't stay close to the board like Steve Morse. I went as far as playing in front of a piece of furniture to restrict its upward movement.


I must say, I can't recommend this - you could end up hurting yourself, and while it does restrict movement, it does NOT restrict tension - I'd think rather the opposite, in fact.

For this exact problem I've started practicing SLOOOOOW trills with my 2nd and 3rd finger, while holding my index finger lightly on top of the next higher string, and the pinky resting lightly on the next lower string (i.e. lower in pitch - higher toward the ceiling :)). Making sure I never press down. It just helps to anchor the fingers in the positions I ultimately want them to be in (or at least closer to it), without tensing up. When my 2nd and 3rd finger get better at doing those trills without tensing up themselves, then I'm ready to start lifting the first and fourth finger lightly off the board and continuing practicing.
 

The Viking Gangster

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Mar 22, 2015
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285
There is, unfortunately, a genetic component to musical ability. That doesn't mean that practicing won't help - in fact, it helps everyone regardless of age or ability - but there are certain genetically inherited traits.

From a 2014 article in Scientific American, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-do-great-musicians-have-in-common-dna/

"A similar study forthcoming in Psychological Science by Miriam A. Mosing of Stockholm's Karolinska Institute leans even heavier on the role of genes in musicality. Mosing and colleagues looked at the association between music practice and specific musical abilities like rhythm, melody and pitch discrimination in over 10,000 identical Swedish twins. They reported that the propensity to practice was between 40% and 70% heritable and that there was no difference in musical ability between twins with varying amounts of cumulative practice. "Music practice,” they conclude, “may not causally influence musical ability and … genetic variation among individuals affects both ability and inclination to practice."

In other words, the desire to practice in the first place is partly genetic, and second, the folks with identical genes (identical twins) who have great musical ability can practice different amounts and still have the same musical ability.

Further studies show that unless the musical ability is developed through that combination of genetics and structured study before a kid is in his into adolescence, an adult learner will only get so far. It's like learning a language. Small children pick up languages faster than older folks. Apparently this has something to do with the development of neural pathways and networks in the brain.

So if you're 12 years old and you're very talented, and you're woodshedding and sitting in your room playing guitar every spare moment, you're just going to be a lot better than a person who picks up the instrument later in life, or starts that woodshedding later in life, and not only that, you're going to be able to play with other musicians better, because your innate sense of timing is better, etc.

So yes, by all means, practice, but don't expect to be Eric Johnson if you've reached adulthood, unless you were, in fact, Eric Johnson as a young kid.

I started piano lessons at four, and had some degree of musical talent. Piano has always been effortless for me, and speed isn't an issue.

I took guitar up at 17, and after many years of playing both guitar and piano professionally - I'm in my 60s now - I still feel far more comfortable on piano, I'm faster, and I'm just a far better piano player than guitar player. But...here's the good news.

Some of the greatest guitar solos of all time are not played at 800 notes per minute. I do pretty well at session work playing melodically or playing interesting combinations of notes, at relatively slow speeds, because ultimately, an interesting solo is not based on speed, it's based on note selection, timing, phrasing, etc. A great solo can be played on quarter notes instead of 1/32 notes.

So by all means practice, and at some point you'll hit the speed wall because of who you are, and not just because you need to practice more. But we all still have to play interesting phrases. And that's really the more important issue. Can you improvise an interesting solo? Do you know how to create a good melody? How's your sense of timing when playing with good musicians?

Les

Thanks for a great response. I enjoyed reading the article too. I started playing when I was around 9, but it was all Beatles, Zeppelin and some folk songs. Mode for a Day by Yes, Reeling in the Years by Steely Dan, and other songs like that were the more complex song I could play in high school. I played in a New Wave band in my senior year. So Joe Jackson and the Cars were the style we played. Long story short, went to college, got married, bought a house, and have been raising 3 kids for the past 30 some odd years. Not a lot of guitar study going on there. Always had one around and played songs, but.....

Now I'm back practicing to get better than I was when I was 17. back then and for most of my life, I could learn how to play most songs on my own (not Van Halen and such..). So I figured if I worked on it hard enough I could play Cliffs of Dover. Well.....that didn't happen. I came across other songs like that too where there was some kind of barrier inhibiting me from playing those songs. I then realized that it wasn't a trick like tapping that was keeping me down. It was a whole area and set of techniques I never really payed attention to. Since them I've been trying to learn and improve on a few techniques (Legato, shredding, sweep.....) just so I can play songs like Cliffs of Dover. So far, Cliffs of Dover is out of my reach. Alway with You Always with Me and Electric Gypsy are getting better, but Cliff of Dover is not even close.

I need to spend more time learning songs and jamming with others. I think that will help me in the other areas that I've been neglecting because of technique.

Thanks,

Alan
 
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