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The Basics > Practice Theory > Guitar Practice and Building Speed: Vital Info

Guitar Practice and Building Speed: Vital Info

Here is an excellent question from one of my readers concerning building speed on guitar that brings up a great area of  confusion for guitar students. It shows how careful we must be when listening to the advice of great players.


Hi Jamie,

I have a question about picking and building up to higher speeds.

I read somewhere that the late, great Shawn Lane once said, “Generally speaking, when practicing fast licks, it is supposed to be better to practice at a slow tempo and build up to speed. But my idea is ‘play as fast as you can even if you make mistakes.’ In the beginning, you may lack precision but you can get over that. First gain speed and gradually get clearer. It’s a better way - at least I think so.”

This runs counter to what you and most other instructors teach. Obviously it worked for Shawn so it can’t be completely flawed, but is there anything of value in this statement for normal humans?

In a similar vein, Michael Angelo recommends picking as fast as you can first, then using that motion as your basic template for picking technique and practicing slow from there on, the idea being that the first picking-hand position you go with is the most natural and comfortable for you (I’m assuming this isn’t directed at complete beginners). Where do you stand on that idea?

Thanks for any comments and keep up the good work,



Hi Bill,

Those are very interesting questions, and even though the contentions made are almost diametrically opposed to what I and many other teachers would advise, I think they deserve examination, and I even believe there is value to be discovered. In any case, as you say, when a great player says something, I always listen closely. They may not understand completely all the implications or related factors of what they are saying, but there is most likely something valid in their perceptions.

First of all, yes, I think we can safely assume that these procedures worked for these people, at least some of the time, and at least at some period in their development. However, we have no way of knowing if they could solve all their problems this way, and if they at times needed to employ other methods. We have no way of knowing if there were things they wanted to do and never were able to do, because these methods were not sufficient. And, we have no way of knowing if these methods only became effective after a certain period of technical development had taken place.

I think we should keep these uncertainties in mind when examining this issue.

And as long as we are talking about things that we can and cannot be certain of, I will tell you this without a doubt: for the vast majority of people attempting to learn guitar, these methods will bring these methods of practice and problem solving will bring almost insurmountably disastrous results! I am talking about technique that is so flawed, so limited, and so ingrained into the players muscle memory that most people, without the benefit of the remedial techniques GuitarPrinciples offers, will simply never overcome them.

So, what is going on here?

I really think that when Shawn Lane says “in learning a new lick, just keep playing it over and over. The mistakes will gradually get worked out and it will get cleaner”, he is talking about learning a lick that is already well within the level of your ability. It is on the same plane as your HORIZONTAL GROWTH at the present time. It does not contain movements that are beyond you at the moment, things you cannot do comfortably or smoothly at any speed.

There are many things I can play perfectly at sight, having never seen the music before. That is because (aside from knowing the neck well), there is nothing there I have not seen a million times before, and nothing there I cannot execute with almost no conscious thought. Then, there are things I can play pretty well, perhaps not up to tempo, and perhaps with some mistakes. I will have to work on them a bit, because they are simply more complex, and perhaps contain movements I am not so familiar with, or are completely new. Perhaps I need actual physical development of some muscle or nerve connection to play it well.

Then, there are really difficult things I have never played before. The best players have to take months to perhaps a year to do the kind of analysis and practice necessary for extremely difficult music (and bring it to “performance level”). It is very important to keep in mind that many styles, especially improvised styles, use a relatively small number of discretely different movement patterns. If you are a rock or blues player, most likely, you are doing essentially the same movements, perhaps in different contexts and with different inflections, throughout your whole playing life. Even new licks are not too different than the ones you know. Of course, every player is going to fall somewhere on this spectrum in terms of variability of movement patterns, and that will influence the practice methods you find effece.

Auto Correct

I actually have a name for this idea of “doing something over and over until it starts coming out right”. I call it “auto-correct”. I use it myself, and I use it with students. However, it is important to know how to use it, when to use it, and especially, when not to use it.

I may have a student sitting in front of me, playing something we have worked on awhile. They may mess up a passage, and I will say “okay, take that part again”. But, I will add these extremely important words “increase your attention and intention before and during this next attempt”. In other words, some mistakes will occur simply because we are not paying enough attention to what we are doing, or, even more likely, are not thinking ahead to our next series of movements, including hearing the music in our heads as we play. So, my first line of attack with mistakes where music has already been practiced is “auto-correct”. It very well may happen that by simply going over the passage a few times with strong mental focus (and it is always a big help to play it mentally before each new attempt), it starts to improve. But, if the mistake does not yield to this approach, it is a good indication that something else is going on, that the problem is not in the mind, so to speak, but in the fingers.

It could be bad fingering, unclear fingering, erratic fingering, physical tension in any part of the body; a million different things. At that point, a diagnostic process of analysis must be conducted, and there is only one way to do it. If you doggedly stick with “auto-correct”, the methods you have asked me about, you are going to be a seriously frustrated guitarist, because when the problem is of this nature, IT DOES NOT FIX ITSELF!

Another point to appreciate is this: in my book “The Deeper I Go”, I define intelligence as “responsive awareness”. I also make the point that there are many domains of intelligence, and physical intelligence is one of them. Some people’s bodies are more naturally “responsively aware” than others. For these people, auto-correct is going to work at an earlier date in their development, and more strongly. However, all of us can teach our bodies to be responsively aware, to be “intelligent”, that is what proper training is all about. The more sophisticated our technique becomes through training, the more “auto-correct” will work for us, and in increasingly complex situations.

When Auto Correct Doesn't Work

But, much more important than all of this is to know what to do when auto-correct is not solving our problem, which is 99% of the time! What must be done is, essentially, the Basic Practice Approach (the fundamental practice methodology taught in Chapter 5 of "The Principles Of Correct Practice For Guitar"). I will say to the student having trouble with something, “play the passage for me no tempo, show me the bottom of your practice”. This means "Show me your slowest and most focused practice of these notes".  That will tell me all I need to know. I will see the discomfort the student is truly experiencing (without knowing it), and I will see what they are doing to create or exacerbate that discomfort. I see what is wrong, why it is wrong, and what to do about it, and then we get to work.

Expanding Upon A Basic “Template”

Now let’s talk about this other idea of learning a skill by simply having a go at it as fast as you can, observing the action, and assuming that the details of that action are the best possible ones for you to use, and so should be developed.

Well, my first reaction is “try it, see how it works”. I imagine it may be a good idea, and bring good and MAYBE the best results for some very few people, but again, all of my decades of teaching experience have shown me otherwise. In fact, my basic attitude is, all things being equal, the untrained fingers are incredibly stupid, and can almost always be depended upon to do things in the worst way possible. In fact, it would usually be better to watch what your fingers do, and then train them to do just the opposite!

Now, please remember I am not laying down hard and fast “this is the way it is for everybody all the time” type of rules, because there are none. There are so many variables involved in this whole subject that no rules could ever hold true always. My philosophy is to listen to everybody, think about everything, try everything you have a mind to, and then assess and analyze results. We just really need to be careful in this whole endeavor. I would not be surprised that someone who based their picking technique on the first available action template that presented itself would never know whether they were, by doing so, making many other skills inaccessible to themselves down the road. We frequently hear of long time players who wish they could change this or that about their technique, having discovered superior approaches later in life.

So, those are my thoughts concerning the provocative statements made by these great players. If I were to summarize my reaction to the substance of your questions concerning the statements of these players of great natural talent who, as great players often will, have temporarily taken on the role of teachers, I would say this: it is a perfect illustration of why so often great players are lousy teachers, unless they are teaching already great players!

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