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The Guitar Principles  
The TRUTH about Learning Guitar
The Basics > Practice Theory > Guitar Speed Exercises: Are They Working For You?

Guitar Speed Exercises: Are They Working For You?

“Practicing” is an interesting word. If most guitar students thought about the meaning of this word even a little bit, they would quickly see that whatever it is they do when they sit down with their guitar and  attempt to “get better”, it doesn’t deserve the word “practice”.

To “practice” means to “do”, not to “try”. We wouldn’t go to a doctor with a medical “practice”, and have him “practice” on us, unless we felt pretty confident we were going to see some RESULTS, and hopefully, the ones we want! If all the patients that go to a doctor stay sick, or die, I don’t think the doctor is “practicing”, at least correctly!

No, I think we feel justified in expecting at least a good number of a doctor’s patients to get better. But people will still say “I have practiced guitar today” when, day after week after year, there is actually no change in their ability to play. They do not “get better”!

Practicing Is Training

If guitar players examined the word “practice”, they would think of the activity more along the lines of the word “training”. It is obvious that guitar practice is supposed to be more like “training” in the sense an athlete would use it, or even in the sense of a “dog trainer”.

If you took your dog to weekly training lessons so he would stop biting the neighbors and pooping in the house, and you found yourself still getting sued, and still trying to get the stains out of the carpet, well, I don’t think you would say that “training” is occurring.

That is how guitar players should think of practicing. They will then realize two things:one, “practicing” is not what they are doing, and two, they need, really need, to find out what practicing is. They should set about doing so. They should go on a quest to find out what practicing is, so that they can make that “training” happen, so that they can see results that translate into being able to say “hey, I can really play the guitar, and I can keep on getting better”! After all, you’d look for another dog trainer, wouldn’t you?

To Exercise Means To Use

Another severely misunderstood word in common use is the word “exercise”, and Lord knows, guitarists do a lot of exercises! And, there are tons of books full of exercises, and most guitar players own at least a few of those tons! But, what does it really mean to “exercise”.

If you think about this word, you may discover these disconcerting facts: no, you are not ever doing real exercises, and no, you don’t know what real exercises are, either! You may find that, instead of doing exercises, you are taking tests. And that is not good, because exercises are done to GAIN ability, and tests are taken to measure and prove ability, they do not give it. Here is what I mean....

Many guitarists play scales. Many guitarists play scales badly. Many guitarists practice scales badly. That is because for them, a scale cannot be an exercise, it can only be a test. Because they do not know how to practice correctly, doing scales will not give them improved skill, it will only reveal the true state of their present ability.

When I want to see how good or bad a new student’s technique is, I give them a test. I ask them to play a scale. Watching their fingers on a scale tells me everything about the quality of their practice. If the fingers are struggling and missing notes, I know they are not ready to use scale practice to improve on guitar.

To exercise means to use. When we exercise judgment, we are using judgment. In order to do an exercise, we must be able to call upon abilities we already have, and by using them, gain new abilities. Like doing push-ups to use and strengthen muscles, doing the exercise will cause changes to occur, and new abilities and increased strength will develop. That is the whole purpose of any exercise, to use something we have, to get something we don’t have.

The things being called upon will develop with use. But the right changes will only occur if the right things are being used in the right way. Otherwise, nothing will happen, or bad things will happen. Many guitar students do NOT have the necessary fundamental skills in place to make use of the exercises they practice. This is why so many guitar students get no benefit from continuous practice of exercises, or worse, get pains and playing problems.

Scales As Exercises

A scale for a guitarist is extremely complex. It requires that  many skills are already developed and ready for use. Many players do not have, at the time they begin scales, the required skills that need to be called upon to DO a scale as it must be done, with relaxed and independent finger action. So they call upon what they have, and what they have are weak, uncoordinated fingers that cannot presently operate with the independence needed to execute a scale reasonably well.

As they use their untrained fingers, and untrained shoulder and upper body muscles (all of which have everything to do with playing the guitar), those overly tensed and strained muscles force unprepared joints and ligaments to act in a highly uncoordinated manner, and the wrong changes occur! Incredible tension, which the student is not paying attention to, and is trying to ignore and play through, locks up the fingers, arms, and beyond, and so is locked into the muscles.

What happens from bad practice is a lot of uncoordination, a lot of tension, and a lot of missed notes. As speed is increased, it only gets worse. Because of the powerful effects of muscle memory, the player in this condition who does not figure out a way of dealing with all of this, becomes like a knot that is just being pulled tighter as time goes by. Bad practice keeps making the knots tighter.

Real Exercises

Real exercises for the beginning guitarist hardly exist. The real things that need to be done and that CAN be used by the beginner because they call upon abilities the beginner already possesses, are not to be found. You will only find the things that are possible to be done really well by someone who can already do them. What can be used by someone in the seventh grade cannot be used by someone in the second grade, and from a technical point of view, all guitar methods begin around the seventh grade.

A real exercise is something that, when it is done, causes a change. A real exercise has power, because power is the ability to create change. When we do a real exercise, it changes us. That is a big part of practicing the guitar, knowing how to do exercises so that they change us for the better. If we are practicing an exercise and we are not getting better, then we are not ready to use that exercise as an exercise. Later on we may be ready to do that, but not at present. Other things must be done first.

 Those things that must be done first are the Foundation Exercises in The Principles of Correct Practice For Guitar. Understanding and doing correct practice on these exercises enables anyone to truly practice and benefit from, all the usual exercises found in guitar books and given out by teachers.

After working with the Foundation Exercises, you are not going to find it so easy to mindlessly allow your body to retain knots of tension as you practice, knots of tension that you don’t know about, and are not paying attention to. Your mind will understand, and your body will feel the danger and discomfort of doing so. They will feel it because doing the Foundation Exercises for the left hand will have introduced you to what it is supposed to feel like when you touch the string with your finger, and not just for the finger, but for the whole body.

You will have experienced what it is supposed to feel like as groups of fingers move across the strings. The difference between this and the usual “death grip struggling” performed by so many students is astounding.

  Finding The Right Exercise

Great players have a genius for finding the right exercise for themselves at any given time. This is because they know how to think, and because they are driven by great passion. These qualities give them the drive and the insight they need to ask the right question at any time, and so, to teach themselves. The first step in finding the right exercise is to know what we want, absolutely and with crystal clear clarity.

The second step of finding and using the right exercise is to know what we need in order to get what we want. It is one of the primary functions of the teacher to teach the student what they should want, and what they need to do to get it. The third step in finding the right exercise is to know whether we are in fact getting what we want. If not, we need to continue our quest and our work.

As we practice, we discover ever deeper levels of what we need to get what we want. For instance, perhaps I am learning a hot lick by my favorite player. The first level of what I need, and should want, is “to play it like it sounds on the recording”. After practicing it, I should test myself by recording it to see if I have gotten what I want. If it doesn’t sound like the recording, more intense work is needed, and “exercises” must be developed.

This is done by continually asking “what is wrong, why is it wrong, and what can I do to make it right?” Of course, there may be twenty things wrong, and twenty things needed, but with experience, we learn to take them one at a time. Perhaps the bends are flat. Why?

We start from the known, from what we can observe, and then inquire further. Well, in order to be in tune, the string must be bent a certain distance. I am not bending it far enough, I am trying, but it isn’t happening. Why? Perhaps it is my exact hand position, arm position, thumb position, etc. You investigate like Sherlock Holmes, you think, you observe. Perhaps I notice that I am trying to bend the strings only with the effort of my fingers instead of using the forearm as well, and perhaps I notice that it doesn’t look like what I see really good players doing.

So, I devise an approach. “If I keep my thumb over (as taught in the GuitarPrinciples Rock & Blues Foundation Course!), and use it to oppose my fingers, while at the same time using forearm rotation, and conduct that power through my firm fingers, rather than relying totally on finger strength, I can get more power to the string and bend it more, with more control.

But, ooh, that hurts. Yes, but the first time you either make the right thing happen, or do something so that the right thing is more likely to be able to happen, it will probably feel a bit weird, but you have stumbled across an exercise! The right question has been asked, “what do I need to get what I want”, and the exercise, because it has brought you what you need, or closer to what you want, has answered in the form of “do this, and you will get what you need”.

How I Developed The First Foundation Exercise

Another illuminating example of how to create the right exercise is how I developed the first exercise in The Principles. I was teaching a 70 year old man who had been trying to learn to play for many years. Well, he couldn’t! It became clear to me that he was so locked up with muscle tension with every move he made that he could not make one movement smoothly, or play two notes in a row evenly. It was clear I would not be able to teach him anything at all. All his previous teachers could only “pretend” to be teaching him by keeping him busy learning more things to play in the same lousy way he played everything else.

So, I observed, and I asked questions. What do we need here, and what do we need first, before anything else? Well, as I observed poor old George, I saw he was tense from the moment he began to take his guitar out of the case! He could not even sit with the guitar and stay relaxed, even when not trying to play anything. So, how about we learn to simply hold the guitar and be relaxed? How about, before I try to teach this guy new strums, or how to fingerpick, I teach him to do something much more basic than that, and something he CANNOT do right now: simply sit with the guitar with his right hand in position, and maintain that position, and stay relaxed; no movement, just stay relaxed.

True, he could not sit with the guitar and remain relaxed. When he sat with the guitar, he tensed up without even moving a finger! But what he could do was become more aware of that tension, feel it more, if he sat and only focused on the feeling in his body as he sat with the guitar, did not try to use his hands, and merely tried to be aware, and relax any tension he felt.

So, an exercise was born, a doing of something that was possible that would lead to the ability to do something not yet possible. So, I told him “go home, sit for an entire minute in the right position, with your right hand in postion over the strings, and just stay that way, don’t move. Pay attention to your body and your breathing, observe the tension arise, and release it. Do this many times a day”.

And that became Foundation Exercise #1, The Chair, and it was the beginning of George being able to make music that deserved the name music. I realized two things: George would never have played the guitar well without me having done that, and that this exercise was part of the solution for many similar people struggling to play the guitar.

No matter what it turns out to be, or how much trouble it is to find it, you must find the right exercise for each playing moment. Not doing so is like trying to sew before you have managed to thread the needle! Finally finding the right exercise, the right “doing”, is like threading the needle, you will notice as you sew (practice) that things somehow manage to stay together better!


Now, understand that since we are dealing with “body learning” here, one very confusing element is speed. Everyone thinks they want speed. You don’t want speed, because speed is the RESULT of other things, it cannot be “gotten” directly. It appears when the other things are there. You cannot play scales fast simply by trying to play them fast. Exercises for “speed” very often don’t look like exercises for speed at all. If you saw me practicing some of my “speed exercises”, you may think I need somebody to wake me up before the battery on the metronome wears out! Speed comes from relaxed control, and as I go about developing that relaxed control, I may be moving about as fast as a snail with no particular place to go!

I may have noticed that when I play a certain scale, I break down at a certain speed because my 4th finger tenses every time I use the 3rd. This origin of this problem with “speed” has nothing to do with speed, and the right exercise for it won’t look like it has anything to do with speed. I need to train my 4th finger to not tense when my 3rd finger plays. The exercises I have developed to fix this problem will involve various tools and exercises in The Principles such as posing, no tempo practice , the gradual pressure technique, and string pushdowns. Building speed, and practicing the scale fast will certainly come in to play at some point, but only after this kind of work has acheived its purpose. And this kind of work will be continually returned to, and interspersed with speed playing.

Finally, understand that “testing” is important, in fact, vital. Many players get stuck because they do not test themselves properly. They never check to see if they can actually DO what they have been working on. They stay forever in the “putting it together stage”. Testing, in fact, is a part of the “exercise discovery process”, it tells us if we need to work to solve problems by finding the right exercises (and the answer is usually “yes, we do!).

Those of you reading this who are using the Principles  should read “The 3 Stages Of Practice” (Chapter 5) for a fuller understanding of this process. Good luck to everyone in finding the right exercises, and doing them in the right way, to move your playing forward.

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