Shredding is a fun and awesome skill, and it took me some time to figure it out. Here are the top lessons I learned
When I was a kid, listening to Yngwie Malmsteen and Steve Vai, I had a bad case of shred-lust. The only thing I wanted to do was play as fast as I possibly could. This had good and bad consequences. The good was that I could put huge amounts of time and effort into practising. The bad was, for a long time, I neglected skills like phrasing, ornamentation and vibrato.
But eventually, I got the speed I wanted, when I first hit 10 notes a second, crawled up to just over 16 notes a second, and eventually peaked my intense speed training at 18 notes a second. I also learned to balance speed with other skills, trained a great sounding vibrato and string bending technique, and learned how to not just be a speed merchant, but write a solo that supported the song.
It’s been a long few years of learning guitar, and I thought today, I would let you know the big ideas I’ve learned about speed:
1. There Are No Shortcuts
It takes time. A lot of time. It took me around 15 years to reach the level of speed that I wanted. Now, I could have done it a lot faster, and YouTube is full of many guitarists who can shred with the best players, but it still takes serious amounts of time.
After reaching an intermediate level of playing, it took me about 18 months of intense practice to reach 16 notes a second.
2. There Are No Secrets
There is no such thing as special secret programs that will teach you to shred. 90% of it is just sheer dedication to consistent practice. However, there is some technique that you do need to know.
Being able to have the pick travel between strings without stopping, economy of motion (with the pick and your fingers) and controlling string noise are three basic elements of technique that you need to master.
3. You Never Stop Working on the Basics
There is no such thing as “graduating” from the major or natural minor scales. Sure, you will add other scales to your vocabulary, but every practice session, you are going to be sitting down to practice those scales.
Every practice session, every day, you are going to be sitting down with your metronome and some scale exercises to work that picking.
4. If You Want to Improve Your Speed on Guitar, You Need a Metronome
If you are not working to a metronome, you are not going to improve your speed. A metronome allows you to measure how fast you are playing, and gives you a strong beat to keep in time to.
As well as keeping your hands in time, it helps develop a sense of time and rhythm in your brain, which is vital for being able to play in time with other musicians.
5. You NEVER Practice For Speed
… what? That’s right.
The objective when you are practising is not to play as fast as possible, but to play as fluidly, as effortlessly as possible.
You want to practice an exercise so that you become highly comfortable with it. You should have it memorised. Your fingers should feel light on the strings. You shouldn’t feel tense, stressed or pressured when working on an exercise.
Once you have this light comfortable feeling with an exercise, then and only then can you start to think about increasing speed.
6. Practice For Accuracy and You Will Develop Speed
The objective of practice is to perform an exercise accurately. If you cannot play an exercise several times in a row without making a mistake, then you will not develop any serious speed.
You have to play an exercise slow enough, so that you can play it exactly the same way, several times in a row. If you cannot perform the guitar exercise multiple times without mistakes, then you need to slow down the metronome, until you reach a speed where you can play the exercise multiple times without a mistake.
If you practice too fast, you will continuously make mistakes. And this will train your muscle memory to make mistakes – you do not want this!!
Take your time.
7. You Have to Think About More Than Just Speed
As we mentioned earlier, you are practising for accuracy, not speed.
There are also other things you have to think about when practising:
Do your muscles feel tense when you practice? Do you have tension in your arms, back, legs…? I had a tension problem in my face and shoulder, which I had to fix. I’ve heard of people having tension problems in their tongue before.
Jamie Andreas is a master at dealing with muscle tension, and her book “Guitar Principles” explains very nicely how to deal with muscle tension.
I had one student who would physically lurch forwards when she reached a difficult passage in her playing, because she would tense up so much!
Be aware of these problems and work on them.
Being able to visualise a piece, in your mind, while you play it is incredibly difficult. But… doing this really helps with your ability to play an exercise, and develop the muscle memory.
Sometimes when working on speed, our hands fall out of sync with each other. An easy way to fix this is by taking the notes in your scale sequence and doubling them up as follows:
I’ve seen some players who do really weird things with their breathing when playing challenging pieces, recording, or just focussing intensely on some aspect of their guitar playing.
You want to make sure your breathing is ‘normal’. If you find you are doing something odd with your breathing or holding your breath; then slow the exercise down and consciously practice doing the exercise and breathing normally.
8. Pay Attention to Both Hands
That might sound a bit obvious… but how many times have you sat and practiced guitar, only watching what your fret hand was doing?
Probably quite a lot. I know I did! I think I spent several years practising without even looking at my pick hand.
Both hands need an equal amount of focus. You can achieve this by splitting your time on a practice item.
Spend the first half watching the left hand, observing and correcting; and then spend the second half watching the right hand, again observing and correcting.
Now, if when watching your right hand, your left hand makes a mistake, don’t worry about it, just try and keep going. And vice versa for your left hand.
If you struggle to watch your hands, video yourself and then watch the video back to see what your hands are doing when you practice guitar.
9. Work on One Specific Thing At a Time
When practicing, don’t try and fix all your problems at once. It is not possible – your brain can only focus on one thing at a time.
If you have multiple problems with your playing, then focus on training just one of those problems and ignore the others. Then, move onto the next problem etc.
10. Love The Process
You have to find a way to love practising. I think the easiest way to achieve this, is to turn your practice into a ritual. Elevate it to something more spiritual than just “practice”.
Make your practice time sacred, something that you look forwards to every day, something that is yours, your own private world you can disappear into every day.
Becoming a high octane shredder who can play over 16 notes is a second is a long process that will take time, and if you struggle to dedicate yourself to it, you will probably never reach the goals that you set for yourself.
But… it is something that you can achieve. It will take an enormous amount of effort… but you are more than capable of reaching that level of playing.