Breaking the sound barrier is usually reserved for pilots, but guitarists also know a thing or two about life in the fast lane.

In this article, we’ll break down 8 essential speed tips and useful exercises to get you in gear, so strap in and get ready to accelerate your playing. We’ll make a speed demon out of you yet! 💨

What does it mean to be able to play faster?

Every guitarist wants the keys to the Ferrari, but first, you need to know how to drive the family minivan. Before we jump into our tips on how to play guitar faster, it's useful to have a tangible definition in mind.

There are a number of reasons why you might want to learn how to play guitar faster.

Perhaps you want to develop your picking technique to help you build intensity in your solos, or simply to impress your friends and family with your new, mind-bending speed skills.

Whatever your goals are, it ultimately comes down to moving across the fretboard and strings by feeling as comfortable and relaxed as possible.

To do this, we need to know the four cornerstones of speed.

  1. Picking mechanics
  2. Maintaining musicality
  3. Using the right gear
  4. Slow practice

To some, these can initially seem like speed bumps that slow you down – but stick with us and we’ll show you why the cornerstones win in the long run!

Get pick smart!

Your tools are essential if you want to leap over speed barrier. How you hold the pick is just as important as how you move it!

  • Spend some time thinking about the most comfortable position to hold the pick in – you might prefer to use the edge or the flat side of the pick.  
  • The pick impacts your tone, as does the picking technique you employ (economy, hybrid, or sweep picking).
  • The type of pick that you use can be very influential – try out different shapes and textures to find what works for you.

Shape, texture, size, and comfort can all be factors in helping you find a pick that’s best suited to your hands and style of playing.

Lots of jazz guitarists use a Jim Dunlop Jazz III pick because of their size and sharp point, making it easy to cross the strings and continue alternate picking when playing very chromatic melodies with the fretting hand.

Different types of guitar pick

Here are a few popular shapes of guitar pick.

Take a more in-depth look at picking tips with our Isaiah Sharkey interview:

Speed is familiarity

At one point in life, you couldn’t speak your mother tongue fluently, but now you can say whatever springs to mind. One of the hallmarks of playing fast is that sense of fluency with the instrument.

As you practice your scales and picking technique, it’s crucial that you do it as slowly as possible., this will:

  • Help create positive muscle memory.
  • Improve comfort level and relaxation when learning something new.
  • Give you ample time to focus on the details of your technique.

Whatever your speed goals are, it’s important to make sure that you’re playing clean phrases while keeping mentally and physically relaxed.

Bonus tips for utilizing familiarity in your speed practice

  1. Use familiar finger patterns such as the major scale, the pentatonic scale, or particular arpeggios.

This will allow your muscle memory to do half of the work for you so you can focus soley on technique.

  1. Train slowly to embed good technique and teach your hands the most economical movements.

It might seem rather ironic, but your speed-building exercises should be slow at first. This will also promote good hand health by being aware of the tension in your fingers, arms, and wrists.

  1. Create consistency in your picking movements and fretting hand.

Building a picking technique that consists of strict “up-down” picking movements is one way to create trust and familiarity in your picking hand. The same is true for your fretting hand. Pay close attention to the specific finger that you use for each note of a scale or arpeggio.

Know when to take shortcuts

Shortcuts are small adjustments or pieces of advice that can help you master a new exercise/technique more quickly.

Here are some useful shortcuts that you can use to speed up the learning process:

  • Using smaller-sized picks can help you pick faster.
  • Think about each finger that you’re using to fret the notes in a phrase and whether there is an easier option.
  • Try to use legato instead of picking every note.
  • Lowering your string action will make it far easier to press down on each note.
  • ‘Re-noting’ guitar phrases is about finding the same notes in different places on the fretboard – this can help you find much easier finger patterns for your licks and phrases.

Legato

Legato and gelato are an anagram of each other, but that’s not all they have in common – they’re both smooth, tasty, and come from Italy.

  • Legato is a style of melodic playing where the notes are smoothly linked together and there is an equal space between each of them.
  • Instead of picking all the notes in a phrase, guitarists use legato to create a fluid sound and increase speed.
  • Use hammer ons and pull offs to activate notes without a plucking the string.
  • It also takes the pressure off of your right hand.

Here’s a legato exercise using the three-note-per-string  C major scale.

  • Hammer ons (H) while ascending, and pull offs (P) while descending.
  • Pick the first note on each string.
  • Make the tone, volume, and speed as uniform as possible.

What are the best guitar strings for speed?

Strings are the connection point between you and the guitar, so it’s good to know what’s on offer.

If you are an electric guitar player who dreams of shredding like Van Halen, you might look into 0.09 gauge strings – they can make tapping and legato feel easier.

We recommend trying out a few different types until you find the set that’s right for you. Here are some tips for finding the right strings for you:

  • Lowering the gauge of your strings can feel much more forgiving on your hands when playing chords and require less effort to press down on the strings.
  • Consider getting a professional set up by a local guitar shop.
  • Set-ups can radically reduce the action and string height of your guitar and make it far easier to practice picking and fretting techniques.
  • Strings come in all kinds of materials and can heavily influence your tone as well as the ease of playing.

Check out our fantastic article on guitar strings if you want to know more!

Relaxation is the secret

There are lots of elements of guitar playing that can seem counterintuitive. Relaxation is a great example of a sensation and skill that we wouldn’t equate with being able to play guitar faster – but it is!

  • Having a light touch allows you to change direction and make very quick moves across the frets.
  • Try to notice where the tension is in your arms, hands, or shoulders while you practice.
  • If you locate tension – take a break and do some gentle stretches or massage the muscles.

Guitar practice can be a meditative process too! Letting go of the mental pressure to learn can often alleviate the physical pressure in your body creating a more healthy technique – go easy on yourself!

The speed devil is in the details  

As you look deeper into the abyss of technical guitar playing, it can feel like an endless wormhole of tips, tricks, and exercises – micro adjustments are the key to unlocking it all.

Develop your ability to play guitar faster by paying attention to the small details in your technique. Sometimes perfecting one exercise is better than trying to learn twenty new ones.

Ask yourself these helpful questions while you practice:

  • How much of the pick is hitting the strings? – Reducing the surface area of the pick as it hits the strings can be a minor detail with a major upside.
  • How far is your pick moving away from the strings when picking?
  • Are your fretting fingers moving too far away from the fretboard?
  • Can you reposition the guitar to feel more comfortable? – Make sure no energy is going into keeping the guitar in place.
  • Am I pressing down too hard?

Father time catches up with us all

Using a metronome is probably the most crucial tip for building speed and developing solid technique.

Here are some of the many benefits of practicing with a metronome:

  • Metronomes can be super helpful for building consistency in your practice routine.
  • They help you focus on the task at hand – you can’t daydream when there’s a click pushing you along!
  • Metronomes work like a personal trainer - you can keep track of your times and see how your speed builds over time.

Try our free online metronome if you don’t have one to hand.

Conclusion

We hope that these tips will help you unlock the speed demon within!

These tips and tricks will give you a great starting point for readying your technique, mind, and body for practicing speed exercises. While relaxation can be the most useful medicine for helping you avoid the frustration of 'high-velocity animosity’. But it’s important to remember that patience is a key requirement when training yourself to play guitar faster.

Ready to begin working on your speed chops? Why not check out our Master Class with Justus West, Play Guitar Faster in 10 Days.