Slow Down, You Move Too Fast, Blog #2
(Want to play faster? Stop playing faster–instead, expand your mind!)
Into The Matrix
Playing fast isn’t just a physical skill; it is mental. Without changing your perspective, playing faster will be difficult or impossible.
One of the most common mistakes intermediate guitar players make is trying to build picking speed by pushing faster.
It makes sense, right? To play faster, push harder!
After 30 years of playing, and 20 years of coaching guitar players, I can say with conviction that It is true that if you want to play faster you must spend time practicing at the edge of your current abilities and pushing that edge.
But the harder/faster approach works best after the approach I’m going to outline in this blog post. In fact, without a command of subdivisions of the beat, pushing the metronome might even lock high speed errors into your body and mind where they will take ten times as long to correct! So slow down for a minute to learn why slowing down is the key to speed.
PLAY Faster By FEELING Slower: The Secret To Playing Faster Is To Feel Subdivisions Of The Beat
The keystone perspective to playing faster is to feel subdivisions of the beat.
Have you seen “The Matrix”? I love the scene where Neo stares at the bullets oozing toward him in stunned amazement as he realizes that they aren’t really bullets and they aren’t really moving. Then, he moves at super speed not because he’s going fast, but because his perception has changed1.
Perception is also the key to playing music easily, and in rhythm that means seeing, hearing and feeling the vast spaces between the beats.
For example, playing 480 quarter notes per minute–wow, that is hard! Metronomes don’t even go that high and you might not even be able to count that fast!
On the other hand, playing 480 sixteenth notes per minute at a tempo of 120 beats per minute, which involves the exact same number of pick strokes, is much more manageable.
When super fast guitarists are playing, they aren’t playing beats. They are playing subdivisions of the beat! Intermediate guitarists, especially, will benefit by focusing as much on building their power of perception as on building their physical speed.
Here’s A Fun And Easy Exercise To Build Your Rhythmic Perception
I love the “Changing Gears” exercise–it is a fun way to expand your rhythmic perspective–and you don’t even need your guitar. I used to play this game as a 20-year-old walking to and from the subway station. And now–I still play this game! It is so fun!
Here’s how it works:
- As you walk, first count your steps as quarter notes, “1, 2, 3, 4,” step by step. In this exercise, your step is always the beat! Count in your mind as you walk!
- Now, start changing gears. Start adding subdivisions of the beat, beginning with 8th notes–so that four steps become “1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and”.
- Each four steps, change between quarter notes and 8th notes.
- When that is comfortable, do the same thing with 16th notes, building up to being able to shift between quarters, 8ths, and 16ths.
Depending on where you are at as a player, it may take 15 minutes or 15 days to get comfortable “shifting gears” between measures of quarter, 8th and 16th notes. Once you do that, the fun really starts.
- Next, add triplets and repeat the process.
- Then, start changing gears between steps–for example with rhythm interval training (for example, alternating quarter notes with 8ths, triplets and 16ths) and rhythm ladders (for example increasing the number of subdivisions on every beat, quarter, 8ths, triplets, 16ths and then decreasing back down.)
- Got that down? Awesome–because 16th note triplets are next!
- Could you do this with other time signatures? (Yes.)
Although walking is a great way to play Changing Gears, if you don’t walk, you can still play with any recurring movement, or even a sound–yes, metronomes do count! You will never get to the end of the rhythmic perspective growth available through this simple exercise.
You can even do this listening to music–but only if the tempo of the song matches your walking pace–look for songs in the 115-120 beats per minute range for a brisk walking pace. Here’s a Spotify playlist for you to try it out!
Use A “Habit Stack” To Improve Your Rhythm Using NO Extra Time
Building your ability to perceive and express subdivisions is essential to playing faster–and to lots of other aspects of music, too. And now you know that the Changing Gears exercise is a great way to build that perception.
Now, all you have to do is do the exercise. And luckily, I’m about to show you how to squeeze this into your day using NO extra time!
One of my favorite habits authors, James Clear, teaches people to “habit stack”–take something you already do and stack a new desired habit onto it.
Do you already walk? Great! You have your core habit.
Pick a time when you regularly walk and add Changing Gears onto it with a habit stacking sandwich sentence, and then write that sentence down. It will look like this:
“When I walk _______________ I will play Changing Gears.”
“When I walk out of the subway on my way to work I will play Changing Gears until I get to Starbucks.”
“When I transfer from the Shuttle to the 1 Train I will play Changing Gears.”
Five or ten minutes a day over time will make a tremendous difference in your perception of tempo and subdivisions of the beat. Yes, you’ll find it easier to play faster–but just like Neo in The Matrix, it will be because you have a deeper understanding of music.
On to Greatness,
CEO & Founder, NYC Guitar School
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1The main reason I love the movie it is that after my daughter, Neoma, watched it, she decided her name was cool after all, and even adopted the nickname “Neo”.