Developing speed on the classical guitar is a very big focus for a lot of people. Which is kind of strange seeing as the majority of pieces are not really that fast. To be sure there are some speedy scales out there, but for the most part our repertoire is filled with moderately paced material. Whatever the case, everyone wants to play fast, so how do we get there?
Back to Basics
Well, like several of the coveted classical guitar techniques, speed is a product or many elements that need to be worked on independently and developed to a high level. Technical fundamentals such as string crossing, accurate left hand placement, right hand preparation, right hand alternation, and relaxation are all going to contribute to playing fast. As a general suggestion, I would recommend re-visiting the basics and seeing if in fact there are more things you could improve. Many of us are so eager to advance to repertoire that the basics are not as strong as they might be.
At the heart of playing fast on the classical guitar is the synchronization between the left and right hands. It is not really difficult at all for any of us to roll our fingers around in the left hand, to shift up and down the string, or to play groups of open strings in our right hand. However, to do this and employ the other hand effectively at the same time is a challenge.
Classical guitar scales are a wonderful tool to practice synchronization, and when played in a moderate and controlled manner, they can be a great aid in synchronization. Your focus needs to be on the exact placement and timing of the fingers rather than trying to blaze through the scale itself. Remember, practice makes permanent, not perfect.
Getting rid of the excess
If you are feeling confident about your basics and synchronization is not an issue then we can look at some other elements. To start off with, we need to rid our technique of any movements that are unnecessary. Both the left hand and the right hand can develop strange habits that hinder both speed and accuracy. Some common examples of this excess movement include:
- A finger that might poke out from the left hand when it is not being used
- A over rotated wrist that is struggling to make a barre
- A right hand that is bouncing on the strings
- Left hand fingers that stretch out too much when they could remain curled
- Repeated fingers in the right hand (instead of alternating)
These movements can be hard to pick up, because they don’t prevent you from getting through your repertoire and it is therefore very easy to let them go unnoticed for quite some time. These problems can often hang around until a teacher points them out or you reach a limit to your playing and have to take a closer look at what is going on.
Rather than getting to your limit and being frustrated, let’s address the problem now. The first step would be to identify any areas that could be improved, this could be achieved by either asking a teacher or knowledgable colleague to watch you play and note some points. Or, you could video yourself and analyze what your hands are doing. I am a big advocate of self recording and analyzing. It brings results and gets you actively thinking about hands.
Sit down with a notepad and make a list of any type of movements that might need work. And, while you are at it you can list any other technical problems that might become evident from watching the video. Once you have identified any excess movements that you could refine, then you need to address them with exercises that will improve your technique.
Economy of movement.
Being economical with your movement can aid with synchronization and accuracy, and therefore, speed. Start to really think about how much movement you really need to play the classical guitar.
Have you ever heard someone comment about a performer “you make it look easy!” well, I believe that the appearance of ease comes from making just the right movements and nothing more.
To see what I am talking about have a look at this video from another lesson:
This concept applies to both hands and indeed your entire body. Do you really need to grit your teeth? Tap your foot? Curl over the guitar when there is a tricky passage? All of these movements, while coming from a desire to do well, actually hinder the free and relaxed movement of other body parts.
Once again, take some time to observe your own playing and see if there are some movements that can be more subtle and concise.
Speed bursts and the parachute technique
We all have a limit with our physical movements, and to develop our abilities, to push our limits, requires a certain type of training.
It can be hard for our hands to sustain fast notes for a long or even moderate period of time. Speed bursts only ask the hands to go at a fast tempo for a short “burst” of time and it becomes easier for us to push our limits one little burst at a time.
Try this example:
Of course this is just employing the right hand in the exercise, to really get the most out of the exercise we need to practice synchronization too.
Parachute training is my little term for a type of metronome practice that works really well for pushing tempi. If you have ever know a serious track runner you may have heard that sometimes they train with parachutes to make it harder to run. Once they have trained with the parachute they go back to normal running and find that it feels easier. Hopefully this process will have the same effect:
If you are having difficulty with a particular passage or piece, you need to find out what tempo feels comfortable. Even if it is just a snails pace, find the tempo that you can set the metronome and play along comfortably.
Let’s say for arguments sake, that the tempo you find is 100. Take the tempo down a few notches to 90 and play the passage through. When you can play it though five times without mistakes, put it up a notch. 94, 98, 104, 108, 116 120! When you reach a point where the playing becomes messy, keep pushing past that tempo just for a couple of notches.
Then, when you have pushed into a tempo that is really too fast come back to 104. Hopefully, you will find that 104 now seems easier and more achievable. Mark down 104 as your new base tempo and repeat the same process the next day. Over time you can build your tempo up, notch by notch.