Guitar Essentials: How to Build Incredible Pickhand and Fretboard Speed

By practicing both top-down and bottom-up exercises, what used to be a brick wall will become a stepping stone.
Publish date:

Shred without speed is not shred at all.

That said, we don’t have to play fast all the time. We just need to be able to when it’s called for. And when we do, it should feel comfortable and effortless.

How do we attain this level of proficiency? Are there shortcuts.

Well, yes, sort of.

You’ve probably heard this advice: Start slowly and gradually increase your speed. It’s a good suggestion. If you play something 100 times sloppily, your 101st attempt will probably be sloppy too. But play something 100 times accurately, and the 101st time should be accurate too.

Eventually, however, this approach will bring you to a wall. You’ll become stuck at a disappointing top speed.

If you’ve ever hit a speed barrier, it may be because your pick hand’s motion, which worked well at moderate speeds, just couldn’t cut it at higher speeds.

But exactly which higher-speed motion works? You have no way of knowing until you actually reach those speeds.

For this reason, we like to use top-down exercises. For these exercises, instead of working up from lower speeds, you jump right in at the top of your speed range to get the right feel, and then work down until you reach the tempo at which you can pick accurately.

By practicing both top-down and bottom-up exercises—that is, by hitting your speed limit from both directions—what used to be a brick wall will become a stepping stone.

Play the chromatic (moving in half steps) exercise in FIGURE 1 with a metronome, and gradually increase your speed until you reach your limit. Notice that your pick hand becomes more tense as you play faster. Once you’ve hit your max, write down the metronome marking.


Image placeholder title

Next, look at FIGURE 2, a tremolo-picked single-string example based on the E harmonic minor scale (E F# G A B C D#).


Image placeholder title

As indicated by the groups of three diagonal lines, pick each note repeatedly and as fast as possible. Use a medium-to-heavy pick, and play just on its tip, neither too loud nor too hard. For fast picking I favor a wrist motion, i.e. rotation of the forearm. Some players prefer elbow motion, while others (jazzers, mostly) opt for finger/thumb. Experiment with all three approaches and stick with whichever works for you.

Most players prefer to angle the side of the picket that is closest to the neck slightly downward, toward the floor, so that the pick crosses the strings at a bit of an angle. This helps prevent the pick from catching on the strings. Hold your pick with a little give, and make tiny adjustments whenever you notice any string catching. Above all, make sure to use small pick motions.

For the following exercises, you’ll want to slow down a little in the interest of synchronizing your fret and pick hands, but stick with your new pick-hand motion.

In FIGURE 3, emphasize each fretted note slightly. That will help with synchronization.


Image placeholder title

FIGURE 4 is another chromatic idea, this time on a single string, using position shifts. If your fret hand has any problems here, first try playing the example with hammer-ons and pull-offs and at a slower speed, until it’s nice and even. Then, speed things ups and add the picking. Finally, go back and play FIGURE 1 as fast as possible and check your speed with a metronome. Chances are good you’ll already be playing faster.


Image placeholder title