Are you frustrated with your inability to play guitar fast? Do you practice speed exercises every day with little result? If you are struggling with your guitar technique, this can be due to a variety of reasons. Several of them were discussed in the last article of this series. If you missed the first part of this speed building article series, watch this free video lesson about how to build speed on guitar to get a summary of its main points.
In this article, I will focus on one of the most commonly overlooked flaws in guitar technique that prevents many guitar players from playing at very high speeds. This reason is: poor articulation.
I have discussed this briefly in the last article (and gave a demonstration in the video above), but in this article I want to explain this topic in more depth and give you some exercises on how to improve your articulation on guitar.
Articulation refers to how well you are able to achieve a distinct and precise attack of each note (and it usually implies louder dynamics as well).
To play cleanly at faster speeds, you must have control over the power and volume of each note. If your articulation is weak, then your fast playing will sound sloppy.
The good news is that if you improve your articulation, you will find that the speed of your playing will naturally increase by default.
Before I show you specific articulation exercises, I want to clear up a very misunderstood concept that is often quoted about guitar playing. It is often stated like this:
“You have to play with the least amount of motion and tension possible.”
The truth is that the concepts of “economy of motion” and “tension” are relative terms. Yes, you should try to avoid wasteful motion and excess tension, BUT not everything on guitar is played with the same amount of tension. Sometimes you must use quite a lot of tension and force to play something well.
For proof, listen to the playing of guitarists such as Shawn Lane, Rusty Cooley or Paul Gilbert. These players play with phenomenal amount of power and great articulation of each note while at the same time playing at extreme virtuoso speeds. Clearly they are not simply picking everything as lightly as possible.
With this in mind, here are a few articulation building exercises and concepts that will help take your picking technique to the next level.
Practice Playing More On The Lower Strings
One of the best ways to work on articulation of your picking is to practice on the thicker strings (strings 4 5 and 6 of your guitar). You will find it more challenging to play with great articulation (on these strings specifically) because it is harder to make each note crisp and precise. The good news is that once you do get good articulation on the lower strings, it will become much easier to get good sound everywhere on your guitar.
Watch a video example of this exercise.
This exercise is to be cycled over and over (and can be applied to several different scales). Make sure that each of your notes has power and definition. The best way to ensure that your articulation is flawless is to accent the start of each group of 6 notes.
Notice that speed isn’t the primary focus of this exercise. You must focus on your articulation and getting the notes to sound clear. As you focus on that element of your playing, your speed will naturally improve.
Although this looks like a simple sequence, it is actually quite challenging to play it with good control, and without any excess string noise. As you play this, try to get the MAXIMUM volume from each note with your pick.
The most difficult part about it is the slide done with the 4th finger Begin by learning this lick slowly to work out the motions and the picking.
Isolate The Inside Picking Component
Another barrier to good articulation occurs because of something known as “inside” picking. Here is an example that forces you to work on this problem:
Watch a video example of this exercise.
This is another scale sequence that needs to be cycled over and over. Notice the last two notes of beat 3 and the 1st note of beat 4 in the first measure. As you play these notes, your pick hand may feel like it is bouncing out of control. This is because of the challenging inside picking mechanic (so named because of the pick playing “inside” of the D and A strings). This same motion happens in the last 3 notes of beat 2 in measure 2.
If you are having trouble with this “inside picking” motion, then exercises like the one above will help to isolate the problem and fix it (while at the same time refining your articulation).
The main objective with these exercises is to get the maximum power from each note. Speed is only a secondary goal here. You can begin to increase speed later, but only if you can do so without sacrificing the volume of the notes.
Watch The Pick Angle
In order to balance the articulation of your upstrokes with that of your downstrokes, you need to keep the pick more or less perpendicular to the string. If the angle of the pick is too much upward, then this puts the downstrokes at an advantage, but leaves the downstrokes at a disadvantage. It works the other way when the pick is tilted too far downwards.
That being said, there should be some tilt of the pick towards the headstock of the guitar. It will help for the pick to slice through the string with less effort. The more extreme this angle is, the “muddier” the sound will become, but the easier it will be to sound the note. The less extreme this angle is, the “crispier” the articulation will be, but it will take more effort to sound the note. So as you can see, it is a balance and a tradeoff between the tone and the amount of tension that is needed to produce it. The important thing is to become aware of this balance and to control the pick angle so that you can play with the tone that sounds good to you.
If you want to see how this needs to be practiced, watch this free video lesson about building guitar picking speed.
Practicing With The Bridge Pick Up
For practicing articulation it is better to play without any effects (such as chorus, delay, etc) and to use the bridge pick up. Using any effects or playing through the neck pick up artificially masks any imperfections in your articulation. Such imperfections only become apparent at faster speeds
Using the bridge pick up (with a clean tone or with distortion) does not allow you to mask flaws in your articulation of each note, so you can easily evaluate your progress.
Of course for actual playing, you may use the neck pick up to get a smoother sound, and you can add any additional effects you want, BUT in that case you will be sure that your playing is already very clean (having practiced it using the bridge pick up previously).
Paying attention to this very important area of your picking will do a great deal for your guitar technique.
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