Technique - Speed and Accuracy


#1

Thought it would be cool to start a thread to get a few helpful tips from each other. If you’ve found something out that helped you, please share it.

Here lately I’ve been watching the left hand (fret hand) technique of some of the great flatpickers out there and noticed a few things. One is how little they move their fingers, very economical movements. Watching Tony Rice or Kenny Smith play something at the speed of light, they leave their fingers almost flat on the strings and you can barely see them move (which makes it tough to steal their licks :slight_smile: ). I notice when I try to play something really fast, I raise my fingers too high off the strings and I know it robs me of speed. Since I’ve been working on this I’ve noticed a lot of improvement and my left hand (fret hand) is starting to leave my right hand (picking hand) behind.

Another thing I’ve noticed is the angle that they hold their fretting hand. When I play, the palm of my left hand is almost pointing towards me. When I make sure the palm of my left hand is pointing straight up, it really cleans up my playing and I fret things alot more cleanly and have a better range of movement especially on long stretches. Watching Bryan Sutton, he almost has his palm facing away from him (towards the headstock), and we all know how clean/fast he is.

Anyways, just thinking out loud here.


#2

Good topic! I have some similar issues. My left hand pinkie flies away from the fretboard and into a useless rest position after it’s infrequent use. Working on scales has helped me keep it hanging around, but it’s still a work in progress. Also, I tend to stay with my thumb wrapped around the back of the neck too much when I am picking out individual notes. I think slowly working scales helps me on that too, but I have to make a mental effort to transfer it to my regular playing. To be honest, I haven’t worked much directly on my left hand, as I am always confounded by my right hand.

One thing I have noticed with my right hand that I need to improve is that I have too much movement perpendicular to the guitar (moving closer to and further away from the top of the guitar). I end up raising too far to clear strings and digging in too much to pick. I watch Norman Blake’s right hand and it just looks like he is only moving in that plane as much as is absolutely necessary. It’s a simple matter of physics that if I can cut down on that wasted motion, that would be a good thing. I only wish doing it were as simple as recognizing the problem. I think relaxing and not thinking about my technique seems to help this, but admittedly, it’s difficult to analyze it and not think about it simultaneously.


#3

I have some similar problems with my pinkie too. When you say you are keeping it in a “resting position”, I assume you mean curled up to keep it out of the way. Mine’s all over the place, sometimes curled, and sometimes sticking straight out. I’m making a conscious effort to keep it in a better playing position. It’s hard to corral that little feller though, it has a mind of it’s own. I also used to keep my thumb wrapped over the top when playing some leads but the thick neck on my guitar has cured me of that. :slight_smile:

I was trying to find the video that Ben posted of one of his sisters playing that Takamine that was for sale. I think she had good left hand technique in that vid. Her fingers almost looked like they were stuck together, very little un-needed movement. I do that when playing chords real fast, keeping the knuckles/fingers stuck together. Hard to explain what I mean, maybe I can find that vid.

I think my left hand technique is my key to making it to the next level and playing stuff at 240+ bpm consistently. When I mess up trying to play something really fast, it’s almost always the left hand. I’d say it’s like every thing else though, the more you do it, the more things will slow down mentally/physically for you and it won’t seem like everything is moving at the speed of light.


#4

It seems to me that there are a myriad of things one can do to improve accuracy and speed. And it definitely depends on what you are using that speed to do.

For example, if what you want to do is play a piece memorized at a freakishly clean and fast pace, then practicing at a extremely slow pace with dead even/fluid strokes and smoothness of tone is a great way to go. Once your brain figures out what you are trying to do, you will be able to slowly increase speed until lightning is the only thing faster than your hands.

If, on the other hand, you are looking for the fastest hands when improvising, there are lots of techniques that will help with this. One of my favorites is to switch up directions with my right hand picking. Let me explain. We all use alternate picking technique right? That is to say, we all alternate down-up when picking with the down stroke usually on the beat. Then try (when practicing) to start with a right hand up stroke on the beat, but still alternate strokes. What will happen is that your right hand will learn to become independent of the beat and will have much more control. Do the same thing when practicing cross-picking. When you can pick opposite strokes as fast and easily as conventional down-up strokes, you will see a pretty big increase in speed and accuracy.

For your left hand, you may want to try a technique I developed about 37 years ago called “touch technique”. The concept is that folks often press too hard on the strings with their left hand which causes all sorts of problems (muscle cramps, slow movement, exaggerated movement…etc). Touch technique teaches the hands to press only as hard as needed to produce a clean tone and also teaches the left hand to relax while playing. It works like this. Instead of pressing down each note (in scales or single note tunes), just lightly touch the note with your left hand fingers so that the note sounds with a muted “thunk” when picked. If you actually hear a clear tone or fret buzz, you are pressing too hard. Each note should be completely muted. What you will notice right away is that your fingers will NOT jump away from the fingerboard, but instead will stay close to the fingerboard even when they are not playing. If you practice this regularly, you will find that your hands will play faster and much more relaxed.

Those are my two favorite techniques of faster hands while improvising.

Mike


#5

Both Tony Rice and Norman Blake mention this “economy of motion” when it comes to the left hand. I try to concentrate on that a lot myself, making an effort to move my fingers around enough to finger the correct notes, but without wasting a lot of motion. The end result is that it also improves your sustain. I’ve been playing for about 18 months now and I have come to the conclusion that speed just sort of sneaks up on you. For a long time I felt I wasn’t gaining anything. But then I started using my slow-down program (The Amazing Slow Downer) as a gauge. I play along with backing tracks, and I have found that on a lot of songs that I used to play at level speed (100%), I am now increasing the slow downer up to around 120% of that original speed rating and am comfortably able to keep up with it. I guess it’s true that success doesn’t happen over night. I think we’ve all known that, but sometimes it takes some concrete evidence like this to confirm it!


#6

Good suggestions guys! I’m chewing on all of it.

The light touch is also something I need to work on. I’m a death grip guy. If I don’t have my fingernails on my left hand cut way down (like twice a week), I feel like they get in the way. Probably because I’m pressing way too hard.


#7

I thought of another thing I have been working on lately to help my left hand speed. I am not sure I am seeing the fruits of it yet, but in theory, it should help. The difference is the direction the finger moves during a pull-off. In the past, I always literally pulled the finger toward the palm. Ben has suggested instead pushing the finger away from the palm when the progression requires the fingers to move in that direction (such as going from a pull off on the D string to fretting notes on the A string afterward).

I am at a point where is doesn’t feel uncomfortable and I think it will ultimately help. If a song is moving quickly, pulling off when going to lower frequency strings requires much more hand movement than “pushing off.”


#8

— Begin quote from “drguitar”

Do the same thing when practicing cross-picking. When you can pick opposite strokes as fast and easily as conventional down-up strokes, you will see a pretty big increase in speed and accuracy.

— End quote

Thanks Doc,
I used to do what you described. That is to say if I had two sets of three 1/8th notes separated by a 1/8th rest, I would often play that as down/up/down rest up/down/up. Working on bluegrass was my first dedicated work on using a pick in many years (decades). Since starting into BG, I have been doing strict alternate picking. It was a tough change initially but I am almost at a point where it is automatic, so now I am considering breaking rules again. I have thought about practicing three note forward rolls as down down up, etc. Anyway, I am not quite automatic (especially on syncopated phrases), so I don’t want to start breaking the rules just yet, but you have provided some good food for thought.


#9

— Begin quote from ____

Do the same thing when practicing cross-picking. When you can pick opposite strokes as fast and easily as conventional down-up strokes, you will see a pretty big increase in speed and accuracy.

— End quote

The instructional book I worked through last year has some reverse alternate picking studies in it. I remember doing the exercises and not finding them too challenging, but I’m working back through the book now and the reverse picking is giving me fits. Like you, Mike, I have so ingrained regular alternate picking that it feels weird to upstroke on the downbeat. I constantly catch myself trying to “correct” my pick direction.

— Begin quote from ____

folks often press too hard on the strings with their left hand which causes all sorts of problems

— End quote

I think your touch technique is a good idea, dr. I believe too much fretboard pressure causes lots of problems for me with the mandolin. I’m sure a greater familiarity with the fretboard would help. When I get to the point where I can reasonably trust that my left hand fingers are going to land in the correct spot, I probably won’t feel thet need to be as deliberate. At least that’s how it’s worked with the guitar for me.


#10

When I first try a difficult tune if you can imagine a large container holding cement and you are playing the guitar with it submerged in the container of cement then you can sort of imagine my problem . I do get faster but I shoot for the 180’s not the 250’s and I like it slower as the Melody comes through loud and clear, it is sort of like some of the wild playing some do with metal or other weird ways ,. I appreciate the articulation but would rather hear the the tune at a slower speed. When I speak of 180 beats I am saying that it sounds better to me at that speed instead of 200 beats or higher./ I do eventually get the guitar out of the cement though . I have run into tunes that are played at 120 beats that are extremely fast due to the notes being of shorter duration, you can get the fingers tied in knots at 120. being fast is good but accuracy rides over speed . I play one for maybe weeks or months before I am familiar enough to go as fast as It should be played. If practice makes perfect and no one is perfect why practice. MMM? No for real, practice and knowing where to go next is the most important item. If you can play one at 120 that should be 180 and do it in time you have progressed very much and the total speed will come .


#11

I hear ya welder. When I first started flatpicking with Ben’s tabs and videos, I was always trying to top out at a speed that was pretty fast. When I picked up mando again, I was really focused on playing notes well and enjoying it. Like you say, many tunes are great around 180. Instead of spending another 3 or 4 weeks (or months) pumping up the speed from a good sounding speed, I instead went on to learn other things.


#12

I remember Doc Watson once saying “good picking is clean picking.” I took that to mean a tune sounds better picked slower and clean than one picked faster and dirty. Of course he could do both!


#13

What I have discovered is very simple and to put it in as few words as possible , make sure you know the tune as well as you know anything then the speed will come, but if you are still stumbling on burning the notes into you mind and fingers then speed will not come as easily . Just make sure you know what it is you are going to next. If you have to think about where you are going to go next you can not build speed . By the way I am about as slow as they come . but I do benefit from knowing the tune well. I am about 180 beat kinda guy and that is fast enough for most tunes . May try slowing them down a tad and listen to the music . You see every one has a preference don’t we LOL.

Keep trying you will get it someday .


#14

Here are two tips I have used. I want to add that I have seen a lot of players who are a lot better than me who do neither of these things.

First, you want to rotate at the wrist. Hold your hand in a clenched fist out in front of you with your palm facing down and your elbow at a right angle. Now, rotate your forearm so that your palm is facing up and then rotate it back. This “corkscrew” motion is in my opinion the most efficient motion for flatpicking. If your forearm is going up and down without enough rotation at the wrist you will get tired. You want to be “swiveling” at the wrist.

Another tip that Steve Kaufman sometimes teaches: hold your pick with the tip of your index finger somewhat under it. This allows you to use some upward pressure from your index finger to put a little extra “oomph” in your upstrokes, relieving your forearm of the responsibility. Not everyone likes this but it helped me.


#15

— Begin quote from “mreisz”

Good topic! I have some similar issues. My left hand pinkie flies away from the fretboard and into a useless rest position after it’s infrequent use. Working on scales has helped me keep it hanging around, but it’s still a work in progress. Also, I tend to stay with my thumb wrapped around the back of the neck too much when I am picking out individual notes. I think slowly working scales helps me on that too, but I have to make a mental effort to transfer it to my regular playing. To be honest, I haven’t worked much directly on my left hand, as I am always confounded by my right hand.

One thing I have noticed with my right hand that I need to improve is that I have too much movement perpendicular to the guitar (moving closer to and further away from the top of the guitar). I end up raising too far to clear strings and digging in too much to pick. I watch Norman Blake’s right hand and it just looks like he is only moving in that plane as much as is absolutely necessary. It’s a simple matter of physics that if I can cut down on that wasted motion, that would be a good thing. I only wish doing it were as simple as recognizing the problem. I think relaxing and not thinking about my technique seems to help this, but admittedly, it’s difficult to analyze it and not think about it simultaneously.

— End quote

I think relaxing is very key to playing smoothly I try to relax even if it is striking the strings lightly instead of hard . I tend to raise my hand up to much also . and at times feels like I am a spastic and can’t keep it from running away with me . I just stop calm down and try again . I try to think melody and smooth it does help me a lot , when some one tells you that was smooth what you just played take it as a compliment not a rag on. I had a picking pal once that would not tell me if it sounded good or not but he would always say that was smooth . I figured out it was his way of giving a compliment with out being to over the top.


#16

I would definitely consider “smooth” to be a compliment.


#17

I agree with Larry, “smooth” is a compliment. I think the common link that often makes the exceptional flatpickers exceptional is that they always play smooth and with musicality. For example, I don’t think of Norman Blake as an exceptionally fast player (he is plenty fast enough), but he is always smooth and effortless. The really good players often make difficult passages sound “easy” because they play them so well.

— Begin quote from “JeffGuitar”

hold your pick with the tip of your index finger somewhat under it. This allows you to use some upward pressure from your index finger to put a little extra “oomph” in your upstrokes, relieving your forearm of the responsibility. Not everyone likes this but it helped me.

— End quote

I think that may work for me as well. I find that when I am playing through a string like in a rest stroke, I get better tone and easier volume with more finger drive. The finger under it technique seems like it might be related. I’ll play with it and see how it goes.