Capped for years at 100 bpm 16th notes

Hello all.

I’ve been playing for about 11 years, and that’s 11 years sucking at picking. I’m pretty much desperate to know what the hell I am doing wrong. I’ve experimented different pick angles, different hand position and angles, more forearm rotation vs more wrist, posture, etc, makes little difference. Ive been capped at about 100 bpm 16th notes for years.

I always feel a lot of tension in my arm. There have been times, however, when I could relax my arm in such a manner that my picking speed seemed to explode for a fraction of a second. Ive been trying to figure out how to feel that again, but it’s very rare. I don’t really know how to do that on command. I know I can do that, because I’ve done it, but I don’t know how. I dont know what happened, beyond that feeling of relaxation.

Ive filmed these two videos, but I dont know if its enough or if its well filmed for anyone to help me figure it out.

Thank you in advance.

First time post, so please don’t consider me an expert…
My opinion… Try turning your hand so your palm is a bit more upward and your escape is on the upstroke. Also, plant your last two or three fingers on the body to give you stationary point in turn giving the rest of your hand pivot point.

Hey @Mr_Samsa,

Yep, before you even think about switching picking technique etc, you’ll likely need to get that under control. At least you’re aware of it – some people have this so unconsciously ingrained they’re not even aware of how tense they are.

I had this problem and managed to become more in control of it, though it’s still lurking! You likely have this baked in as part of your “mental model” of what playing is all about – I know I did. I actually used to tense up immediately when I touched the guitar.

I gathered some notes about tension and relaxation at https://practicing-guitar.readthedocs.io/en/latest/part-1-on-technique/tension-and-relaxation.html. That page references a YouTube vid about picking hand relaxation, which I adapted from piano resources. Give those a shot and see how it works for you.

Cheers and best wishes, jz

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Welcome @Mr_Samsa!

From the outside it doesn’t look like you are trying particularly hard here - do you experience tension in these attempts?

I’d take a step back and do some “table tapping” tests without the guitar - here is a free example from our YT channel. Let us know what kind of tempos you get:

You may also find these two videos useful:

Was gonna say that. I’d want to see a video of you at 120+ to see what happens.

Hey, thanks for the replies so far :smiley:

@robgroothuis I’ve tried turning my hand so that my palm is more upward and the escape is on the upstroke, I’ve actually tried experimenting with that in the first video. I feel like it results in more forearm rotation, and I seem to be able to rotate my forearm faster than my side-to-side wrist movement, so I guess that might help, but I’m not sure that is the root of my problem. Escaping on the downstroke actually seems more natural or comfortable to me, but I don’t know if that’s just because I’m used to it.

As for planting my fingers on the body, I used to do that on the first years of playing, but I’ve found that was a source of tension so now I just float my hand, only very lightly touching the body with my fingers but not anchoring them.

@jzohrab I will definitely take a look at that link, looks very interesting! I relate to the “mental model” thing and tensing up as soon as I pick up the guitar. It’s not just the guitar, actually, I tense up when I’m singing or playing drums too, or doing some other activity or even at rest sometimes. Now, you say that before I even think about switching my picking technique I need to get my tension under control. But sometimes I question whether it is actually something in my technique that leads to tension, and if I could relief that tension by switching my technique.

@tommo Thank you :slight_smile:

I do experience tension in these attempts. In the second video I’m trying to do 16th notes at 100 BPM and I can at least feel some degree of control and relaxation, but it’s not much and the underlying feeling of tension is there. As soon as I tried to bump it up to 110 BPM, I just crash. It’s like my arm doesn’t want to cooperate and gets all tensed up and won’t go any faster.

I’m a bit tired today physically, but I tried to test myself and I could table tap up to 180 BPM, 2 taps per beat, but I’m already tensed up. I can’t hold it for long, and if I try to go above that, it’s even shorter.

I’ve tried the “just go fast” approach on a single string, and I felt like sometimes I could go above my usual speed, but I’m not sure if that’s because I’ve found another motion that worked better, or just because I lucked out and had a really quick spasm. I found that sometimes I can do a quick burst with my elbow, but I feel very tensed up doing it and it doesn’t feel right at all. Other times I do a mix of random chaotic movements and it works for a moment but that’s it. As I replied to Robgroothuis, I’ve found that I can rotate my forearm quite fast compared to other movements and it also doesn’t seem too tensed up. My “normal” picking motion seems to have a very subtle forearm rotation movement already.

I feel like I might be stringhopping at times, or that I just have a feeling of hardship trying to get my pick across the strings, but I’m not sure if that’s what I’m actually doing. I don’t think my hand is making that kind of movement, and when it does, I think I can tell, and I feel it as something different than what I’m trying to do in the videos. There might be some of that going on in a very subtle way, but I would be inclined to think that it’s not that.

I wonder if I just have some sort of mental block where attempting to go faster equals tense up more in my mind, because, as I said in my first post, there have been times when I could explode my speed for a moment and I felt really relaxed, but I don’t know how it happened and how to do that on command. I’m at a loss.

@Pepepicks66 I can try to do that after dinner.

Hey Samsa. At first I saw some string hopping and then you demonstrated some other approaches without it. Actually it doesn’t look all that bad. I think to refine that all you need to do is straighten out the pick slightly so it’s a bit more parallel with the strings. I’m not saying to eliminate the twist angle to the strings all together - you want to have some. I just think you are using a bit too much and that’s preventing you from refining further. The slightly straighter pick will not glide quite as smooth across the strings and that will allow you to refine your pick depth and facilitate some faster picking. Your angles actually look good. You are closer than you think.

Also experiment with twisting the pick a bit counter clockwise so the tip of the pick is not pointing so far to your left. My pick also points a bit to the left but may be a bit too much here. The combination of the angle to the strings and the point to the left looks like is causing you to get too much edge on the strings. Adjusting these at first may seem to make things harder but you compensate by getting a smaller pick depth on the strings and this will allow you to go faster and maintain a decent attack. The angles are good so I don’t think these changes will cause you to get stuck too much. Good luck!

Understandable. You can work at it from both sides: from relaxation drills, and from technique changes. For me, the relaxation came first, and once I got that better, I was much more free to experiment with changes. My recommendation is to do the relaxation first, and play slow for a bit to see if you can sustain the relaxation. Whatever route you choose, good luck! Cheers! Z

As requested, here’s a video of me trying to do 16th notes on a single string at 120bpm and 130bpm. Might not be the best video angle, though.

Thanks @rotjab and @jzohrab, I will try out those suggestions and see what happens :slight_smile:

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Honestly, if you are not planting your fingers on the guitar, there’s no reason to really have them hanging down there getting dragged along. Try using a more closed hand technique. And are you gripping too tightly on the pick itself? I personally leave the tiniest bit of slack in the pick. That may help tension everywhere

I can’t say I feel very confortable with a closed hand technique, I feel more relaxed with an open hand, unless I’m at the A or lower E string where I might close my hand depending on how I position it, but even then I have a preference towards my hand being open. I don’t find that there is any sort of friction between the fingers and the guitar that would slow down my playing. As for my grip, I actually find that sometimes I might lose my grip on the pick, so sometimes I worry that I might not gripping the pick tightly enough.

Smaller motion, experiment with pick depth

I feel like I can see a few things. First, it almost looks like the pick is angled back towards the bridge. Can you confirm? That would result in the garage spike problem, for which there’s a video on this site. Basically, you want to try and make sure the resistance on the pick from the string is the same in both directions.

Second, the pick does look a bit loose. You might want to try a tighter trigger grip, or something along those lines. You could also try bringing your middle finger in to the palm, or all of them.

Lastly, it looks like a fair amount of elbow motion. Maybe try turning your arm pronated so you can see more of the top of your arm. You might end up going for a DSX motion if that helps.

Personally, when I started trying elbow motion years ago, I was pretty much only using twitch muscles and playing as fast as I could. After a while, I could start slowing it down to more comfortable tempos. It isn’t my go to, but it isn’t a far away as it used to be.

There’s a ton of motions outlined in the Identifying your Motion track, maybe give some or all of those a try and see if something else works.

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@DiJiSza It actually seems to me like I have a tendency to angle the point of the pick slightly to my left, towards the neck. I never really thought about it, but it does feel like my downstrokes and upstrokes don’t flow the same way.

I think I may compensate the difficulty getting the pick across the strings with a looser grip. I usually feel an urge to reposition the pick between my fingers as it seems to have a tendency to move around subtly as I pick.

I never really thought about turning my arm like that, but I can give it a try. I think I already have a tendency to prefer a DSX motion, though I’ve also been experimenting with an USX motion, and I could see myself working on it and trying to get the hang of it.

What I’ve been trying, however, are the relaxation exercises suggested by @jzohrab, and I can feel a notable improvement in one short session. I suspect that my fast twitch muscles don’t flow how they are supposed to, that there’s always some resistance that don’t allow for fast movement of my arm. Some of those exercices were about completely relaxing my arm muscles and letting my arm and hand fall flat, and I found that often I wasn’t being able to or wasn’t sure of how to do it. As I worked on it, however, I started to feel some sensations that I’m not really used to, it felt very fast and relaxed. I will definitely have to work on those more often. I have a feeling that the main problem lies there.

Hi @Mr_Samsa, keep experimenting. Great that you’ve found some of the relaxation experiments interesting and useful. :slight_smile: It’s all part of the discovery.

Yeah sometimes “doing nothing” feels … really weird, and somehow complicated. So just keep approaching and backing away, seeing what feels good, what doesn’t. Like most things it’s a learned skill, so you might try it today and get frustrated, only to find that it makes more sense tomorrow, because your body sorts it out during rest. If you’re not sure of how to do something, or what it might feel like, DM me and perhaps we can work it out, or I can make a follow-up video etc.

I’ve found these exercises most useful simply for being aware of what’s going on. As I practice things, I still do scans etc to get a sense of where things are at, and I periodically “drop everything” to remind myself what full relaxation feels like. Playing fully relaxed isn’t really possible, it’s a juggling act!

Cheers! jz

Have you tried standing or resting the guitar on the left leg? I feel those positions give me more space to move.

Did you try all the table tap tests, or only the one closest to your current motion?

If what you’ve been doing for years hasn’t got you where you want to go, it’s probably wise to start entertaining some different possibilities. Try the full gamut of table top tests to see if any of them show promise.

And if, as you suggest, there may be some kind of “mental block” going on, testing motions away from the guitar will likely be less inhibited that testing on the guitar.

To me, mentally, one of the keys to discovering a fast motion is not worrying about keeping track of how many notes there are (at least in the early stages of experimentation). When you try to run fast, you probably don’t try to count your steps, and the same is true for getting a feel for fast picking. Once you’ve discovered a fast motion and recognize what it feels like, then you can worry about trying to synchronize it to a pulse.

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Whatever motion seems to work the easiest, go with that.

Maybe try going with that? You can figure other motions out later when you know what ‘fast and easy’ should feel like.

Good stuff! I agree with @jzohrab that it’s all part of the discovery. Getting rid of excess tension can uncover problems in one’s playing tendencies that would otherwise stay hidden - that’s what happened to me, anyway.

I think the general consensus on the forum is that tension is the result of inefficient technique, but I still hold that habitual tension can twist a picking motion that’s basically efficient, into something else that’s inefficient and that you didn’t even mean to do, or notice.

This is just an example that I found in myself after starting to realize how tense I tend to be at my upper arms, both hands’ fingers, backs of my hands etc. May or may not apply to you or others:

I wouldn’t worry about musical correctness at first. At least I can say from experience that if you try too hard to play a song or passage and make the notes come out right, you may start micromanaging the song. It becomes an effort of just avoiding mistakes instead of learning to develop technique.

Let it be fast and sloppy at first. See what problems you run into, what type of a motion and arm position your hand wants to use, when you let your picking motion be relaxed, easy and quite fast. Then adjust accordingly, try again and stay relaxed.

+1!

In any case, I think it’s worth it to check the angles of attack on your pick. You mentioned your upstrokes and downstrokes don’t feel equal. They should feel smooth and relatively similar. The sensation of the pickstroke feeling un-smooth on either stroke can have an impact on how you perceive your motion (again, at least for me it does). The motion itself might already be what you need, but if there’s a “garage spikes problem” with the pick’s smoothness, then you may overcompensate for that, and so on.

Do post some more videos!

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I recorded this two videos

In this one I’m starting at around 100 BPM and bumping the metronome until about 180 BPM. I end up using my elbow to reach the highest speeds, but it feels very tense. It doesn’t really feel right to me. I notice my pick gets stuck on the strings a lot at those speeds.

On this one I’m just trying to do exactly the opposite: trying to relax as much as possible instead of tensing up to force myself to go fast. When I’m starting to discover that relaxed feeling it’s like my arm and hand suddenly want to go much faster. But what happens next is that I tense up. I feel an urge to tense up, and then it’s like system breakdown. I could actually reach pretty high speeds with my elbow, but again, it feels really tense.

I suspect that my problem has to do with a mental model of what playing is about, indeed, as @jzohrab suggested. Having tried his exercises, I could actually feel more relaxed and that I could play in a very different manner than what I’m used to, but I’ve been playing this way for so long that it’s very hard to do things differently.

I know that my elbow could reach higher speeds than any other movement, but I am not convinced that going with an elbow motion is the way to go for me. I really don’t like it, and I feel like that might just be a way to compensate for faulty muscle coordenation combined with a faulty picking technique (this might still be a factor and I don’t want to rule it out just yet, but I feel like I might already have things down to a degree). I know that I can reach higher speeds when I relax, because I can feel what my body wants to do when that happens and I know I’ve done it before even if for only a fraction of a second, but right now I’m still having trouble understanding what correct muscle activation feels like, and how to achieve that coupled with effective relaxation of the opposite muscles. To reply to @Shredd:

I suspect that this is indeed what’s happening to me. I can see how innefficient technique can cause tension, and I can see how tension can lead to inneffecient technique, but I can also see that tension can be just that sometimes, tension, resulting from a failure to successfully coordinate muscle activation and relaxation.

I feel like I would benefit from more exercises like the ones @jzohrab mentioned, so if anyone knows any more of those, I would be very thankful. Or any other suggestions from fellow tension-strugglers :slight_smile:

Yes, and it helps making my right arm feels more relaxed, but not to the extent that I can suddenly reach significantly higher speeds because of it.

I ended up trying the other table tap tests, I ended up being able to reach about 190BPM on each one of them, and 220BPM on forearm rotation. But it’s all quite tense and I can’t hold it for long.

Oh yes, this makes a lot of sense to me too. I think this is also a contributing factor to my tension. I think that I’ve always wanted to do things that I couldn’t yet do, and I guess that trying to force myself to do them was how I approached it for a long time. Needlessly to say, it didn’t work. I’m trying to focus more on finding that physical sensation of correct activation of muscles, rather than trying to not make mistakes at this point. Fast and sloppy sounds like a good strategy.

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Yes that happens to me as well. I find that it’s a razor’s edge that I’m on when I’m playing fast, and the moment that something tenses up everything locks. I wonder what other super players on here experience with that (pinging those I know of!) – @Philausopher, @Twangsta, @tommo, do you have any thoughts with that? When you’re going fast, or when you first started to get fast, did you feel that things were a house of cards? :slight_smile:

Below is a variation on an exercise/drill/experiment I’m doing lately which I’ve found super effective. I’m assuming you’ve been working on the relaxation drills from the vid I mentioned earlier, because it’s important for you to start to experience what close-to-zero tension feels like.

In summary, the experiment consists of playing something very slowly to observe what no tension feels like, and then playing medium tempo, and then fast, up and down in tempo as I see fit and as I get a sense of what zero tension feels like. Note that the “slow practice” does not mean “slow motion” – the movements are still fast, but the tempo is slow, if that makes sense (more notes here).

Take this 6-note-per-string fragment:

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First, I play it mid tempo a few times, just to understand what the motions should be, more or less. I’m trying to stay totally loose during that. Then I might give it a few tries up to the speed I want. I almost immediately notice some weird tension, because I’m still working on my picking and string changes!

Then I play it quite slow, with roughly the same kinds of motions I use at speed. It’s kind of hard to use the identical technique, b/c speed brings its own technique, but try to keep the same hand alignment, motion sizes, etc. The point when playing this is to really pay attention to any tension anywhere (shoulders, arms, elbow, back, hands, whatever) and get rid of it – which should be easier at this slow tempo – and to pay attention to how everything feels (aka proprioception, which is your body’s “sixth sense” for tracking its own motion and location). I find that playing this softly helps minimize effort, so I can pay more attention to what’s going on internally.

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When you feel you’ve got a good sense for how this works, speed it up, and see if you can carry that same sense of balanced ease and awareness you got at the slow speed into your faster playing:

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Then crank it up again – and again, carry your relaxation and awareness into this, as much as you can. At higher speeds, I think that the “relaxation” changes in quality somewhat, due to the differences in playing speed, but I also think that we can still apply what we learned at the slower tempo to it. I have started to think “less effort, less effort” while playing fast:

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I believe that Chopin used to tell his piano students, “simpler, simpler!” when they were playing tough material :slight_smile:

When playing at speed, use chunking etc to help group the notes, which simplifies your mental load (more on chunking here, and it’s in the CtC videos as well).

Note I usually set the metronome at some steady beat and then just play at quarter speed, half speed, and full speed, going back and forth with the speeds as I’m working it out, spending as much time as I need.

I’ve only recently started this exploration with picking and crosspicking – for crosspicking in particular it’s been very good, because holy smokes that is a delicate and demanding movement! But it feels good, for me. It’s not slow practice, it’s not fast practice, it’s a combination, and the slow practice lets you get into the feel of it.

Hope it helps! Give it a shot and see how/if it works for you. Cheers, jz

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