Fast practice vs muscle memory

Hi everyone,

I’m very much still a guitar beginner generally but enjoying the MIM content. However, I’m a little confused about how I should approach practising.

There seems to be a consensus that you have to practice fast to ensure you are actually practicing speed picking form rather than your slow alternate picking form. But there is a lot of content out there that leans hard on slow incremental practice to ensure correct muscle memory.

In my head, these may both hold true if speed practice is about building picking hand speed/accuracy but slow incremental practice is about building fingering hand speed/accuracy.

Am I right in this? Either way, how should I translate that to an actual practice routine for someone who can only manage sub-Ben Eller Stepdad speed on a specific lick/run?

Slow practice used sparingly is useful for your left hand if your unfamiliar with a new pattern your learning, otherwise it is generally not that helpful :sweat_smile:

It may work outside of guitar on instruments like the piano (I have no experience of this, maybe others could verify) but most content that promotes slow gradual practice for guitar is wrong. You won’t be ensuring correct muscle memory, you’ll be using an inefficient picking motion that is not capable of high speeds that will eventually hit a wall.

For example, when I learnt my first efficient picking motion, I learnt it practicing only at 115bpm sextuplets. I don’t really use this motion anymore but I can get it to about 135bpm sextuplets with a little practice but much faster than this is quite hard and really at the limit of this motions ability.

If I want to be able to pick any faster than this I would have to learn a motion that is capable of faster speeds by experimenting with a trailing edge grip at those higher speeds. Notice how your favourite guitarists don’t really get faster over time, for them to get significantly faster they would also have to do this :slight_smile:

This is a red flag that your motion is inefficient to me. Instead, start at your target speed on single string with a tremolo and see if you can figure out a way to pick that is fast, sustainable and feels easy to do. Once you have that down you can introduce different patterns and expand onto other strings over time :grin:


Hi @Teleblaster. Sorry in advance for the monster comment, I hope it helps.

There certainly is a lot of content like this, and it has become a dogma in musical pedagogy. Unfortunately, it’s totally misinformed and doesn’t reflect reality.

People who advocate this approach are making two critical assumptions which are both very flawed. The first is that you can determine the “correct muscle memory” for fast playing before playing fast. The second is that you can train your nervous system in a simple linear progression.

This just isn’t the case for the fretting hand either. It’s entirely possible that whatever sequence of movements used while fretting slowly will not scale up to faster tempos. I’d argue that it’s more than possible, it’s highly likely. If you’re concerned with things like “economy of motion” or “finger independence,” then I’d argue that it’s almost a certainty.

I’m aware this sounds incredibly dismissive. I’m aware that the idea of slow incremental practice has existed in piano and violin pedagogy for centuries. I’m aware that the position is held by the majority of online guitar instructors. It’s just plain wrong.

If you can accept that, then here’s my next heresy. Most “fast” guitarists (and frankly, violinists and piano players) really aren’t that fast in a nervous sense, but drummers are fast. Actually, stupid ridiculous fast. Try to think and practice like a drummer!

If you can accept all of that, then here’s the process as I understand it.

For both the picking and fretting hand, we habituate positions of low background tension. This will facilitate playing fast without fatigue, but importantly, it also increase our sensititivity to haptic stimuli. That is, we improve the tactile, proprioceptive and kinaesthetic perceptions of our hands.

We organise into positions and movements through our haptic perception, and heightened sensitivity allows us to discover mechanics based upon efficient muscular activation which strongly connect to our internal clocks.

I’ve written some checklists of criteria for both hands that students have foudn helpful.

For the picking hand, we require:

  1. Efficient muscular activation against low background tension.
  2. Strong connection to internal clock.
  3. High dynamic range.
  4. The capability to reliably escape in at least one direction.
  5. Tracking capability across all strings.

For the fretting hand, we require:

  1. Efficient muscular activation against low background tension.
  2. Strong connection to internal clock.
  3. Postition and string tracking capability.
  4. Facilitation of some musically applicable fretboard shape/figure/structure.
  5. Facilitation of monophony or polyphony (contextual)
  6. Faciliation of some fretting hand articulations (contextual)

We have to actually test that the mechanics we have are meeting those criteria. However, we organise into positions and movement through our haptic perceptions, and by facilitating those perceptions and having clear criteria to inform our feedback loops, we’re starting strong.

Concurrently, we build a vocabularly of transferrable rhythmic coordinations (or rudiments) which are chunked in connection to our internal clocks. There’s a lot to be said about that process and what makes a coordination amenable to being played fast, but here’s the big picture.

First, we need to memorize the sequence of notes to be played. Slow playing is an effective strategy at this stage. Once this is done, we focus on connecting that coordination to our internal clocks.

We start with movements which are large, powerful and which feel easy. We include strong accents, which test the efficiency of our movements, which lock our movements to our internal clocks and which provide strong haptic markers for synchronisation and chunking. If we ever lose our accents, our sense of time or if things feel strenuous, we stop immediately and start over. We do not stop for accuracy mistakes ever. If you can recover while staying in time, you take the opportunity to train you recovery.

Believe it or not, after several repetitions your motor system is already building “draft” programs of how best to execute this sequence. However, these “drafts” are rough, and are unlikely to be viable at higher tempos. We need to filter out the bad drafts.

So, we trust our internal clocks and we attempt to play the sequence as fast as we can feel it. If our movements are strongly connected to our sense of time, it really is as simple as setting our internal clock to a higher tempo, like a studio master clock.

It will almost certainly fail, but that’s the point. Your draft was bad, and now your motor system gets the message that your draft was bad. You now have clear feedback that the program you were building doesn’t work.

Alternate between the moderately slow but rhythmically clear tempo, and fast attempts. Explore different movement possibilities. Do so for maybe 5 minutes, 10 at the absolute most. Beyond that point, we’re into diminishing returns. Our short term memory is full of “bad drafts,” and we need a refractory period before we can go again.

If we keep creating the conditions, we will inevitably have an attempt which has some potential. You might not fully understand why, but it will feel different. Repeat it several times and let yourself perceive it.

Now, this sensory experience acts backwards to inform your moderate speed repetitions. You start building better drafts, and you start to hone in on what works.

Now, we try to find a transitional tempo where our repetitions begin to experience mistakes, but where we don’t lose our rhythmic connection. We some spend time in this zone to learn to distinguish between a better and worse attempt through feel. Our motor system gets a clear message. If it feels like this, good. If it feels like that, not good.

Then, aim for a tempo again, until something feels new and promising again, and repeat the process.

Don’t get stuck on any one rudiment for too long. Practice a small number of coordinations concurrently, and if one isn’t working, leave it aside for a while and come back to it again in future. Forgetting is actually helpful, it allows you a fresh start in future. Don’t go back to slow incremental repetitions, you’re just reinforcing the bad drafts.

Explore all the different ways your rudiments can be used musically. The only limit here is your imagination.

In time, this vocabulary of movement solutions acts as a basis, which informs all future learning. Your basis becomes a self-reinforcing foundation, and the effects are compounding. Growth is exponential, not linear.

This is how drummers practice, and it works. They know how to connect their movements to their sense of time because percussion is totally concerned with movement and moment.


Thanks @Jacklr & @Tom_Gilroy - those are both really helpful and will take me a while to chew over. It’s incredibly frustrating trying to squeeze out another 5bpm from a low base on a Paul Gilbert Lick-esque pattern as a benchmark of improvement.


This statement right here really rings true to me… Well said, Tom!


My GF is a pianist (conservatory, etc.). She socializes with many famous pianists, and I get to ask them questions (to her embarrassment). EVERY ONE OF THEM PRACTICES SLOWLY, and also at speed. I am talking about absolute technical monsters, and yet they practice slowly. Indeed, this is an important part of how they got so good. What they have is incredible regularity and uniformity: They can make the music sound exactly like they want it to sound.

I have a theory about this:

  • Mature instruments (violin, piano, etc.) have established technique that students must learn—each one does not get to be a special snowflake. They do the same thing at slow speed as they do at full speed, except… slower.

I’m not sure if the classical guitar or flamenco guitar world is full of snowflakes, but as we have learned on CtC, no two rock guitarists are the same, and most don’t even know what they’re actually doing—I suspect violin or piano people would roll their eyes over this type of inattention to technique. However, the guitarist can’t be blamed, as they learned before Troy figured it all out. My hope is that guitar technique is now solved, and it will be perfectly reasonable to take students and train them in (say) DSX and produce excellent musicians at the end of book ten of their studies, just like piano teachers can do all day long.


I don’t think it really works for any instruments at some point your muscles have to know what playing faster licks and runs feels like. I know it definitely doesn’t work on pedal steel.

I believe some of the confusion we experience with this concept is due to omitted details when we say practice fast (or slow.)

We’re all taught to go slow and speed up incrementally. I don’t believe that to be what the ‘fast’ guys or gals did or do. I’d bet money what they call ‘starting slow, then playing faster’ looks like what we’re discussing here.

I’m regurgitating a lot of @Tom_Gilroy here, but not his exact words.

No one should suggest you practice a piece at full speed when you’re physically incapable. You must have the fitness/physical ability and the basic motions down. Only then do you floor it to find the edge of your ability?

That’s the key: the edge of your ability. Right where it wants to, and sometimes does, fall apart.

I have a passage I’m practicing that I know very well at low speeds. When sped up to my ‘edge’ - my middle finger involuntarily flattens its first knuckle. But, only when I’m at the edge of my current ability. If I slow down roughly 2 BPM…it goes away. It pisses me off.

But slowing back down and practicing ‘perfectly’ does squat. Every time I speed up, there it is.

So, I leave the BPM up and decipher why the issue appears. Sooner than later - I figure out (or stumble over) the solution. Or, my fitness reaches the point where my finger is ‘fit’ enough. Time to raise the BPM…:slight_smile: At worst, I’d never get there if I slowed down. At best, it takes f o r e v e r when it doesn’t need to.

To clarify -

Practice slow but fast enough to place you at the edge of your current ability. Live there for a while, and after a while, it won’t be the edge anymore. (No, I don’t know how long it’ll take you)

Bump the metronome and find the edge again.

Don’t let conventional wisdom - which is based on anecdotal evidence at best - get in the way of what amounts to a reality based on research, study and repeatable results.

This entire website demonstrates the validity of these concepts. If you want to see what Grade A prime B.S. teaching looks like…search for Tom Hess.


Thanks @Ruefus that’s a really nice distinction. The edge of my ability is slow for a lot of things, which is probably part of the reason I’m confused.

1 Like

I was too, for a long, long time.

There is more to it…. But the premise to get comfy with first is playing a little beyond your current edge. It’s like exercise……you can lift a certain weight all day long. But you gain little to nothing.

Add weight to where your muscles reach failure on or just before the last rep? Now we’re talking about creating progress.

HTH and I’m glad some of what I said made sense.i should really listen to my own advice more often. :roll_eyes::eyes:

1 Like

You forgot to mention it’s also like semaglutides.

For sure, I know we can “bake in” habits, probably to a point of where it feels natural… It takes a good 30 days to “start” a new habit, so maybe it’s a month of just doing something different. Especially if what you are doing doesn’t work, or if you have hit a tempo wall. Don’t worry, you won’t forget what you have already worked up to with whatever motion currently employed… Also, if you try something new - don’t be surprised if the yield is… different than what you expected.

Myself, I find that I get in my own way to the point of absurdity. Preconceived notions, ridiculous expectations and not being receptive to what “is” leads to not being able to take advantage of what is actually probably really positive… lol Don’t be me!


I’m sorry, I’ve read this a hundred times and I have no idea what it means. It’s this an autocorrect issue?

Man, I just want to say I think your post had a bunch of points that are well worth considering - no need to have deleted it!

So are the piano teachers with the proven ability to churn out impressive musicians just making this stuff up? :face_with_monocle:


Sorry about my two earlier deletes.

I just wanted to mention that many technical guitarists have commented on the importance of slow practice to achieve their high speed playing.

Yngwie I believe has stated that he started learning the guitar string by string. So he would spend months on one string starting off slowly and when he felt he mastered it he would move to the next string. It doesn’t get slower than that. And as everyone knows, later, he very incrementally built up his speed by listening to a tape recorder of his playing that was a little fast and he would then try to play that fast. He has remarked, never stand up in a canoe.

Steve Vai constantly says playing slow and relaxed and with good sounding notes (not fast ones) is the way to fast playing. Build it up very slowy.

MIchael Angelo Batio states that playing slow is the most important thing. To develop accuracy and good coordination with the hands so this way you can play fast cleanly and know what you are doing.

Shawn lane stated that he thought playing slow kept him in a rut and he would instead play at a tempo and then sometimes as fast as possible just going for it and it was pretty sloppy at first but over time he worked on cleaning it up whatever that means. He also has said he had a very fast nervous system and I think he said that playing the piano helped his guitar playing in general.

I’m not sure I believe this, I’ve heard him say the complete opposite in an audio interview he did in 1983. I shared it on the forum before Yngwie copyright-striked it:

I was an insanely dedicated practicer and still am to this day but I didn’t learn how to pick fast until I was 27 - 11 years after initially picking up the guitar despite insane amounts of slow practice, it wasn’t until I tried to go fast that I actually got something that worked :grin:

I’ve since repeated the same process and learnt another motion that can go just as fast in the space of 5 months. Seems a lot better innings then 11 years to me, so I would definitely urge everyone else to do the same!

I think I read about the way his playing developed in his autobiography. This is when he was a young kid when he first picked the guitar up. He says he learned each string one at a time, spending months on a single string IIRC. I think he said his brother was initially much better than him and might have been a better guitarist than hm if he had kept it up or words to that effect. But Yngwie stayed with it and with incessant practice, surpassed him. This was in the very early days of his learning the guitar.

And he has talked about how his speed developed. Which was incrementally. Maybe he wan’t deliberately playing slow and working it up as a strategy. But in effect, this is what seems to have happened. Even just recently he briefly mentions this:

I don’t see any evidence of an abnormally fast nervous system in Shawn’s playing.

Since I’ve analysing his movement patterns and training them myself, and deciphering the line constructions principles which built his vocabulary, I’ve been able to achieve similar speeds. That was less than 3 years ago.

Just last week I discovered how to synchronise his fastest picking movement.

The “freakish nervous system” line that Shawn used was based on stories of the pianist Simon Barere, who Shawn admired.

From having watched and listened to a lot of interviews with Shawn, it seems that this line was a prepared response used as a deflection to steer conversations or questions away from how he achieved his speed.

He may have felt that he wasn’t able to give a satisfactory answer in the environment or at the time the question was asked. He may have been tired of the question. It’s also entirely possible that he didn’t fully understand how or why he achieved his speed.

In other interviews he was very candid that he felt that what he was doing was achievable for others and that he wasn’t some bizarre anomaly.

In any case, the line has become part of his legend. Personally, I wish he had never said it. It’s probably done more to discourage and distract from meaningful analysis of his playing than anything else.

1 Like

Like I was saying though, he has also said that he never did the practice slow and build up thing, so if anything we’ve proven that we can’t take him at his word on this :laughing:

I guess I’m more inclined to believe him when he said he didn’t do that because that never yielded any results for me! I hate the thought of people wasting as much time as I did on this sort of thing.