Problem with "warm up time": Single String Patterns

Hey guys,

I’m currently working on speed and control playing on single strings. I’ve been able to make great progress working with short bursts. Under optimal circumstances I’m able to play bursts of 4 or 5, sometimes 9 notes at 200-220bpm 16th notes (I believe 2 years ago I could barely tremolo pick at 140bpm).

However I’m struggling with my „warm up time“ in order to be able to do so. Let’s say I wanted to play 4 chromatically ascending notes on a single string starting with an upstroke (which is a chromatic approach I love to use for target notes).

On a good day when I’m working my way up - starting at 100bpm, 3-5 reps, increasing tempo in steps of 20 - I’m able to play the sequence 9/10 or maybe 10/10 on different strings and frets. Very relaxed hands, no excess tension as far as I can tell. I can play it many times (with short breaks in between) and not feel exhausted.

However when I try to play the sequence while improvising I’m only be able to play it 6/10 (after a good warm up). The other times my hands aren’t in sync, I get stuck with the pick or it doesn’t sound legato/fluent enough. Some days I can play it 9/10 or 10/10 after improvising for an hour straight or so.

Now here come’s the tricky part: When I put the guitar away for like 1-3 minutes I can only play it 2/10 (if at all). I then need to warm up again for a minute or two. Only then I’m able to play it successfully at the rate I’ve been able to play it a moment ago. When I take one day off I’m unable to play the sequence the next day even after jamming for 30mins.

I have this problem with virtually everything that’s a bit more technically demanding.

A few words about myself. I’ve been playing the guitar for 24 years and did a bachelors and masters degree in music (jazz guitar). As a kid I only had a teacher for 2 or 3 years and then went on to studying on my own for 6 or 7 years. I believe it was during that time that I developed lots of bad habits (pressing the strings too hard, not placing the fingers close to the frets, very tense left hand pinky, relatively bad finger independence, relatively bad thumb positioning, excessive movement in both hands, right hand bouncing technique…).

Unfortunately I didn’t notice these issues and neither did any of the 4 teachers I had been working with from the age of 16 on. It only occurred to me that these problems were limiting my musical expression tremendously after I finished studying.

So for the last 3 years I retreaded entirely, practicing 4-8 hours a day to fix my bad habits. I press the strings very lightly now, have pretty good tension control, I’d rate my finger independence 8/10, fixed my thumb and have been working on pick slanting as well as economy of motion etc.

Is anyone experiencing anything similar when it comes to warm up time/putting the guitar away for a glimpse? Has anyone of you overcome a problem of this nature? I feel like after reworking the fundamentals for years now as well as working on a simple sequence like this diligently 20mins a day for half a year I should finally be able to play the phrase confidently.

Am I doing something wrong? Maybe it just takes longer to be able to play stuff like this consistently well after 20 years of bad habits?

Thanks for your help!!

Hi @r34s0n,

You and I have a very similar history. While I’m still working on picking, I’ve been working with bursts as well, so see if any of the below resonates. Two things that made bursts work better for me:

  • a “preparatory upstroke” - I used to start my bursts with a downstroke, and initially the pick was positioned right on the string, contacting it. My bursts used to thus start with more of a “push” through the string, starting from nothing, rather than a “continuing downstroke” through the string, which is more of what picking really is. When you alternate pick, you never really start from nothing, there is always a slight prep distance from the prior pick stroke. So, when doing a burst, if you’re starting with a downstroke, don’t think “downstroke”, think “preparatory stroke”, i.e., do a purposeful but relaxed upstroke style movement off of the string, so it’s locked and loaded to be released on the downstroke through the string. Then the first downstroke of your burst will have the same feel as a regular downstroke.
  • set your “supporting tension” - my bursts fell apart when I first tried them. Analyzing my arm position and muscles, I noted that when I was steadily alternate picking, I had a very very slight engagement/activation of my triceps muscles, which stabilized the playing mechanism. (Now, I’m still working on my picking, so it’s possible that this activation is still a bad habit I need to root out, but it makes sense mechanically that such a thing might be necessary.) My experiment: When I tried to do another burst, prior to my first downstroke, I first tried to replicate that exact level of engagement/activation in my triceps – and that seemed to help.

My theory for the above: Bursts are great, but also more complex your nervous system, because you’re asking it to serve up a different set of impulses over a period of time. If you alternate pick several 16th notes, your brain says “oh, here’s the routine I need to call, and here’s the rhythm of it fire-relax-fire-relax all very regular.” But your brain and body are also doing some subtle supporting adjustments to make that possible: perhaps adding just enough tension to other areas in your mechanism to stabilize and facilitate this motion, maybe slightly changing your pick pressure, etc – and some of these adjustments are hard to spot. For bursts, the signals change over time, and the supporting adjustments change too. Also, depending on how you set up the burst, the conditions for the pick can be different.

Cheers! jz

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Hey,

those are some very smart observations and they do resonate for sure!

  • I payed close attention to what you said when I practiced yesterday and realized my ability to play the sequence perfectly decreased significantly when I didn’t rest the pick against the string initially. I had noticed a similar issue half a year ago when I became aware that I could play certain phrases pretty well when the initial string was already moving, but my pick would get stuck 50% of the time when it wasn’t. It feels to me like it is easier to slice through the string smoothly when it already vibrates.
  • I’ve been training my left hand to fret the notes so lightly that I started asking myself at some point if I went too far and was losing a bit of control. Now we’re talking right hand technique of course, but is that in a way similar to what you describe when you refer to the activation of the triceps and how it might help in stabilizing your movements?
    I still don’t know the answer to this question. I’ve been asking myself if I should apply a bit more pressure, or if I just need to go on for a couple more years until it becomes second nature to play with this little effort.

Do you experience anything like losing control when you put away the instrument for a moment? Maybe I need to practice specifically to reduce warm up time and be ready to play demanding stuff right away.
I was thinking it might be a good strategy to reduce warm up sets over time. E.g.:

  • 100bpm, 120bpm, 140bpm, 160bpm, 180bpm, 200bpm
  • 100bpm, 125bpm, 150bpm, 175bpm, 200bpm
  • 120bpm, 150bpm, 180bpm, 200bpm
  • 140bpm, 160bpm, 180bpm, 200bpm
  • 140bpm, 175bpm, 200bpm
  • 150bpm, 175bpm, 200bpm
  • 160bpm, 180bpm, 200bpm
  • 180bpm, 200bpm

… training yourself to need less and less steps in order to be able to play something and enter at higher tempos.

Cheers

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Hola. A few thoughts:

Re left hand and stabilization: possibly! I think that a slight “activation” is likely beneficial and necessary, like an athlete being ready. Active but not tense — tension is just antagonistic muscle groups working against each other, it’s a waste of effort and not helpful.

Re “put away for a moment”: yes I’d noticed it but hadn’t thought much about it, assumed that that was just part of warming up but I think I can learn something from it.

I like the idea of practicing to reduce the startup time. You can probably do dozens of micro practice sessions for this is a given day: pick it up, try to go fast, observe and reflect, put it down.

Everything hereafter is theory, will sound impressive but comes with no authority :slight_smile:

Along with the obvious and not so obvious motions that make up fast picking and fretting, there are likely other adjustments that the entire playing mechanism is making unconsciously:

  • releasing any extraneous tension or motion in fingers hand wrist elbow etc
  • adapting to other chronic tension in shoulders neck etc
  • spine and posture, balancing your head on top of your spine :slight_smile:
  • regulating breath
  • mental focusing
  • anything else you can think of that might be relevant, pick grip etc etc

There’s other stuff — state of the nervous system, subconscious thoughts, muscle health etc — which will be affected by diet, rest, stress, etc. Those probably are factors that add the last 5% or whatever to the act of playing — important for peak performance, not for guys like me just yet. Then again, at one point Eddie always played hammered, which goes to show something or other.

Maybe if we start from complete relaxation / “empty muscles empty mind” we will able to observe these tiny adjustments and see if we can consciously reproduce them. But we’d have to be able to play at speed reasonably well with decent form to even understand what we’re trying to reproduce.

I’m working on picking and think I am hitting about 170 with decent tone (on acoustic which I think is a bit tougher than electric), and that’s probably good enough to start some observations like this — it might help my own inconsistency. It’s an interesting idea anyway, and thoughtful time never hurts as long as it doesn’t become too theoretical, obsessive, and disconnected.

Cheers! Z

Another thought on this, which I feel is more accurate and fundamental. Fast playing means that everything is firing at just the right time. All of this is controlled by the subconscious and reflexes. I believe that when you practice and play well, you are consciously “orchestrating” this, or rather providing the framework for your subconscious to organize itself. Practicing is you working on your brain and nervous system. This is why “perfect practice” is so important :-). Anyway, when you stop and take a break, things get out of alignment as things fall back into their regular rhythms.

Kenny Werner, a jazz pianist, talks about how he took a break for a while, but he listened to a ton of Art Tatum during his break. Art was an insane player, played stupid fast. When Kenny came back to playing, he found that he was playing faster, because he was listening to so much fast stuff!

Now, that probably worked for Kenny because his mind was ready for that level of calibration: he could already play damn fast, so when his mind heard fast stuff, it could “play along”. He could really hear what was happening, his ear and mind wasn’t just glossing over the fast stuff.

For a guy like me, and maybe you, perhaps we need to get our chops up to a good level, and then really actively listen to fast stuff. But good fast stuff that we like, with good tone quality (in my opinion, too much distortion = too confusing to listen to). And active means trying to get a hold of as much of the information in there as possible, if that makes sense.

Maybe that would mean that we’d be “always ready”.

And in addition to that, we can probably try some mental practice as well, once our chops are good. That is, away from the guitar, imagine that you’re playing lightning fast. You might notice you start tending up, or your mind clouds, or whatever. If you can imagine it very clearly, with good tone, good clarity, that probably will put you in a good position to actively pick it up and just start ripping.

All of the above are mere musings, unconfirmed by me personally. They jibe with what I’ve read for pro piano players, I believe.

Ps I’m currently running into this “can’t start fast” wall right now, trying to record some short but quick stuff. :slight_smile:

Cheers! Jz

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i learned some great stuff from this, thank you for posting!

my opinion on this (left hand technique): you can never overdo too lightly, as long as the notes are sounding out in full

BUT- if you feel like you are losing control, perhaps it’s something to experiment with, adding a bit of tension. But in terms of on the spot playing, recording, etc I like to use as minimal effort as I can get away with given the note sound is not impacted

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It’s actually a super interesting topic! I’ve been writing a lot b/c this has been extremely relevant for me today. I’m still an intermediate-ish picker, and today I worked to record a simple 6-note-per-string lick at 170 bpm:

There’s nothing leading into it, it just starts from nothing. I’ve been working on this exact lick for several days now, trying this and that, trying to get a solid tone, accuracy, etc. My practice has been ok (not great, hence practice!) but the recording issues today have shown a bunch of weaknesses, which gives rise to my notes above.

@r34s0n – I don’t want to keep piling on this thread, but it’s been a busy day thinking – my takeaways from today’s recording work:

First, recording is a super idea to really get you to listen to yourself. I bet if you did that with your practice plan, you might uncover some interesting things.

Second, my recording sessions were short – a few mins each – during which I’d repeat the above lick a few dozen times. Then take a break, then come back, etc. Man, I spent too long on it. But it was useful to keep concentrating on the idea of starting from nothing.

Last and best, I think the idea of everything getting “in sync”/“in alignment” via practicing and playing is the most important thing. Everything else - breath, releasing tension, mental focus - seems to me to be in support of that. Playing is mostly a nervous system activity (IMO, I can throw citations around if needed :-P) alignment will mean clearer signals, less internal confusion, etc, all good for playing.

One big thing I noticed in my recordings is that when I was trying to play fast, my timing went out the window. Way way out - I was starting early, missing beats, dragging, speeding, everything. If I were in Whiplash, Fletcher would have hit me with a few chairs already (that reference won’t make any sense if you haven’t seen the movie, in which case stop reading and go watch it immediately :-P). When I started paying very close attention to the rhythm, counting and tapping my foot before starting, things really started to come together. I was only playing at 170 bpm, sure, but it was night and day. When I started to really work on the rhythm, the feeling of “oh ouch I’m playing fast” changed to “I’m hitting the beats”, and I started to feel like there was much more space, if that makes sense. I also feel that paying attention to the rhythm (just the beats) helped clarify the chunking of the units (assuming you know what I mean by “chunking”).

In other words, by focusing on rhythm, I stopped worrying about playing fast, and thought more about the context I was trying to fit in. Perhaps that shift in focus let my mind relax a bit – no performance anxiety – or perhaps it created a real target my mind could aim at, rather than the amorphous idea of “play faster.” And for sure paying very careful attention to the beat would do me the favor of synchronizing my nervous system. That’s likely the main thing. I wonder why it took so long for me to consider that.

Holy smokes I wrote a lot here. But it’s fun to think about and write about. I wonder if it’s as fun to read? :man_shrugging:

Let me know if you start working on this, and if you want to bounce any ideas back and forth.

Cheers! jz

So I hope I’m not derailing the thread…

I see some guitarists do this particular thing I call a “wind up” for their faster passages: a quick trem on a single note to kinda get the fast picking going. I first noticed it on some live Petrucci videos, and other guitarists do it as well. An easy tell that it’s kind of a crutch is when it really adds nothing to the phrasing, and it’s definitely not there on the recording (where it could’ve been edited out). Does this sound like what you’re talking about?

It does sound relevant. “Starting fast” is tough. I’ve not heard those examples you mentioned but I’ll bet it’s part of a coping strategy.

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Hi @r34s0n,

Sorry I’m a bit late to the party!

Assuming your hands / arms /nervous system are in good health, we usually don’t expect correct picking technique to require long warmups - at least not for tremolo on a single string (unless you are trying to break a speed record or something :slight_smile: )

Since you report top speeds around 220, I’d expect that anything in the vicinity of 160-180bpm 16th notes should be accessible after a couple of minutes of playing, if not earlier — especially for things like tremolo on a single string.

So I think the best course of action is for you to show us a video of the problem (if you feel like it of course!). Filming instructions attached:

Side note: we are not big fans of the “burst” technique for developing speed. When learning picking motions, we usually recommend to sustain the picking for a decent amount of time (typical figure: 2 bars of 16th notes).

2 bars of 16ths sounds good: long enough to get the flow, short enough that your body or mind won’t try to involve extra unneeded effort.

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Guys, thanks for the great contributions and sry for the late answer!

With regards to warm up time: I don’t mind too much when it comes to playing for the first time on a given day. I certainly consider it impressive that some players are capable of playing insane stuff right away, but I can very well accept that everyone has their own need for warming up.

However having to warm up again for 2-3 mins just because of taking a break for 2 mins is a different story. When I was still playing live I’d experience this pretty often. Something as little as doing a short announcement would throw me off. Don’t get me wrong, I could still play reasonably well - but when I was soloing I’d have to do a couple of choruses before I was able to “shred”. Even when we’d been on stage for half an hour already.

Back then I wasn’t warming up at all before a show as far as I recall. Since I’ve been working on my bad habits and introduced a warm up routine I think it’s gotten better. But not as good as I want it to be. At some point I started feeling like I was heavily dependent on my warm up routine (which I had extended to 30 or even 40 mins I believe).

A while ago a came across an article at bulletproofmusician.com which discussed how sometimes people who always train/practice under optimal circumstances grew more and more dependent on them being optimal. I wonder if that might play a role in what I’ve been experiencing. So my idea was to cut down on the warm up time in general and maybe develop a mindset of being capable of playing demanding stuff right away.

@jzohrab
Funny that you mention Kenny Werner. I’ve read parts of his book - does he mention this story in Effortless Mastery? I don’t recall! But it’s a good one :slight_smile: Also fun fact: I’m playing “acoustic” too (well, nylon string electric to be precise, but it feels like a classical guitar) :slight_smile:

With regards to the example I gave I made some observations:
When I’d improvise I’d often sit on a different chair. I realized I had a slightly different picking angle. Also I think I’ve exposed some string tracking issues. My hand would be placed a little differently from time to time than when doing the drills.
Other than that I feel like I’m pushing it a bit too hard. I might have regressed a little bit doing too many suboptimal repetitions.

mattc_guitar
Thanks! I’ll definitely monitor this and let you guys know when I have any insights!

@jzohrab
Thanks for sharing your observations from your recording sessions! That’s great! I was also considering the mental aspect - focus as well as confidence. I’ve read a bunch of material that suggests to focus on the sound rather than technique. I do however wonder if there’s a right and maybe also a wrong time for that!

Pepepicks66
That sounds a lot like a version of something that I’ve noticed with my own playing!

@tommo
Thanks! I’ll check out the filming instructions hopefully sooner than later! I’ve been much more busy than I’d like to have been these days.
You’re right, short bursts of 160bpm I can play with very little warm up time on a normal day.

Can you tell my why you don’t like to rely on bursts in order to develop speed? I think you’re onto something because I’ve been wondering how to transition from bursts to longer phrases for a while now! Comfortably soloing with 16th notes I can only do at 100-120bpm (sometimes 140), so there’s a huge gap!

I think it’s because bursting, at least at the start, is quite different from steady-state picking. If you start from nothing and try to pick 4 16ths at 170, that’s quite a different physical feeling from picking 2 full measures of 16ths, at least once the motion has settled.

Definitely! On another level I feel like it’s more similar though since the brain appears to process fast sequences differently and/or sends other signals.

I just stumbled upon this video in another thread and wonder if that’d be a good method to work up to longer sequences:

Yes, back-chaining and chunking are great.