The worst guitar advice ever: “small movements are fast”

I think that the well-intentioned advice that “small movements are fast” is responsible for (a) fewer people discovering single- and double-escaped motions, (b) difficulties in keeping good rhythm, and (c ) difficultly with chunking.

Note that nobody even defined what “small” even is. I believe that motions across three string spacing or perhaps more are perfectly reasonable and arguably beneficial.

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Worst advice I received as a beginning guitarist:

“There’s no point just practising getting fast on a single string”

This led to 10-15 years of me failing at The Hard Thing because I wouldn’t let myself master The Easier Thing first


I am pretty sure that is somebody posed this problem to me I would have been able to independently invent most if not all of the techniques that CtC discovered:

“What would alternate picking look like if you were forced to always move no less than several multiples of the string spacing and a large radius of curvature?”

It’s definitely up there in terms of top five pieces of shitty advice. Second only to my most hated: “Make sure to practice at a speed for five minutes, then increase the metronome.”

It’s even worse when you realize this is actual advice dispensed by people who hold themselves out to be guitar teachers. Imagine being this clueless at any other job and still getting paid.


I think that advice applies for the fretting hand, and to some extent for the picking hand, especially for the single-string stuff. But yeah, typical practicing advice is often counterproductive as far as developing picking technique is concerned.

I saw Ben’s video also where he mentions something similar and he is absolutely correct within the context of the movements (string changing) he is describing. But I’d disagree with it as a blanket statement - it depends on the context with what one is trying to accomplish. String changing is a series of techniques, single string playing is a series of techniques, tremolo picking on one string, trem while changing strings, down-picking, sweeping, increasing speed, etc. etc. the list goes on and on. Where is one’s baseline to begin with? It’s absolutely beneficial for many to accomplish something they are working on by learning how to shorten and get better control of their pick strokes. Should developing and using smaller pick strokes be done with everything? Certainly not!

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But consider this: If you’re playing a long block of 16ths you cannot suddenly slow down for the string change. Therefore, THE STRING CHANGE IS THE SPEED LIMITING FACTOR (for most music), e.g., that sets your maximum speed on nearly any piece of music (unless the music was written with an exact TAB in mind).

So, practicing single strings is important for learning not to fixate on every note (as one’s brain isn’t as fast as one’s hand), but that speed cannot be tapped in most music. And, given that string changes REQUIRE the traversal of several strings, it therefore means that the technique must work in general over those types of spacing, so there really is no need at all for small motions.

I think that this is right…

You make a whole bunch of excellent points but I suspect that if I had a one-string guitar and was trying to go as fast as humanly possible I’d have at least one inch of travel, if not more. This would make a fascinating experiment, but in my case I am nearly certain that small[er] motions would not do well.

Note: Let me define “small” as less than the distance between two adjacent strings. Let me define “large” as perhaps more than the distance between four adjacent strings. (I hate terms like “small” or “large” without some kind of reference.)

The main idea here is to keep your hand as relaxed as possible. If someone feels good when making small movements - that’s nice, if for someone large movements are more natural - nice too. There’re no “good” or “bad” movements. There’re movements that work for you or don’t.
The worst guitar (or any discipline) advise is: " you must do it only this way and not another"


Yeah, I wish I never heard this advice… but that is all people were saying back in the 80’s.

If the Ben referred to above is Ben Higgins he has a lot of great things to say about speed picking.

@kgk For the record, I agree with you, but I don’t necessarily disregard the idea of small movements for occasions when they are appropriate or comfortable.

Lately, I’ve started following the advice Troy gave me about focusing on single-string licks first and then to move on to more advanced stuff with string changes, and I’ve had to let go of many preconceived notions I had about building speed and technique in general. At the same time, I’m trying to find specific motion mechanics that work the best for a specific type of licks (e.g. small movements for single-string stuff is one of such mechanical principles that works for me).

However, that idea does not work when I try to do outside string changes with two-way pickslanting, since it results in swiping, so I’m working on finding a way that will either avoid swiping or at least minimise it. The new motion will obviously have to include larger movements (as you said, the larger movements are essential for double-escaped motions).

I went through this exact same issue… and it still comes up once in a while.

What I found is that if I just take my existing technique, and ‘exaggerate’ the movements, it does the trick, but it also limits my speed for that particular transfer to about 130 bpm.

So I found that I had to mix-in another mechanic to do the larger movement. That allowed me to do the outside transfer, without having to swipe or slow down. That additional mechanic can include almost anything… elbow, shoulder, wrist, whatever. But it had to be something that I wasn’t already relying on.

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As a teacher, this is one of the things I do say as a generalization to younger students, even though it’s definitely not true at higher levels. My justification for telling teen and preteen students this is that uncoached, they have a tendency to build massively over-large motions with no method to them whatsoever, and that by telling them to pick “small,” what it mostly accomplishes is just to get them to think about picking motions at all. About a third of kids learning guitar will start picking by scooping the pick up underneath the string and plucking away from the body of the guitar–and that’s just one of the nightmare ways new players will stumble upon, left to their own devices!


@hamsterman I’ll keep that in mind. Thanks for sharing your experience and insight!

It’s more related with ‘apply minimal force needed’ than with ‘make small movements’ per se. Small movements is just a consequence.
First of all everybody who plays fast use small movements at some speed. Look at Troys slow motion videos. The faster he plays - the less his movements. Why? Simple physics.

When something massive oscillating, force needed is roughly proportional to an amplitude and square of frequency. Since we can’t change frequency (t depends on tempo) all we can do is to decrease the amplitude.
Why keeping minimal force is matter? First, stamina - I’ve seen some guys here complaining about not being able to play fast for a long time, even when doing simple tremolo. For me it’s not a problem at least up to 250bpm. Second - avoiding injuries - and this is much more important. Using excessive force is no good. Like really. Third - at some speed you just can’t apply enough force to move your hand far enough.

Basically, up to some speed we can dose applied force quite precisely thus controlling a song’s dynamics. But beyond some tempo we can’t do it. All we can do is to keep this force more or less constant, or at least not very large - and that’s why everybody instinctively decrease their movements amplitude on faster tempos.

So, ‘small movements are fast’ is actually true. Well… at least if you are not an adept of some kind of alternative physics. But keeping small movements all the time is kinda strange. It’s like driving your car using 5th gear only. And vice versa - avoiding small movements is like avoiding 5th gear. Well, you could do this but don’t ask then why your car is not fast enough.


I’m sure there is “worse” advice out there. Would love to see these topics presented without the headache inducing, logically questionable, hyperbole. One may see this as splitting hairs, but when I encounter folks speaking in absolutes, it’s kind of a non-starter with regard to hope for reaching any kind of nuanced understanding, and we’ve been down that path before.

Would anyone here deny that economy of motion is useful in particular contexts? In isolation, the opposite of the bad advice may be just as damaging.

Cracking the Code got me out of an approximation of Al Dimeola-esque, strict alternate picking into breaking through barriers to playing I never thought might disappear. Troy’s points made about repeatability of grosser movement were much appreciated.

Anyhow, my two cents to accompany the insights of those who already answered.


Not hyperbole, but truth, I think: The “small motions” concept requires extensive thought to debunk, and adherence means poor speed.

I am an ex-physicist (physics PhD + 1 postdoc), and I can’t figure out how to model anything (I don’t know the fundamentals of muscles, their activation, etc.). Then for experiment I have lots of ideas but no equipment. So I can’t apply any physics, effectively, but that doesn’t mean that others like you can’t .

But I feel that the faster I go the more my hand is a square wave and not a sine wave: it seems to want to change direction quite suddenly. I note the single-escaped techniques are quite robust to pick travel distance variation in that rest strokes and excessive escape are harmless… I believe that this is no accident :smile:

Sure, if that’s your postulate, but that’s not what I was calling hyperbole. This is what I referred to: