So in the past few years I’ve been trying to improve my speed as well as other aspects of my technique, and I came across the “start with speed” video, as well as several posts in this community that promoted that approach. I actually made a post here I think almost 2 years ago, saying I was stuck at 100 BPM tremolo picking and so on. Since then, I’ve improved massively on my technique, but I find that “start with speed” had very little to do with it and may actually even have harmed my development.
I later updated that post, I think, with a link to another thread where another user said he has never once left his confort zone while tremolo picking and achieved gains that way. And this is exactly how I have improved my technique.
You see, the problem with all these approaches to guitar learning is that they don’t take into account the actual student. To me, a person who already struggled with anxiety and tension and was already used to try to force speed (or, on the other hand, go limp with trying to relax, and eventually be stuck mentally in a “I’m too afraid to tense up but now I’m just limp so I don’t even know how to play guitar anymore” cycle), starting with speed was just more anxiety inducing and when I couldn’t achieve the promised speeds (like I was just supposed to spit 160bpm 16th notes just like that. Some users even telling me “you need to go faster”. Yeah, I just couldn’t) it had the potential to install a “what’s wrong with me” or “I’m not talented enough” mindset because I just couldn’t do it.
So what helped me improve? Well, it was a very slow burn. I believe that most of it had and still has to do with a psychological barrier. I would urge anyone feeling like they cannot do any progress on guitar, or like they’re stuck, or losing their joy to play, or feeling like they’re not talented enough, etc, to look inwards and see what might be driving them back psychologically. In my case, it was a history of trauma, it had a lot of consequences in my playing. You need to look at your life circumstances and see if all is fine or something is wrong. You cannot have great guitar playing if you’re in abusive relationships, worried about rent, have repressed anger, and so on. Fix those to fix your playing.
Second of all, I suggest you try to remember how it felt like when you were a child and could simply play with a childlike innocence, without a care in the world, without caring for mistakes, or whether or not you would one day be good enough to blast that one tricky solo. That’s the mindset you need to be at to play guitar. When we grow, social and cultural conditioning kicks in, trauma kicks in, and all those things rob us from our playfulness, our intuition, our sense of discovery and joy when we try a new thing. If guitar playing is stressing you out, you can try to do something else entirely: skateboarding, playing football, playing cards, drawing, playing a new videogame, cooking, having (good) sex, dancing, travelling…whatever it is that brings you a sense of joy and childlike innocence, that lays down your defenses, something that you’ve always secretely desired but was afraid to do. I promise you once you find that thing and are brave enough to try it out regardless of others’ judgements you will feel a sense of relief, freedom and inner self-connection that will wake you up, even if momentarily, from the darkest state of mind. And you will know not only how guitar playing is supposed to feel like, but how life is supposed to feel like.
So, back on topic, this approach is the exact opposite of “start with speed”. Because when you start with speed you’re already concerned with reaching a goal, an arbitrary objective you set out for yourself, rather than simply be in the moment and allow yourself to discover and learn things with no pressure or goal. And I think this second approach will, paradoxically, bring you much further much more quickly than any other approach on earth.
Lately I’ve been playing football and I was just kicking the ball and letting it bounce everywhere and going after it. It’s really hard to control the ball and much more fun to just kick it as hard as possible. If I were to add obstacles and dribble around them, and try to use a chronometer to improve my speed, that would already put me inside a mental barrier which would limit my sense of exploration and carelessness and childlike innocence. Athletes do that because they’re competing, because there is a lot of money and prestige involved…which is why watching a professional match can be more boring than watching amateurs. But art doesn’t need to be like that. The biggest mistake a musician can do is let him or herself believe that it’s supposed to be like The Voice or one of those cheesy talent shows that transform art into a competition. Music isn’t that, it’s self-expression. So do not let yourself be hindered by that kind of crap. Just have fun picking the strings, playing the notes, see what you can do and come up with, with no real expectation…discover how you can get yourself in that, not only mental but spiritual state. The day when you find fun in picking just one single note, the day you feel deeply accomplished in how you moved your pinky much lower to the strings in a transition from just one note to the next, is the day you are ready into starting to learn that crazy solo. It shouldn’t feel like you’re playing way outside your comfort zone and you should always aim for making the difficult feel easy and effortless.
It is true that speed comes as a byproduct of control. “Start with speed” can be a way to discover good form, but not how you develop control. However, I will stress out that starting with speed can actually induce bad form, by making you tense up in order to achieve higher speeds, and mistaking a slower hand position for one that has no potential long term. If only control can be more properly developed before attempting speed, perhaps it’s the form that appears to be slower that will ultimately prove to be much faster.