Why I think "start with speed" doesn't cut it

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.

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I believe they say start with speed to entice the player into demonstrating that it is possible. However, once they see it, they must understand the work required because I agree with you to some extent. A baby does not babble at micro machine man tempo, so that idea is out the window, and a baby does not try to run without first crawling, so that idea is also out the window. The longer I’ve been around here, the more I’ve realized that it’s more of a way to show you that in order to play faster, it has to be able to maintain that speed for at least 20 seconds tension free.

To understand that motion, you must occasionally floor it. However, I believe that everyone’s anatomy is unique, so I would not claim that everyone can play 12 notes per second. I mean, based on the table tap tests, I’m sure not everyone can table tap at the same tempo, possibly with tension you can achieve a higher tempo, but I’d wager not everyone is the same. Some will be incredibly fast, while others will be only slightly fast.

To find your voice, you must do what you can to uncover phrases every day that you spontaneously manifest while connecting notes one at a time. and then push them to the fast tempo speed that ONLY YOU can do, not the players you revere or idolize can do.

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I dug this up from another thread on here. I’m hesitant to link to it directly since the subject matter of that thread (which was NOT “start with speed”) often turns sour. Here’s what Troy had to say about it

[begin quote]

These ideas about starting with speed and randomness are not opinions or things I plucked out of thin air. They were the result of reading actual published motor learning research in combination with lots of testing and trial and error with our own students.

On top of that, I actually presented these ideas to no less than two motor learning research labs as a part of our interviews — Pietro’s group at Columbia University and again at the University of North Carolina Raleigh-Durham during the speed research. I also gave this presentation publicly at the Larvik Guitar Festival in Norway and took questions afterward. Robben Ford sat through it! Hilariously.

The presentations included slides with graphs of how I think the process works, and video clips of players interviews with actual closeup footage. There was a healthy amount of audience participation as the various rooms full of PhDs tried to guess where I was going with all this. It was fun and a bit surreal.

Not only did they not laugh me out of the room, but in discussions afterward they mentioned research papers which support the stuff that I was talking about, some of which were the papers I had actually read as part of coming up with these ideas in the first place. The Maurice Smith paper in particular, which I’ve talked about now in various Primer lessons, is a big one. Check the beginner tremolo case study if you’re interested in learning more.

[end quote]

“Start with speed” is one of the most often misunderstood things on CTC, which is a shame because if used correctly, it can really move you in the right direction. I’m not saying that to discredit your experience @Mr_Samsa . After all, your experience is your experience. If you’ve gotten good results from your method, that’s great.

I think one of the most important things I’ve learned from Troy is “if something isn’t working don’t keep doing it. Try finding something else that does work”. If all you get from starting with speed is a tense uncontrollable motion with bad form, then it’s probably not going to help. That also isn’t how it was intended though. It’s just a litmus test to see if the motion is valid. A fast motion can be slowed down and cleaned up. An inefficient motion can’t be sped up beyond a certain point. The idea is to find the sweet spot, feel it so you can control it, and refine from there.

That’s awesome! What speeds are you hitting now? I know you’re into writing also. Have you integrated your new technique with any compositions?

Sorry to hear all that and I’m glad you were able to work through it and make progress in multiple areas of your life. Just like starting with speed might not be for everybody though, I think it’s fair to say that addressing personal/emotional problems won’t directly improve your playing. Sure, it can put you in a frame of mind where you are more focused and in turn make better progress. If my wife is constantly cheating on me and I finally get the courage to leave her, that’s not enough to make my arpeggios faster :slight_smile: I’ll still have to put in the work. Maybe I’ll play better, but also, maybe I won’t. Conversely, music history is full of people who were emotional wrecks but were simply brilliant musicians.

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Piano technique has been perfected, and there is a correct way to play—their teachers will not tolerate the eccentricity that exits in our non-classical guitar world. Pianists have an incredible educational system and regularly turn out elite performers, and they practice by getting perfection and then bumping up the metronome a bit.

This approach is impossible for most non-classical guitarists, because we have little idea of what we’re doing, hence we’ll do one thing at low speeds, another thing at high speeds, etc., and our practice will therefore be a mess! (Indeed, I was shocked when Troy started to discover that most elite guitarists had no idea what they were actually doing… but this turned out to be typical.)

Happily, we have Troy to guide us. He’s like Darwin, and Cracking the Code is something like On the Origin of Species. I think Troy’s heuristic is great, that one should pick any mechanism that they can do at high speed, but after that, I think that one should (no evidence) copy the pianists, and start with the metronome at slow speeds, but adhering to the target mechanic even when playing slowly. So even when I am playing something with a crawling metronome, I try to move the pick exactly as I intend to at speed.

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Is this actually true? Anyone who gets into a classical conservatoire already needs to have elite level playing ability. Don’t pianists typically play Chopin Etudes when auditioning?

I’d recommend analyzing your own method of learning a new phrase, by new I mean something different from your normal fretting and picking hand pathways, and going slow is exactly what you’ll be doing for the first day or so. Pick a phrase from a genre you don’t like that is in an entirely different soundscape from what you typically play to really see this in action. Good luck playing that fast, you will be lost for days before hitting a moderately fast tempo. :sweat_smile:

Due to my and my parents’ cultural and ethnic background, a lot of my peers grew up playing piano (as well as violin and classical guitar) at elite levels. Violin kids were concertmaster in high school, etc. They typically had private lessons from conservatory-trained teachers, often from age 6.

I started taking classical guitar lessons from a really respected guitarist (Julian Gray of Peabody). He was preparing me for an audition at Peabody. I ultimately didn’t enroll and majored in music at a ‘regular’ (i.e. non conservatory) college. I looked over the four-year road map of what I would have been studying at Peabody though. From what I understand, in conservatories there are pedagogy classes you have to go through as part of your degree/training. I think this is how the next generation of classical musicians are taught. Because as you mentioned (@Jacklr), these musicians are already killing it at the time they audition for the conservatory. They’ve typically already been taught the correct (or A correct way) to play their instrument, from a young age.

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To a degree, I think the process is being missed here.

To steal (and bastardize) a phrase from Martin Miller “Once you’ve got the basic mechanics of something sorted out…then you push it. It’s a very personal thing.”

Of course you’re going to have issues early. You go as fast as you can, ignore the slop (not outright mistakes) and ride it out. If the mechanics are good…push.

To me, it’s like racing. Once you’ve got the basics of a track sorted out, you start pushing. Digging for limits and shaving time. You don’t know what too far is until you’ve gone too far. It’s the nature of it and done right it doesn’t cost anything but lap time and perhaps a set of underwear.

In a race, you go as fast as you, your car and your cojones will allow while staying (mostly) on the track. You’re fast…but sloppy…until the next lap when you tune either your approach, the car or whatever.

Always probing for the limits and always trying to push them farther out and go faster. You work up to peak performance, while methodically making (and correcting) errors.

I don’t think so because even if you can play a cross-string phrase with only two notes quickly, can you play one with three, four, or five notes, or even one with three notes on one string and two notes on another across 4 strings? Additionally, it turns into a left-right hand sync ballet of movements that you won’t be able to master quickly without going back even further than the fundamentals to ingrain hand motions for newly learned phrase picking pathways.

If the mechanics are wrong in some fashion, you’re correct.

If what you’re building on is faulty - that’s not the fault of the process.

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Mechanics don’t matter either, you won’t be able to play it all fast. The problem is some are much more advanced so this process of having to learn something completely new outside of the norm of their playing, yes it will happen much faster with a more higher skilled professional player. However the process works the same, they are just so fast at it that they blast through the baby steps phase super quickly with their hands already having the skill to do it. But the average person who doesn’t improvise as much it will take much longer.

Well…yeah. That’s not news. ¯_(ツ)_/¯

I think riding a bike is a decent analogy. If you’ve never done it before and you want to learn, there’s a minimum speed you’ll need to go or it just won’t work. You don’t have to be able to go as fast an olympic athlete, but you do have to go fast enough so that the bike won’t topple over. There’s a point where things smooth out.

Similarly, you don’t have to pick as fast as Rusty Cooley to know you have an efficient motion. But if you’re going REALLY slowly and trying to make sure everything is perfect and you feel totally relaxed and hit no adjacent strings etc etc etc, you’ll have no idea if you’re on the right track or not.

I think a lot of people miss the point of why Troy and others say to start fast. Also, on the chapter in the Primer where Troy talks about this, he shows an excerpt of a Shawn Lane clinic where he’s saying the same thing. Maybe, those who don’t quite get it, think they need to go “Shawn Lane fast” to see if the motion is good. You only need to go fast enough to prove the motion works, then you back off slightly, still using the same motion, and clean it up. Then you go faster until it gets a little sloppy, then you back off slightly, still using the same motion, and clean it up. That last sentence gets repeated over and over until you’re as fast as you want to be, or you’ve reached your limit.

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Really slowly—50% speed for most faster phrasing is more than enough to support both playing and aural comprehension. This is also doable with the right technique and no tension. If you want to play it within a flurry of other licks in the long run, I would say that this is the best course of action because it will be built upon a strong foundation. Even riding a bike most start with flatter tires to assist, or training wheels.

Are we all just forgetting about dynamics? You shouldn’t expect to be able to alter dynamics if you don’t build up a proper foundation of understanding of the phrase you are trying to say at warp speed.

I think “start with speed” is a great approach. When I got started again I ran across MAB’s observation that “you can’t go faster than hammering one note,” and I resisted it; I didn’t want to be wrong, and trying tremolo picking might prove I’d been wrong for a long time. Tried it, turns out he had a point. I really think some people we label “extremely talented” just got lucky on the first try, that’s where Troy’s approach comes in handy; if it’s not working for you, try another time-tested method that does work.

I like the “start with speed” concept. That’s how I learned how to play the guitar, by playing along with records and faking it.

BUT: the important factor is to play short bursts at maximum speed, typically five or nine notes (starting and ending on a beat).

You have to cross the line between walking and running. You can’t do it gradually. Different muscles, different mind set.

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I could play most phrases this length with my old inefficient motion that I used for the last 10 years, the key for me learning my current efficient motion was trying to pick at maximum speed for 30-40 seconds at a time, not using the same motion but adjusting and trying to find something that worked. I actually have video of this sorta thing because I made a thread about it :grin:

Old inefficient tense motion playing high speed bursts that breaks down after any extended period of time:

New current efficient motion that could pick at high speed with practically zero tension:

That being said, when you have a working motion playing shorter bursts can be useful, just to get used to the feel of playing a lick at a higher speed :slight_smile:

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I was thinking more about phrases that skip strings. I can loop stuff for a long time on one string without tensing up, but alternate picking lines over two strings or more is hard for your picking hand.

Not sure I agree, in theory you should just be applying the same motion you’d use on a single string?

If you’re talking about playing phrases that used mixed escapes or helper motions then definitely but any single escape lines are relatively the same difficulty regardless of how many strings are involved