Speed Up Your Guitar Playing, Using Dotted Rhythms

Masters and virtuosos can play fast music with precision and accuracy. This ability to play clean and fast is one of the markers of mastery.

So in our practice, we can work on this skill. We can build speed while also becoming more consistently accurate.

One practice method we can use to do this involves dotted rhythms.

Slow is Smooth and Smooth is Fast

There’s a saying (it may have come from Special Forces military training) that “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.”

This means that if we practice slowly and become accurate, we’ll make fewer mistakes. These clean, precise movements will create more speed.

This is true of the music in the moment, and also throughout our learning process. When we make fewer mistakes, we get to full performance level more quickly.

Fast is only fast if it’s clean

Speed can be seductive. Many players fall into the trap of striving for speed above all else. But if the accuracy suffers, the effect is ruined.

When we play faster than we can maintain accuracy, our music sounds messy and out of control.

But when we play cleanly and with precise rhythm, even slower music can sound fast. This illusion comes from consistent rhythm, volume, and tone quality.

So playing cleaner, we can both play faster, and sound even faster than we play.

The Enemies of Speed

When building speed, there are two “enemies” that show up and cause problems. We can learn what these are and practice to negate them. This way, we’ll be more likely to see the results (faster, cleaner playing) that we’re looking for.

Enemy Number One: Excess Tension

A certain amount of tension (muscle tone) is required to play any note. If we use less than required, we get buzzed notes, notes don’t sound clearly, or we fall off our chair.

If we use more tension than necessary, we work against ourselves. This is akin to driving with the emergency brake on.

And tension tends to create more tension. The longer we play without releasing excess tension, the more the tension rises. Eventually, our muscles lock down and we spasm.

So as we practice, we can build the habit of using appropriate tension. We can keep tension at useable levels, instead of allowing it to build and affect upcoming notes.

Enemy Number Two: Confusion

The second “enemy” of speed is confusion.

To play any note, we first need to know which note to play. Whether or not we memorize our music, we still need to know the next note in time to play it.

For very fast passages, there is not enough time to think of each note individually at full speed. Instead, we have to think of the passage as a group of notes.

We also have the physical act of playing notes using our fingers. If we play faster than our brains can tell our fingers what the next notes are, we make mistakes. Likewise, if we haven’t trained our fingers how to cross strings, alternate, and prepare for the next note, they can fumble.

Our synapses must fire and send the information to our fingers at the given speed. If not, our fingers become “confused”. They don’t know the pattern.

So we have mental confusion, and we have physical confusion.

Classical Guitar Technique and Speed

To prepare to play at high speeds, it helps to study and practice our physical technique. If we use consistent movements, we’re more likely to maintain control as the speed rises. This also prevents excess tension.

How to Use Rhythm to Play Guitar Faster

In our practice, we can use rhythm to build speed. Inserting pauses after a given number of notes allows the tension to release, and the brain to catch up. This leads to greater control and facility.

The Power of Rests

Inserting rests gives us time to think. Instead of playing many notes in quick succession, we can play smaller groups of one, two, three or more notes (also known as “speed bursts“). When we later remove the rests, the passage is more likely to feel easier. We’ll remember the places we released tension, and will perform with less effort.

Taking pauses in practice negates Enemy #1 (excess tension), and Enemy #2 (confusion).

Dotted Rhythms for Speed Training

Below are examples using dotted rhythms. These combine long and short notes. We can challenge ourselves to new levels of speed using these dotted rhythms. This will help us get longer strings of notes up to full speed.  We can use these rhythms in our pieces and in our speed-building exercises.

guitar speed dotted rhythms

Here are the same rhythms, written as eighths and sixteenths.

dotted eighth notes

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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