Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Doctrine of Woodshed: Back to Basics

I've had a few requests lately for some less advanced lessons, so we're taking it back to basics in Doctrine of Woodshed to talk about chops.  Time for some Woodshed Boot Camp.

Speed on guitar is as much about control and precision as it is about sheer physical speed.  To develop speed is to develop accuracy.  So, how do we develop accuracy?  

It's all about playing SLOW.  Anyone who has ever taken lessons from me knows this is my go-to  solution for everything - slow it down.  If you can't play a passage, practice it slow.  In the same manner, if you are learning a new technique, the way to develop it is to work on it slow.  

Really slow. 

No, seriously.  S-l-o-w.  

Here's the idea - there is a bunch of stuff that goes into playing guitar.  Have you ever thought about it?  Where is your picking hand in relation to the length of the strings?  How about the angle of the guitar?  Or the angle of the pick - is the side closest the bridge or the neck pointing up?  Which parts of your hand/arm/wrist are moving and which ones are stationary? What about your.....

It's a lot to process.  You need all these things to be second nature.  You don't want to have to consciously think about them when you're shredding through a passage at full speed.  So we break things down so that we can think about them, make sure everything is working together properly, and increase the tempo in small increments.  

Seems boring, doesn't it?  Yea, maybe it is.  It's much more fun to just dive into a passage and start playing it.  "Hey, I can play it halfway decent at almost full speed!  This is fun.  All I have to do is keep plunking away like this a bunch of times and I'll be playing it full speed in no time!  Look at those egghead losers with their 'metronomes.' Pffft. I'm playing twice as fast as them!"

Yes, that is a seductive thought - one that most musicians have at one point or another.  But here's the thing - if you are playing it "halfway decent," then you're playing it "halfway indecent" - musicians call this "dirty."  It means you are making mistakes.  You may not even notice these mistakes, but the listener does.  You have no time to think about these mistakes when you are trying to "play fast." You think are you getting away with them. Worse, if you don't notice them because you are too busy focusing on speed, then how can you be expected to fix them?!  

That's why it is imperative to play slow.  I'm going to say it again.

Practice slow.

I cannot emphasize this enough.  

Let's take a look at two passages - one a simple exercise that just about any guitarist should be able to do, another a slightly more advanced etude - and go through how I would practice them.  Then we'll talk about some of the hidden problems that would be hard to notice if you jump in too fast.  


First, we'll take a simple scale fragment in E minor.  I used this type of passage quite a bit when first developing my shredding technique.  It is useful to practice it both picked and legato, but today we're just going to focus on picking.





The exercise is only two beats long, repeated ad naseum, with strick alternate picking. (As a side note, bass players could play something similar, focusing on alternating plucking fingers)

If you just jump into it, and try to play it full speed, I can almost guarantee you that you are going to make one specific mistake. When you change strings, you will use two successive downpicks.  Like this:



You'll be able to play the lick once, and wonder why you always have trouble when you go back to the beginning.  It will be because you are getting caught up in the picking pattern and trying to start the lick on an upstroke.  Playing the lick slowly will allow you to pay attention to this potential hangup and make sure you do it right.  Once you have the picking correct, speed is just an issue of cranking up the metronome.

But wait, how much do I change the metronome each time?  When do I change it?  How do I know? What do I start it on?  Good questions, glad you asked.

Remember when I said start slow?  I wasn't kidding.  60 BPM is my go-to starting place, but don't be afraid to start even slower than that.  Most metronomes go down to at least 40, and you should get familiar with what that feels like.  Try playing along to this:



Try to pay attention to every little detail.  Think "down, up, down, up, down, up" when you play.  Are you smooth and in time, or is there hesitation when you change strings?  Is each note sounding clearly? Do you feel rushed when you play it, like you are barely hanging on - or does it flow effortlessly?  Only when all of that is correct should you change the metronome.

How much, you ask?  As small an increment as your metronome will allow.  1 BPM, if possible -  many metronomes only go in increments of 3 or 5, and that's acceptable as well.  Then you ask yourself all those questions over again.  Play the exercise again and again at 41 BPM until it is perfect.  Then 42.  Then 43.  Don't skip over some.  Don't move on until it's perfect, every time.  The harsher you are on yourself at these low tempos, the easier it will be once we really start cooking.


It's also important to have a goal tempo in mind.  I first showed you this exercise at 120 BPM, so let's say that is our goal.  You don't necessarily have to stop there, but having something to shoot for is important to the practice process, because now you have quantifiable proof that you have accomplished something.  You couldn't play it at 120, and now you can.  You are better now than you were when you started practicing.  Achieving goals we set for ourself helps us remember that structured practice is more efficient than blind noodling at improving technique (though noodling definitely has it's place in the creative process - remember, today we're talking about chops, not creation).

Now let's look at a slightly more advanced etude.  We're going to take the exact same approach, and once again when we slow it down we're going to be on the lookout for potential "gotcha's."



When presented with a piece like this, you have to make a few decisions.  If it was on a record, you might endeavor to reproduce the recording - picking, slides, accents.  This time, all we have is sheet music.  So I'm gonna provide the rules, just like I would a student in lessons.

1) Alternate picking
2) No slides or hammer ons
3) Every time you repeat a measure, you have to use the same fingerings - but measure 1 and measure 2 can have different fingerings
4) Accent beats 1 and 3

There are a couple of different fingerings that work, but all involve a shift.  For our practice technique to work, we need figure out for sure which fingers are going to play which notes so that we can use the slow speed to develop muscle memory.  Here's the one I use:



Now for the picking.  The first string change is pretty easy - moving from the notes C to E.  You'll be tempted to do two downstrokes, but just make sure you play the E with an upstroke and it'll happen easy enough.

But the second - moving from the notes E to A - is a bit trickier.  An upstroke followed by a downstroke while moving up strings.  Some guitarists call it "inside the string picking," and it restricts your movement and can be a non-obvious cause of problems when playing fast passages.  When practicing the passage slowly, make sure you aren't cheating on the alternate picking.  This will likely be something I call a "speed limit" - that is, something you personally find difficult to play that restricts how fast you can play a passage.  You should only play the entire passage as fast as you can play all the "speed limits."

Since this is a slightly more advanced etude, I won't hold your hand.  Go through the remainder of the passage, figuring out anything that might be tricky for you (what fingering are you going to use going from measure 1 to measure 2?  Don't let there be any hesitation), and then once again, break out a metronome and start it at "annoyingly slow."  Play it perfect ten times, and then turn the metronome to "annoyingly slow +1 BPM."  You know the rest.


So, now that you know how to learn a fast passage, you can apply this to all sorts of music.  The only thing standing between you and the solo from "Stairway to Heaven," or "Eruption," or even "Through the Fire and Flames," is time, patience and a metronome.  Go on, then.  Shred it up.

And as an added bonus, the first person to send me a YouTube video of the "A minor Etude" played clean at 120BPM gets a signed copy of Doctrine's EP.  Becha' Can't Play This:



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