… then it probably is. Let me explain.
Last week, I’ve been both tired and ill (still am, at its worst, hopefully) and so skipped both Thursday and Friday sessions, which tend to be the two techniques I less enjoy practicing, that is arpeggios (I normally don’t mind but lately it’s been nerve biting barred chords on the lower neck) and of course sweep picking. Since today’s exercise on alternate picking is relatively easy, I thought I’d catch up on those two and make up for lost time.
The arpeggio exercise went reasonably well (though I now know why, see later), but I was surprised at just how easily I went all the way to 112bpm playing 16th notes in sweep picking. A feeling of pride and achievement was filling me up when I suddenly realised something was in fact really quite wrong. Last week, I’d been practicing bits of the solo of Satch’s Mighty Turtle Head and in order to cope with the speeds involved and to get the patterns under my fingers, I’d slowed down the loop to 45% of the normal speed. Unfortunately, Guitar Pro kept that setting (despite a crash earlier) and so I was proudly playing sweeped triads at 45% of 112bpm… oh dear.
So if you think what you’re playing is too slow, then it probably is, in particular if you really were struggling the week before just as you did in previous weeks. These things do get better eventually but this is a slow and hardly noticeable process unless you take regular snapshots of your upper limits at regular intervals in your practice. As it stands I could really only play that exercise at 76bpm by really putting some serious attention to it, and even then it was quickly quite messy.
If my reckoning is right, it’s not 3 sessions I have to record, it’s 5 this time, so let’s try to be concise about them.
Last Saturday was my favourite session: legato, not so much because it’s the foundation of fast playing (I don’t think it is necessarily) but because it seems to be one of those things which come a little more easily. Not that I can reproduce that when jamming but as always I keep the faith that one day it will start to pay off. This time round I pushed myself a little, the exercise was quite straightforward and by the time I reached the final round at 120bpm, it still felt too slow for me to play so I kept pushing it in sections of 12 to see how fast I could play the exercise. I made it to 180bpm and decided to stop because of time, not because it was getting harder. I might have been able to reach 200 if it wasn’t for the fact that I don’t want to undo the things I try to train myself to do by breaking meaningless records when I’m not in my top shape to play accurately. But who knows, maybe next week.
On Sunday I didn’t practice for personal reasons so this got pushed to the following day. That rhythm exercise was reasonably easy and satisfactory to play but I found something interesting. As the exercise basically consisted of 4 ascending arpeggios to play while letting the strings ring at all times, my picking hand started to anchor itself to the scratch plate to make it easier to pick the arpeggios. Now I know it’s a standard way to play but despite having tried to play this way before, it always felt awkward. This time though, it was the most logical thing to do and made the picking easier and more relaxed, and thus easier to accelerate. This will probably only work in this circumstance but it was interesting nonetheless.
On to week 8 and there’s not so much to report on this week’s exercises so far. Playing with Guitar Pro does make it easier to reach the final 120bpm mark so I can really focus on tidying things like making sure extra strings don’t ring, adding some emphasis here and there for flourishing and so on. It makes the exercise more interesting and personal in some way. Finding ease in playing at certain speed over and over again is also very meditative in some way, you can focus on really being into the music, the repetition really reinforcing the concentration.
On today’s bend exercise I would say that although it helps to have supporting fingers to properly do a bend, once you reach certain speeds it just becomes too many fingers to move at once and so you can use the exercise to strengthen individual fingers so they can easily perform the bend without requiring support, a bit like having extra wheels when learning to cycle 🙂
You know, when I hear Steve Vai say, if you want to be successful, focus on your strength, I’m really tempted to just dump bothering with sweep picking and focus on something else like string skipping. Heck that’s what Paul Gilbert does and it serves him pretty well. Though he has an advantage over me: humongous fingers, so that’s that argument out of the window. In all seriousness, I don’t really know what my strengths are. Sure there are some types of techniques I can practice more easily than others but that’s not to say that it’s because I’m better at that technique than this technique, and if you want to be as wide a portfolio in your fingers as you need to play that music that’s dying to come out, you have to get all the trump cards.
As it happens, I’m getting a pretty good feeling about using Guitar Pro as an aide to my routine. Yesterday, I did an arpeggios exercise and it went down pretty well. This may be because it involved barring the cords with the ring finger which is somehow easier than using the index finger the way I was struggling a couple of weeks back. But really having this loop constantly going that you can leave at any time and rejoin when you’re ready is just what I needed.
In fact, I’m sure I spend more time on one particular tempo than I did when using the track on the CD. In a way that means more time spent on technique practice but in essence this could be anything. I could decide to practice an AC/DC riff and just loop it until I get it, don’t worry, I won’t shook you all night long just yet 😉 Now today’s dreaded sweep picking exercise went down much better than I feared. Sure I didn’t get past 56bpm but I wasn’t expecting to even get that fast considering I was going for 8 groups of sextuplets within 2 bars. That’s 48 notes to play in total, not impossible obviously but one needs to have a pretty good grasp of the technique to pull that off. What I did notice though is new sore areas on my finger tips due to repeated play, almost as if it forces me to use an area of my finger I wasn’t really using before. Or you know, it could just be the repetition that was reaching its break point.
The point though is that I was feeling more confident and prepared to play that sweep picking exercise and I could even afford the luxury of focusing on not letting the notes ring too much. Ironically I noticed I was playing the F# diminished arpeggio wrong all those weeks, oops, but it took me almost no time to re-adjust which is telling me something.
I don’t know, maybe I’m having too high hopes but for now I’m enjoying the apparent progress 😀
Lesson night tonight and a few more good tips on how to use arpeggios with seep picking in my playing. Of course I’ve been looking at arpeggios for some time now and it’s not always easy for me to hear when it’s a good time to use them so playing over a backing track with an obvious chord (E major) regularly coming back helps to get a feel of what makes it flavourful to play an arpeggio over a chord that uses notes which aren’t in the main key. What I might try to do over the next couple of weeks is whenever I jam over a backing track is try to identify the chords in it (not always an easy task) and see if I can outline them with some arpeggiated notes.
When I got home I did my daily exercise, which I was hoping to have done before going but couldn’t for various reasons. The exercise, funnily enough, on arpeggios, was easier than last week, mostly because it combines both low and high strings (it’s a 6-5-2-3 pattern) and so I wasn’t struggling too much with the finger barring the chord shape. Still by the time I got to 120bpm my hand was starting to feel quite sore, which I blame on the amount of pressure, and thus tension, I need to put on the strings to keep the barred chord ringing throughout. that got me wondered about the necessity to keep going for the sake of finishing the sequence up to the designated speed. What I need to focus on is not how fast I can play something, but how well I can play it, and in that regard it might be of better value to do an exercise slowly for longer than just moving on from one speed to the next. For some types of exercises it’s not really a problem to do that, but this week it’s been obvious that there is a certain limit I ought to respect lest I mess up my hand, which would definitely defeat the purpose.
So we’ll see how tomorrow’s exercise on arpeggios go but I suspect I might stick to 40bpm and do the same tempo more than once just so I get it right.
I wasn’t feeling too great on Thursday so I thought it best to postpone my daily practice to the Friday and lump together the two. Whether that was a clever idea or not, I’m not too sure, but yesterday was a little frustrating when it came to those technique practice. The Thursday arpeggio exercise had so far been reasonably easy, but this week it uses a bar across the top 4 strings which I found extremely difficult, and also painful to maintain. In short up the neck it’s not too bad, but the lower you go the harder you gotta press on the strings to get the barred notes to actually ring, and arpeggios with dull notes surely have their place but not when the notation says Let ring throughout. I’m guessing this is more of a muscular problem than something I’m doing wrong but then again, I’ve been playing barred chords for years now, though generally they are focussed on the lower strings.
Sweep picking was a little better but again I couldn’t get past half the 8 speeds you’re meant to practice at. I think it’ll be some time before I can play clean sweeps at a decent speed. If the exercise maintain that same chord progression for the next few weeks then I may end up playing the right triads in the right order eventually, not that it’s difficult in principle but when doing it at speed it tends to go tits up. The backing tracks I consoled myself on where enjoyable but didn’t come up with anything too memorable.
Tonight however, I really enjoyed the legato exercise which mixed some slide and hammer-ons and triplets for good measure (pun not intended ;)). And I really surprised myself how smoothly I could keep playing those different legato and tempi at speeds up to the final 120bpm. It is quite gratifying to see progress get through your fingers, dare I say in real time (though this would be clearly delusional). I gotta remember to sneak triplets with 8th notes pairs next time I do a jam, you never know what might pop out.