About Me

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Atlanta, GA, United States
When I suffered a lip injury that ended my career as a classical trombonist, I thought my life as a musician was finished, but I fell in love with music all over again when Santa gave me a guitar for Christmas in 2003. Even as I was struggling with my first chords, I was planning a new performance career. As a trombonist, I performed with the Heritage of America Band at Langley Air Force Base, the Ohio Light Opera, and in pick-up bands for touring acts that included Rosemary Clooney, George Burns, and the Manhattan Transfer. Reborn as a jazz guitarist, I sing and play my own solo arrangements of jazz classics, am half of the Godfrey and Guy duo, and hold the guitar chair in the Sentimental Journey Orchestra. I have been a freelance music copyist since 1995, served as Director of Music at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation from 2011 to 2017, and currently serve as Contemporary Band Director at the same congregation.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Need for Speed

Wow, it's been a while since I've blogged. I've been awfully busy the past couple months. I finished up my first year as music director at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation, I was busy wrapping up several music engraving projects, I've played some gigs, and I'm in the middle of a short run at Act3 Productions. My schedule isn't letting up anytime soon. The final show of this Act3 run is July 7. The very next day, I'll be in the studio, recording with InTown Band, and I have a solo gig the same week. I'll also be preparing to lead a music service at NWUUC, I'm still diligently practicing piano in addition to guitar, and I'm trying to recruit more guitar students. My music engraving schedule is a little lighter right now, so I have a little more time for guitar practice.

I have a lot on my plate, but my number one goal is still to be the best guitarist I can be. Right now, my main focus is increasing my speed. For someone who hasn't been playing long, I have a pretty deep knowledge of jazz guitar chords. My improvisation is solid (although this is something I'm always striving to improve). I have a healthy repertoire of solo arrangements. The one thing that I feel is holding me back right now is my picking speed.

I'm not interested in playing fast just for the sake of playing fast. I've watched plenty of YouTube guitar wizards who can play at blazing speed but still bore me, because they're only regurgitating scales and arpeggios. I want to be able to play fast so that I have the technical ability to play whatever I need to play, whether it be a flourish in an improvised solo or a difficult guitar book for a musical production.

While my speed will naturally increase over time, it'll increase more quickly if I focus on it. I learned jazz chords by reading through the Real Book, forcing myself to learn unfamiliar chords, and subbing in big bands. I'm only going to learn to play fast by, well, by playing fast.

I've been sifting through YouTube, looking for videos with tips on increasing my picking speed. There's a lot of garbage on YouTube, but I've found a few useful videos. The credible ones all offer slightly different advice, but there are some common themes:
  • Use a thick pick.
  • Hold the pick so that very little of it is showing.
  • Keep your hand relaxed and hold the pick softly. If you hold it softly and are using just the tip of the pick, it glides more easily over the string without getting caught.
  • Economy of motion is more important than pure speed. You only want to move the pick enough to pluck the string. Any distance beyond a millimeter or two is wasted motion.
  • The picking motion comes from the wrist, and some players like to use circular picking, in which your thumb and forefinger pick in a small,  circular motion.
  • If you hold the pick at about a 45 degree angle from the string, the pick slices through the string easily without getting stuck.
  • ALL instructional videos recommended using a tremolo to develop a fast, economical picking technique. When you play a tremolo, you repeatedly play one fast note on a single string.
  • Fast playing develops as a result of coordinating the fretting hand with the picking hand. It doesn't matter how fast you can pick if you can't put it together with the moving notes of your fretting hand.
So, with all this advice, here's my plan:
  • I just spent two weeks focusing on single string tremolo. This is what many musicians call a "TV exercise." It's a pure motor skill, and it's sometimes helpful to turn on the TV so you don't get bored. I like to fire up NetFlix, watch Star Trek episodes, and practice my tremolo. It's probably a good thing that I'm single, because I've been practicing my tremolo for a total of at least an hour a day.
  • This week, I'm practicing my tremolo while moving from string to string.
  • Next, I'll start playing the tremolo to a metronome so that I can control the tempo and use the same technique whether I'm playing fast or slowly.
  • After I have more control over my tremolo with the right hand, I'll start adding notes with the left hand, playing different patterns on a single string to improve my right/left hand coordination. My goal will be to be able to cleanly play the patterns as quickly as I can play single note tremolos.
  • Then I'll start playing the same patterns, moving from string to string.
  • Then I'll practice melodic patterns, first on single strings, then moving from string to string.
  • After that, I'll start adding more musical licks and patterns that I can incorporate into my improvisation.
  • Eventually, I'll add full scales and longer licks, with the goal of being able to play them as fast as I can play a tremolo.
Throughout this process, I want to be sure to focus on making music and not just spewing out a flurry of notes. This is going to take a lot of effort, but it'll be worth it once I reach my goal, which is to gain greater mastery of the guitar and possess the technique to play whatever I need to play. This is not going to happen overnight. It took about four years to develop a real comfort with jazz guitar chords, and I imagine that this will require a similar effort. We'll see! I'll continue to write guitar arrangements, explore improvisation, and learn new songs, but speed practice will be part of my daily routine for some time to come.

I don't pretend to be an expert in the area of speed picking. If you have some tips, add a comment!


  1. I was wondering where you've been. Have you read Kenny Werner's "Effortless Mastery"? He talks about technique to free your playing.

    1. I've seen the book mentioned from time to time in articles. Thanks for reminding me about it. I just placed an order. As an undergraduate trombone player, I was pretty good, but not great. In working on a master's in trombone, somewhere along the line I flipped a switch and realized that I could become very, very good, and I reached a new level of playing. I'd like the same thing to happen with guitar. So what if I started playing guitar at the ripe old age of 38? Assuming I have good health for many years to come, there's no reason I can't become an even better jazz guitarist than I was a classical trombonist!