Do you want to play acoustic guitar with more clarity and precision—especially at faster tempos? Learn to play fast by practicing slowly; make sure that you play everything with 100 percent accuracy before bringing it up to tempo.
It’s become quite fashionable to embrace the practice of slowness. I’ve seen books and articles on slow weightlifting and slow eating and on and on. But all trendiness aside, I’m here to tell you to slow yourself down and play with precision.
As an older musician who still spends hours in the woodshed, I have discovered that the things I didn’t work on yesterday will come back to haunt me eventually. That is to say, you may as well iron out all the wrinkles as you go along the road of musical development, otherwise you’ll eventually be confronted with the limitations that are keeping you from playing the way you imagine. In the long run you’ll save time and have more fun along the way with these basic principles that you can apply to any style of music.
Work on something incredibly simple
When I was studying violin in my 20s, I had an eccentric teacher who taught me how to focus my tone. His lesson was really quite simple: don’t play badly—and listen to yourself. After I demonstrated that I was capable of playing with a beautiful tone, he said, “Play ‘Twinkle, Twinkle’ like Itzhak Perlman.” I replied, “I can’t play like Itzhak Perlman,” and he quipped, “How hard can it be? It’s just ‘Twinkle, Twinkle.’”
I want you to keep that in mind forever and to play every note with 100 percent perfection and intention. It’s all basically “Twinkle, Twinkle” (Example 1) when you get down to it. In other words, everything you play is “easy” if you play it slowly enough. Try to avoid getting caught up in thinking you should be playing faster, because speed is only earned by flawless repetition.
Apply the concept to the nuts and bolts
Perfection should be the goal, even if that means subjecting your ego to the fact that your music needs improvement. You will play better when you can feel the strength of playing with confidence. So, you may need to build upon your skills instead of forcing yourself to play far above your skill level.
If you can think of practicing beyond just playing the notes—i.e., putting your fingers in the right places—and look at your practicing as an opportunity to track down and replace ineffective movements in your hands, then you’ll be on the right track. Consider untangling a knot: whether on earbuds, shoelaces, or a guitar cable, it’s a slow process of studying the mess and creating a plan to undo the problem.
When practicing scales and arpeggios, like the ones here in C (Examples 2 and 3), you can start applying these untangling techniques by beginning with simply listening deeply to what you’re playing. Does it sound clear? Are all the notes equal in volume and tone and duration? If not, slow down and play them again while listening to each note and comparing them all. In most cases, this should be enough to illuminate a spot or two that needs work—perhaps you have a finger that doesn’t press the string all the way down, for example. Fix it.
Put it in context
Every classical violinist I’ve met does this: when they get a new piece of music to learn, they play through it at half of the tempo marking. If the quarter note is 180 bpm, they’ll start at 90 bpm or slower and read through it, looking for tricky spots to focus on later.
They will then work on the problematic areas thoroughly before going back to the piece at half tempo and playing through it with as much accuracy as they’re capable of. Then they speed up the tempo in tiny, miniscule amounts, gradually working their way up to—and slightly beyond—the needed tempo.
What does this mean for you? Whether you’re learning a hot jazz tune like Django Reinhardt’s “Rhythm Futur” by playing the melody in progressively shorter note values, as demonstrated in Example 4, or trying different fingerings for a Bach cello suite (Example 5), do this: Look at everything you’re practicing, consider just playing everything at half tempo (at first), and play with 100 percent (OK, 98 percent) accuracy and perfection. Work like this for a month, and you’ll be making better progress, and faster.
When you play with accuracy, control, confidence, and perfection, you start feeling those endorphin rushes in your brain, which can be extremely helpful in encouraging you to keep playing slowly and to keep practicing for longer and longer periods of time!
Paul “Pazzo” Mehling is the founder and lead guitarist of the Hot Club of San Francisco, a group dedicated to performing and recording Gypsy jazz. Mehling conducts clinics and private lessons and is a staff teacher for the Jazz Masters Workshops.
This article originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.