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Does Playing Faster Mean That You Are a Better Guitarist?

There is an age old saying amongst the guitar playing community, especially on social media platforms, that playing quickly or ‘shredding’ is tasteless and David Gilmour could say more with one note than Michael Angelo Batio could with 1,000 notes. Noted music expert Rick Beato discusses the ‘Gilmour Effect’ in this video.

Most guitarists know whether or not they like something and the reasons for it, in fact it is an exercise I make students do regularly in my lessons. A point I have made many times before is that certain techniques done in excess can quickly become boring, especially when the main focus of a solo is to both serve the song and allow the player to show off some technical ability within reason. It is perfectly acceptable to not like fast playing because of repetitive sections or an overly simplistic approach, but not having a reason leads me to believe that the dislike stems from a place of jealousy, perhaps?

I will answer this question succinctly, and go into further detail later - no, playing faster does not make you better. The same is also true for the opposite, playing slower doesn’t make you better. The speed at which you play an amount of notes is irrelevant, only that you have achieved the outcome desired. We all know the phrase ‘less is more’, and many people recall Yngwie Malmsteen saying “How can less be more? More is more” - I think it is Devin Townsend who said it best: 

“ - as a musician, you should practice your technique to be as good as you need to be to facilitate whatever ideas come into your head.”

Devin Townsend

Being able to play quickly is a valuable tool, just like a hammer is to a builder. However, you can quickly imagine how inept a builder would seem if all they used was a hammer. When the time comes that you need to use a hammer, you should have it in your tool box.

Practicing and refining various techniques is hard work when your aim is to be able to play quickly - a large number of players simply give up because of this which is ok providing that the music they are writing, or learning, doesn’t require it. Playing quickly isn’t all about rock and metal either! George Benson can play like lightning, but no one seems to be telling him to slow down!

Some Great Fast Players

I would like to share some of my favorite players that are well known for playing quickly, though it is not the only arrow in their quivers. Notice how the examples here are either technical example (see Rick Graham) or the speed reflects a certain energy in the song. 

Guthrie Govan

A king amongst men and perhaps the best guitarist currently alive. Not only can he play at blinding speeds, but he has a fantastic knowledge of chords and harmony, so can weave through an improvisation as naturally as he walks or breathes. 

‘Fives’ is an original composition of his released on the album ‘Erotic Cakes’ in 2006. Check out the song ‘Eric’ from the same album for a masterclass in slow, thoughtful phrasing.

Rick Graham

This video was published purely as a technical demonstration and features what must be the cleanest technique I’ve ever heard. His alternate picking and legato are on another level. Even more impressively, in this video you can hear the raw camera audio as well as the processed guitar signal - there is nothing to hide behind and yet the playing still leads me to believe that he is an alien. 

Rick is also an accomplished classical guitarist, so he is far from a one trick pony!

Johnny Hiland

Johnny Hiland is a world-renowned guitarist with deep country music roots. However, he can turn his hand at almost any style and show anyone a thing or two. His right-hand, ‘chicken pickin’’ skills are incredible and, to top it all off, he is legally registered blind!

Something I find interesting about Johnny’s playing is that he is adept of using, therefore controlling and shaping, many different guitar tones. The ultra clean, sparkling country tone sounds great under his fingers as does the hi-gain side of spectrum, dripping with ambient effects.

Slowing It Down

We can’t have one without the other, so let us explore some players that like to take things easy (not that the playing is easy!). Often we might use notes that sound a little off but try to mask them with speed, hoping that the listener doesn’t have enough time to register the fact that a given note might not be to their liking. A slower tempo means that there is more room to think about the music and connect with the music on a deeper level.

Also consider that relaxation music is not fast, I wonder why that is!?

Eric Bibb

This song features a simple fingerstyle pattern, though it fits perfectly with the song and the contemplative lyrics. I first discovered Eric Bibb opening for George Benson at the Royal Albert Hall, and this song had the entire venue singing together - a beautiful song! I think that if this was played quickly it would ruin the sound.

The alternating bass line acts as a separate voice and so requires independent use of the thumb. Many rock guitarists tremble at the thought!

Herb Ellis

Jazz has an undeserved reputation for being slow, and even boring to the uninitiated. Sometimes a slower song can really help you appreciate the subtle nuances in note choices, and the faster lines are more intense by comparison. This performance of ‘Detour Ahead’ has a few light sprinkles of speed, but that is not the focus.

Tony Iommi

Like many others, Tony can play fast when he wants or needs to. This song, War Pigs, has one of my all time favorite riffs and it is very slow - especially at the beginning. It does speed up as the song goes along, but take a moment to appreciate how powerful that first riff truly is!

Final Thoughts

The subject of speed and proficiency is not just limited to that of a guitar player. Drummers, singers and every other discipline under the sun are subject to the same scrutiny, and I would offer the same advice to them. My personal thoughts regarding the guitar have been made clear, though I have specific choices when it comes to other musicians. 

For example, I would rather play with a drummer that can’t copy every Buddy Rich solo but is so deep in the pocket that they’ll never be seen again. By that I mean that a really tight, consistent pulse is nicer to work with in a professional capacity. The same is equal for bass players - I would rather take Pino Palladino over Les Claypool any day, regardless of the fact that both are at the top of their game respectively.

What is important is that you figure out the path you are forging for yourself, and any of the teachers at The American Guitar Academy can help you with that. A great teacher doesn’t always show you how to play something, you can learn just as much from being pointed in the right direction.

Play fast, play slow… it doesn’t really matter. Go and enjoy yourself!


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