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Wristy Business

GUITARISTS! Here are some thoughts on how to improve the speed and fluency of your left hand (or, for sinistrals, right hand).

If you want to play fast, practice slow. You may think that just about any technical work for the left hand (you know, scales, hammering-on, slurs) will do you good. Not so, says classical guitarist Alice Artzt in her excellent and widely-applicable book "The Art of Practising".

If you play an exercise badly, and play it again badly, and then play it over and over badly, all you do is teach your fingers, very effectively, to play badly. And the reason you are doing it badly is that you're probably playing it too fast. If you want to do a technical exercise, start so slowly that it sounds plain silly and then gradually increase your speed. And gradually means over weeks, not minutes.

Of course, you'll need a reference point, and for that the good old metronome is unequalled. The aim is to be absolutely precise in both speed and rhythmic regularity.

And then there's the question of your fingers. Personally, I like using the classical position with my thumb lodged squarely behind neck for all this kind of work. It doesn't, of course, prevent you doing what comes naturally when it comes to pumping out chords on your electric. But for single-note precision it can't be beat. That's what I think.

Anyway, it's in front of the neck that the real business takes place. Remember, one finger per fret. That's what your fingers are for, in a guitaristic context. But what about speed? You know you can play faster than you do, so where does all that lost velocity go?

Mostly it goes in unnecessary movements of the fretting hand through the air, long before it even touches the string, let alone pushes it down another couple of millimetres to engage with the fret.

The answer is to keep that flapping about to a minimum. You must touch that string with absolute precision and guide it down to an appointed spot just behind the appropriate fret.

Back to Alice Artzt. Her solution is to start exercises with your fingers no more than 1.5-2mm from the strings, but not touching. Then, as the rhythm of the metronome encourages you to move, touch down each finger in turn on the strings and down to the fretboard, in that simple 1, 2, 3, 4 pattern. Careful: your other fingers must not move. They must not even think about moving.

Meanwhile, with your neglected right hand merely apply the simplest up and down picking you can find. You can't improve both hands at once.

That's the first exercise. Take that pattern and move it, one fret at a time, up the neck. Then do the same on the next string, and the next. Later, you can make up patterns of your own, say 1, 3, 4, 1 or 3, 4, 3, 4, to help those fingers which most need it. The Artzt book (from Musical New Services Ltd, (Contact Details)) has pages of them, and lots of stuff for right hand too, if you use those fingers.

Remember, the aim is perfection. The concentration needed is extreme and strangely revitalising, like doing yoga or listening to Philip Glass. Fifteen minutes a day will be enough, but it'll do you more good than six hours of blues scales, and that's a fact.

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Making Music - Copyright: Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.


Making Music - Oct 1986

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