Playing Fast – Is it a waste of time?

For many guitarists, the ability to play fast, or shred,  is seen as a necessity for attaining guitar mastery. Many who covet this skill spend hours and years perfecting alternate and sweep picking, three-note per string scales and other trademark techniques. But are these would be shredders wasting their time? is playing fast equal to playing without feeling? and is the ability to play fast on your guitar an unnecessary skill when viewed against the complete skill set of a well-rounded musician?

Before answering these questions I should mention that in many styles of music playing fast when required, is an accepted part of music making and musicians and fans of these styles typically give little thought to this aspect of the style.

So, are would be shredders wasting their time? and is the ability to play fast an unnecessary skill when viewed against the complete skill set of a well-rounded musician?

As a skill, acquiring the ability to play fast is not a waste of time. If this ability is elevated to a level where other aspects of musicianship are ignored, however, it can be.

As I stated at the beginning of this post, many people view this skill as the key to becoming a master guitarist, just look at how many Youtube videos headed ‘the best guitarist in the world’, or similar, feature guitarists shredding up and down the fretboard. Surely, the only aspect of guitar mastery which this indicates, is that of technique. On its own, however, technique is useless when not combined with other aspects of musicianship.

Perhaps, many of the guitarists on Youtube do possess these ‘other’ aspects. The danger for many beginners who see these videos, however, is that they focus only on acquiring speed and ignore other fundamentals of becoming a well rounded musician. This can be seen in many of the comments accompanying the videos where people ask, ‘where can I get the TAB for this?’. I have nothing against TAB when used in its correct context. Using it as the sole means of finding-the-notes, however, especially when these notes will then be used to practise playing fast, is a recipe for disaster.

The result of this single-focus practising can be seen and heard when a student intent on acquiring speed is asked to play over a progression, or a set of chord changes, or to identify the key of a piece of music, or identify an interval etc. Solely acquiring speed for its own sake only gives you the ability to play fast. If you don’t learn the other aspects of being a musician, or learn how to transfer the ‘musical information’ contained in the passages you are practising to other contexts, then you will be locked into a one-dimensional approach to playing the guitar.

I am not implying that all shredders are locked into this approach, I am simply cautioning against adopting a one-dimensional approach to guitar playing.

As for the question: is playing fast equal to playing without feeling? Firstly, how do you gauge if someone is playing with feeling? Typically, people seem to associate the ‘feeling’ of a performance with how it makes them feel, or how it connects with them. With this in mind, this question is a very personal one and therefore is very difficult to answer as everyone will have their own thoughts on the matter; which is probably why this topic has been polarising, and continues to polarise the guitar community.

Perhaps we should take our cue from the performers and fans of other styles of music, and accept speed as an integral part of music – an integral part which works with many other parts to create a complete piece of music.