It’s incredibly important for guitar players to build up proper levels of speed and stamina. If you don’t, you’ll quickly find yourself in a rut. Even worse, most guitarists develop bad habits to compensate. Poor or sloppy technique will not only make you sound amateurish, it can actually lead to the development of some pretty nasty health issues.
If speed and stamina is something that you find yourself struggling with as a guitar player, be sure to be serious when you address it. If you take private guitar lessons, speak with your instructor about it, or if you’re a TrueFire Student, be sure to check out our vast library of online guitar courses. In particular, Bruce Arnold’s Guitar Physiology Survival Guide is focused on teaching you to approach your instrument in a healthy and sustainable way, and that’s the first thing you should consider when you want to increase speed and/or stamina.
The three tips below will either help you progress your speed and stamina. These tips are not going to instantly transform your technique, and they’re not enough to fix whatever issues you’re experiencing on their own. However, they’re easy to do and they really will help speed up the process.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: These are the things I did when I was facing this issue. This is not a clickbait article. The following tips are all advice I was given by musicians I trust and respect, and if they worked for me odds are that they’ll help some of you as well.
1. You Don’t Have a Choice About Warming Up, You Just Have a Choice About How You Do It
There’s this idea that warming up is an optional part of being a guitar player. In reality, the muscles and tendons in your arm and hand don’t function at peak efficiency when they’re first engaged.
It may feel alright to play without doing warm-up exercises first, but really your muscles aren’t quite ready to be used to their full potential. You may not really feel it, but you will compensate for this while you play. This can cause your picking hand or elbow to tighten up, which in turn will reduce your stamina. It will also reduce flexibility in the affected areas, which in turn will significantly cut your speed.
So keep in mind that doing warm up exercises is a choice, but having a warm up period is not. This is why doing a few warm up exercises before you start playing is important. It allows your muscles to acclimate to playing, and it helps reduce stress and fatigue. Thankfully, properly warming up really doesn’t take all that long. If you dedicate 10 minutes before you start playing to warming up you should notice results pretty quickly provided that you don’t have any significant issues with your technique.
2. Learn Your Limits
Though it may be counter-intuitive, practicing too much is significantly worse for you as a musician than practicing too little. Getting to the point where you can play for several hours at a time is a gradual process, and you have to be mindful of the limits of your body.
Remember: practice doesn’t make perfect – only perfect practice makes perfect! Be sure to check out Jeff Scheetz’s Smart Practice for Guitar for some ingenious tips on how to practice correctly and how to create a regimen that works best for you.
This is way easier when you first start out because you don’t have any calluses. Most beginners can only stand to play for 15 to 20 minutes at a time because if they play for longer than that their fingers start to hurt. However, once you get past that point it can be a bit harder to tell when you should stop for the day.
I was always advised to stop playing as soon as I noticed pain or stiffness in any part of my arm, hand, or wrist. However, once you get to that point you’re already doing damage to your body. Instead, ideally you’re going to want to stop way before it gets to that point.
Generally, pain or stiffness is caused by a flaw in technique, though it can also be caused by overworking the muscles in your hand or arm. Chances are that if you notice any uncomfortable sensations within 20 to 30 minutes of picking up a guitar you have an issue that needs to be addressed in regards to how you play. However, if you find yourself with pain or stiffness after playing for a period longer than an hour or two it’s more likely that you’re just overdoing it.
To avoid this, take a 15 minute break for every hour that you play and never play for more than three hours in a given day until you’ve been playing for several years. Taking a break every hour gives you a chance to check if you’re feeling any pain or stiffness, and avoiding playing for more than three hours per day will help you avoid issues caused by consistent overplaying.
Recognizing the physical signs of overworked muscles is key if you want to keep progressing in a healthy and sustainable way. There are thousands of musicians who ignored the warning signs of their body and found that by the time they hit their 40s they physically couldn’t play anymore. Don’t let this happen to you.
Overplaying or playing with poor technique will damage your muscles, which in turn will keep them from operating from their full potential. If you feel like you’ve already hit this point, the best thing you can do is take a break from the guitar for a couple of weeks. Give your body some time to heal, the difference in your playing when you come back might surprise you.
3. Set Up Your Instrument So That It Works for You Instead of Against You
A proper set up is a key part in increasing your speed and stamina. If the action of your guitar is too high you’re never going to be able to play to your full potential. Same thing goes if the string gauge you use is too heavy. While it might seem a bit overwhelming at first, you can actually teach yourself to set up your own instruments cheaply and quickly. The only tools you really need are an Allen wrench, a set of jeweler screwdrivers, and an electric tuner.
Generally, most of what you need to know to set up a guitar can be learned online in an afternoon. There are a ton of YouTube tutorials and articles dedicated to teaching beginners how to set up their instrument. It’s a bit overwhelming when you first start, but so long as you take your time and read/watch the materials carefully you’ll do fine. It’s something that 99% of guitar players teach themselves how to do, and there’s no reason you can’t do the same.
If you have a guitar with more serious issues, don’t hesitate to take it to a competent guitar tech. In the vast majority of situations you’re likely to run into with a fairly new guitar (anything made within the last 15 years or so) you really shouldn’t expect to pay more than $100 for a professional quality set up. Which while that is a serious expense for some of you, it really will pay off in the long run.
Wrapping It All Up
While building speed and stamina is important, don’t let it get to you. There’s no such thing as an overnight fix when it comes to stuff like this, so instead of stressing out about it learn to get satisfaction from the progress that you do make. Playing the guitar should be fun, so don’t sweat the small stuff. Focus on enjoying yourself and everything else will fall into place.
Do you have any additional tips for guitar players regarding building speed and stamina? Please share them in the comments!
Article by Mason Hoberg
Photo by Gavin Whitner