As some of you are aware, this year I'm studying for my LLCM diploma in teaching, and as part of the written element of the course, applicants are required to analyse the styles of three prominent electric guitarists. I've chosen Zakk Wylde amongst others, as he's long been a hero of mine due to his brutal, take-no-prisoners playing style – no fancy tapping or sweeping, no poncy exotic scales, just minor pentatonic, furious alternate picking and vibrato performed with the kind of ferocity that could choke a tiger.
Now Zakk's other big passion in life is weightlifting, and it occurs to me as I researched a little deeper that the the one can influence the other. Lifters take a variety of approaches to reach peak strength just as guitar players do to reach and improve peak speed and accuracy. Lifting coaches (yes, I've read up on this) talk about three types of strength – maximum strength, endurance strength and explosive strength, and we can relate this to speed when playing guitar (for convenience's sake, when I talk about speed, I include accuracy as a given – speed without accuracy is just noise, lots of wrong notes played fast is worth far less than one single right note played slowly).
So - Maximum strength for lifters = maximum speed for guitar players.
This can be developed by focusing on two separate paths. Explosive or burst speed and endurance speed. Let's use the spider exercise as a simple example. Suppose your maximum “safe” speed – i.e. with no wrong notes, no notes fluffed and hands perfectly synchronised – is sixteenth notes at 120bpm. If 120 bpm is the fastest you can do it, it will stay the fastest you can do it until you've learned to think and play more quickly. Sitting on 120bpm for multiple repetitions will build solid endurance technique, helping you to get better playing the exercise at that speed – no amount of repetition alone will help you get quicker. For that, we'll need to push the boundaries.
Play the exercise for thirty seconds or so continuously at your maximum safe speed. Then crank the tempo up by 5-10 bpm and just for a few repetitions play absolutely flat out, keeping the speedup even if you fluff some of the notes. This is explosive or burst speed.Then, before exhaustion or cramps set in, return the metronome, this time to 121bpm – just 1 bpm higher than your original safe endurance speed. Having trained your fingers briefly to push past their natural maximum, it's now easier to play at this new maximum speed.
This type of practicing builds speed very quickly – for example, play the same exercise every day for a week, and theoretically you will gain an extra 7bpm maximum speed. Within a month you could be looking at a gain of 30bpm! In practice, gains will likely be smaller as the faster you get, the more difficult it becomes to add speed (the law of diminishing returns), but it is a great way of significantly improving your maximum speed and accuracy. Practice using small scale fragments and patterns to begin with before branching out into longer ideas, and always remember to respect your fingers - “no pain, no gain” does NOT work with guitar playing!