Learn to Play Guitar:
Right-hand Technique, The Need For Speed

One of the most common questions I get from my new guitar students is “When will I be able to play faster?” and from veteran guitar players “What can I do to improve my speed?” While I like to respond that speed is a product of practice and familiarity with the instrument and the particular song, there are techniques that the pros use to increase their speed that anyone can learn.

There are certain techniques for both left and right hand that will help improve speed but in this article we’re going to investigate those available to the right hand since this is where most players need help. A lot of people, especially new students, simply play with their bare fingers, without the aid of picks, usually with the thumb. The method they use is to stroke downward with the edge of the thumb, which seems like the most natural playing style. From experience I can tell you that if you do enough of that, you’ll get a blister on your thumb you won’t believe, and your playing will still be fairly slow and limited. However, there are a number of pros that play primarily with their bare fingers (not just the thumb) such as Mark Knopfler, formerly of Dire Straits fame, and Kevin Eubanks, formerly with The Tonight Show Band. Both of these seasoned pros are, no doubt, capable of using every right-hand technique in the book, but seem at home with bare fingers for the most part. This particular technique uses the thumb to pick downward and two or more other fingers, index, middle, and ring, to pick upward. Obviously the speed possible from using more than just the thumb is evident. The perfect example is Knopfler’s “Sultans of Swing” guitar showpiece. Check it out for some barehanded inspiration. The right hand can also be used in a somewhat closed position to strum a group of strings downward and upward using the backs of the fingernails.

The next most common picking technique for the right-hand is the single guitar pick whether a small flatpick, sometimes called a jazz pick, or the standard flatpick The simplest way to use one of these picks is for downward picking, which most beginners already know, and for strumming all or a group of strings when playing rhythm. One of the first things I teach students in order to help them increase their speed is to learn PICK IN BOTH DIRECTIONS. If you don’t currently play bi-directionally, it can feel pretty uncomfortable and slow to implement. But once mastered your speed can more than double. A great example of this style of playing taken to extreme is the “flatpicking” styles of bluegrass guitar players. Even to other veteran guitar players the speed achieved by some of the pro players in this genre is utterly amazing. Generally “flatpicking” is done on an acoustic guitar with fairly heavy strings making it all the more difficult. Most of the pro flatpickers I know use a fairly heavy standard sized pick made of plastic or tortoise shell and most have their own preferences that they swear by. Regardless, achieving the speed of most successful flatpickers takes years of practice and familiarity with the song and the instrument. Listen to bluegrass veteran Tony Rice for a bewildering lesson in the art of warp-speed flatpicking. If bluegrass guitar is your choice of musical genre, be prepared to spend much of your life practicing this challenging art and skill.

The next most common style of right-hand technique is the use of the thumbpick. This particular technique is fairly straight forward when used by itself. The thumb picks downward across one or more strings when creating a melody or rhythm pattern. A more sophisticated use of the thumbpick involves alternating bass notes with the thumbpick while playing melody or fill notes with one or more other fingers picking upward. This technique is sometimes referred to as “Travis picking” named after guitarist Merle Travis who is often credited with it’s creation and who used the style extensively.  To hear this style of playing taken to the pinnacle of beauty and execution listen to the music of guitar legend Chet Atkins.

And finally, one of the most common right-hand techniques used today is the combination of a flatpick, held between the thumb and the index finger, and the alternate use of the middle and ring fingers. To see this style in action watch players such as the incredible Brad Paisley,  Vince Gill, Brent Mason, or Johnny Hiland. Once you’ve listened to Brad Paisley’s “Mr. Policeman” you’ll probably find you’ve discovered the ultimate technique to satisfy your need for speed. This technique is not reserved strictly for country players either. Watch Eric Clapton or John Mayer for a lesson in this multi-finger style in the blues and rock genres. I’ve heard from a number of professional players that the adaptation of this style of playing came, in part, from the multi-finger style used by bluegrass banjo players. And indeed some particular phrases mimic the “rolls” ( three-finger patterns ) used by bluegrass banjo players. While it’s uncommon to see guitarists using a combination of thumbpick and metal or plastic fingerpicks that bluegrass banjoists use, the technique and resulting increase in speed is comparable. A hot banjo player can blast out anywhere from 10-12 notes per second. If you need more speed than that try coming back as a hummingbird in your next life.

Now, back to my original statement regarding speed; there is no substitute for consistent and regular practice of your chosen style to improve your speed. Remember that playing cleanly and tastefully is by far more important than speed. If you can’t do it cleanly and with taste, no amount of speed will rescue your performance. Sloppy speed is just….sloppy playing. Take your time and learn to execute these techniques cleanly and effectively. Speed will come over time. It may be particularly helpful to buy a good metronome and use it to “push” yourself to faster and faster speeds, keeping in mind that playing cleanly is always the first priority. Above all, enjoy your practice and your performances. It’s a lifetime commitment.

Don’t forget the left-hand speed techniques. We’ll cover those in an upcoming article. Keep on picking.


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Bob Buford, Instructor
Summertown Music

EMAIL: Producer@SummertownStudios.com