Jun 11

Breaking Plateaus on Guitar (the endless search for improvement)!


Edited: Aug 8




My take is there's always a way forward; however tough our problems look! Here's me addressing and hopefully conquering my long-term barriers, using Taplature of course! The ideas demonstrated here can be used to solve problems for all styles and levels of guitar! How do they relate to your own barriers?

Jun 11Edited: Jun 28

Sweep Picking - A long time challenge!


A month or so back I came across this one while flicking through my practice folder. It's an Am arpeggio played with sweep picking. A quick measurement without much of a warm-up suggested that it hadn't improved itself in the 10+ years since I'd last focused on it.


It's not the sort of thing I use too often although it had occasionally popped up in my playing since I first came up with the pattern in 2008. I figured I should be able to get some progress on it by now and so began a Taplature based investigation to find out for sure.



Breaking things down - Level 1


To the right is my measurement for "RH only" (right hand only). A great way to help find out where problems lie with complex patterns is to eliminate the left hand entirely. To do this we lightly mute out all the strings with the fretting hand but pick the same as if we are playing the full pattern.


For this example In Taplature the RH only looks like this,



... the dots between the pick stroke directions indicating when we use a sweep pick (rest stroke) for that note rather than a free stroke.


You can see that I could do the full pattern (with both left and right hands playing) faster than the right hand on its own. That's strange, and something I've noticed on other patterns too. For me it seems like the left hand drives the right; others have reported differently. Anyway, I figure that if I can improve the right hand speed in isolation it can't be a bad thing.



Zooming in further


Rather than jump in and simply bash away at things in the hope of improvement, I decided to apply some of the ideas I'd come up with using Taplature in the intervening years. In particular I'd be looking to apply them in conjunction with my 3 principles of guitar practice. Like most of you I'm a busy fellow and regular long practice sessions are a distant memory so it wouldn't be a case of hammering things in 4+ hour blocks, but rather looking for elegant, time-sparing solutions to my problems with this one.


Here's the page of deeper investigation I drew up along with their first measurements.



What I'm doing here is incredibly powerful in terms of seeing exactly where problems lie. Measuring the right hand part in isolation suggested that my problems with the full pattern lay with my right hand technique rather than my left. Here I've gone inside that to determine which part of the right hand pattern is the toughest.


On 7/5/19 I broke the RH pattern down into "1st half into 2nd" and the "2nd half into 1st". Hopefully where these come from is clear. What's certainly clear is that I was way better at "1st half into 2nd" than at "2nd half into 1st". This is unsurprising as down-strokes are easier than up-strokes for most of us (gravity is on our side and we use down-strokes more often).



What this means!

The take-away here is that I expect to get better at the full pattern (the big picture challenge at the top of this post) purely by getting better at the most awkward building block I've highlighted. You can see I've done that, taking its top speed from 125bm to 165bpm in a month. From memory that was probably 2-3 hours practice, certainly less than 4! I'll spend a little time later today revisiting the full right-hand pattern and see if things have paid off where it matters!


The bottom line consists of 4 further single beat break-downs and strongly related examples which comprised a big part of that practice. They're separated by dashes and each is measured below (1 per column). They're what I consider a "family" of patterns and practice can be kept efficient by focusing on the weakest of the family (in my case initially the one drawn out on beat 3). Usually by improving the weakest of them, the stronger ones are also pushed up. Watch this space to see if that's the case here!

This afternoon's work ...



Putting the two halves back together together (1st half into 2nd and 2nd half into 1st) I managed to get the whole to 150bpm, which I'm pretty pleased with considering it had been stuck at 100bpm for 7 years!


I'm pleased but not too surprised as I've been looking on and off over the last couple of years at some less obvious sweep picking in relation to Stevie Ray Vaughan's right-hand style.


Coming up ... my next challenge is to incorporate it back in with the left hand and see if I can finally beat the 110bpm that's been my glass ceiling for over 10 years!

Jun 27Edited: Aug 12



Update: I'm pleased to report I've been able to crack that long-time glass ceiling. Here's the full page of benchmarks which includes the one in question. You can see it's been sat gathering dust for quite a while!

Getting faster at guitarGetting faster at guitar
A guitar plateau - busted!


The long game


So, that took me over 10 years to get past (although it's not something I've focused on during that period as evidenced by the lack of measurements from 2008-2019)! After my initial investigations in 2008 I was pretty sure I'd get nowhere by bashing it and I didn't have as many tools at my disposal then as I do now. Breaking down the problem and defining exactly what needed improving helped to finally eke out the improvement needed to crack the 110bpm impasse.


Having always felt that my left hand would keep up with the right I've now disproven that fallacy. The right hand runs to 150bpm, but both hands together only make it to 120bpm. I'll keep this one in the picture for a while and see if staying with it offers any more improvement on the back of this notable breakthrough.

Jun 29Edited: Jul 13



On having another tinker with the sweep-picked pattern above I picked up on the awkwardness of the movement of my 2nd finger when jumping from the E string to the B string (both played at fret 8). It feels like the weakest point of the whole so I'm going to zoom in closer on that movement, looking in particular at a related pattern which I first examined 10 years ago:

The pattern above is taken from my practice folder and is one of my "family" of tests for left hand finger independence which I began compiling 15 years ago to use with students in lessons and which I call "Double Leapfrog". Fretting fingers 1 and 3 remain rooted on the B string while 2 & 4 jump over them between the E and G strings. (There's a typo in this, the original version; 1st and 3rd fingers are held down at frets 12 and 14, not 12 and 15. It is of course corrected in the downloadable collection and also written out in 16th, rather than 8th notes!)


I'd been playing guitar for 24 years the first time I tried this pattern and you can see I could only achieve a modest 105bpm that day (measured in 8th notes).



The Crossover


Although musically this pattern may have little in common with the main task at hand, the mechanics of moving finger 2 independently of fingers 1, 3 and (especially) 4 are common (and key) to both. This specialised test offers more focus on that skill so that's where my attention is going.


As noted in the boxes underneath, yesterday I tried it out and found no improvement to report in my top speed over the last 2.5 years. Not having tried it since then that comes as no real surprise. Let's see what happens once I re-familiarise with it!

Jul 13Edited: Jul 25



Busy month ... not a huge amount of time to practise but have managed probably 5-6 hours on the challenge at hand. I'm pleased to report progress on each of the 6 patterns in this family of tests (though most haven't been measured for many years). The 4th example shown below is the one discussed above.




Real Improvement!


You can see that for each of these my speed is way beyond where it was the first time I tried it out. What's of note is that in 2009 when I came up with the patterns, I had already been playing for 24 years!


When I first picked up a guitar in 1985 my top speed would most likely have been 0bpm (or as I like to write, "XXX" - can't do it yet!) and I'm very confident I'd have been able to reach my initial speeds long before 2009, most of that improvement coming by 1989.



Wasted Years?


Given that those suppositions are correct, here's a graph showing my progress over the last 34 years for the combination under discussion. Graphs for the other combinations in this collection would look eerily similar had I measured them as regularly!



I wonder how that graph would look if I'd had the same practice focus and understanding back in 1989 that I began developing around 2009! There's a pretty long guitar plateau on display over that 20 year period, and I must have logged in the region of 15,000 hours of practice along with the best part of 1,000 gigs during that time! You can see that all that effort did very little to improve this area of my technique (finger independence for guitar), which may not appear to be that relevant to my blues based style of playing but which I'm now without doubt is fully relevant to it, as it is to any other style of guitar you care to mention!


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