The Table Tap Test
For trial and error to work, you need to attempt the target activity at or near the speed at which you intend to use it.
So the first thing we need to determine is what those speeds are likely to be. The good news is that speed in this context is relative. Everyone can play fast enough to learn what efficient “fast” playing feels like, even if you’re completely new to guitar.
A Test Of Two Taps
You can convince yourself of this with a simple test. Clear off a section of your kitchen table and get ready. When we say “go”, you’re going to tap on the table at a medium speed for one whole minute straight. Don’t go so fast that you can barely make it without burning fatigue. Instead, just choose a moderate speed that you think will feel relaxed and comfortable for the entire one-minute duration.
And don’t use a metronome for this. Learning to determine what motions feel like is a core skill we need to develop. So you can consider this your first assignment in kinesthetic awareness.
Which tapping motion did you choose? Does it look like the one in this clip?
( wrist )
This is wrist flexion and extension, or wrist “FE”. It’s an ingredient in many common guitar picking motions. If you didn’t choose wrist FE, you might have chosen this one:
( elbow )
This is elbow flexion and extension. Elbow FE is another common guitar motion, and also happens to be one of the fastest guitar picking motions we have filmed.
If you were able to complete this test before watching the clips and with no specific instruction about which motion to use, you can now tap yourself on the back: your trial and error biomechanics are working just fine.
Now imagine that the taps are actually downstrokes. Doubling that speed gives us your “comfortably moderate” alternate picking speed:
( “moderate” instructional video taps )
You may now want to do a little stretching and swig some coffee. Because for test two, you’re going to tap as fast as you can, all-out, for at least three seconds. It doesn’t matter how much longer than that you can go. We just want to get a reading over a short minimum time. Remember, to play three full seconds, you actually have to count to four. At all-out exertion, this is more time than you think!
( max taps )
Double this tapping speed is your maximum alternate picking speed:
(speed kills or MAB tape)
Realistic Guitar Speed
The point of these tests is that these two speeds approximate, more or less, the range in which high-speed guitar playing form is still possible. In other words, while maximum guitar practice speed is dictated by your physical abilities, there is a minimum speed below which it gets harder for everyone to reproduce their high-speed form.
That’s the point where an expert might alter their technique to something less streamlined. And that’s the lower bound of the range at which you should practice. Any slower than this, and you’re into the territory of making unnatural robot movements that won’t teach you what realistic playing feels like.
How Fast Is Fast?
Like the rule of thumb that benchmarks maximum heart rate as “220 minus your age”, the taps tests are just an approximate. Table tapping is an activity you can probably already do pretty well, and that uses some of the same joints and muscles you might use in guitar picking. So the tests are a quick way to give you a ballpark estimate of your current physical guitar playing limits.
While these limits may be slightly different for everyone, if you check both of these tempos on a metronome, you’ll probably find that they overlap the range that elite guitarists also go. The reason you’re so good at table-tap Olympics is that you already have lots of inadvertent training in it from years of typing, clapping, knocking on doors, chopping onions, air drumming, and more, all learned through — you guessed it — trial and error.
So a lot of the worry about picking speed, and the constant drilling and pushing to get it, is misplaced. Most people already have enough raw speed to play impressive things. They just don’t have the coordination to make the unfamiliar movements required by guitar technique. While you’re developing that coordination, it may feel like you’re getting faster, but all you’re really doing is repurposing athletic ability you already possess.