I’ve had the great fortune of learning the guitar from amazing teachers, one of which was Julian Gray, who taught me something truly profound about playing this instrument: you can only play as fast as you can relax.

It makes sense when you stop to think about it. To play fast, you need to fire off a lot of muscle movements with great precision. To achieve this precision, you need to be limber. To be limber, you need to get tension out of your muscles. But when you fire off a muscle movement, that necessarily creates tension. So in order to stay limber, you need to be able to release the tension from your muscles as fast as it appears. If you can’t release the tension fast enough, it will accumulate, and eventually your muscles will be too tense to continue the high-precision movements needed for speed.

It’s intuitive, but I had never considered it, because it is completely opposite to the way I had approached speed in the past. I had always assumed that in order to achieve high speeds, I had to always be increasing the tempo; that I had to practice fast, to get my muscles comfortable with playing fast. Of course I knew that a gradual increase is good, and that you shouldn’t practice something faster than you can play it right. But I was wrong about what is “right”.

I mistakenly thought that “right” was playing it without mistakes. That was only partially true. Actually my “right” should have been playing it without mistakes and without tension. I was getting in my reps, starting slow and gradually increasing my tempo, but the whole time I was doing so with tension-filled hands. This why, after years of this, I still had not achieved that speed I heard from so many professional players.

I was bumping up against a low ceiling. During my time with Julian Gray I finally came to understand what I actually needed to do in order break through that ceiling. I needed to relax faster.

It was painfully obvious with a simple exercise: play one note, and time how long it takes to completely free your hand of tension. At first, it didn’t even seem possible. The tension would just sit there. I’d have to actually shake the hand, like shaking the water off of a wet rag, just to feel like the tension was gone. That, then, became my new practice: play a note, wait/shake/whatever until the tension is gone, rinse, repeat.

Eventually I got to the point where I could release the tension from my right hand without moving it from its normal position. But the practice technique didn’t change: play a note, wait for 0 tension, rinse, repeat. My scale practice went from the speed of the hare to the speed of the tortoise. But it worked! This was the secret weapon that I needed to finally “open the gates” and achieve the speed I had been working towards for so long.

I also found uses for it in the left hand. At the time I was playing classical mostly, and some pieces were downright tiring. Sections with a lot of barring and/or stretching, for example, would leave me with a strained and fatigued left hand. But with faster relaxation came new opportunities to release all that and start fresh. Instead of waiting to relax at the end of the section, I found I could relax in between notes, which effectively gave me unlimited left-hand stamina. I just needed a split second with the hand off the strings, and I could release the built-up tension and start anew.

So, long story short, playing fast is fine, but relaxing fast is more important. Have you tried this? Have you applied this to any other disciplines outside of music? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!