There has been some discussion on this topic lately over on the Banjo Hangout, so I thought it would be a good time to say a few words about the issue of speed in learning to play the banjo. As all of you know, one of Murphy's mantras is "speed is not important." And that is absolutely true. When you're learning a song, speed should be the last thing you think about. The rolls, licks, phrases, chords, kickoff, and ending all come before speed. But as some point, all students begin to wonder, when am I ever going to be able to play fast?
Thing #1 -- It takes a long time to build up your speed. One of the quickest ways to screw up your playing is to try to speed up too soon. It will make your playing sloppy, your picking inaccurate, your timing irregular, and it's a blue burning hell to go back and fix later.
As Murphy has previously written about, the average speed for moving through the lessons on our DVDs is one song per month. When you've worked on a song for a month and are preparing to move on to the next lesson, that first tune is not going to be up to speed. It will still be slow. Some people think that each song should be up to speed before moving on to the next one. Absolutely not. You are ready to move on to the next song when you can play the first song
- in time
- all the way through without stopping to think
- at least five times in a row, without stopping in between repeats
- preferably along with the Slow Jam DVD.
As you progress through each DVD (I'm thinking of the Beginning Banjo and Misfits discs here, but it really applies to any of them) you'll amass a repertoire of slow-to-medium tempo versions of the songs. The earlier ones will sneak up in tempo without you even noticing it, so long as you keep practicing them.
Thing #2 -- Always keep practicing all of your old material. As you keep adding new tunes, remember to play through each of your old tunes. Ideally you'd play everything daily. Realistically you should aim for three or four times a week. The longer you have known something, the faster it will get, even if you don't think it's getting any faster.
Thing #3 -- The number one best way, and possibly the only way, to really gain speed is by playing with other people. No other experience gives you that same surge of adrenaline that will make your fingers move faster than you think they can. But, again, I refer you back to Thing #1. Do not pursue speed at the expense of clarity in your playing. Hoo boy, will you regret it later!
As someone who was taught by Murphy to play clean and slow many years ago, then sacrificed that for speed and always learning new songs, other instruments, etc. after that, this post hits home pretty hard! Trying to unlearn all the bad habits I’ve developed has been more challenging than any new material could possibly be at this point. Great topic.
Thank you for this advice!