The Question of Speed

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Speed, speed, speed! Pretty much everybody wants it and nobody knows how to get it. And hardly anybody believes me when I say “Speed will come.” Oh, ye of little faith!

Here’s the email about speed that sparked this blog. Thanks, Ken, for permission to use it.

You stress "don't worry about speed" and "get out there and jam". My wife and I both have much difficulty getting the metronome over 120 or so cleanly. I can play the usual tunes, such as Foggy Mountain Breakdown, Cripple Creek, Cumberland Gap, Wildwood Flower, Wandering Boy, etc., but despair of getting them to "crackle" like a good picker's play sounds. Do you have any thoughts on putting together a speed training video?

After telling him that, at present we had no thoughts about a speed training video, I asked for more info about his picking situation, including his age. I found out he has played classical, fingerstyle, and flatpicking guitar off and on for 40 years, as well as a little fiddle and piano. “More off than on,” he says. His best experience was playing in four different church guitar groups, mostly as rhythm backup. His wife just turned 74 and he will turn 70 this summer.
Banjo-wise he says,

I've been playing banjo seriously for about three years, but even that has been interrupted by long stints traveling. My wife has been playing for about two years with similar breaks for travel. She has no previous stringed instrument background. We've not included vamping back and forth with each other or with the other woman in our group. I'll start that our next session. That is a great tip.

They have not yet attended the local slow jam, but have been twice to a banjo camp. They do not have a private teacher, but have taken several community education classes from a local professional player. Furthermore he says,

As leader for our little group, I've emphasized clarity over speed (as you state) and all of us can keep a tune going several times with the metronome at about 80 to 100 beats per minute. We also include some time on various rolls, focusing on staying together with a metronome.  I have the sense that skill with tunes at 130 to 140 beats per minutes (I can do this, but the group cannot) should beget a somewhat quicker period of time to reach that pace with each new tune.  We average about 1/2 hour per day, but not every day. (I know...sigh).

Ken, Ken, Ken. I was thinking about you today and this thought came into my mind: “The metronome is not your friend.” (You might want to read my other blog about the dratted metronome!)

Why is the metronome not your friend? Because it tends to make you focus mostly (if not solely) on speed.

And here’s what I imagine most students are thinking. They get into their first (or second or third or fourth) jam situation and they find they can’t keep up. They think it’s because they can’t play fast enough. They think speed is what they need. That if they can just play faster, they can keep up in the jam.

But this, I’ve come to believe, is where they are wrong. It’s not just about speed. It’s about every aspect of the jam situation which includes:


Knowing your chord changes

Knowing how to keep going when you stumble

Knowing how to come back in if you get totally lost

Knowing how to improvise a bit when you get lost (just keep your fingers moving)

Knowing how look up to see if it’s your turn to play

Knowing how to pass the break to someone else by looking up when you get done

And perhaps, most of all, it’s about learning how to “hear” in a jam session when there is so much else going on around you.

When you can do all these things then you will be able to jam. And then it will be possible for speed to come because you won’t have to be worrying about all these other things.

Trying to build speed before you can do these other things is like a toddler trying to run before she can really toddle well! She just can’t do it. And neither can you!

I’m not saying speed isn’t part of the equation. Certainly it is. But nothing is gained—and much is lost—if you try to add speed too early.

Ken, I don’t feel like I’ve really answered your questions because you weren’t asking so much about jamming. But I think that if you start jamming in your little group—trading breaks, vamping, and trying to come back in smoothly—you’ll find that you don’t have time to worry about speed! And paradoxically, speed (at least some speed) will start to develop.

And what about this scenario: what if you had a player who really could play fast. Who could play Foggy Mountain Breakdown as fast as Earl. She could even play it that fast in front of other people. Whoo hoo! But here’s the rub: She could only play her individual songs fast. From beginning to end—fast. But she couldn’t play with other people because she didn’t know her vamp chords, and couldn’t trade breaks with other people. What have you got? In my book, not much of anything. To me, it’s all about playing with other people. And speed is just a minor part of that.

Take Casey’s excellent advice: Tape yourself today. Put the tape away and then listen to it in six months or a year. If you’ve kept up with your banjo playing, I think you will be surprised at how much you’ve improved. And at how much faster you can play!

8 thoughts on “The Question of Speed

  1. Arnie Fleischer

    Hi Murphy –

    I agree that the metronome may not be your friend if it’s used solely to focus on increasing your speed without attention to how your timing and tone are doing. But I also think the metronome can be a great friend if it’s used to focus on those critical “spaces between the notes.” No matter what style you’re working on – Scruggs rolls, single-string, melodic or your own amalgam – it can help you first to even out those spaces and then to add emphasis and syncopation if you want.

    Also, for what it’s worth, I realized a while ago that one key to increasing speed without getting sloppy is not to rush your left hand positioning. You always have more time than you think to get your fingers where they need to go.

  2. martha carlton

    I agree wholeheartedly with what Murphy has to say about speed and the metronome. I have always YEARNED to be able to play faster. It may be that I will never be able to play really fast. All of the things that Murphy mentioned are going on in a jam. Fortunately, the groups that my husband and I play with are kind enough to allow me to play some of my tunes at less than breakneck speed. And, I think my speed is gradually increasing.

    As far as the metronome is concerned, a fine banjo player recently suggested that I try to use the metronome and/or a drum machine.
    I tried using an old metronome that I had. It was awful. I also tried using a loud metronome that I had on a digital piano. That was a disaster too. I have some theories as to why I failed when it came to using the metronome. But, I think I will continue to follow the advice of Murphy and Casey and to use their examples for practicing.

  3. Martin Bacon

    The problem with metronomes like good bass players is that they don’t seem able to keep in time with me either:)

  4. Steve (in Japan)

    Man-o-man, Marty said it right. Dern them there metronomes! If they can’t keep in time with you, what good are they for?

  5. Cap Spence

    “Speed is not important when you are learning to play the banjo.” – Murphy Henry.

    I quote you every year to the Super Bowl Halftime Show volunteer stage crew. (Ask Casey) The banjo, like the SB Halftime Show, is not AT ALL about speed. It is about precision. It is about doing the same thing, as best as you can, as often as you can. As a result of this precision (solely, I submit), one becomes a good banjo player AND a fast banjo player, (or Halftime Show Staging Supervisor) as a desirable side effect. (Hey, at least i’m fast at one of them).

    Anyway, if one reaches only for speed by just playing faster, a condition I call “speeding” occurs. Speeding is, regardless of tempo, playing faster than one can play well. The result? Really fast, poorly played banjo. (Think of it. We all know the feeling and, unfortunately, the sound as well.)

    Speed is a side effect of playing the banjo well. It is a direct result of precision and timing. Get a smooth right hand, as that is the engine which drives the 5-string. The more one plays, the better one becomes…and sooner. Okay, and faster, too.

  6. Murphy

    Well said Cap! Wonderfully put! Thanks! And I am honored to be quoted as you are working up the Super Bowl Halftime Show.

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