Tag Archives: speed

Murphy Henry

I’ve been teaching a long time now, and I like to think that over time I’ve developed a certain amount of patience that I perhaps did not have in my younger years. If people don’t practice, I can live with that. We all lead busy lives. As I tell the students, “We’ll practice in the lesson. I just want you to keep playing.” If people need to cancel lessons or switch them around, I can deal with that. In the old days, you booked your slot and if you didn’t show, tough stuff. (Cleaned that up for the blog!)

But there is one thing that still irks me: Someone is learning a tune. They don’t quite have it. They are playing it for me. They mess up. They play that part again, they mess up again. They try again. They still mess up. So far I’m TOTALLY OKAY with all of this. I know they are learning and that messing up is part of the process. Then they say the dreaded words: “Let me try it faster. I can play it better if I do it faster.” ARRRGGGHHH!! No, you can’t! It does not sound better faster! It sounds worse. It's just that the mistakes you were making go by faster, so you can pretend you didn’t hear them. Nothing is gained. Much is lost.

Usually nowadays, I let the student try the song faster. Then when it falls apart, I suggest that now we slow it down and try again. Some get the message, some don’t. Sometimes it’s like that movie Groundhog Day. We just keep doing the same thing over and over. They come in playing fast, I try to slow them down.

I have a new student whose attitude I just adore. (He doesn’t know I’m blogging about him either....) He’s only on his third song (Cumberland Gap) and this is what I love: when he makes a mistake he stops and plays the song more slowly! I didn’t tell him to do this, he just automatically does it. His playing sounds excellent! Clean, clear, crisp, in good time. All these things you gain when you play it slow, and learn it right.

I’m not saying that you should never try to play fast. Of course you should. That’s part of the fun. And sometimes playing fast can help you get a sense of the song and how all the licks fit together. But you should never think that playing it fast is going to fix your mistakes. It will not. It only allows you to slop over them.

So, my advice is, if you’re having trouble with part of a song slow it down, slow it down, slow it down. In the long run, you will learn the song faster, and eventually be able to play it faster. Slow leads to fast, but fast leads to sloppy playing and bad timing.

Now, I’m gonna go get my breakfast.....

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!

Casey Henry

Casey Henry

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

  1. in time
  2. all the way through without stopping to think
  3. at least five times in a row, without stopping in between repeats
  4. 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!