View Full Version : Speed Question

Jan-13-2006, 3:12pm
This is a portion of a message from another thread in this forum. I posted this as a new topic in order not to derail the other thread.

***If the people you are playing with like to play at speeds around 200-240bpm which is what I like to play fiddle tunes at, just practice at home with a metronome at those speeds.***

Granted, mileage may vary, but how long does it take for one to play cleanly at that speed?

After 17 months of playing mandolin, I can play a few songs cleanly at 200.

I was attending a jam, where the speeds were around 180-200, but I found myself playing too hard to keep up. Technique was horrible, planted my fingers too hard on the fretboard, etc. The quest for speed was doing me more harm than good.

I still attend the jams, but mostly play chop chords (have no problem doing chord changes at speed). I know speed isn't everything, but I'd sure like to know a time frame, even a very loose time frame of when I can expect to reach, those, what to me seem like blazing fast speeds.

Side note, not sure if this means anything, but I'm 59, and practice one hour each day, and play for two hours each day.


Jan-13-2006, 3:30pm
Since I started playing at 50 I kinda figured I'd never be another speed-demon from the git-go and look more for expression and tone in my playing than speed. Sure there are tunes I've played incessantly that can occasionally cook, but making speed picking a goal just isn't too realistic when yer old & slow, IMWO.

Jan-13-2006, 3:54pm
I'm with y'all. I'm 46, and been playing mando for about 5 years, but only trying to learn lead fiddle tunes for about the last 4 months. I can sit at home with "Band In A Box", and burn up some fiddle tunes, but then get out in a jam, and feel, look, and sound like a rank amateur(sp?).


Jan-13-2006, 4:40pm
I am 53 years old and also have problems keeping up at the fiddle jams. I was told that the trick is to not play all the notes #(if you are learning from a book) but pick a simple basic melody. In otherwords, its not necessary to pick all those #running scales and arrpeggios. I now put in a few tremolos, fills,and licks into the music as I chord with the rhythm section (guitar/bass).

You don't have to play the song note for note or play all the time, also #become part of the background to the music, as rhythm and backup, and add a little spice instead. In our fiddle jams, no one does a break, only a kick offbefore the whole gruop starts in. So learn a few kick offs (and endings) to start (or finish) the song if you're called on. Mostly the one who chooses the song #does the kick off in our group. YMMV at other jams.

Jan-13-2006, 5:45pm
I have been playing for just over 3 years, from day one I have played with my two best friends(one plays guitar and one plays piano and a little bass). So I learned how to play with people fairly quickly. My best friend who plays the guitar and I can sit down and just start playing about anything and we know exactly where one another is going with the song. That type of playing takes a long time of playing with the same people. As far as speed goes, we would push each other to the limit everyday and our speed began to increase everytime we played together.

Playing with speed in front of people comes with practice. The difference of playing by yourself or with a "band in a box" and playing with a group of people is that playing with yourself and "band in a box" is predictable and you know exactly whats going on. A lot of times you are trying to listen what everyone is playing and everything that is going on and you get caught trying to concentrate to hard. Just relax and let it happen. If you playing something that is not as good as you think you are able...who cares, it's not like your life depends on it or anything.

Jan-14-2006, 4:35am
i went to bed last night thinking about this question and woke up no wiser but just as prejudiced against speed playing as before.

i can see that playing at speed shows terrific command of the instrument but it indicates - at least to me ... this is just an opinion, by the way - little concern for the song.

we live in melodo-phobic times - or melody made to a formula (nashville, in particular) - so speed may be used to get the "tag" out of the way as fast as possible before launching into the "really good" bits - more often than not at full-tilt, ear-splitting volume.

it's exhausting, for one thing and mind numbing - one number sounds pretty much like another ... cacophonous. #

i've got a cheapy bluegrass cd with bill monroe playing "i traced her little footsteps in the snow" and judging by the speed with which he plays it, i would guess that the girl in question lit out of that cabin like a shot - hotly pursued by bill and the boys with all the frenetic urgency of a pack of hounds.

'course, you know ... i'm pushing 60. that could be it.

Jan-14-2006, 1:26pm
It seems to me that starting a song off too fast is better/more acceptable than starting off too slow. In neither case do people adjust tempo sad to say.
A good jam has people who set reasonable tempos, fast enough to enjoy the energy of the tune, yet not so fast as to lose detail.

Ken Sager
Jan-14-2006, 3:10pm
Speed is a byproduct. By itself, speed is useless. Just play the music, feel it, and infuse it with everything you are at that moment.

Jan-14-2006, 3:42pm
Exactly, thats kind of what I was trying to get after. Speed actually is a byproduct and it comes naturnally if you just let it happen. The more to just practice technique, playing with others, and learning new material you will begin to develope speed and you won't even know it. I found early on the harder I tried to obtain speed, the further I was finding myself to my goal.

I think people tend to forget how long their idols or favorite musicans have been playing. Take Chris Thile for example, when he came out with Leading Off he was like 11 or so and just really ripped through some tunes. But he had been playing for like 6 years or so, so it wasn't like he just picked up the mandolin and was able to play that fast from the get go.

If you really want to work on something that helps speed, work on timing. If you can't time your left hand to your right at 180bpm, why do you want to try at 200? A good exercise I find is to play a tune and speed up and slow down several times during the tune. This will helps to time your hands together.

Jan-15-2006, 7:28am
Thanks to all for your thoughts and comments, they have been most helpful in putting some perspective back into my playing. I think I was letting one bad jam experience influence my thinking.

I have always strived to produce the best tone I could, and really didn't think about speed, knowing, in time it would come. Perhaps I'm at a point in my playing where I'm getting good enough to play with others (jams, etc.), and pushing myself a little to hard.

In fact, during some breaks from playing in the jam session several of the players made comments about how sometimes the melody and the feel of a tune gets lost when played at breaknet speed. I agree. Often a tune is reduced to a flurry of notes, with no character or guts.

As in all things, I'm sure there is some middle ground.

Thanks again. You've all helped me more than you know.

Jan-15-2006, 11:09pm
I'm 44 and just started playing about 8 months ago and I actually like the slower songs. I can "play it purty" and not have to feel like I am "working" to get the speed required for faster tunes. At this point I am not sure if the 200's will ever be in my future but I don't care I am having a ball just pickin'

on a side note I have noticed my Soldiers Joy keeps getting faster every week I play, maybe there is hope.


Jan-18-2006, 12:10pm
Coming at it from a different perspective, that of a classically trained viola/violin player making the foray into the mando sphere, here is a tip I find very helpful in building agility for speed: make time in your practice routine to devote to playing at a seriously pianissimo level. I discovered this quite by accident, but it really does work. It forces you to use a very small (tiny) picking motion. Imagine there is someone in the next room sleeping, and you don't want to wake him or her up. #Practice whatever you are learning as quietly as humanly possible, and get it as fast as you could when playing it loudly. For a while, it might be a little more difficult to play all the notes as cleanly, but keep at it. Soon you should easily be able to get it even faster than before, because of the smaller motions required. Then when you bring it up to a regular volume level again, your muscle memory should have retained a great deal of valuable input concerning economy of movement. Perhaps some of it has even carried over subconsciously to your left hand at the same time, and if so, that's even better. #

Oh yeah, and this has a great side benefit - being able to play without waking up the person in the next room. ;-) So often, I read that people want to acquire another "quiet" instrument for playing in hotel rooms and such. It's really not necessary, once you learn to play your normal instrument(s) quietly. #


Jan-18-2006, 3:58pm
I have been playing over 3 years now, and 200 BPM has magically become not only possible, but relatively easy to maintain. It has taken an entire year devoted to nothing but the right hand and working with the metronome to do it, and as a result my repertoire has stagnated with the same 5 songs played well, and another 30 down rudimentarily. Over the next year, I am going to focus on bringing those up to speed and adding new tunes.

Coy Wylie
Jan-18-2006, 6:59pm

It's likely "jam freeze" is your problem. If you can play comfortably at home but not in a jam it probably has more to do with your nerves than your ability. Because you are nervous about others listening to you play, you tense up, especially in your right hand. You might even tend to play a little harder in order to be heard and that compounds the problem. To over come this you must relax your muscles but that will only come with time and experience which will build confidence in your playing.

One thing is certain, if you don't get out and play with others often, you won't ever learn to relax and gain confidence. Most jam partners are more concerned about their playing than yours anyway, so don't worry. Just play. If you crash sometimes this means you are human like the rest of us.

If you play it, it will come.

Jan-19-2006, 4:16pm
"Pocket" and tone are more important than speed. Work on it but your better off playing something correctly at a slower speed than slopping through something too fast.

Michael H Geimer
Jan-19-2006, 5:02pm
I'm 35, been for playing 3 years, and am right about at the 200bmp level on average.

I still suffer from 'Jam Freeze' in a big way ... grip of death and all that.

I think Speed by itself is overrated, and get's more attention than it deserves, but there is also something about hearing a tune played both fast *and* relaxed that helps create the Old-Timey/Bluegrass sound. e.g. Norman Blake ain't exactly a slowpoke! He is however, melodic and tastefull and easy-going even at those breakneck speeds. Same can be said of Doc.

So, I focus my efforts on the relaxation part, rather than the speed part and it's working ... albeit slowly.

Melody remains my Prime Concern ... because without one, you've got nothin'! Speed is something I desire mostly because I want better control over embellishements, and because I want to sound more like my Heroes ... who do play quite fast, in addition to playing sweet, and from the heart.

- Benig

Critical Path
Jan-21-2006, 11:52am
I seem to have 4 levels of playing: best, by myself practicing at home; better, rehearsing with our band; good, playing in public; passable, jamming. My goal is to narrow the range in differences in speed and tone.

In my case some of the problem may be that, as band leader and primary lead singer, when we're rehearsing or playing I have more to think about that when I'm just focusing on playing mandolin. I suspect I would be a better player in public if I didn't sing and was a sideman.

I get frustrated with jamming because I don't know a lot of the canonical BG songs, having focused primarily on the material that our band performs.

Jan-22-2006, 3:05am
make time in your practice routine to devote to playing at a seriously pianissimo level. I discovered this quite by accident, but it really does work.
That's an excellent recommendation. I tried it and it is very helpful. Limiting motion is ceratinly one of the steps to speed.

I'm 61, and hadn't picked up a mandolin in over ten years up until two months ago. When I first started playing again, I couldn't even find the strings or the frets, although I had been working pretty hard at playing fiddle for the previous six or eight months. I never was much of a mandolin player.

Currently, I'm playing fiddle tunes comfortably on the mandolin at around 230 - 240 BPM. I can play the same tunes comfortably on the fiddle at 270 - 280, although I don't practice that fast, nor perform that fast. It's really nice to have that reserve, so you can put some expression into your playing, and also have time to pay attenion to what's going on around you.

The way I got there on both fiddle and mandolin is to practice slow and clean, frequently with a metronome or Band In A Box. I practice slow enough to be able to stay right on the beat and to play cleanly. I speed up only as it becomes comfortable. I work on several tunes at a time, and I also do scales, broken scales, and other exercises in all the keys I play in, and I practice tunes I know well in other keys. Since I've been playing a lot of BG and old Country songs, there's a lot of stuff in Bb and Eb, and even Db in the case of some Johnny Cash songs.

Just playing the same old tunes over and over isn't practice. You have to focus on specific objectives. Guaranteed, a half hour of focused, planned practice is more help than two hours of messing around. That being said, I do lounge around with the mando when I get too tired to fiddle, just getting used to the string and fret locations, like a kid who's always messing with a basketball, even when he's not consciously practicing. It helps to get your muscles and nerves accustomed to the feel of the instrument. I need to start practicing chord variations and progressions next, so that the closed chord positions become automatic.

That's about all I know, but it has worked for me. I've been playing AT fiddle and mandolin off and on for years, but it's taken less than six months of focused, consistent practice to actually become almost a player (green belt?) If I can do it with my limited talent, I expect most anybody else can, too. It takes work to be sure, but it's fun work, and very satisfying.

Jan-23-2006, 5:49am

I think you are right about "jam freeze". I went to a slow jam last Thursday and just relaxed, and everything was fine.

Turns out, the slow jam wasn't so slow after all. There were only four people, one of them being the owner of the store where the jam is held, who is also my mandolin mentor.

I started off Old Joe Clark in a medium tempo, and when the tune came to him, he kicked up the tempo (as a challenge to me) to what is usually played on Tuesday evenings. When the tune came back to me, I was able to keep up with no problems.

The lesson learned was that nervousness, really does hamper playing.

Thanks again to everyone for all the great replies and tips.