Building Speed

Whether you're already playing in a group or simply attending musical get-togethers, the ability to keep pace with others can often be a trying experience.

A common question for many beginners and even those with more experience is how you can build speed. It's not a simple solution but there are steps you can take to increase your proficiency at tempos currently beyond your reach.

Myth or Fact?

Myth: speed = drive.

Fact: good musicians can play at moderate tempos with a lot of feeling. They make the music sound exciting and too often that's mistaken for a fast tempo.

Myth: all good musicians can play fast.

Fact: many good musicians can play fast, but it's the ability to play with feeling that makes one a good musician, not speed.

Myth: fast bands are more exciting.

Fact: exciting bands play great music. Whether it's celtic, bluegrass, old-time, jazz or other style of music, an occasional up-tempo tune can be a crowd pleaser. Play two or more in a row in that style and the crowd will ache for something different.

Myth: if I practice with a metronome and crank it up a few notches every day I'll be playing like blazes in a few weeks.

Fact: If this really worked everyone would be doing it.

Be sure you know where you're coming from. Too many people strive for speed before good tone, timing and technique... a very, very dangerous recipe for a beginner.

Speed should be gained slowly along with good tone, timing and overall musicianship.

Before You Start

There are some simple steps you can immediately take that may improve your ability to play at faster tempos.

We've said it before: old strings, poor bridge set-up, worn frets, bad action, or the wrong kind of pick are all factors that have a negative impact on your playing ability.

What's going to work for you? That's your job to figure out. Don't be afraid to try different strings, different picks. You'll know right away when you hit on a good solution.

With some of these basic factors out of the way let's look at some tips for improving speed.

Practice Tips

  • Good technique needs to be developed at slower speeds. That will ultimately increase your effectiveness at higher speeds. We can't emphasis this point enough. Practice at a tempo you can handle and you'll be on the right track.
  • Know your material. Failure to really know and understand the music you're trying to play can be an enormous obstacle. If you're struggling with problem passages, slow them down and work on them until they become second nature. If you can't play it well at a slow tempo you shouldn't be attempting to play it any faster.
  • If used correctly, scales, arpeggios, and perpetual motion exercises can really help. Practice them at a slow and steady pace that allows you to connect with every note and every passage with the best tone you can possibly achieve. As you become comfortable allow yourself an increase in speed, but never to the point where it isn't comfortable.
  • Seek out exercises that will help you develop a new musical vocabulary. Everything new that is learned will ultimately contribute to your ability to play well. Learning to play in keys you're unaccustomed to working in should help you develop as a musician.
  • Find regular settings in which you can play live with others. There's simply no substitute for this experience and it will make you a better musician.
  • Never pass up a chance to play with great rhythm players. You'll learn a lot about your own musicianship when you do and you'll be amazed at how easy it is to play at a quicker pace with a good rhythm section.
  • Metronomes are great for timing and tempo practice. For starters set it at a pace slower than you'd ever dream of playing. If you can't do it there, you won't be doing it any better at a faster pace. Allow yourself an occasional increase in speed, but never to the point of discomfort.
  • Develop a practice schedule you can consistently maintain. Sitting down and "jamming" by yourself helps maintain great calluses but won't make you a better player. Strive for a routine that consists of 10-15 minutes a day of thoughtful and controlled exercises or scales followed by some fun time. That's a lot better than trying to cram a week's worth of practice into one afternoon a week.
  • Finally, there's simply no substitute for time behind the instrument. If spent well, it pays off. Go to a music convention or a festival for a few days and see how much better you're playing at the end (given the fact that you actually get it out of the case while there).

Have you noticed the pattern? The techniques presented for increasing your speed are really all about being a good musician. They're about really knowing your instrument and a thoughtful approach to your craft. Armed with that knowledge you're bound to find you can keep time with others. And with that out of the way you can focus more energy on the really important part... playing just the cool notes.

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