Speed

Mike writes:

I need to increase my speed. Can’t find videos on how to increase tempo. I know, just keep playing and it will come but I want it now. Any secrets?

Rocky II chicken

Some of the shortcuts I have seen people take in the hopes of obtaining greasy fast speed have been pretty weird. One old picker advised me to eat fried chicken and then go right to playing without washing my hands so that the chicken fat would make the strings slippery. Then there was the time a guy who gravely informed me, right after coming an inch from puking on my shoes, that the secret to playing fast was getting completely wasted – I should point out that the drunk did play fast, but in a completely separate key and rhythm from the rest of the group. On another occasion Dear Old Dad and I once saw a guy at a festival spraying his guitar neck with WD-40. I mean, he was just hosing the stuff on. When he saw the horrified expression on my face he said that he needed to grease up his strings to play fast . . .  I could go on for days with stories like this, but the bottom line is that there is no philosopher’s stone for playing fast.

I think that, as we learn the banjo, there are two stages of speed. There are no official names for this stuff, so let’s call them rehearsed speed and intuitive speed.

Rehearsed speed is when you memorize a song until you can play it at a breakneck pace. This sort of practice works on a superficial level, but it also limits your playing to a fairly short list of songs.

Intuitive speed is what you have when your skills develop to a point where the tempo doesn’t really matter any more.

We all start out working on rehearsed speed. Every beginner should have a couple of songs to work on for rehearsed speed. Coal Creek March, The White House Blues or Old Joe Clark were some of the tunes I memorized when I was starting out. Dear Old Dad will be quick to tell you that I had them rehearsed until I could play them obnoxiously fast. I also had slow songs on my practice sheets like Rosin The Beau and In The Pines.

I got a grip on my rehearsed speed too quickly. Once I realized I could play The White House Blues at insane speeds I decided that everything needed to be played fast. I got so comfortable playing fast that it drove Dear Old Dad crazy. He would actually scream at me to slow down at jam sessions.

After being a public menace speed demon for a while I slowly realized that fast wasn’t everything and started developing my phrasing skills. For a little while I has songs I would play fast or slow, but over time the differences started to matter less and less. As the years went by I eventually got to the point where I was just as comfortable playing fast or slow.

So my advice is to start simple and get your rehearsed speed under control and then let the process take you where you need to go for the next step.

Bristol Prison Blues

Hi Patrick,
As a response to the question from Tobias about how to play Folsom Prison, I have put a video on my youtube channel banjohopeful.
I have not covered the solo as demonstrated by some of the very skilled guitarists on youtube but rather played a feeling of the melody which can be achieved by a normal human like me.
I try not to get too hung up on slavishly replicating the way someone else plays a tune as this often knocks peoples confidence.
I have known quite good players who are afraid to perform in public in case they make a mistake.
In fact I no longer say when I go wrong because  as you point out in The How and Tao “it doesn’t matter how good you play what matters is how good you make folks feel”.
Anyway I hope this video may be of some use.