Wow...good stuff...perhaps the OLD Mudcat??!!
I'm goin' to have to disagree a bit...but just a bit, with some of my friends here. I think that CERTAIN really fast and clean players (clean is the key) simply have a Gawd given talent. I'm basing this on how old they were when they started, and how long it took them to get to world class skills. There ARE prodigies, and there ARE prodigies who had great instruction, supportive families, and great motivation.
I'd certainly put Doc Watson in this category. Also:
Joe Maphis, Mark O'Connor, Lenny Breau, and the most amazingly loose, cool, casual lightening-like picker I've ever seen: Merle Travis. I KNOW these guys practiced, but there was just "something" in their results that suggests it was more than just plain hard work. Django has to be there.
However....folks who knew him say that one of the fastest PLAYERS (not a picker) who ever lived, Charlie Parker, literally practiced day and night. Could anyone play faster than Art Tatum (piano)? Once again, his contemporaries say he played constanly.
So I'd say that perhaps what separates a Chet Atkins (who claimed not to have HUGE talent, but practiced endlessly, from a Merle Travis, who's interest in Motorcycles, women, and lotsa illegal substances, was certainly equal to his interest in music.....was perhaps that thing called "genius".
As a sidebar. Of all the current (and past) "folk oriented" pickers, nobody comes close to J.P.Cormier. He is absolutely world class on Guitar, Banjo, Mandolin, and fiddle. I know ALL the notes he picks on these instruments (knowing, and playing them are two very different things) and he does it better than anyone alive (that I've ever heard or seen). Is he famous? Nope. Does he make a living? Barely.
Marty, please don't take this the wrong way...but..you probably WON'T be a lightening fast player, but here's something you CAN do...and it allows you to monitor your progress. Set the metrinome (or buy a small keyboord with drum machine) to the speed you currently play Beaumont Rag at, without a mistake. Up the speed ONE NOTCH a day. In a week you should see results (or get pissed).
Personally I can play very fast bass runs, but my high string speed is nuthin' to write home about. This used to bug me, especially after seeing Tony Rice, but now I'm more fatalistic. I try to make my bass runs more and more interesting while keeping the speed up....and leave the high string stuff to folks like Tony Quarrington (best unknown picker I've ever seen) who can really "bring it".