To Thread - Forum Home

The Mudcat Café TM
73 messages

How can they play that fast?

29 Sep 01 - 12:53 AM (#561201)
Subject: How can they play that fast?
From: marty D

I've been working on the song Beaumont Rag since I heard a Doc Watson recording and I really thought I was getting somewhere. This week I heard another recording (live) of Doc playing the same song, and I couldn't believe how fast he did it. So here's my question.

Can you learn to play fast or is it just talent alone?

Are there any tricks to playing fast that I'm just not aware of yet?

I've always gotten such great tech help from Mudcat, so I hope somebody has a few answers.

marty (REALLY Slowhand)

29 Sep 01 - 01:34 AM (#561215)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: SeanM

I don't know about Doc, but a mandolin player who plays at speeds unknown to me said he (when playing hi-speed single notes, not chords) just mutes all strings with his fingers, and selectively releases pressure on the strings he wants to hit.

Don't know about someone doing a lot of fretwork though. I'd imagine that's just a LOT of practice.


29 Sep 01 - 02:18 AM (#561224)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: rangeroger

One of the most amazing feats of playing I have ever seen or heard was at a Spring Strawberry Music Festival.Tony Rice was one of the featured performers,and it being spring in the Sierras the weather could be anything.

In this case it was cold.32 degrees F on stage. And yet Tony was able to play at blinding speed, perfectly.He was bundled up like an Eskimo and his breath appeared to be freezing in front of him,and he played on.

I don't know how he did it, but it was ajoy to behold and hear.


29 Sep 01 - 02:34 AM (#561227)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: M.Ted

When Doc plays, don't be amazed by the speed, be amazed at how clean and precise he is--and how warm it sounds--speed alone is not a big trick--most people, with practice and a few strategic tips, can learn to play "too fast"--but nobody plays like Doc--

29 Sep 01 - 02:59 AM (#561232)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: Andrew S

The best tip you will ever get on the subject is start of slow and gradually get faster. Yes, it will take a lot of practice but it will eventually come. If you don't have a metronome, get one and use it all the time. I will help you keep a good steady beat and keep track of exactly how fast you can play. Also, it is never good to tense up when playing. Your muscles have to be relaxed.

29 Sep 01 - 03:04 AM (#561234)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: Cappuccino

Good tip about keeping the beat, Andrew. I used to think my timing was pretty damn good until I bought the multitrack and started backing myself... and realised that I was impossible to follow!

- Ian

* yes, in that third line I * was * going to say 'started playing with myself', but thought better of it.

29 Sep 01 - 03:07 AM (#561236)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: alanabit

I can only say ditto to Ted and Andrew. I have been practising some pieces for years, working up speed with a metronome. Actually, it's not really the speed which I'm working on. That comes by itself when you get it right. It was probably the best thing I learned from my guitar teacher. I've heard plenty of folks play fast...and not particularly well...

29 Sep 01 - 09:09 AM (#561325)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: McGrath of Harlow

Playing incredibly fast and not making mistakes is difficult of course. But playing fast and making mistakes isn't.

And listening to someone playing fast and telling whether they are making mistakes is extremely difficult.

If it's too fast for dancing, it's too fast. It's like talking too fast to be understood - maybe as a party trick for an auctioneer it's fun on occasion. But talking is primarily about communication, and so is music. Communication takes its time.

29 Sep 01 - 09:10 AM (#561328)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: kendall

I can admire the ability of the really fast picker, but, give me clean and crisp everytime. Those speed demons look like they are playing to impress other pickers, and it gets to sound like a popsicle stick in a bicycle wheel after a while.

29 Sep 01 - 09:24 AM (#561333)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: RocketMan

Beaumont Rag is also one of my favorites to pick. I have been working on it for years and can now play it at a reasonable speed with a group. I concur with the other advice here about timing and clean sound. Concentrate on these and speed will follow. Also, someone once told me what you don't play is as important as what you do play.


29 Sep 01 - 11:14 AM (#561371)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: Steve in Idaho

Practice, period - play clean - practice - Oh did I mention practice?? I've one song I've been trying to do up to speed for nearly 30 years - occasionally I can do it - but I need practice - Steve

29 Sep 01 - 11:34 AM (#561382)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: John Hardly

I'm not trying to disagree but...

...I will say that there is some point at which you also have to just play faster. When you've got the elements of the tune cold, you just have to make yorself try it at faster and faster speeds.

I was lucky enough to have taken some lessons from Joel Mabus and when I asked him about speed he said (wisely, I think) that, just as there is a dynamic difference between running and walking----running is not simply walking faster----there is a difference between plying slow and fast that is more than simple speeding up.

He also said that a good way to learn to play cleanly at 200bpm is to practice at 225bpm. Kind of like taking batting practice with the machine turned up to can't hit the first 20 balls but suddenly things start to click and the balls seem to become more visable and hittable.

29 Sep 01 - 11:49 AM (#561386)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: Justa Picker

What Andrew S said.
Also, an old "Chet" trick, only fret the strings you need to make passing contact with. Fretting all the notes in say a C chord when you only need to be making contact with the high B and E, will slow your fretting hand down. Keep the finger height as you switch from position to position (with your fretting hand) at the absolutely minimum height to just clear the strings. THIS, also takes practise, and there is a tendancy to want to flail your fingers over the strings, but the more height of the fingers rising and pressing down on the strings, the more it will slow you down. (Forget anything you've ever seen electric players do. The majority are dealing with feather light action and string gage, where only the slightest pressure will fret the notes.)

Ironically I too have been working on Beaumont Rag. I based my arrangement on the version that Doc and Chet did together on the "Doc and Chet" album (1979). Thing is, my convulated mind likes to "make trouble" for myself. I took what was a straight flat picking arrangement and turned it into a fingerpicking arrangement, with the index and middle playing all the flat picked leads while the thumb keeps an alternating bass going, as well as using Doc's flatpicking fills as two fingered flat picking breaks. It was great fun, a great exercise in dexterity as well as logic to make it work. I cannot however play this arrangement at any kind of lightning tempo, because there are a lot of notes to be covered and a lot of hand movement with the left hand. Best I can do is a medium tempo at around 110 bps. Still perfecting it, but plan to record it soon and work it into a medley with Liz Cotten's "Babe Ain't No Lie"...and use Beaumont as sort of a "C" part or alternate bridge section to the Cotten tune.

29 Sep 01 - 11:52 AM (#561390)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: Justa Picker

Another point too, is that when you can get to that level of speed and clarity, it almost becomes a "Zen" thing, where in essence you're no longer thinking about what you're doing, and instead kind of sitting back on autopilot and witnessing yourself and your fingers doing it. The key is that once you've reached this level, don't think about what you're doing. Just relax and let it flow. Your fingers already know where they're supposed to be. Thinking, just messes up the process. I would say this would apply to either fast fingerpicking and, flatpicking.

29 Sep 01 - 12:42 PM (#561398)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: Midchuck

One thing - I don't dispute the need for practice - but if that's all it is, how do you account for people like Nickel Creek and them, who haven't been alive long enough to have practiced as much as you'd think it would take to make them that good?

Most of the serious and not-so-serious pickers I know will admit to having been blown away by a fifteen-year-old at some point.


29 Sep 01 - 12:45 PM (#561399)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: Justa Picker

There's also God-given talent.
J.P. Cormier is another example.

29 Sep 01 - 01:48 PM (#561425)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: InOBU

Justa picker said basicly what I was about to say. Mussle memory. You should practice to the point that you can play the tune while reading a book or getting into a heated coversation with your mates while playing. I sometimes find myself listening to coversations in pubs while playing and makeing all the changes etc. When you are running on gravity, you can go as fast as you want... however, if you listen to some Great bands like the Bothey band, who play fast for the sake of attracting folks who listen to rock in stead of Irish music, well, in a lot of ways they just played to damn fast. If you slow down Paddy Keanans playing in that band, you hear wonderful wonderful things that you miss as it flys past, which is why I like his solo albums so much better than his bothey band recordings, which are great if you are really skuthered, but well, any way that's my tupenny piece on the whole speed thing... Larry

29 Sep 01 - 02:33 PM (#561443)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: Rick Fielding

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 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".


29 Sep 01 - 02:47 PM (#561446)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: DougR

Great thread!

29 Sep 01 - 02:53 PM (#561448)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: Jon Freeman

How: Practice and that little thing that I'd call just natural talent. We could all practice every hour availible but I suspect there would still be very few people who can play cleanly and in time at the blistering paces so to some degree it is just a matter of accepting who/what you are.


(who doesn't play cleanly even when going slowly)

29 Sep 01 - 03:20 PM (#561456)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: John Hardly

It's one of those interesting confluences of faith and practice.

One reason besides god-given (genetic?) talent, that some learn faster is that they stumble into (are directed to) the proper things to practice.

You can spend one hell of a lot of time praticing the right thing the wrong way.

In order to even come to the point of "muscle memory" your muscles must have at some point in the practice achieved the proper result that you wish to duplicate...if not all the practice is at best, retarded.

You can play some pretty terrific music "retarded" though.
Where faith comes in is that, at some point you have to trust in some way of doing it....and practice that...and hope it's a "right enough" way to achieve the result you want.

29 Sep 01 - 03:45 PM (#561463)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: Mark Cohen

If anybody is making a list of Mudcat threads to archive, this one is definitely heading in that direction. I agree that it's a combination of practice and talent, and in varying degrees for different people. We all have different "wiring patterns" in our brains and muscles, and different abilities to make brain and muscle work together in different ways. There's no question that motor skills improve with practice, as you create a stronger motor memory. It's like running water carving a channel--the more often it flows, the deeper the channel and the easier it is to stay in the channel. But some people cut that channel in firm earth, while others are stuck with crumbling sand!

What I find fascinating is trying to understand those wiring patterns, and how they interact in different tasks. (This is a professional interest for me, as I often deal with children who are having learning difficulties.) I, for one, seem to be a klutz on guitar, or drawing, or anything that requires consistency in fine movements of my hands and fingers. I can get better with practice, but only up to a point. However, I'm a fairly fast typist, and I'm really good at fast singing and tongue-twisters, both of which also require fine muscle movements. Maybe when my strong language skills are engaged, they help my muscles do better! It's a fascinating subject.


29 Sep 01 - 04:07 PM (#561468)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: GUEST,Frank

Finger dexterity has been measured by tests. There are those who have it (fast pickers, surgeons, etc.) as well as tweezer dexterity (watch makers, flat pickers etc.) There is a genetic potential for this. Strong hands and strong fingers figure into it regardless of hours of practice.

Musicality is something else again. Also, this is subjective because what is musical to someone might not be to another.

Musicianship is something else again. When these three abilities correlate, you have the fine emergence of virtuosos. Musicianship might be gained by musical training but not necessarilly. It's an ability to absorb the musical language and it's complexities. Some can do this without extensive musical training. (Charlie Parker, Django, etc.)

Practice helps up to a point. Then the genes determine what happens.


29 Sep 01 - 04:24 PM (#561476)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: Jon Freeman

Frank, that leads me on to other thoughts and to drift a bit.

I had a conversation with someone else in the session I go to and Gerry O'Connor was mentioned. He said "Gerry O'Connor is a perfect technition but not a musician" and I sort of agree. Gerry O'Connor plays fast, cleanly, in time, loads of triplets on the tenor banjo - sort of stuff you go "WOW I wish I could do that to" and yet after a while, I tend to think "Yeah very clever but so what?" and I'd rather listen to say Barney McKenna who is nothing like as flashy with triplets, etc but a far more musical player to me.

Just what makes that "musical" bit or my perception of it?


29 Sep 01 - 04:30 PM (#561481)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: Justa Picker

Fast is one thing.
Taste is another.
Anything that can be played fast and tasty, should also sound great at a slower tempo as well. Things played fast just for the sake of speed ("how many notes can I cram into this space?") bore me very quickly.

('Course, there are those here based on what I've read in past threads, who accuse those who can play fast and tasty as "show-offs". Envy is one of the 7 deadlies though, isn't it?)

29 Sep 01 - 04:58 PM (#561501)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: Don Firth

On another thread on a very similar subject, I posted the follow (seems like it would also be appropriate here):—


I took in Doc Watson's guitar workshop at the Berkeley Folk Festival in 1964. Two clues from the Doctor himself:--

Fellow asks: "How did you learn to flatpick that fast and smooth?" The Doctor: "Well, I practice scales about a half an hour every day."

(Sixty some-odd aspiring folk guitarists suck in a breath of air and look horrified)

Fellow asks: "Can you tell us what you do when you're finger-picking?"
The Doctor: "I don't really know how to describe it. It's kind of an arpeggio." (big grin) "'Course, I'm not supposed to know words like that."

(Sixty some-odd aspiring folk guitarists writhe and moan in great distress)

I guess it's like the old gag about "How do I get to Carnegie Hall?"


Also, pay special heed to what Jon Freeman and Justa Picker say directly above. Slightly different category of music, but I think message applies: a few years ago on a local classical music station, they played quite a number of cuts of a new classic guitarist who had just appeared on the scene. He had an attack like a Flamenco guitarist and he played everything about thirty percent faster that it should be played, including slow, beautifully lyrical stuff--which was not beautifully lyrical the way he played it. Fantastic technician! But he wasn't playing music, he was just playing notes. Lots and lots of notes. I never hear much about the guy anymore.

Don Firth

29 Sep 01 - 05:07 PM (#561505)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: M.Ted

The trick to speed and precision is simple--it isn't just practice, either--you have to reconsider and rework what you're doing continuously, as JP mentioned, there is a lot of extraneous movement that most people have in their playing, and you have to eliminate as much of it as possible--Planning is also critical--one of the biggest drags comes from not really knowing quite what and when you are going to play--Another thing to remember is that a lot of music is overwritten--that is, it has too much stuff in it to be done with any speed--

29 Sep 01 - 05:09 PM (#561508)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: John Hardly

Funny, the most obvious hasn't been offered up.

You may want to arrange around your weaknesses.

Bryan Sutton and Scott Nygaard (both of whom can rip it up quite well) both claim to a better left than right hand. Therefore they depend more on hammer-ons and pull-offs to give them the speed. They've both said that, even on pieces they can accomplish with right hand, up/down pick speed, sometimes is a set or long song their right hand just gets tired.

My right hand sucks so I do simple things to imply more speed...triplet hammer-ons (especially at the beginnings of passages where they can be easily substituted.

29 Sep 01 - 05:13 PM (#561511)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: Justa Picker

...or overcome your weakness...

29 Sep 01 - 06:15 PM (#561533)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: Cantrip

Excellent thread, guys! For my tuppenceworth, I reckon John Hardly's and Justa Picker's last postings underline the big question here.
It's been said a hundred times here today, and it'll be said a lot more, the only way to learn to play fast is to work really hard at it. But before you go to what is always a lot of effort, ask yourself why you want to play fast. It can be impressive, but only if done right. And, like most things, in moderation. Don't get fooled into thinking music's a competiton.
Be appropriate.
Sorry, I didn't mean to sermonize quite that much.
I'm new here. Hi :)

29 Sep 01 - 07:01 PM (#561555)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: McGrath of Harlow

I suppose one of the basic things is really listening to yourself. That can be painful at times.

29 Sep 01 - 08:35 PM (#561605)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: RocketMan

Great discussion! I certainly agree that our individual styles are defined as much by our shortcomings as well as our abilities. For most of us, there will always be somebody better or faster. While it is good to look to others styles and techniques for inspiration, don't throw in the towel because you can't play like Doc Watson or whoever. Practice will develop your abilities, and listening different musicians will give you ideas and inspiration. Last of all, don't forget to have fun. I doubt that most of us are in it for the money.


29 Sep 01 - 09:12 PM (#561629)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: Justa Picker

Yes RM. You've hit on it nicely.

The bottom line should be:
Do you sound good to yourself? and,
Do you sound good to others?

If the answer to both is yes
then that's all that really matters.

If the answer is no to one or both,
then you've got some work ahead of you, assuming
your goal is to be able to say yes to both.

29 Sep 01 - 10:50 PM (#561686)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: Gypsy

Fast is no big mystery. It is actually the easiest part. When you learn the tune, look at what you are doing CAREFULLY. Check out the pattern that you are making. Is it the most efficient? Is it aesthetically appealing?(I play better with pretty patterns) And, after you have it down, play with someone who is ever so slightly faster than you are with that tune. Fast is easy. Accuracy, now thats the one that takes LOADS of pracatice.

29 Sep 01 - 11:28 PM (#561701)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: Gary T

Re: Midchuck's observation that young people have only had so many years of practice:

Research has shown that certain manual musical skills can be learned up to the age of 13 or so (and improved upon with time), but if not learned by that age they will never be learned. The brain's/body's window of opportunity for acquiring these skills closes.

Furthermore, as with learning nearly anything, an early start makes a world of difference. Ten years of practice starting from eight years of age could result in more improvement than, say, 20 years of practice starting from the age of twenty-five.

30 Sep 01 - 12:44 AM (#561746)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: Marion

Just a thought, Marty - since Doc Watson is your role model, maybe you should be playing with your eyes closed?

It seems to me that playing blind would force you to develop a solid "muscular knowledge" of where the notes are, and to learn to make your hand movements as efficient as possible - both of which would likely help with speed.


30 Sep 01 - 03:23 AM (#561792)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: Cappuccino

Wow, two things in here have made me stop and think. That 'dynamic difference between running and walking' has really made me think... I'd never thought about the dynamics of what I was trying to play fast. It makes sense to stop and think that speed isn't all Alvin Lee... And I like the 'arranging around the weaknesses/strengths', as well.

Thankee, gents.

- Ian B

30 Sep 01 - 03:46 AM (#561798)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: Cappuccino

Ah, a sensible addition to this thread, which was lurking in the back of my head, has just revealed itself.

Years ago, I was playing with a real leather-and-grime rock lead guitarist, whose general image was about as daisy-fresh as those guys on the American wrestling programmes. One day I caught him in the dressing room just before the show, carefully doing his hands in 'Mother's Favourite Dandelion' or some such unlikely soap. He told me that the best tip he had ever been given for playing guitar fast and clean was to learn how, and when, to wash your hands thoroughly before going onstage. (The importance of the 'when', of course, was so that your hands aren't still too soft when you start playing.)

- IanB

30 Sep 01 - 10:24 AM (#561887)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: Bill D

several comments here make me remember earlier posts about being at Winfield (Flat-pick championships)30 years ago. I watched thru binoculars Doc Watson, Norman Blake, Tony Rice and Dan Crary playing together,,,but ONLY Doc kept his fingers to minimum height...I guess not being able to see forced him to not get too far from his next note!

here's one of the threads I mentioned this on about a year and a half ago

30 Sep 01 - 10:48 AM (#561895)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: Clifton53

Lots of good advice in this thread. Playing fast and with warmth is the height of guitar playing, and so difficult. A lot of self-taught players such as myself are at a disadvantage because we lack the training given at the very start, and spent most of our time strumming chords to accompany our voices. Too much time devoted to learning songs and not learning the instrument set me back a bit. " Picking", was to me, something bluegrass players did. What a mistake.

If I were just starting today, I would find a good teacher and do what he told me to do.


30 Sep 01 - 11:41 AM (#561915)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: Rick Fielding


One of the very best things to concentrate on if you're tryin' to build up speed, is keeping your fingers verrrry close to the fretboard. You have to "glide" them back and forth, rather than "up and down". It's tricky to learn but really pays off.


30 Sep 01 - 08:37 PM (#562165)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: Benjamin

One big thing I didn't see mentioned (maybe I just missed it) is to STAY RELAXED! When your hand is free from tention, you naturally keep your fingers closer to the fret board and move more efficiantly. From my experience, efficiant movement is not something that you can "force" yourself to learn. You just have to develop it. And the best (and probably the only) way to develop it is practice.

So far, we've all talked about the left hand (or right hand for lefty's). What about the right hand?


30 Sep 01 - 08:45 PM (#562170)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: GUEST,knappo

I talked with a bluegrass guitar player once who just smoked that 'ol fingerboard and asked him for any tips on playing fast. He said he uses a heavy pick and holds it so only the tip shows. That way he transfered all the energy (speed) to the string and didn't loose it to the bending of the pick. Also, you might try turning the pick slightly sideways, you sorta slip on to the next string. And make sure your guitar is set up as well as it can be. Oh yeah, all that practicing helps too. Good luck. Tom (who listened to too much McLaughlin and DeMeola growing up)

30 Sep 01 - 09:23 PM (#562183)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: GUEST,Lyle

Lotsa great stuff here! One thing that Jon Freeman mentioned was musical playing instead of technical playing, which sorta aluded to was why play fast anyway? If you listen to Norman Blake over the years (and I think I've got everything he ever did) you'll notice that he can pick about as fast as anyone, but quite some time ago he gave up speed in favor of feeling. And I for one think he sounds better for doing so. And I also agree that Doc Watson uses his left hand as effeciently as anyone I've ever seen.

BTW, has anyone ever slowed the really fast numbers of Beppe Gambetta or Carlo Aonzo? I'd be willing to bet that Carlo doesn't miss a single note - that's speed and musical talent!


30 Sep 01 - 10:33 PM (#562204)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: GUEST,leeneia

1. There's a man in my town who has small hands yet plays the guitar fast and well. His secret? Extra large frets so that he doesn't have to use much pressure.

2. Doc Watson probably plays pieces in just the right key and tunes his strings to fit the piece. His instruments are probably custom made to fit his hands and body and are probably in perfect repair. If he makes a noticeable mistake in recording, he does it again or a technician fixes it. So don't beat yourself up if you can't do what he does.

3. Professional musicians don't have to beat up their hands and wrists the way the rest of us do. Just one example - pulling weeds is very hard on tbe hands and wrists. I have to do it, or the city would be after me, but I doubt if Doc Watson does.

30 Sep 01 - 10:40 PM (#562211)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: 53

that's a good point from a working man, i've always tried to protect my hands while i had a regular job and then when we went on the road the abuse on my hands got even worse, so i always wore gloves to try to help keep them safe. bob.

30 Sep 01 - 10:54 PM (#562220)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: marty D

Hey, great advice. Thanks.

Thanks for the pm. J. As I mentioned a couple of times before, I don't get on Mudcat as often as I'd like because number one daughter OWNS the computer 24/7. I go next door to my neighbour's and bribe him to let me use it!

The heavy pick idea just didn't work for me, and I know that some fast pickers use quite a light one. I use a Dunlop .88.

Increasing the speed really gradually sounds like a good idea. Maybe I'll get one of those keyboard-drum machines, I've never been comfortable with a metrinome. Too quiet.

Keeping in mind that when I first asked for help on mudcat a couple of years ago I wasn't much of a player but thanks to some great suggestions..oh, and finally getting motivated.. I can pick a bit now. Nothing fancy, but songs like Wildwood Flower, Union Maid, Wooden heart, and slowish versions of John Hardy and Beaumont Rag.

It's getting there.


30 Sep 01 - 11:04 PM (#562227)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: Steve in Idaho

All outstanding additions and thinking on the subject. But without sitting down regularly and playing, I mean practice, one will never get to that "no thinking" stage. Albeit there are those with natural talent and I don't sweat them much. If I can't keep up I can chord faster than most can flat pick.

Trust - major biggy - but without sitting down and playing regularly one can't trust that it can be done.

I realy liked the one on pushing yourself. I've doen that and it sounds like my fingers fell down a flight of stairs. But at some point they don't fall down. At one point in my pickin I would practice with tapes of the greats - Doc, Dan Crary, and it was fun! But kids, work, and other stuff put music on the back burner. I've just started playing again for real over the past couple of weeks - after a several year layoff.

I'm just practicing my tail off - Peace Steve

01 Oct 01 - 01:52 AM (#562328)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: Tiger Eye

Minimum movement of both hands (and the whole body) is a good step. Keep your fingers within a sixteenth of a inch from the strings, and play scales as slowly as you need to to keep the beat steady.

Develop the pinky on the fretting hand: Pinky, ring, pinky, middle, pinky, first, pinky, middle, pinky, ring, etc. Start by staying on the sixth string: 4th, 3rd, 4th, 2nd, 4th, 1st, 4th, 2nd, 4th, 3rd frets... with minimum movement, of course...

Play any note with a death grip, and repeat to the beat. Slowly relax the grip until the note is just getting a little muted. Play it with this tone as long as you can. Slowly vary the tone by SLIGHTLY pressing harder or slightly backing off the fretting hand. Realize you'll never have to press harder than the minimum it takes to get good tone. Every extra bit of pressure steals speed AND expression (Kind of nasty to choke an instrument, isn't it?).

Do similar things with the picking hand.

Massage and stretch your hands and fore-arms before, during, after, and between sessions.

Extreme speed and extreme slowness can be very lovely.

01 Oct 01 - 07:37 AM (#562445)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: Peter K (Fionn)

Motivation helps. You need some gig to be aiming at, or a teacher to impress, or some other reason to put in all the effort it's going to take.

One point that has not been emphasised is to isolate the difficult bits and work at them till you can handle them at the same speed as the rest. If you don't like metronomes, at least record yourself and play back the results. One sign of weakness can be a tendency to speed up and actually rush the difficult bits, and without metronome/recorder, this can pass unnoticed by the player.

But don't forget different people have different levels of motor co-ordination, so some will always have an instrinsic advantage over others. That's my excuse, anyway.

Oh, and welcome, Cantrip. You've found a good thread to start in. (But the ones that end with blood on the carpet can be fun too!)

01 Oct 01 - 09:55 AM (#562499)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: PeteBoom

One thing I learned a long time ago is to not make things too complex. There have been MANY good suggestions and comments in this thread. Here's what I have found in drumming (and teach), and have applied it successfully in many other areas (whistles, etc.,)

Start slowly and be precise.

Make sure every move is spot on perfect.

Have NO excess movement at ALL. No extra flourishes, keep fingers down as close to the instument strings, holes, whatever, as you possibly can.

RELAX anything that is touching your instrument, or that is connected to something touching the instrument or that is connected to something connected to something touching the instrument (you get the idea...)

Get a good, digital metronome, play with and pay attention to it - it won't vary, you might. When you have the rythm dead on, pick the pace up. Continue to pick the pace up until you reach the tempo you want.

When you get to tempo, don't be surprised if you find yourself with PILES of time between notes - because you have reduced everything to get to the speed you want - which will give you plenty of time to get the things you WANT in (dynamics, "warmth", etc.,) where you want them.

Off to work.


01 Oct 01 - 10:53 AM (#562540)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: Aidan Crossey

Mmmm ...

This weekend I was listening to two albums, The Chieftains' collaboration with a whole bunch of Canadian artists "Fire In The Kitchen" and Martin Hayes' "Under The Moon".

On Fire In The Kitchen, the opening collaboration is a great set (Madame Bonaparte/The Devil's Dream/The Mason's Apron) with Leahy taking centre stage. When the change to Devil's Dream is made, the set takes off at a frantic pace. What follows is furiously fast fiddling, highly ornamented and yet fluent as can be. Great stuff.

But a contrast with Hayes' work which is - on the whole - languidly slow and low on ornament.

And which is better?

Neither. Fast and furious or slow and thoughtful. As long as each is done well, then each is equally valid.

My tuppence worth ....

01 Oct 01 - 11:15 AM (#562552)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: Fortunato

Great Thread, like old times, eh?

This may be too obvious, but having a regular accompanist makes a difference. I practise scales every time I sit down to play. I work out my leads and runs and fills and grace notes alone, but everything comes together when my wife and I begin to practise the piece at 2/3 speed. Gradually it comes up to speed.

I don't mean to say I come close the the group Rick describes above, far from it. But even at age 55 I can increase my speed and clairity of note through daily scales and practise with Susette.

One final thought. IMHOP it is the emotional content in each of Doc's notes that gives his playing it's transcendent nature, though his speed and clarity are miraculous. I attempt to emulate that 'human voice-like' quality.


01 Oct 01 - 01:13 PM (#562630)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: M.Ted

I am thinking that that business about a "sixteenth of an inch above the strings" may be counter productive advice--

You can move your fingers downward more quickly, nimbly and with more force than you can move them up--too close to the fretboard will require you to move the fingers up before coming down on another fret or another string--At any rate, fretting the strings is not as critical for speed as sounding the strings, which you do with the other hand entirely--

01 Oct 01 - 06:42 PM (#562899)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: John Hardly

I wanted to say the same thing as M. Ted just did. I avoided it because I was afraid I might sound a bit too argumentative, but...

Although I believe economy of motion is a good idea, I think how far off the frets one comes will be arrived at naturally, and it may, as M.Ted said, be counter-productive as a matter of practice to worry about.

As evidence offered within this thread, may I point out that the fellow who suggested the concept, Bill D, said " I watched thru binoculars Doc Watson, Norman Blake, Tony Rice and Dan Crary playing together,,,but ONLY Doc kept his fingers to minimum height...I guess not being able to see forced him to not get too far from his next note! "

Maybe it's not stating the obvious. Norman Blake, Tony Rice, and Dan Crary are all at least as fast as Doc.

01 Oct 01 - 08:07 PM (#562950)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: Burke

Don't forget about this thread

02 Oct 01 - 07:41 AM (#563299)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: Aidan Crossey

The following story appears at Pay The Reckoning

The story goes that a young piper had been making the rounds in Ireland and causing ripples in the traditional music world. The exuberance of his piping, his ornamentation and his dexterity caused many the piper to catch their breath.

And so it was engineered that the new piper would be introduced to Seamus Ennis, the daddy of all pipers.

Ennis turned up one night to a Dublin pub, where the new piper was in full session. Friends glanced nervously at each other and back to Ennis. And less nervously after a while when it became obvious that the great man was impressed.

After he'd piped his last, and had unbuckled his instrument, the piper was introduced to Ennis. The old-timer gripped his hand and pumped it furiously. "That was massive piping, young fellow. Grand altogether. And Seamus Ennis should know, for sure way back in the mists of time, way back in the days of the good, gentle folk, way back then, sure didn't Seamus Ennis invent the piping." (He was given to rambling.)

The he pulled the new piper closer to him and, now deeply serious, said. "I've only the one observation for you. Why do you play so fast?"

And Finbar Furey - he who had been causing the stir - replied without a moment's pause, "Because I can!"

Pay The Reckoning December 2000

03 Oct 01 - 12:37 AM (#563966)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: Rick Fielding

I remember seeing the movie Woodstock, when I was young and impressionable. Alvin Lee (10 cc.) was in the middle of his very very fast (and sloppy) solo on "Goin' Home". I thought my date was going to expire from the sheer passion she obviously was feeling for the guy up on the screen.

Sometimes it would be nice to play that fast!


03 Oct 01 - 12:56 AM (#563973)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: M.Ted

In those days, I used to be completely annoyed by Alvin Lee--oddly enough, over the years, I am sort like listening to some of his stuff, but Rick, you are so much better than that--he was not fast, so much as frantic--which is just another cheap trick that anyone can learn!

03 Oct 01 - 04:05 AM (#564046)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: alanabit

Phew! Someone's just said what I always felt about "Goin Home". I don't think I'll ever be an Alvin Lee fan either, although he had the odd good riff and "Hear Me Calling" has some good dynamics in it. Give me Kieren White or Mick Taylor any day from our Brit blues guitarists...

03 Oct 01 - 02:18 PM (#564329)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: GUEST,Vixen @ work

Wow--Lots of terrific pointers here that I'll have to try, and a couple of comments...

1) I have a "tempo" for *every* new piece I learn, regardless of instrument: it's "geriatico" (i.e. andante with a walker and oxygen bottle)

2) there's something to be said for *NOT* playing a piece for awhile. I've been struggling with Miss McLeod's Reel for about 20 years (no foolin'). I work at it for six months or so and give up in frustration. (I still practice other material though) When I come back to it a month later, I usually find that whatever was hanging me up has somehow fixed itself, and I've got a different problem to rassle with.

$0.02, fwiw. I've been playing (you name it) on and off for over 30 years, and I'm still striving for speed, precision, and feeling on every(any?) instrument. Haven't succeeded yet, but still trying!


03 Oct 01 - 02:33 PM (#564337)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: alanabit

Just looking back at Rick's last post, I'm wondering if Alvin Lee was not playing with Ten Years After rather than 10cc... One of the perils of Mudcat that.. There's always some pedantic SOB out there waiting to correct you...

03 Oct 01 - 02:59 PM (#564358)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: GUEST,Les/ Manchester uk

A truly brilliant strand - much good advice. Some tunes do sound better at speed. Much has been made of metronomes and drum machines. Is this a better strategy than playing with another rhythm instrument or a recording of another instrument?

Do I have to pay much for a tape recorder that plays back without changing pitch?

03 Oct 01 - 03:12 PM (#564365)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: Justa Picker

Good points Vixen!

There are several tunes I've been working on for almost 2 years, if you can believe that, that only now are beginning to sound like "music" to me.

Another point to maybe touch on here for a second, is the FINESSE aspect. It's one thing to learn a song, and be able to play all the notes. It's another thing to be able to bring it up to speed, and play it with feeling or dynamics while nailing every single note perfectly.

It's the finesse thing, that really requires the extensive practise, and is a never ending, ongoing battle or a labor of love (in my case.) Some people (JP Cormier and Lenny Breau come readily to mind) were born with such an innate God-given talent, that it ALL came together for them, very early on. The majority of the rest of us, (including Chet Atkins admitting to this as well) while having varying degrees of musical ability, just have to practise our asses off to achieve a level of "virtuosity", in order to make complex things look easy.

03 Oct 01 - 04:50 PM (#564444)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: Rick Fielding

Of COURSE it was Ten Years After! Thanks Alanabit. be as pedantic as you like when it comes to music info. You won't get any complaints from me.


03 Oct 01 - 05:46 PM (#564485)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: Cappuccino

There's a very entertaining bit on the Alvin Lee live version of Goin' Home - his solo is thundering along at several hundred notes a second, and you can quite clearly hear him mutter "s**t!* as he misses one.

I would like to be able to play that fast... but I should also like to have the taste to know when to do it, and when not.

- Ian B

03 Oct 01 - 07:09 PM (#564528)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: M.Ted

Missed one?--you could open a clam bar with all Alvin Lee's missed notes-

03 Oct 01 - 10:35 PM (#564659)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: Mark Clark

I only just discovered this really terrific thread! Is it time to start paying attention again? Great ideas here. I don't think I have anything to add but I'm sure going to add this to my personal page.

      - Mark

04 Oct 01 - 12:20 AM (#564703)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: blt

I was very relieved to hear that someone else has been practicing a certain tune for at least 20 years; I taught myself Blackberry Blossum out of a column in Acoustic Guitar (I think that was what the magazine was called) over 20 years ago and I still work on it. Even on the songs I write and find the notes for, I struggle to get the pace just right. It definitely, for me, is not in the speed as much as in the precision and expression. I do practice scales (after hearing, years ago, that Doc Watson did so)but I've never owned a metranome--always meant to buy one because I probably would play if not faster at least steadier. Over the years, I've found that playing tunes at different speeds helps. I don't know if this was mentioned, but of course action and the shape of your hands to the shape of the neck of your guitar all matter, as well as the tension in your hands. In the beginning of learning a song, my hands are much less relaxed until I've memorized the movements from chord to chord; gradually I drop the fingered notes I don't need as I gain confidence in where I'm going. I used to always try to practice with my eyes closed so that I could find my place without looking, just by sensing the placment of my fingers (what I think of as body memory).

Another problem I have is that the pick flies out of my hand at inopportune times, or slips down into the sound hole--I've had this problem more when I've tried to play faster than I should (usually when I've had a double latte before I start to play). It's always entertaining to get the pick out, it's a real crowd pleaser.


04 Oct 01 - 04:48 PM (#565171)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: M.Ted

blt, I am glad to hear that someone else wrestles with Blackberry Blossom--I can't say that I have been diligent, but someone showed me how to play it once, and I go back to it from time to time, try to get it both right and up to speed, and then set it aside again--

04 Oct 01 - 09:22 PM (#565342)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: Jon Freeman

Les, the playing along with others has 2 problems:

1: You have to find that other.

2: Having found that other, you need to be sure they are playing in time.

Also, and just a thought. When people are playing live with people I think there is a certain amount of ability and or tendency of others to react to changes of tempo so everything holds together even if timing has drifted and perhaps sometimes none of the players would realise they had gone out against a metronome. So I'd guess if you really wanted to be strict, the mechanical device is the sure way.


05 Oct 01 - 02:21 AM (#565486)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?

Such a lot of good ideas here! Starting slow and pushing the metronome speed about 5 beats per minute once each week seems to work for many. The hardest part for me is continuing to listen critically to what I'm doing. Each time I speed a tune up, some weakness in my technique causes me to lose it at some point in the tune. Each time I play it, it'll foul up at the same point. If I'm listening well, the recurring mistakes point to problems that need fixing.

05 Oct 01 - 08:40 AM (#565596)
Subject: RE: How can they play that fast?
From: GUEST,Fortunato

BLT. You probably already know this. But theres a product called Gorilla Snot (Don't Lose Your Grip) you can order that adds some stickiness to your finger and thumb. I've used it with good results.