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Speed and timing


If you've come to this page because you want to play fast (!), you will find some ideas about this below. However, playing at speed is all about timing and control, so we'll have a look at these vital topics first.

Timing

Bluegrass is almost entirely strict tempo music. The best bands have literally metronomic timing. OK, there may be a bit of loosening up in the measure or two between verses, but an individual verse or instrumental break should be nigh on perfect. I'm not talking here about whether you play in front of, or behind, the beat, whether you swing or syncopate or whatever - the basic beat should be there in the band, ticking like a metronome.

The best way to practise your timing is to play with a metronome. The old joke about returning your metronome to the shop because it won't keep time with you is initially all too relevant! However, persevere and it will soon become second nature for you to drop in with the beat. You then have an excellent pacemaker for developing faster (and slower!) playing.

A good rule of thumb for setting your metronome speed is to think bass. On a typical bluegrass song the bass plays two beats to the bar. (Walking bass doubles it to four beats). I use a 2-beats-to-the-bar metronome speed for most bluegrass tunes. For tabs in 4/4 time I suggest metronome speeds in half-notes (minims) per minute. For a discussion of half-note compared with quarter-note speeds, see my metronome page. A good medium pace for fiddle tunes like The Arkansas Traveler is about 120 bpm (beats per minute). Bill Monroe's 1950 recording of Raw Hide is approximately 170 bpm. He often played it even faster on stage!

Examples of metronome speeds

These speeds are a guide only. They were obtained from CD and LP recordings using the method described on the metronome page. You are encouraged to make your own calculations!

Song Source Speed bpm
Blue Grass Stomp Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys 92
Roxanna Waltz Kenny Baker 95 (3/4 time)
Summertime Is Past And Gone Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys (1946) 100
Lonesome Moonlight Waltz Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys 101
(3/4 time)
Some Day We'll Meet Again Sweetheart Flatt and Scruggs 106
Blue Grass Special Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys 108
Uncle Pen Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys 110
My Cabin In Caroline Flatt and Scruggs 110
Lonesome Moonlight Waltz Kenny Baker 111
(3/4 time)
In The Pines Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys (1952) 114 (3/4 time)
Old Salty Dog Blues Flatt and Scruggs 124
Take Me In A Lifeboat Flatt and Scruggs 128
God Loves His Children Flatt and Scruggs 130
Think Of What You've Done The Stanley Brothers 132
Train 45 The Stanley Brothers 132
Preachin' Prayin' Singin' Flatt and Scruggs 132
Roll On Buddy Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys 135
Clinch Mountain Backstep The Stanley Brothers 138
Kentucky Mandolin Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys 138
Devil's Dream Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys 139
McKinley's March Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys 142
Cripple Creek Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys 143
Sailor's Hornpipe Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys 143
Pickaway Vic Jordan 148
Big Mon Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys 150
It's Mighty Dark To Travel Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys 152
Paddy On The Turnpike Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys 154
Foggy Mountain Breakdown Flatt and Scruggs 160
Dixie Breakdown The Dillards 167
Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms Flatt and Scruggs 168
Raw Hide Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys 170
Train 45 Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys 170
Tennessee Cut-Up Breakdown Don Reno 172
Missile Ride Don Reno 173
Blue Grass Breakdown Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys 173
Why Did You Wander? Jimmy Gaudreau's Bluegrass Unit (live) 181

Classification of metronome speeds

In bluegrass music the following broad categories apply to tunes with 2 beats to the bar:
Speed Beats per minute
Slow Under 100
Moderate 100-120
Medium 120-138
Fast 138-160
Very fast 160-172
Warp speed 172-184

A beginning player will probably find difficulty with anything beyond the slow category. Elementary players can go up to about 120 bpm. An intermediate level player will be improving his/her speed up to the 138 mark or beyond. An advanced player should be OK with pretty fast speeds. The warp speeds of over 172 bpm are usually only achieved by professional players, particularly when they have been playing for some time and are really warmed up. The recording of Jimmy Gaudreau's Bluegrass Unit playing Why Did You Wander? at over 180 bpm is on their Live in Holland album. The band are saying goodbye at the end of their set; to say that they are warmed up is an understatement!


Practising with your metronome

Using a metronome will help you to build solid timing and to develop speed, both right hand and left hand. I recommend learning a new tune at a very low speed, such as 80 bpm. It helps to double the clicks at this speed, so set the metronome to 160 bpm and play at half speed. This will clearly show if you have any problems with basic timing. Only speed up when you are confident of all the notes and pick strokes - everything should be under control. Increase the metronome speed until you reach the point where you are making mistakes, then drop back a little. Once you know a tune really well you may find it helps to try playing faster than you can really manage, just to get a feeling for playing the tune at speed. However, you should still also keep practising at slower speeds for accuracy.

It is useful to have target speeds in mind when you are learning a new piece, but you don't have to play everything as fast as the recording you learnt it from. Speed is a matter of taste as well as technique. In the table above you can see that Jimmy Martin recorded Train 45 very fast (170 bpm). By contrast, the Stanley Brothers' version chugs along at a more moderate pace (132 bpm). They are just two quite different performances, and I wouldn't like to say that one is better than the other.


Types of metronome

My preference is for the large clockwork pyramid type which has a loud click. However, there are plenty of electronic ones, and you can also download free software which will turn your computer into a metronome. My software page includes some metronome links. Hitsquad have an excellent section for metronome links, and a search on Google will doubtless reveal more.

There is additionally a whole world of drum machines and other music software which may add a further dimension to your playing experience. Again, a lot of this stuff is free. You could start with the Hammerhead Rhythm Station. Also check Hammerhead's links to other drum machines. You might also find some useful rhythm stuff on that neglected keyboard that the kids no longer use.


Playing fast!

There is no trick to playing fast, just years of practice in developing correct technique. From my perspective as an amateur of limited talent I would say that the following are all vital:
  • Developing a strong right hand

  • Practising with a metronome to develop stamina, control - and speed!

  • Keeping the left hand simple while you are working up speed. Dean Webb's playing on the Dillard's version of Dixie Breakdown is a good example of fast, powerful playing, using a lot of open strings and just touching in the required notes with the left hand. OK, once you have a fast right hand you can go on and make the left hand fingering as complicated as you like, but one thing at a time!

  • Playing every day for at least 1-2 hours (not just getting the mandolin out of its case at weekends).

  • Don't expect miracles - you should notice gradual improvement over the months and years. And don't force your muscles to work too hard - if you experience pain, stop straight away or you will do yourself serious and possibly permanent damage. With good technique and a regular practice regime you should eventually be able to play fast without too much trouble.

Extra comments on picking up speed

Beginners will usually find it difficult to pick up any sort of speed. Initially it will be a process of picking out tunes slowly note by note. However, you should try and develop a regular and disciplined down-up picking pattern. One of the fundamental difficulties of playing with a pick is to make the upstrokes as strong as the downstrokes. You should be working on this right from the earliest stages. Once you can control the down-up movement reasonably well you should try and lighten up somewhat, and go for a bit more speed. My experience is that above about 100 bpm you are moving into a higher gear, where the down-up movement becomes more automatic and you do not have time to register consciously each individual pick stroke as a separate activity. Nevertheless, you should still strive for control of timing, to be able to play along with the metronome beat.

Tremolo is a fast down-up picking movement which is lighter than regular picking, but which, in most bluegrass contexts, is still a controlled movement which can be practised with the metronome. (Hint: if you can play Foggy Mountain Breakdown at 160 bpm you can tremolo at 80 bpm using the same down-up speed.)


Final thoughts on using a metronome

Although most top-class players and teachers recommend practising with a metronome, some don't. The anti-metronome faction usually say something to the effect that it is important to develop a natural rhythm, that you have to allow the music to breathe, and so on. I supect that either these folk have a great natural musical talent which enables them automatically to play in time, or they don't have good timing and can't be bothered to learn. If the latter, they are the folks who screw up jam sessions and amateur bands, probably without realising what they are doing. I can only say that I get plenty of opportunity to develop a natural rhythm and allow the music to breathe when playing with other people. Practising on my own at home I rely on the metronome to keep me spot on. It's a strict taskmaster, but invaluable!


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