Forum - Banjo Ben Clark

How do you build speed?

As one of the key training aspects for the banjo is to play faster, I was wondering how you practice to build up your speed.

Reason is, that I used to do it by increasing the metronome by 20 or 10 beats, depending on what’s doable, which works quite well and has helped me to increase speed over time, and I believe this to be a very common method.

However, a few weeks ago I got the tip about a discussion on Djangobooks forum where someone told that there has been done research on this topic (did not say it was scientific :sunglasses: ) and apparently the best method seems to alternate between half speed and full speed. So if you want to play a tune at 240bpm you should practice at 120 and if that goes well go up immediately to 240, meaning that in the beginning you will play mostly at 120 and try 240 every so many times making loads of mistakes, but in the end you should be able to play at 240 sooner than if you would do by building up for example 120-140-155-170-180-etc.

If that is true, I will use my time wisely, so I immediately changed to the ‘alternating’ method. First impression is good, with this strategy I practice more often at a slower pace than I did when building up speed stepwise, because it then felt like saving time to start at the highest tempo possible. Moreover I also practice a lot at high tempo, but when I go back to half speed, I can really focus better on technique, arm hand and finger movement, more than when I only went back 20 beats ore so. I think I will feel more secure at the higher tempo sooner because of that.
But the best part is obviously that I don’t need to stop playing to reset the metronome constantly :wink: !!

Any ideas on this, or other approaches you use?
O, and if you know this research, I’m interested in the details! All I found was a forum post with as much as the info I gave here.


I would be cautious with this type of speed building. I’m not a professional nor a banjo player, I play guitar & a little mandolin but I would have to think that building speed is about the same process in anything & I don’t mean just music.

Take a pitcher for example: A guy may be able to throw 90 mph, but if his technique is poor & his form isn’t consistent, he won’t be able to throw strikes. He has to start slowly developing his technique until his form & movements are as perfected as possible. Then once it becomes natural & muscle memory has developed, he’ll be able to throw the ball harder & control those 90 mph pitches & place them right where he wants them. This also develops confidence which is another key in doing anything good & with precision.

My experiences with trying to play too fast too soon usually result in terrible technique, sloppy playing, poor tone & (this is the worst of all), PRACTICING MISTAKES & then … discouragement in learning the song altogether.

Most professionals will say to work on something at only the speed fast enough to where you can play it cleanly with good technique while maintaining good tone. Once that’s accomplished, move up to a faster tempo & again & again. It may take awhile to reach your desired speed, but being able to play through it cleanly with good tone is most important.

Speed excercises are good tools as well as playing other songs. They will all lead to playing that one song better & faster. You’ll sound more professional playing a slower song cleanly with good tone, timing & precision, than trying to play fast, missing notes & just sounding plain bad.

Everything I’ve said is simply my opinion. I may be wrong. What works for you may not work for others & what works for me may not work for you. There are no rules & we’re all in this together trying to be better musicians. So find what works best for you. I might just try that double speed step-up practice thing myself & find out it works great. Just be very cautious of practicing mistakes with bad technique. Hope this helps…


I’ve only been playing for about 5 months now so maybe you know more than I do.

From what I gather from my own experience as some threads over on the Banjo Hangout forum, there’s no quick fix. Some players on the BHO have been playing for years and are still working on their speed.

I figure that once my playing becomes automatic, that is, that I no longer need to think about where my hands and fingers are and what they are doing, then the speed will come. So it means a lot of practice. When I learn a song, I play it slow for a while, then I try to play it faster than I can play it and then I slow it down again, but a little faster than before so gradually I get faster. But I am far from up to speed on any song that requires speed.

The story goes that Earl Scruggs said he started getting the song after around the 1000th repetition.

Guess I gave the impression to be looking for a shortcut to improve, but that was not the meaning of my post. It was simply about strategies to build speed.

Apparently from research (I got back that it was in fact scientific :slight_smile: ) it has shown that alternating half speed and full speed will result in being able to play at a certain speed, and with that playing it clean and rhythmic, more effectively and efficiently than when building your speed up step by step. The purpose is not to continue to play full tempo if you can’t , but to keep trying and everytime you will be able to play a bit more. (it’s important that you decide what full tempo is, it should not be 300 if you can only play 180 in general, that won’t work, key aspect is the alternation between 2 tempi that are X(100%) and Y (50% of X) and don’t use speeds in-between)

What I found is when practicing like this, I easily find the most difficult parts that need extra attention because you cannot fake through it and forget, but what really feels good, is that every time I go back to half speed (which is often, be aware!) I am intensely conscious of the movements I make with fingers, hand and arm. Therefore my feeling is that it will result in less sloppy playing in the end. We’ll see, I’ll keep trying this and let you know if I have new epiphanies :wink:

Tony Rice says the best way to learn how to play fast is to play fast, so who am I to argue?

I don’t systematically change speeds the way you’re discussing, but I’ll often crank up the speed on a piece I’m learning just to gauge where I’m at, then slow it back down to a workable level.

Ben I have found that slowing down is a very good method I might play one tune at 120 beats for a month and then I may boost it 10 beats and play it another week or so and then up it again and so on . it seems to work out very well for me . I will take a 220 beat song or tune and play at 120 beats and I like to play just the backup on the tabledit program as it gives timing a good meaning to your playing . I tend to play slower than most, like if I have a tune that is 220 I will strive for 180 . I usually stay at 180 I tend to like to hear all the music and feel that one can do something to fast . 300 beats is about way to fast to really enjoy it that much . SPEED KILLS LOL , I appreciate the articulation at faster speeds but slow em down for my way of thinking .

I still consider myself a novice, but I find I naturally am able to play a piece faster as I learn it slowly and methodically. I like this quote from Evan Marshall - “Speed is a byproduct of control.”

practice ,practice, practice…x1000…actually a teacher I’ve watched said that if you should practice for clairity, seperation and timing but also push it sometimes too. Because you use different muscles to play fast vs. slow so you have to also develop those also…Its what I try to do and seems to work…

this may be a little cynical but not everyone will be able to throw 90 mph like the pitcher in the analogy above…not trying to get too scientific, but if we had a normal bell curve of banjo pickers the mean or average ability of speed would probably be something more like 75 mph (not sure what that would be in bpm but I trust you catch my drift)… my experience in playing baseball indicates that the average person does not throw much harder than 70 mph and that number might be generous…that being said my opinion is to not let the fast playing pickers discourage you…what truly is more impressing to me is some who plays cleanly and accents each and every note…this is more attainable than speed…there is a limit for how fast we cant get…but I would hypothesize that no one is necessarily limited in their ability to play clean…it all boils down to how much you practice

take with a grain of salt

Great thoughts CC… to extend the analogy, I would say that every MLB pitcher doesn’t need to throw heat. Sure it’s nice, but Tim Wakefield’s 75 MPH “heater” was effective after feeding the batter a steady diet of 60 MPH knucklers. Jaime Moyer is still getting outs with his slow and slower repertoire. Speed is great, but great music is not always about speed.

i’m with Ben on this one. I can attain faster speeds only after I’ve played for a good two hours. Until then I just don’t feel warmed up enough and if I try to go fast I will tense/cramp up.

Hmm, nice point, working on endurance (play longer) in order to sprint (play faster).
Indeed I feel too, that the longer I’m playing the more flexible the fingers get.

Good item to add to list of practice habits: “prolong training hours”.
Lucky for me, that they all love banjo in my house…

The story goes that Earl Scruggs said he started getting the song after around the 1000th repetition.(quote)

That is more than likely as not the truth . I have played a flat picking tune at least 500 times before it sunk in . I have not picked up a banjo in over a year and could still play most of Cumberland Gap , but using Ben’s tab on coming around the mountain , that be Yankee for “Comin roun the mountin” and I can play it almost a soon as I start, at least I can recognize the melody so maybe I need to get back to the banjer as I always wanted to play and did put almost two years into playing just few . I have at least 499 more times before I can say I can play “Comin roun the mountin” .Don’t rush it, to many things are rushed today, enjoy what we do today and look forward to tomorrow as it is sinking in over night. As the saying goes “stop and smell the flowers along the way” You might want to take a few weeks off of a single tune if you are having a problem with a tune, it will work wonders and clear out a few cob webs in the process. Good luck in all you all do on this site and beyond. Merry Christmas by the way !