Forum - Banjo Ben Clark

Speed practice

I have been playing bluegrass for many months now.
I practice by playing songs over and over but with no real increase in speed.
I am taking Ben’s class and to work on speed, I plan on merely playing his beginning licks (Banjo 103)
over and over for one month trying to increase speed without even bothering with songs for the month.

Is this a good approach? I assume that if I can play the licks much faster after a month, I will be able to play
new songs faster at the start compared to not having practiced the licks first.

From my own experience only (after having been learning to play for three years now and still having a long way to go) I don’t think this is a great idea.

I have found speed only comes when you no longer have to think at all about what your are playing. If you can read this and play the song at the same time then you should be able to play it pretty fast.

The more you play, the more you become familiar with the licks and phrases that make up most songs. So at first, it is pretty slow going and you need to be patient. For instance, I started trying to learn Ben’s Foggy Mountain Breakdown about week 5 or 6 in my banjo journey. I played that song hundreds of times in the weeks after I was finally able to stumble through it. I still play it at least once a day, about 340 days a year. After about TWO YEARS, I started to get it close to speed. It took a long time.

Now, because my hands know more, it is quicker. For instance, I started learning (the tab of) Ben’s O Come All Ye Faithfull at the end of November. This is a fast song. Now, four weeks and several hundred repeats of the song later, I can kind of play it at speed (but messy). So it will still take a fairly long time.

Be patient. Really, you have to learn how to walk before you run. Keep on practicing your songs. Practice as much as you can.

Again though, this is only my own experience. You can try to speed practice rolls but I think that would be really boring in the long run. I don’t think you could do that two or three hours a day without driving yourself nuts…

I’ve been playing for about 8 months and speed was something I wanted right away. Yeah…NO! I quickly realized it wasn’t going to happen magically but would come with consistent practice. Speed comes almost naturally with time and practice, as I’ve learned. I often practice with rolls and a metronome, pushing myself to a higher speed each day. I couldn’t imagine I could roll at 200bpm but now I can! As my local teacher reminds me, “if you can’t play it slow, you can’t play it fast.” Ben has such great resources… Find a couple of tunes or lessons to work on and really work on them but don’t drive yourself crazy. You’ve got to enjoy the journey.

Practicing speed separately is a good idea, just like practicing economy in your left hand or metronome exercises or playing with backing tracks. Nothing comes naturally and I think it is good to choose some specific exercises to do focussed practice.
I have actually done what you did and sometimes still do it for fun. Put on the metronome (I use an online tool) and make it a little game to get one step further everytime (that yay-moment when you can roll at 200bpm and then 260 and up is just a cool feeling). However, eventhough I think it is a good start!, the rolls you are planning to use will only practice your right hand as it is all open string and you don’t use the left hand, so it completely leaves out the coordination between left and right hand which is essentially what you need to still sound great on a higher tempo.
If you seriously want to practice speed, you also should choose something that involves both hands to train that coordination between left and right. I don’t say to let go of your initial idea, it is surely a good start, but already now include that too. I prefer to use a song as well to practice speed and don’t recommend a specific one. Just make sure you pick one that you like a lot as you will likely be spending a lot of time with it :laughing: !!
Eventhough speed does not come naturally I don’t think it requires daily practice, I try to focus on accurate playing and just take like 10min a day or 2 times per week for training speed. And if somehow I don’t ‘have it in my fingers’, I skip speed for a day (or week) and focus on other aspects. Forcing doesn’t help me and makes my playing sloppy.
Some exercises that have helped me influence my muscles/brain:

  • increase speed stepwise using a metronome
  • put the metronome slightly higher than you can manage for a while and then go back to your max speed for the song/exercise makes it feel much more slowly and easier to play
  • listening to a fast version of a song makes your maximum tempo easier to play (don’t ask me how it works, I got it from Hal Galper on a YouTube masterclass and tried it with listening to a Pickelny/Trischka duet of Groundspeed when learning Ben’s tab, was able to play 100bpm instead of 80 without other intervention!) I would love other peoples’ experiences with this by the way as it intrigues me how you influence the brain by just listening.