Speed. Something that comes up with almost every student I teach. Whether they’re underestimating themselves, “I could never play that fast so I’m not going to work on that.” Over estimating the importance of speed, “I get that note choice is important but, like, can you teach me to play as fast as Billy Strings already?” Or just trying to keep their head in the sand, “Yeah I’m not really worried about playing it up to speed yet… I just really want to understand how it works… yeah…” I think most students who are new to flatpicking immediately realize there is some kind of technique arms race going on. Normally their first efforts to get involved in bluegrass focuses on these elements or avoiding these elements. Who can play fastest? Billy Strings looks a little tense sometimes, should I flex every muscle in my body while I flatpick? Molly Tuttle plays with a closed fist but Bryan Sutton’s fingers touch the pick guard, should I lock my pinky on the pickguard like a banjo player? TONY RICE DOES THIS THING WITH HIS THUMB SHOULD I BE DOING THAT!?
In the pursuit of speed, many players tend to focus on the wrong aspects of technique and the genre as a whole. Remember that music isn’t a sport, no one wins at the end of a bluegrass show. In fact, treating our genre and community this way drives away potential fans while attracting more players who have this unhealthy gladiatorial mindset. So lets get this out of the way, bluegrass isn’t about playing the fastest and if you go down that road there’s no trophy for playing Blackberry Blossom at 400 bpms. Not even at Winfield.
The Virtuoso Effect
While researching this subject I discovered a thread on Reddit’s r/LetsTalkMusic where u/wildistherewind hypothesized, “Recently I’ve been thinking about how some genres seem to peak and immediately reach a dead end when the quality of musicianship goes to high. For example, whatever you would call what Joe Santriani and Steve Vai does, it reached a limit at some point… and there wasn’t any where else to go with it and the progression of that genre just stopped.” There were many brilliant comments on this thread but none encapsulated my feelings quite as well as u/superbearman in this comment.
I think that bluegrass is far from some virtuoso heat death of the flatpicking universe. I think we have our musicians’ equal respect for tradition and innovation to thank for that. Earlier this year, when Molly Tuttle released her latest album, When You’re Ready, she didn’t release an album of great flatpicking breaks. She released an album of great songs that also happens to have great flatpicking breaks on it. For all of the flack that Chris Thile catches for being a show off, he has remained dedicated to writing interesting and good music instead of just great mandolin parts.
So if our heroes aren’t speed and technique obsessed, why are we?
The Cult OF Ego
In the bluegrass scene I’m not sure our obsession with speed stems from our guitar heroes lack of taste. The majority of them use speed as a tool not as the “singular characteristic” of their music. You’ll hear equal parts barn-burner and ballad at the Rob Ickes & Trey Hensley concert. No, I think our recent boost in speed obsession comes from the “stunt guitar playing” that has become common on social media, whether it be YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, etc. It’s not hard to find a video of an 11 year old crush Tony Rice’s guitar break from Devil In Disguise. The problem is afterwards you don’t ask how much time did they practice? How many takes did that video take to record? Who’s their teacher? Instead we just start feeling a little insecure about our own speed. We start searching for a secret answer. We start looking at Tony Rice’s weird thumb thing. Wait, do I need to do the weird thumb thing? IS THAT THE SECRET!?
No. It’s not the secret. Watch the video of the weird thumb as much as you want. It’ll never be the secret.
Kill Your Ego
I’ll tell you the closest thing I’ve ever found to a secret. Kill your ego, listen to yourself, and listen to your body. Your ego is the one telling you to kick off Blue Ridge Cabin Home at 180 bpms even though you can’t play it at 120 bpms yet. If you were listening to yourself you’d know that you sound better at 100 bpms right now anyway. If you were listening to your body you might know that it’s the tension in your right hand that’s holding you back anyway.
Don’t focus on playing faster, focus on being a better player. Get ready for a health tip, speed training is part of a balanced diet. Now get ready for an ego blow, even if you could physically play faster you probably wouldn’t know what to do with it. Yet. But guess what, when you can play something slowly and cleanly, listen to your body and you can tell yourself when you’re ready to try it faster. The students that I have taught that tackle speed barriers the fastest have killed their egos and can listen to their bodies.
Objectivity vs. Subjectivity
Now if we want to keep the entire bluegrass guitar scene healthy remember it’s not about some objective question. Is he/she a technical wizard on the guitar? Yes or no. You should be asking yourself a more open question. Do I like this song? Regardless of who’s playing it and how sick or not sick the guitar break is. Some of my favorite bluegrass tunes of all time don’t even feature guitar breaks. Country Gazette’s recording of Sweet Allis Chalmers features no guitar shredding and I’ve been listening to that song on repeat for the last two years. The opening flatpicking break to Kate Wolf’s Carolina Pines is excellent and I learned it in about 15 minutes. Hot Rize’s recording of You Were On My Mind This Morning has multiple very reserved guitar moments from Bryan Sutton and the song isn’t worse because of that.
Now I’m not trying to be some kind of taste police over here. But maybe, just maybe, only listening to bluegrass songs that feature blazing flatpicking breaks might be the source of some speed insecurity. Focus on being a better musician and remember the goal is good music.
Kill your ego, listen to yourself, and listen to your body. Forget about Tony Rice’s thumb.