I have no way of knowing what percentage of you who read my articles are musicians. Many of you who want to turn that corner from listener to musician might be afraid to try. After all, picking up something like a guitar with its six closely spaced strings strung across that enigmatic fretboard can be intimidating! If you have already made your own start to learning a stringed instrument, I suspect that in that moment of first picking up the instrument you realized there is quite a difference between playing “air” guitar and “real” guitar. In this article I want to talk about those physical limitations we all have and how we can work within them so we can become the best musician we can possibly be.
Folk musicians are like any other musician, and so even though this is a folk music website where we talk about folk music and folk instruments, we have much to learn from musicians who play in other genres, (music categories). A musician worth listening to is jazz guitar great, Jim Hall. Jim Hall passed away in 2013. But before he died, Terry Gross of NPR’s award winning interview show, Fresh Air, interviewed him. Jim was a jazz guitar giant. He was the best of the best. He really knew how to play that arch top f-hole guitar, a guitar with a quite different sound than the familiar flat top acoustic guitar we folk musicians favor. During the interview, he tells us that the guitar was a difficult instrument for him to play. He practiced everyday, just as any professional would do. But he had a secret. The secret was that he couldn’t play fast! Yikes! Really? Yes, really. So to compensate for this physical limitation, he played at slow to medium speeds, only. He wasn’t a flashy player, because “flashy” implies “fast.” But he didn’t let this so-called limitation hinder him. To work his way through this limitation, he played at speeds that best showed off his talents. To play at speeds he wasn’t comfortable at would have made it impossible for him to develop into the jazz great he eventually became. Rather than work beyond his limitations, he played the best he could possibly play inside those physical limitations he knew were there.
We should take heart from Jim Hall’s efforts. The number one problem all musicians have is trying to play fast when they aren’t ready for it or aren’t capable of it. Everyone wants to play fast, and if they can’t, they don’t think they are a good guitarist or a good banjo player or a good fiddle player or whatever. I have a good friend whose name is John. John didn’t take up the mandolin and the fiddle until he retired, which was around 16 years ago, as of the writing of this article. John is not a fast player; he’s not a flashy player. But as I told him just the other day, I would trust playing with him in any performance we might give together. John has talent. He keeps the beat. He knows his chords. He practices. He’s steady. He’s always there when you need him and he’ll never jump into the next phrase too soon, which means he’s as reliable as a Swiss watch. He doesn’t want to play fast. He just wants to play well. John is a real musician. He’s the real deal If you want to play with someone and not have to worry about him, you need to play with someone like John.
And then there are any number of my previous guitar students of years past who were eager wannabe rock and rollers when they first began their lessons. They weren’t interested in playing slow. They only wanted to play fast. Dazzlingly fast. They wanted to play so fast that no one else could touch them. And so they never got their act together, literally. They would plink around rather than play with solidity because they were constantly making mistakes. And so they would get discouraged and quit. You can’t correct your mistakes if you are constantly trying to play faster, trying to play out of your comfort zone. This is the #1 error of those who try to learn to play. They get impatient and push beyond their abilities, and they never learn to play a song cleanly. They sabotage themselves before they ever get off the ground. Jazz great Jim Hall didn’t worry about playing faster than he could handle. He wisely played at a speed that showed off his talents rather than at a speed that revealed his inadequacies. My friend John doesn’t play fast either. John doesn’t want to impress anyone with his playing. He just wants to play. And he does. He plays well. And so will you if you just…slow…down….
There are many examples of top-flight musicians who don’t play fast. The old blues player, Robert Lockwood Jr., comes to mind. Lockwood’s “catalog” was fairly limited. That is, during the duration of his career there weren’t many tunes that ended up on his playlist. But what he did play, he played very well. Lockwood was a finger pickin’ blues master. He played all his tunes at a slow to medium speed, and his playing was bluesy to the very core of him. He would settle into a slow or medium rhythm and the tune would practically play itself. A good example of Lockwood’s slow and easy playing can be found here–
Lightnin’ Sam Hopkins was another example of a musician who could take slower playing to new heights. Sam was a great folk blues guitar player. Most of the time Sam played at a medium speed, he almost never played fast, and in the video below, Sam deliberately plays a short introductory section too fast, finally settling on a medium tempo of Baby Please Don’t Go. This short performance shows how playing too fast can hurt rather than help a good song.
But we began this discussion with Jazz great Jim Hall. Play this video to hear this great guitarist in action. In this clip he plays on the old Johnny Carson TV show. The first tune is at a medium tempo, and the second tune is at a slow tempo. I think this clip is the perfect way to round out this article.
If you would like to hear Jim Hall (Terry Gross Fresh Air interview) where he talks about his career and why he played all his tunes at a slow to medium speed rather than at fast speeds, listen here–
Play strong, but don’t play faster than you are capable of. Stay within your God-given abilities and you will be a better musician for it. And you won’t get discouraged so quickly. You will be more likely to stick with it. Eventually you will cradle that old ax like a baby as you play your tunes at just the right speed.
If you want to play fast, play fast if you’re physically able. But you will have to practice to get up to speed. If, in your practicing you find that slow to medium is the best speed for you, you will have to practice to play at that speed, too. Regardless of the speed you play, you will need to practice in order to play well at that speed. Simply put–practice! 🙂