How fast is that tune?

An easy way to find out…

Fiddle tunes are often played played fast, with many players (particularly harmonica ones) struggling to keep up. Unfortunately, many tunes need to go fast, just to sound right. Seasoned bluegrass players (fiddlers, mandolins etc) manage these speeds with apparent ease. Practice is the obviously the secret weapon, with Band in a Box and the metronome key tools. Scales are a good way to build up the necessary speed. However, it is helpful to know exactly how fast to play.

It is easy to find this out, at least for fiddle tunes. These almost invariably go for 16 bars, and so, to measure the speed of a given tune, just time it once through. If your watch has a stopwatch feature, then so much the better. You can also do this at live shows, to determine exactly how fast a particular musician is playing. Once you have timed the tune, then apply the following table (write it on to the back of a business card, and keep it in your wallet).

Time (sec) Speed (beats/min)
24 160
25 154
26 148
27 142
28 137
29 132
30 128
31 124
32 120
33 116
34 113
35 110
36 107
37 104
38 101
39 98
40 96
41 94
42 91

Having figured out the speed of the tune you’re wanting to play, then build up to it slowly, using a Band in a Box backing (which allows you to adjust the speed). Also, try the scale exercises outlined in the practice section. If you can’t manage these scales at the speed of your desired tune, then you probably can’t manage the tune either.

Its much better to settle for a slower speed, and play the tune cleanly, than to struggle at full pace. Over time, the speed will come.