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Thread: Speed of bluegrass... is it just me?

  1. #1
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    Default Speed of bluegrass... is it just me?

    Ok, I know Iím pretty new here. Iíve quickly made a couple of friends, not looking for any enemies. I do not know if what I am about to say is some kind of heresy or not, so please forgive me in advance....

    Why is bluegrass always played so fast, and does anybody really still enjoy it once it hits groundbreaking speeds?

    I came from the banjo world, jokes welcome. Ross Nickerson was my idol/mentor. Always amazed me how lightning fast he could play. I actually got to be pretty fast myself on the banjo, so Iím not making remarks based on the fact that I cannot accomplish something.

    Recently, I got the Hal Leonard Mandolin Method and Iíll be honest, I really enjoy listening to the accompanying cd. Red Haired Boy, Texas Gales, and several others that are played at a moderate speed, not the typical bluegrass speed, and I have never heard them played any more beautifully. Blackberry Blossom for instance. Iíve heard it a million times, but Iíve never enjoyed it the way I did listening it at a moderate speed on the mandolin, on this same cd.

    And Whiskey Before Breakfast. Same thing.

    The other day, I went down a rabbit trail of YouTube videos, and one ended up being 2 players, 1 guitar which I imagine you all are familiar with, and 1 mandolin which I am positive everybody here knows of. I greatly admire this mandolin player, own a lot of his teaching material.... really look up to him.
    But in this particular video, they played Whiskey Before Breakfast. Yes, was pretty amazing the speed they were playing it at. But I really didnít enjoy the tune all that much....
    I didnít even finish it...

    I donít know if I am just a grumpy old man? Lol

    Hope I am not offending anybody at all, just wanted to say this for a long time, even in banjo circles. Curious if I am alone.....

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    Default Re: Speed of bluegrass... is it just me?

    Quote Originally Posted by Medley12 View Post
    Why is bluegrass always played so fast?
    Because the fast tunes are exciting that way, as in any musical style.

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    Default Re: Speed of bluegrass... is it just me?

    Medley12,
    No, you are not alone. I like Bluegrass, but I play mostly old time fiddle tunes, which can also be played pretty quickly, but they are intended to be dance tunes, so playing faster than people can dance comfortably is not encouraged. I find that most people can't play cleanly at excessive speed, with a few exceptions, so the music gets "muddy" and you lose the sound of the separate notes. There is a guy that plays instrument demos for one of the more popular mandolin retailers who is a good example of this. He seems to simply try to shred the mandolin at some crazy speed. This, to my mind, is not the best way to demo an instrument. You get zero feel for the real tone because you can't hear it. The notes are all smashed together with no separation. It turns into a demo of his playing ability, which is OK, but not what you want in an instrument demo. Put is situation in a Bluegrass band with four or five instruments and the problem gets far worse, unless they are all exceptional musicians, which is rare.

    Like you, I find that a lot of Bluegrass, and old time fiddle tunes, are much more enjoyable if played at a more moderate pace.
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    Default Re: Speed of bluegrass... is it just me?

    I find it really enjoyable to hear, and challenging to play. I know it is an elusive dream, but I am trying to learn that kind of speed. Alas, there are some great bluegrass recordings of slower ballads, if that is the right term, and I enjoy those, too. I get what you mean, but the more I listen to Sam Bush, Bill Monroe and the rest, the more inspired I am as a mandolinist in the making. Always trying to get better!
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    Default Re: Speed of bluegrass... is it just me?

    "Why is bluegrass always played so fast, and does anybody really still enjoy it once it hits groundbreaking speeds?"

    A. I believe BG is originally intended as dance music and the local dancing style where BG was born ( South East USA) involved some fast movement.
    B. Yes

    I also enjoy Bluegrass - particularly fiddle tunes at slower speeds, and I also have heard even some very professional players - playing so fast it just gets old - fast.
    There is plenty of bluegrass that is not fast at all, so its more of a "noticeable feature" I didn't want to say stereotype.

    Playing fast has always been a way of demonstrating technical prowess for musicians since the beginning, we can argue about what is true technical prowess somewhere else.
    Many bluegrass tunes are referred to as "Barn Burners" meaning when played they would get the barn dance jumpin', also many bluegrass tunes are written to be played fast, and so the intended statement of the composer is executed through fast technique.
    This is not really true of fiddle tunes, which come from an older European dance tradition, which evolved as it migrated globally, the same fiddle tune may be played very different in Australia than in Florida for example.

    Any I would encourage you to look deeper, there is plenty of "not hyper-fast" Bluegrass out there.
    "Mean Old Timer, He's got grey hair, Mean Old Timer he just don't care
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    Default Re: Speed of bluegrass... is it just me?

    Well according to Mike Cross " A good Bluegrass picker can play a three minute song in a minute and a half".

    Of course not all songs are played fast, lots of waltzes and ballads. I do like to hear a hot fiddle tune on occasion tho.

    I played in an Old Time band for years and one of our fiddle players (female) disliked the fast Bluegrass style of tunes, liking it to a "pissing contest".
    Charley

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    Default Re: Speed of bluegrass... is it just me?

    [QUOTE=Pappyrich;1802416]Medley12,
    No, you are not alone. I find that most people can't play cleanly at excessive speed, with a few exceptions, so the music gets "muddy" and you lose the sound of the separate notes. There is a guy that plays instrument demos for one of the more popular mandolin retailers who is a good example of this. He seems to simply try to shred the mandolin at some crazy speed. This, to my mind, is not the best way to demo an instrument. You get zero feel for the real tone because you can't hear it. The notes are all smashed together with no separation.
    [/QUOTE

    I am of the same mind set as you. Most Bluegrass Tunes I hear are played so fast that I don't even make an attempt to play them. I also find that, to my ear, melodies are lost as it seems to me to become mush. I especially find this with chop chords. When I hear chop chords I hear a rhythm but I cannot tell what chord is being played. Perhaps it takes the place of having a bass or a snare drum.
    This is not to say playing fast bluegrass or playing chop chords is a skill I would not like to have. Admittedly, I never worked on these skills because the speed intimidates me.
    When playing the few Bluegrass tunes I do play I select ones such as BLUE MOON OF KENTUCKY that is not played blazingly fast or tunes that I slow down such as ROLL IN MY SWEET BABIES ARMS.
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  14. #8
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    Default Re: Speed of bluegrass... is it just me?

    FWIW, typical fast bluegrass drives my wife absolutely BONKERS. After 2 minutes or so (most often in the car, where she can't walk away), her pulse & blood pressure are matching the music's BPM... around 200 or so. Not quite making for pleasent company!
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    Default Re: Speed of bluegrass... is it just me?

    Quote Originally Posted by Pappyrich View Post
    Medley12,
    No, you are not alone. I like Bluegrass, but I play mostly old time fiddle tunes, which can also be played pretty quickly, but they are intended to be dance tunes, so playing faster than people can dance comfortably is not encouraged. I find that most people can't play cleanly at excessive speed, with a few exceptions, so the music gets "muddy" and you lose the sound of the separate notes. There is a guy that plays instrument demos for one of the more popular mandolin retailers who is a good example of this. He seems to simply try to shred the mandolin at some crazy speed. This, to my mind, is not the best way to demo an instrument. You get zero feel for the real tone because you can't hear it. The notes are all smashed together with no separation. It turns into a demo of his playing ability, which is OK, but not what you want in an instrument demo. Put is situation in a Bluegrass band with four or five instruments and the problem gets far worse, unless they are all exceptional musicians, which is rare.

    Like you, I find that a lot of Bluegrass, and old time fiddle tunes, are much more enjoyable if played at a more moderate pace.
    I like a lot of tunes played slower than at a VERY fast tempo ! But, I sure would like to be able to play that fast !

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    Default Re: Speed of bluegrass... is it just me?

    Gunga......Gunga.....Gu-Lunga

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    Default Re: Speed of bluegrass... is it just me?

    Well put, Charley!
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    Default Re: Speed of bluegrass... is it just me?

    1. I'm afraid that the answer to your question is YES, you ARE being a grumpy old man to complain about this.

    2. Not all bluegrass music is played fast. Not even all of Bill Monroe's music was played fast, either. If you are laboring under the impression that it's all fast, then you have not explored the the genre sufficiently well. Listen more, I'd advise.

    3. In particular, most bluegrass vocals are not played especially fast.

    4. Yes, it takes considerable technical prowess to play an instrument quickly, and it also takes even more prowess to maintain a consistent, fast tempo in a band situation with several instruments. This kind of musical prowess is considered praiseworthy in the bluegrass genre, particularly during instrumentals that showcase this proficiency. These tunes were intended to be played fast (e.g, "Wheel Hoss," "Train 45," or "Big Mon").

    5. Early bluegrass music, especially from groups like Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Blue Sky Boys, etc., was often played live, as dance music -- not to some seated audience. A lot of American folk dance music (e.g., clogging, contra) is designed to be up-tempo.

    6. Bluegrass music was famously described by the late Pete Seeger as "folk music in overdrive." Very apt. When Bill Monroe invented this form of music in the late 1940's, he deliberately raised both the instrumental tempos and the vocal keys (songs sung in Bb and B) to sound more exciting! The introduction of Earl Scrugg's fast, 3-finger picked banjo helped in this regard, too. These tactics worked well, and bluegrass became a commercial success, esp. on the radio. It was more exciting than most oldtime folk music of the day to a large segment of the listening audience, and it sold recordings better. So, you could make the case that it was changed for commercial reasons.

    7. This may not be true of you, but in my own experience, the majority of beginner and intermediate mandolin players who claim to "dislike" fast bluegrass tempos often do so not merely because they're unhappy with the sound, but mainly because their own playing technique is insufficiently advanced to keep up, for example, in bluegrass jams or playing alongside bluegrass recordings. As their own technique advances, these complaints tend to go away! The best mandolinists whom I know don't ever complain about bluegrass tempos -- just the beginners. That tells me a lot. I have never heard Chris Thile, Sam Bush, Tim O'Brien, Mike Marshall complain about bluegrass tempos.

    8. Certain oldtime musicians tend to be extremely conservative, and they have long rejected all the "new-fangled" innovations in bluegrass to this very day, including both the higher vocal keys and the raised tempos. These same people might also object to the occasional non-traditional chords found in bluegrass. Of course, we later got a generation of conservative bluegrass fans who proceeded to object to Newgrass/Dawg music, which had introduced further musical idioms, phrases and chords, not previously heard in Bill Monroe's music. And so it goes. We call this progress.

    9. We're all entitled to our opinion! You might find others who share your opinion and prefer to play bluegrass standards at slower-then-usual tempos -- and not just 'cuz they're beginners and can't manage higher speeds. If so, then more power to you, I say!
    Last edited by sblock; Jan-03-2021 at 8:45pm.

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    Default Re: Speed of bluegrass... is it just me?

    Quote Originally Posted by ColdBeerGoCubs View Post
    What does that have to do with Bluegrass?
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    Default Re: Speed of bluegrass... is it just me?

    I've played bluegrass music for 40 years plus and yes there are many fast paced tunes both instrumentals and vocals. But I found within a set being played on stage they were a chance to provide a showcase for individual instrument players and maybe a fast paced vocal song, which is as it should be. But any set should be a balance that gives everyone in the group an opportunity to play and or sing and that's what makes a group more enjoyable from an audience perspective. All fast all the time gets old.
    And I will add that playing at break neck speed makes for poor practice habits. Playing a slower pace and playing the song correctly will greatly improve your overall finished product. Playing fast but playing sloppy won't make you sound better.. You'll Just be practicing your mistakes at a faster pace. Listen to Norman Blake. Even his fast instrumentals have a great tempo and are always played very clean.

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    Default Re: Speed of bluegrass... is it just me?

    Quote Originally Posted by tmsweeney View Post
    A. I believe BG is originally intended as dance music and the local dancing style where BG was born ( South East USA) involved some fast movement.
    Is that true? The roots may be in Appalachian dance music, but I thought Bill Monroe (and cohorts) envisioned it more as stage performance music unrelated to dancing. Which is why there is no natural brake on the music. Don't some BG pickers even get annoyed when people at concerts start freeform dancing on the sidelines?

    One of the reasons I enjoy playing Irish and Scottish trad is that it is still closely tied to dance tempos, even though we no longer have dancers at a typical pub session. Performance bands in ITM will sometimes push the tempos beyond that, but there is a common understood dance tempo for jigs, hornpipes, slides, and reels in most sessions. When you get too far past that, most players of ITM will feel it's getting a bit out of hand.

    That doesn't happen in Bluegrass because you're expected to take a star turn in solos, and speed is valued as a technical skill to excite the audience. You don't have to worry about playing too fast for the dancers because there aren't any.

    I would add (mentioned above in the thread) that it's important to distinguish between music that's actually "too fast" for the genre, and music that's above your technical ability. Make sure that's not the source of the complaint. This happens in ITM too.

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    Default Re: Speed of bluegrass... is it just me?

    Hyper fast playing, to me (my opinion) is a "look at me, look at me" proposition; an attention getting device, not unlike YoYo Ma on cello, an affectation which does not necessarily contribute to the enjoyment of the music.
    I would challenge that ultra fast is for dancing.
    Speed is one of the reasons I have limited interest in Bluegrass, I do not find it "musical".

    Norman Blake is an exception as noted in a previous post , he is a musician who plays guitar and mandolin. Then you have Bluegrass mandolin players and guitar players. I find there is a difference.

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    Default Re: Speed of bluegrass... is it just me?

    "Why is bluegrass always played so fast, and does anybody really still enjoy it once it hits groundbreaking speeds?"

    Y'ever think it just might be fun for them what can do it?

    "I play BG so that's what I can talk intelligently about." A line I loved and pirated from Mandoplumb

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    Default Re: Speed of bluegrass... is it just me?

    My favorite bluegrass are the songs; the gospel ones and and soulful waltzes and two-steps. I like what some might call pre-blugrass—early Monroe Brothers. One of my favorite albums is the duo album of Skaggs and Rice. Just two guys singing their hearts out at moderate tempi and no "fast as lightning playing" even thouh both were capable of it.

    OTOH my favorite fiddler is Kenny Baker and he sounded like he was playing slower than he really wass, mainly because he was so relaxed in his attack on the instrument. The best of bluegrass IMHO is those who can maintain that soul even at a fast clip. Otherwise I can just listen to a jackhammer.
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    Default Re: Speed of bluegrass... is it just me?

    Medley12, I have heard more than one bluegrass band whose defining feature seems to be speed at the expense of all else, and like you I don't particularly care for it. There's a huge difference between "uptempo" or even virtuosic and what I would call stupid fast. FWIW I don't play bluegrass, so my opinion has nothing to do with whether or not I can play at an insane tempo.

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    Default Re: Speed of bluegrass... is it just me?

    I don't think Bill Monroe 's intent on Bluegrass was performance for seated audiences, Barn Dance was a major audience in the rural south. The Grand Old Opry is a "performance venue" rather than a dance hall, I'm not aware of bluegrass pickers begin upset about folks dancing to their ( to me if people are dancing, you are doing something right) but I certainly can't read minds. I have heard some folks comment that North East audiences generally sit and listen while southern audiences remove the chairs and dance.
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    Default Re: Speed of bluegrass... is it just me?

    I probably didnít use the best wording in my original post. I was kind of in a hurry, I should have waited so I could better explain.
    I can play Blackberry Blossom, very fast, and still clean, on a banjo. I cannot do it on a mandolin yet. I canít even do it very slow, yet. Iím pretty new to the mandolin. So, this isnít a pride thing at all.

    I was trying to point out that hearing some of these songs, on a mandolin instructional cd, are very beautiful sounding. Iíll be honest. I am 48 years old, but Iíve never heard most of these songs until a few years back. Iíve never really heard a slower version of most of the popular tunes until very recently, and I was very surprised when I did.

    I do like some of the songs when played very fast, Red River Valley comes to mind. Ross Nickerson has an excellent version that I love.

    So, donít get me wrong. I love all genres, all speeds, everything about music.
    Just wanted to share a recent discovery...

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    Default Re: Speed of bluegrass... is it just me?

    This reminds me of an interviewer asking the great Irish piper Finbar Furey why he played so fast, Finbar replied ' because I can '

    I thinks this applies to a few mandolin players too.


    Dave H
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    Default Re: Speed of bluegrass... is it just me?

    Quote Originally Posted by Dave Hanson View Post
    This reminds me of an interviewer asking the great Irish piper Finbar Furey why he played so fast, Finbar replied ' because I can
    Haha, sounds about right. There are a lot of ITM tunes that get played so fast that you can no longer tell what the tune is. I'm sure the same is true in other genres as well!

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    Default Re: Speed of bluegrass... is it just me?

    Everyones different for sure. All I know is I can't listen to Michael Cleveland tear into a tune, without being brought to tears sometimes.

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    Default Re: Speed of bluegrass... is it just me?

    I recently watched a video about food writing, in which a group of food writers discussed whether they had foods they did not like. More than one remarked that, if there was some ingredient they didn't like, they felt they should keep trying it to find the dish that made that ingredient shine, so they could appreciate it.

    Music is often the same way. There's a value in striving to be musically omnivorous. Fast bluegrass is just really fun. Keep trying it. Surely you'll find an example that will help you get it.
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