Playing Fast, by Collin Bay – Strings By Mail

“Collin Bay is a talented and extremely knowledgeable jazz guitarist who is currently helping many musicians as director of artist relations and product development at Mel Bay publications. It is to all our benefit that he has written this book with a tried and true method to develop speedy chops. I have seen the undeniable results many times.”  –  John Wunsch, Owner of Strings By Mail


Playing Fast, by Collin Bay


When discussing the topic of playing fast, I’m almost always given pause. There is such an abundance of musicians—famous, popular ones at that—who have made careers out of velocity, often while completely ignoring musicality. Especially from a teacher’s perspective, I find playing fast to be an incredibly delicate topic. From personal experience I can attest to the temptation of cranking tempos, allowing the luster of virtuosity to obscure weaker elements of overall musicianship.

Further, with such widespread reinforcement—be it the popular success of the melismatic vocals of Beyoncé, the critical acclaim in the keyboard runs of Lang Lang or the tradition of the individual talent in jazz, where virtuosity was given hierarchical priority, from the “cutting sessions” of the last century through present day—the ability to play virtuosically fast has historically been rewarded, and is thus extremely alluring. People go for it, regardless of whether or not the actual music being performed is up to snuff.

By no means is it necessary to be able to play fast. Bill Evans, Jim Hall, Bill Frisell, Billie Holiday immediately come to mind: each of them created music of the highest order without ever relying on virtuosity in the traditional sense. And that’s just within the jazz tradition.

Playing fast is simply not required to create a moving statement. And that’s the goal of music, of art—to communicate; to express; to share a talent, an idea, and to move people.

Still, for all the pitfalls of playing fast, it can have incredible impact when used masterfully. The way Lionel Loueke can stealthily dip into his ability to create a virtuosic passage; the way Gohar Vardanyan can frame a blistering movement with bold tone and the perspective of an old soul; even the way Jimi Hendrix could tear into a face-melting solo as a means to heighten compositional intensity: each presents a clear justification for the pursuit of the ability to play fast and its mature, artistic execution.

From another perspective—the music that moves me the most, personally, tends to have two prevailing characteristics: first, it is communicative; second, it is innovative. Taking such a point of view would require a serious practitioner of music to always strive to improve, to push ones limits and the limits of music itself. The spirit of innovation is in other words a pursuit of excellence, a pursuit of perfection, a pursuit of the unknown. It is humanism. Put to serve the first characteristic, traditional virtuosity can be incredibly powerful. To that end, I have found that the artists who create the best music tend to take their craft quite seriously—they devote hours to practice, to improving their musicianship, nurturing their minds and hearts and honing their skills as instrumentalists. In such a context, why would anyone avoid working on improving any aspect of musicianship?

In my role of Artist Relations and Product Development at Mel Bay I recently contracted a project on sweep picking. Sweep picking, in short, is the practice of picking as much in one direction as possible before switching directions. It is often associated with heavy metal music. I’m paraphrasing, but the author initially was hesitant to go forward with the project. He didn’t see himself as a metal player. We ended up in agreement that a technique or skill doesn’t have to be used traditionally; rather, if viewed as simply another tool in a toolbox, a technique can be used in different ways, in new contexts, and thus can be used to create new textures and innovative ideas. Like sweep picking, playing fast—when used to serve the communication of an idea—is just another weapon in a musician’s arsenal and can be drawn upon to great effect.

Learning to play fast for the sake of playing fast is absolutely valueless; however, having the ability to play fast can afford a skilled musician new means of expression, can put new tools in ones toolbox, and thus can only augment musicianship.

Learn to Burn by Collin Bay

Learn to Burn: How to Play Fast Using Speed Bursts (for Stringed Instruments)


It was with this in mind that I wrote my newest book, Learn to Burn: How to Play Fast Using Speed Bursts (for Stringed Instruments). This book uses ideas presented to me at Interlochen Arts Academy by John Wunsch and honed during my time at New School University. It was written with fretted stringed instrument players in mind, although the concepts can easily be applied to other instruments. I hope you’ll take a look.


Again: I find the topic of playing fast to be extremely delicate. I can’t overemphasize the meaningless of playing fast without communicating an idea; on the other hand, if a musician employs velocity to serve a greater message, he or she will truly capture listeners.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please fill in the number below: *