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The Secret To Playing At Fast Tempos

Blistering fast tempos.

You’re at the gig or the jam session and you hear the leader begin to count off the tune…and it’s fast. Really fast.

“Cherokee! 1-2-1234!”

You tense your body as you prepare for lift off. Your mind begins to race. A drip of sweat falls from your brow as you deploy your fingers for a full-on attack. You’re already planning on playing some pre-packaged rapid-fire lines you’d been practicing earlier on in the week. Fight or Flight mode has ensued, because only the survivors will be walking away from this one.

Suddenly the head is over and it’s your turn to take a solo. You dive in with full force, conjuring up an onslaught of jumbled notes and panicked phrases.  You’re doing everything you can to hang, to play faster, but the speed is relentless.  Before you know it, all plans of taking a second chorus have been abandoned, and your only hope is to get to the end of the first chorus- the finish line. You make a silent plea for mercy. As you slide into home and end your solo, you feel the shame already creeping in.  You swear on your mother that you will go home and practice up-tempos until you’ve mastered it. Never again will fast tempo’s make a fool out of you!

This may sound like a familiar scenario to you. If it’s not, you probably haven’t dealt with many fast tempos! The truth is we all could use some work at playing up-tempos.  It’s certainly not easy and it takes years if not a lifetime of practice.

I should start off by being genuine with you: I myself have not mastered playing at fast tempos and it’s something I constantly have to work on.  Even when I think I’ve finally got a grasp on it, a playing situation comes up that proves otherwise.  I’ve come to learn that you need to constantly be practicing fast tempos in order to maintain your control over them.

However, I’ve learned a lot of essential keys to be able to do this successfully both from my own trial and error and some really great teachers.

Before I go into some important tips that will revolutionize how you play at fast tempos, I want to debunk a common misconception about how to achieve playing at fast tempos.

Common mistake: A lot of people think that to play at faster tempos you simply need to improve your technique so that you can physically play faster. This is not true.  Now improving your technique is a good thing, especially if you want to play with a lot of chops. There is nothing wrong with it, but it is not the sole answer to playing at fast tempos. It may help, but it won’t get you there necessarily. Personally, I wouldn’t consider myself to be a super “chopsy” player, and I don’t need to be. I work on technique so that I can physically play on my instrument what I musically want to express. The bottom line is:  Technique is good for a lot of things, but don’t consider it your one-way ticket to up-tempo bliss!

Now that we got that out of the way, here are some very useful tips to help you play better at fast tempos:

1. Subdivide.

This is probably the most important tip for you to take from all of this. Essentially you need to make the tempo you are playing feel slower to you. How does this happen? You subdivide.

Try this: Pick a tune you know fairly well and start soloing (or play a bebop head) at what you would consider a fast tempo. While you are playing, tap quarter notes with your foot or think quarter notes in your head (1234123412341234).  After you’ve done this, solo again at the same tempo but tap beats 1 & 3 with your foot or think them in your head (1-3-1-3-1-3-1-3-).

How did it feel? Which one was easier? I guarantee you that it was when you were feeling beats 1 & 3 that if felt easiest. The key word there is “feeling”. You want to feel it more so than actually thinking or tapping it. If you want to, try taking it a step further and play the tune again but only tap on beat 1 of every measure. Makes it feel way different doesn’t it?

What this causes you to do is essentially feel the tempo at a much slower tempo. This will automatically relax you, and open up your time to leave more space and breathing room.  Suddenly the speed won’t feel so daunting and you’ll be able to look at it from a brand new perspective. Don’t take my word for it! Just try it and I guarantee that you will never think of fast tempos the same again.


2. Relax.

If you are subdividing, you will already be on the path to doing this. Probably one of the biggest stumbling blocks for musicians when trying to play up-tempos is they get too tense.  Their body language with their instrument gets abrasive and they tighten the body in a way that restricts ease of playing.  The trick to playing faster is not powering through it and tensing yourself, it’s relaxing.

I have two memories of being confronted by this.  The first is when I was a freshman at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, Washington. I had just gotten there and I was nervous and too serious about music.  One time I asked one of the better guitar players at the school if he would jam with me, and he agreed to do so. After we had played a tune or two he told me: “You really need to loosen up man. Your shoulders are all tense and you’re hunched over. You’re creating a bad relationship with your instrument!” After that I was constantly checking myself to see if I was relaxed. It’s still something I work on!

Another time was also in college but this time when I was a junior at City College of New York in New York City. I was in an improv class and in this particular case the professor was having us play free. I remember taking a solo and feeling like I didn’t care if I sounded good or not; I just played. Afterwards the class was opened up for comments and one of my classmates said: “Brent, that was one of the best solos I’ve ever heard you take! You were so relaxed!” This stuck with me as a moment of success; a slight departing from a previous ailment.

If you want to play well at fast tempos, it is imperative that you relax! Don’t tense up, but instead release everything, take a deep breath, and let yourself just play.


3. Don’t play the same way you play at other tempos.

Another common misconception is that you just take your licks, lines and ideas you normally play and speed them up to fit the tempo. Trust me, this won’t always work!

Probably the default tempos most musicians play at is medium or medium-up. Therefore we tend to get the most practice playing at these speeds, creating certain musical habits. The problem is playing at fast tempos doesn’t always allow us to play these same ideas. It’s kind of like if you try to play a 4/4 ii-V-I line you know over top of a 3/4 ii-V-I. It’s just not going to work unless you change how you play it.

It’s important that you realize you will have to play differently over fast tempos. This means you just have to practice them more! Instead of eighth note lines try playing just quarter notes or even half notes. Try triplets and other subdivisions. Figure out unique ways to float gracefully over the time.

If you focus on doing these three things, I can guarantee you will be well on your way to playing fast tempos with much more success!


Brent Vaartstra
Brent Vaartstra is a professional jazz guitarist and educator living in New York City. He is the head blogger and podcast host for which he owns and operates. He actively performs around the New York metropolitan area and is the author of the Hal Leonard publication "Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar." He's also the host of the music entrepreneurship podcast "Passive Income Musician."


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