7 Tips To Help You Play Better At Fast Tempos

fast chopsDo you have trouble playing well at faster tempos? Do you feel like you just can’t execute your ideas as clearly as you’d like?

Do you sound good at slower tempos but the second the tempo starts getting up there your jazz improvisation starts to suffer?

If you answered yes, (which most musicians probably will) there are fortunately some solutions! So, lets talk about some strategies to help you play faster.

Common Solutions Are Not Effective Enough

Some of the most common jazz advice out there tends to be very unfocused and sometimes not very helpful.

You often hear things like….”Well just work on licks and then speed them up and then one day you’ll just be able to improvise fast.”  “Work on scales with a metronome and build some chops and then you’ll just be able to solo.” or even “Just play some classical etudes and you’ll be cool.”

Now, I’m not saying that these things wouldn’t be helpful for your overall development as a musician but I don’t think they are the most direct path to being able to solo better at faster tempos.

They will surely improve your technique but being able to move your fingers fast isn’t even half of the story.  Playing scales faster and faster isn’t a direct path to playing authentic jazz solos 🙂

So, I’d like to discuss 7 alternative tips that will help you play better ideas at faster tempos. I’ve used every single one of them in my development at one point or another.

1. Learn To Leave Space

Have you ever heard the statement more is less? Well, the same can be very true when speaking of playing at fast tempos. You don’t have to fill every beat with sound in a measure. Use of space and longer notes can really be a beautiful and effective thing at fast tempos.

Take a listen to how Miles Davis leaves a ton of space in his solo on Oleo (rhythm changes tune). The solo starts at around 29 seconds.

He only plays eight notes once in a while but still very much makes the changes. Listen to how much space he leaves. Learn from Miles!

2. Use A Slowdown Program To Learn To Play Fast

I remember listening to this fast Oscar Peterson solo on a blues and just loving it. I immediately knew I wanted to learn it and play along. I needed to play like Oscar! Unfortunately, the tempo was way to fast for me to execute right away. I just didn’t have the chops yet. 🙁

So, I popped it in my favorite slow down program Transcribe and slowed it down to 25%. After nailing it at 25% I gradually sped it up more and more. Each time I sped it up I would hang out at that speed until I could play it clean.  Within a week I could play the whole solo at 100%.

This did amazing things for my chops, my ears, and my overall conception of how to place things rhythmically. How you have to place your rhythm and articulation changes at fast tempos and playing along with Oscar became my guide.

Just the fact that I got my fingers moving and my ears working at that fast of tempo really helped me play faster overall. I immediately had licks and rhythmic ideas that I could now execute and take into lots of different tunes at fast tempos.

If you don’t own a slowdown program like Transcribe I highly recommend you get a copy. 

3. Change The Way You Feel The Rhythm Feel

Instead of feeling quater notes pounding away at fast tempos sometimes it’s easier to start to focus your internal pulse on the half note or even the whole note. By “feeling” a slower subdivision you can get your body to relax.

Pianist Hal Garper is very famous for preaching this way of thinking about fast tempos.

Check out a bit of this video where the talks about it.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JJRjEpjd9S4&feature=relmfu

4. Simplify The Chord Changes

As we’ve talked about many times before on this site, the most common chord progression in jazz music is the II-V-I. What alot of players will do is simplify this chord progression by only playing V-I. Instead of soloing over the II chord they’ll just play the V chord the whole time.

Often times when you simplify chord changes it can be easier to navigate the chord progression.

5. Play Ideas That Fit Easily Under Your Hands

When I play at fast tempos I tend to think more economical with my hand movement. At slower tempos I may play lots of different intervals and often times will go up and down the piano very liberally.

At faster tempos though I tend to play ideas that just fit easily under my hand. That way less motion. Less motion makes it easier to execute.

Since I know I have less time to get from one note to the next I usually keep my notes very close together on the piano. You can apply this concept to any instrument. Less is more again!

6. Have Some Fast Tempo Ideas Already Worked Out

Sometimes it’s hard to get your brain moving at 300bpm. That’s why there is nothing wrong with having some licks or worked out ideas that you know you can execute at faster tempos. These are ideas that you can execute without thinking about them.

Many of the great jazz musicians played much more repetitive and worked out ideas at faster tempos. If you need some ideas for licks there all over this site!

Consider starting with this Barry Harris lick or this Charlie Parker lick and really speed them up.

7. Force Yourself To Improvise At Faster Tempos.

I remember as a young musician and I had just learned the jazz standard Cherokee. I spent about a month practicing it in all 12 keys. I felt pretty good in most keys at about 140 to 180 but when I sped it up to 200 I started to lose control.

I wasn’t as articulate or as in control of my improvisations. It felt very uncomfortable for me and I felt like I sound horrible. 🙁

That week in my lesson I told my teacher about the difficulty.  His response was very simple but yet so deep at the same time. It literally changed my musical life. He said simply, “If you want to learn to play at 200, your body and mind needs to experience 200.” I was floored. 🙂

So, I dutifully put the metronome on at 200. At first it didn’t go well and I dragged the time.  My improvisation was sloppy. I kept at it though and took chorus after chorus. Sometimes I’d spend 20-30 minutes just playing over Cherokee at 200. It was very rough initially.

I remained patient. Something weird eventually started to happen.

Slowly and surely I started to play clearer ideas the more I did it. Then, I started to keep better rhythm. Eventually, my ears started to catch up and I began to hear new ideas that I could execute at that tempo.

By forcing myself to experience the discomfort of sounding “bad” at a new tempo my body, my mind, and my ego began to slowly learn what I needed to do to execute at that speed.

I think this particular technique can be an amazing way to develop your conception at faster speeds. This is especially true if you’re just moving slightly past your comfort zone tempo wise. (It should be noted though that I sped the tempo up only about 10-15% past my comfort zone.)

An a final exercise just try just spending 5 minutes soloing on a tune at a slightly faster tempo than you normally feel comfortable at.

Don’t judge what comes out of your hands. Just be a silent observer. Allow yourself to just get comfortable and let your mind and body get used to what the tempo feels like.

Allow growth my friends. 🙂

How about you? What have you done to be able to play at faster tempos? We would love to hear. Please leave a comment below and let us know! 

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  • Ilya

    I have not heard anything like this… Usually, all assert that the fast tempo will come with time through a slow… But it does not come!!!
    I need to try! Thank you Steve!

    • Ilya

      (I mean “7. Force Yourself To Improvise At Faster Tempos.”)

      • Yeah, it initially seemed counterintuitive when I learned it from my teacher. It completely worked though. 
          Jazz improvisation is just as much about hearing, conception, and experience at fast tempos as it is about chops.
          Your musical ear and body need to get accustomed to new speeds when you’re improvising.

  • jim

    this page was just what I was looking for.
    Thanks

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  • robertbrittonjr

    You’ll laugh, but I have problems doing 120BPM! 🙂 It’s weird, but my mind and my fingers need to make the connection together before I can move faster. it’s like I’m programming solidity into the synapse connections that need to be formed to have the brain signal the right muscle movements in my hands. Good post, thanks for the insight and ideas!

  • Robert Price

    This is a really great artical thx has made a difference already!

    One specific question tho – im about grade 6/7 standard and rely alot on my ear more than reading. Ive been trying to learn an oscar p classic – ‘little jazz exercise’ recently. Trouble is after the first 8 bars, which alone are a struggle at the pace he plays it, my right hand really strains and its almost impossible to be accurate and fast at the same time. Do you have any specific exercise advice on gaining a stronger and more robust hand with this piece in mind, or is it just out of someone like me’s league at present? Hers’s a link btw! Thanks for all the great emails btw! Rob.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XdJqQJnJLyo

    • My advice would be to master it at a slow tempo first that you can easily perfect. Then, gradually speed up from there till you get to your desired speed.

  • Bruno

    Very very useful, thank you Steve

  • Aaron Isles

    That Hal Garper is fantastic! Thanks for putting this list together Steve 🙂