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G’day Willis,
I am enjoying your website heaps, thanks for sharing your wisdom. My question is about right hand speed. My current understanding is the faster you want to play, the lighter you have to play. Is it as simple as that? What are your thoughts?
Thanks, Wayne

Hey Wayne,
You could say it’s as simple as that. But really, there’s a lot of advantages to playing lighter: fatter sound, wider dynamic range (more headroom), lower action, less fatigue and finally, yes, you’ll be able to play faster. One of the biggest advantages is to be able to influence the music. If you’re playing hard all the time then when it comes time to bring some idea you’re playing out that could have an influence on the direction of the music – you’re not going to be louder and your ideas won’t have any effect . Increasing your volume within grooves or at critical moments allows you to make a difference in the music.

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  1. Richard Campbell

    July 7, 2010 at 10:46 pm

    Lighter touch on a low and light action neck will help your speed. There’s a martial art philosophy of absolute minimum movement to attain the desired results that applies here. If you are tensing your shoulder or curling your unused fingers, you are wasting energy which will slow your speed. If you are palming the neck to shift it’s placement as you move around the fretboard, again, you are wasting energy and losing speed. Focus on your entire body, face, arms, even legs, as being completely relaxed and without tension, and you will free up more adenosine triphosphate to serve your solo rather than your grimace.

    But the one thing that cannot be avoided is practice. Repetition. Over and over. Scales backwards and forwards. Arpeggios up down and sideways.

    Your nerves have a speed limit of around 300 feet per second. When you touch your fretboard, that sensation travels three feet to your brain and three feet back to your hand, taking just under 20 milliseconds round trip. A violinist playing 16th notes at a tempo of 180 bpm is playing one note per 20 milliseconds, just barely enough time for the nerve impulse to make a round trip. Evaluating WHAT note to play next takes more brain power and speed than humans should be capable of, but repetition forges neural pathways that expedite the signal. Scientists have speculated that given enough repetition, the signal from your hand may only need to reach your spine before a subsequent signal returns to your hand.

    When you reach the point where you have practiced so much that you need only think “F Dorian Minor Scale” and you experience the sensation of your hand knowing the path better than your mind, you will have unleashed truly impressive speed, and snatched the proverbial pebble from the master’s hand.

  2. Rich

    July 13, 2010 at 8:59 am

    So, here’s a related issue I might be able to overcome with due diligence, the help of my bass instructor, and the good people on this site:

    How to keep a light touch with the left hand by not exerting too much pressure on your thumb.

    I’m a fairly new player, making good progress, but starting to run into fatigue in my thumb muscle. I know I’m pressing too hard and need to lighten up. Any thoughts on ways to accomplish that?


  3. Richard Campbell

    July 13, 2010 at 9:35 pm

    Optimal string height will minimize thumb fatigue. There’s a quick test you can do to check your string height on your bass if you have a capo handy. Yep, a capo on a bass… I know, I know… put a capo just behind the first fret on the nut side, then play something. If it isn’t any easier to play, then your nut height is pretty good. But if it takes considerably less thumb pressure to play, your nut is too high and needs an adjustment. Local music stores can do this if you’re not comfortable with filing it down yourself – not a job for the meek. But ideally your nut height should be the same as if it were just another fret up the neck.

    Truss rod adjustments and bridge saddle height also matter, but newer players tend to stay close to the nut, so this adjustment will make a bigger difference to them.

    Otherwise, as with any muscle, your thumb will get stronger with time and practice. All the standard tips apply like being sure not to practice bad form. Be sure your fingertips are contacting the strings near the fret for better string-fret contact and less buzz with less thumb pressure. Raise your strap up like a jazzer for better left hand position, gently arching fingers and contacting the thumb slightly above the center on the back of the neck.

    And keep at it. What seems difficult now will be laughably easy a year from now if you practice, practice, practice.

  4. Rich

    July 14, 2010 at 7:39 am

    Thanks Richard. I believe the nut height is good but will check it (assuming my daughter didn’t swipe my capo!) 🙂 I think it’s mostly gonna come down to form, and having patience to take it slowly enough to develop good habits over the long haul. I tend to slip up in my anxiousness to improve sooner than later (I’m 52; former piano player; recently fell in love with the bass). Appreciate the advice!

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