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Ask Damian Erskine: Facility, muscle memory & musicality

Q: Can you make a recommendation in regards to how to develop speed and facility?

A: I can!! In my opinion, the most common mistake people make when trying to develop speed and facility has everything to do with a lack of patience!

Most people start trying to play things at speeds they can’t yet control and inadvertently practice playing things sloppily.

My preferred way to practice speed, whether it is a transcription or melody I’m learning, a new technique, a new lick, etc., is this:

(Keep in the front of your mind that what you ACTUALLY want to obtain is the facility to do something cleanly and with articulation.)

With that in mind, grab a metronome and let’s get started:

  1. Find the tempo at which you can no longer play the piece with 100% accuracy and articulation.
  2. Back off from it a few clicks until you can play it all the way through without a mistake and with good tone, etc.
  3. Drill it at that tempo until you can make it through cleanly and without mistakes 3 times or so.
  4. Now bump up the tempo by 5 clicks – Drill it AGAIN until you can play it cleanly and perfectly 3 times – repeat this until you’ve achieved the desired pace.

Don’t get impatient and jump way up in speed. The most important thing is to practice good technique, good tone and clean articulation with both hands. Take your time!!

It’s truly all about MUSCLE MEMORY!! And that inherently means repetition. Like, a LOT of repetition. There are NO shortcuts in music, just work. But if you love what you do and love learning more about it, it shouldn’t feel like work. It should be exciting!

In regards to blazing fast bass playing?

Now, don’t ever do that on the gig unless it’s YOUR gig!! (ha, I’m kidding)… but, it IS important to remember this:

I always prefer to have more technique than I need to play what ever I might want to play. I only want to be limited by my imagination, not by my ability to play the instrument. That does NOT mean that I have license to rip all over everyone’s music!!

I spend 90% of my gigging life playing BASS, not giving my best Steve Vai impersonation or double-thumbing my way through a blues.

I find a LOT of satisfaction playing with songwriters and trying to bring another level of MUSICALITY to the song. That may mean that I’m not playing much at all. But that what I AM playing has a vibe… great tone… great feel… great time…

You get the picture.

Like Victor Wooten said somewhere, “All this stuff is really the icing on the cake… but without the cake, what good is it?” (i.e.: you’ll drive everyone nuts if it’s not musical!)

There are always moments to shine, just make sure you put the music first… not the “WOW” factor.

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