How I Measure Banjo Speed

Most musicians measure speed in beats per minute (BMP), which is pretty intuitive for most folks. It’s also part of our standard system of musical notation, so we should all get to know it; so many beats per measure, depending on the signature of the song.

But I’ve always measured the speed of playing the banjo a little differently. I came up with it when I first started playing banjo, when I didn’t know anything about reading music. I’ll explain my system for measuring banjo speed here and also address why I like it better.

First, here’s how to do it. In typical bluegrass fashion, it is indeed very simple.

  1. Do a series of alternating thumb rolls. You can use any roll you like, but this one is the easiest for this measurement technique as it contains an easily recognized recurring pattern, 4 notes in this case.
  2. Look at a clock and start counting each time you strike a note on a beat. For this roll, that’s every fourth note. Count how many sequences you can complete in ten seconds. As an example, let’s say you completed 23 sets of 4 notes. That means you just played 23×4=92 notes in ten seconds.
  3. Now divide your total (92 in our example) by 10 (for ten seconds): 92/10=9.2 notes per second (NPS). That’s a pretty decent clip.

Why do it this way when you can also measure it by BPS? I like this method because:

  1. It is independent of what musical signature you use. Whether it is 2/4 time, 4/4 time or whatever, this method simply measures how fast you are playing. Period.
  2. Time itself doesn’t vary (you Einsteinian and Quantum Physicists out there can sit down, please – banjos are strictly Newtonian devices šŸ˜‰ ) so why not just tie speed directly to time?
  3. Last and perhaps most importantly; this method is more inline with the usual bluegrass way of thinking (keep things simple), in my humble opinion.

About Phill Gibson

I'm from Huntsville, Alabama where I work as a Systems Engineer and part-time banjo and mandolin instructor. I've been playing various instruments since my teen years. I started mandolin at about age 17 and banjo at 20. I love just about all kinds of music. In terms of banjo styles, I play Scruggs and melodic and am working on becoming more advanced with single string. I'm also working on 4-finger banjo, which is way off the beaten path. I would like to see more jazz techniques integrated into bluegrass situations; counterpoint, especially. So long-term, that's what I'm doing. I'm also very keen on astronomy, ATM (amateur telescope making), birding, christian homeschooling, martial arts, organic gardening and about 30 other distracting hobbies to a (mercifully) lesser extent.
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