It’s not hard to play the mandolin fast if you learn the fundamental techniques. Just remember not to sell yourself short: the ultra-fast bluegrass guys who play at superhuman speeds have been doing this their entire lives. So don’t get discouraged if you can’t play fast after only a relatively short period of time.
Mandolins are built for speed
The mandolin fretboard is small compared to a guitar (or banjo). This means the fingers of your left hand don’t move very far when fretting different notes. And the less movement involved, the more speed you get out of an instrument.
Picking fast – tremolo picking
You don’t get very much sustain from a mandolin. Certainly not like a violin (which the mandolin was derived from). Therefore, if you want to hold a note, you need to pick it repeatedly.
This sort of picking — tremolo picking — is the traditional way to play and hold a note on a mandolin. It’s not difficult, you just have to relax and let it go. Too much tension in your right hand or wrist will kill the sound. But when you get it, it’s effortless and beautiful.
Tremolo picking a string while changing notes gives you maximum speed. Just practice coordination between the hands. There is no secret to this technique, it just takes practice. If you have fun while you’re practicing, you’ll learn in no time at all.
Other picking styles
Mandolin players are not as focused on chords as guitarists. But in recent times, there has been more of a focus on mandolin chord and rhythm techinques than on treating the mandolin as a melody instrument.
And when you have chords, you have picking patterns designed to arppegiate the chords. Some people call this ‘playing a broken chord’. These picking patterns take time to learn, but as with all good things, they come to those who wait (or to those who wait while practicing). Learn some simple rolls or crosspicking patterns and you’ll increase your abilities and your fun level exponentially.
Put it all together to speed up your mandolin
So, to play the mandolin with speed, make sure your left hand is up to the task. There should be no hesitation or uncertainty when you move between chord shapes or play fast, melodic runs up or down the fretboard.
And get your right hand in shape too, because you have to be able to play the common picking patterns without thinking about your hands. Your right hand should be able to keep picking as you talk normally — there should be no though involved, just a well-trained muscle memory.
Playing the mandolin fast takes time and effort, but it doesn’t require talent or some other mystical quality. All you need to do is want it bad enough to put in the hours. Learn to make practice fun and it’ll come of its own accord.