I'm going to start off this article with a very simple disclaimer that should be told to every music student right off the bat, whether self-taught, in private lessons, or in a classroom: there is no right way to practice. What I mean by this is that just because someone tells you a routine or technique worked for them or for other students doesn't mean that it's necessarily going to give you the best result. but, that also doesn't mean you should find one way of doing things and ignore all others presented. The best thing for anyone learning is to constantly try new ideas and techniques when you find them, and then after giving it a shot, even if you've already found something else that works for you, decide how much it benefits you and how well it moves you towards your goals. Now with that out of the way, I present to you some methods of using that most-feared device which I (and many others) have found to be very useful in improving every technique from changing chords to learning new strum patterns, sweep- and economy-picking to nailing some of the fastest shredding licks out there.
1. Dedication - Let's face it up front; the hardest part about practicing with a metronome is that it's often mind-numbingly boring. It takes real dedication to sit there for even 30 minutes straight every single day and practice a single phrase or scale or chord progression over and over and over and over again until you feel like your hand might fall off or your head might explode. But you know what? That's what separates the guitar gods like Steve Vai, Paul Gilbert, and others, from the everyday, casual guitarist who plays for a hobby. They practiced through the boredom. The reason? It produces results.
Now I'm not saying everyone out there is aspiring to be the next Steve Vai or Paul Gilbert, but even 15 straight minutes at a metronome every other day can be more difficult than you'd think. To be honest, though, this is all anyone typically needs to go from "Why the hell do I keep messing this part up" to "This part feels as natural and easy as playing an open G major chord".
2. Stretch - I'll make this brief since there are a lot of sites out there that can show you basic stretches to do before you start practicing or playing. ALWAYS stretch for a solid 5 minutes or so before starting any in-depth or long-term metronome session. Plain and simple, you don't want to end up with carpel tunnel or arthritis at the ripe old age of 25 or 30 and not be able to play anymore. If you don't stretch, you're just asking for it. You'll notice that after even 4-5 minutes of practicing a lick sometimes, your hands (one or both) will start to cramp up. Stop at this point and spend just 60 second doing a few different stretches in the middle of your session. Keep this going throughout your routine and then spend a few more minutes stretching when you're done practicing.
3. Start Slow - Although I'm sure this is a redundant phrase for anyone who's taken a lesson or seen an instructional video, this is the number one, most important aspect to making the most of your time with the metronome. You may think your main goal is to play things up to peed (or maybe even faster), but what you really mean by this is that you want to play things cleanly up to speed. You never want to start practicing at a tempo that you can't play perfectly clean. Did you start at 80 bpm and all of your guitar friends are making fun of you because they "say" they can play it at 200 bpm? I don't really care. Is 80 bpm actually too fast and they're making fun of you even more because you need to slow down? I really don't care. Ignore them, drop it to 60 bpm, or whatever tempo allows you to play it without ANY mistakes, and start there. You will be surpassing your obnoxious little friends soon enough if you stick with these concepts. Trust me.
4. Increase The Tempo In Small Increments - This is a very important concept that is most often ignored. When seriously working on a lick, progression, or pattern, once you've practiced enough at a certain tempo so that you feel completely comfortable playing it without making any mistakes (it should feel natural at this point), only then do you increase the tempo, and only by two to four beats per minute. Do not increase it by more than that until you once again feel totally comfortable playing it without any mistakes again at the new tempo. A lot of people have a tendency to get bored or impatient and want to see results, so they'll start cranking it up 10 bpm or more and then wonder why they aren't seeing any improvement after an hour of practice every day. It's a really annoying saying, but "slow and steady wins the race" is really dead on here. You want to be at that point by the end of each tempo where a two to four bpm increase is all you need to go from no mistakes to "I really need to spend 15-20 minutes at this tempo", playing it over and over again in order to reach that "comfort" level again.
5. Don't be afraid to go back to a slower tempo - This is a big one. Just because you spent 30 minutes or an hour practicing yesterday and got a scale clean playing 16th notes at 120 bpm doesn't mean you're going to be able to just pick up the guitar today and go right at it at that same speed. You'll often find that after 30 minutes or an hour of playing, everything feels more natural and you can play things that you couldn't before you warmed up. You'll also notice when you first pickup the guitar for the day that you have to play dramatically slower than when you put it down the day before in order to play cleanly. Everyone has a warm-up time that it takes to get settled and get their fingers moving naturally; for some it's 2 minutes, for some it's 2 hours, you just need to find what your warm-up time is and ignore the tempo numbers until you feel warmed up. They're just numbers; the important thing is that you keep it clean.
An example: If you had it up to 120 bpm yesterday and today you started off and couldn't play it cleanly at even 110, slow it down to 100 and try again. If you mess up, slow it down to 96. If 100 works, speed up to 104 after a few minutes. Although you start off slower than you stopped, you will notice the improvement when you realize that it takes a LOT less time to get back to 120 again and start progressing even further. The first day, you may spend five minutes at 112, then five more at 116, then the last five at 120. The second day, you might spend two minutes at 112, one minute at 116, then one more at 120 and feel like you're ready to move on. Now you've got 11 minutes left to progress to 126, or 130, or faster.
Pretty soon you'll be flying by your cocky friends who have been playing MUCH longer than you but don't actually know how to effectively progress with the metronome.
OK, now that we've covered the basic concepts to keep in mind every time you sit down with a metronome to practice, we can move on to some specific exercises that will help improve different techniques with your playing.
1. Strum Patterns - It is most often beneficial when practicing various techniques to break them down to their most basic concepts. You might want to learn a new song on the acoustic that you're just going to play chords to, but rather than jump right at the progression as a whole, make sure that you have a firm grasp on the strum patterns used. For the sake of the lesson, we'll assume that our progression uses only one strum pattern throughout that just keeps repeating on each chord.
Pull one single chord out of the progression (start with the easiest chord for you to play in the progression and then later you can do this same exercise using a more difficult chord if there is one in there). Set the metronome to a tempo that allows you to strum the chord easily and cleanly with that exact pattern and play it over and over in one continuous loop for about five minutes straight. You want it to feel easy. You want it to feel natural and like you could sit there all day doing it while watching TV without making a mistake. And most importantly, you want to make sure every note of the chord is ringing clearly and cleanly on every strum.
If the tempo is 60 bpm, that's absolutely fine. If it's 180 bpm, that's fine too, as long as you can do it without making a mistake and while making sure every note of the chord rings cleanly. Only at this point, and after sitting there for 5-10 minutes just vamping on it, do you start to speed up the tempo (like I said, mind-numbingly boring sometimes); and remember to only speed it up in small increments of two to four bpm.
2. Chord Changes - Again, this technique applies to guitarists of any level, whether you're a beginner or expert. Even if you've been playing for a while, there are always songs with crazy, quick chord changes that use bizarre fingerings to get a certain sound that you may come across. Don't think that just because you've been playing for two years, or five, or ten, that you can just rock out any chord change with ease at any tempo. Trust me, after 16 years of playing, 12 years of private lessons, and 4 years at Berklee College of Music, I still come across some unbelievably hard changes. You just have to go looking for them sometimes!
Anyways, sit down with the metronome set to a tempo that allows you to play the whole progression without slowing up or messing up. This may be 100 bpm, 56 bpm, or 160 bpm, just make sure you can do it without any mistakes, allowing every note of each chord to ring out fully - that last part is very important! Now once you're comfortable at that speed, slowly speed up the tempo two to four bpm at a time and play the progression at that tempo for a few minutes to get comfortable at that tempo. Now, when you get to a speed where you notice you can't get through the progression without messing up, stop and take a look at the two chords that are giving you trouble (going from, say, chord A to chord B). Focus entirely on those two chords for now and forget the rest of the progression. Set the metronome BACK to a tempo that allows you to play the change between those two chords cleanly, going back and forth from chord A to B, and then B to A, in a continuous, circular progression of just those two chords. A B A B A B A...
You may think to yourself, "Why do I need to practice that when I only need to play from chord A to B and I don't need to switch back?" Well, quite simply, a little common sense would say that chances are you're going to come across a song one day where you might have to play a change from chord B to chord A. Why not work it into this practice routine now since you're already here focusing on those two chords? Any serious guitarist is going to want to improve himself as a whole when at all possible and not just focus on the specifics of one particular song. Plus, practicing like this is going to get you very familiar with getting those chords under your fingers and also help you in the future when switching to and from those chords in relation to other chords, not just A or B. Try to look at the bigger picture here.
Now what you do is to slowly increase the speed of the metronome by two to four bpm each time, but spending enough time at each tempo to be able to solidly play the change back and forth without making a mistake. Like I've said before, you want to feel like you could play this all day while watching TV without worrying about messing up. It should feel "natural", and then increase the tempo again. Keep this up until you've got it PAST the tempo that originally gave you problems when playing the full progression, and only at that time do you go back and begin practicing the progression as a whole again. Keep this up until you've worked out every difficult change in the progression individually and you're up to or past your goal tempo.
Note For Beginners - If it is the entire progression that is giving you trouble because playing chord changes is new to you, work on two chords at a time as mentioned above, rather than trying to work on an entire progression. Slowly add chords one at a time to what you've already practiced and can play, rather than attacking four or five or six chord changes at once. And I can't emphasize this enough: if you are having trouble at a tempo, regardless of the number, slow it down more. I don't care if you need to go down to 40 bpm or less. I don't even care if the metronome doesn't go low enough and you need to actually go to double the tempo and play it at half time; DO IT. An example would be if your metronome only goes down to 44 bpm and you need to go to 40 bpm. You would simply set it at 80 bpm and let it click twice for every beat as opposed to once.
3. Scales, Modes, Etc - These exercises apply to those working on scales, modes, solos, licks, etc that involve picking one note at a time (as opposed to chords). Rather than get into specific exercises for these, I'm going to attempt to give you some ideas that will apply to almost any single note exercises you're doing.
While there are a lot of things to think about when practicing scales, we should start with the basics. First off, keep in mind that you have two separate hands involved here: your picking hand and your fretting hand. When first starting off as a beginner, or when first attempting to play something new or very difficult, it often helps to focus on one hand at a time. For simplicity-sake, we'll say that you're trying to play a 1-2-3-4 pattern very quickly (basically, you're trying to pick fret 1, then fret 2, then fret 3, then fret 4, then move up one string and repeat until you've played all six strings like this). You have options: you can alternate pick, pick all down-strokes, all up-strokes, pick down-up-up-down, or about a dozen other options that involve picking four times on one string (or two or three if the exercise calls for it - another one would be economy picking), then moving to the next string.
I would start off with the basics: all down, then alternate picking, then all up. Set your metronome to a comfortable, clean tempo, place your first finger of your fretting hand on the first fret, and then pick the pattern you've decided on without moving your fretting fingers (I.e. leave it on just the first fret) so that you can focus entirely on your picking hand. Slowly move up and down the strings playing only that fret, but the appropriate picking pattern, in time until you've reached the beginning string again. Work at this with a few different picking patterns for a few minutes each until you feel comfortable with that pattern and have improved your speed a bit.
I can't begin to tell you how beneficial it is to be able to play various single-note picking patterns at will when, in the future, you may be writing or learning some solo and that picking pattern comes up. Always be thinking about how an exercise like this might benefit you in the future.
You should also practice this exercise with open strings, rather than fretting the first fret, and while fretting a higher fret, such as the twelfth fret. The reason for this is that the strings react and feel differently in your picking hand when different areas of the fret board are used by your fretting hand. Try it out. Do one of these exercises with all open strings and then the same exercise while fretting the twelfth fret. You will feel a big difference in your picking hand and you can even make thing interesting by using your picking hand to mute various notes or strings in the middle of your exercises, so long as your playing remains clean.
Once you've done a few different picking patterns and your picking hand feels warmed up and ready to go, it's time to focus entirely on your fretting hand. Often times with these exercises, it's beneficial to completely ignore your picking hand altogether and not even use it. Set your metronome to a comfortable, clean tempo and begin fretting the notes in time without picking them. If you're comfortable hammering on and pulling off, you can utilize this technique to get a little sound, but that's not necessary since the final exercise will utilize picking and fretting to make the notes ring. Work your way up the fret board, starting off with frets one through four up and back down all the strings, then moving up to frets two through five repeating the same exercise, and eventually moving all the way up to frets ten through thirteen or higher. You can even work your way back down if you're feeling adventurous. Increase the tempo by 2-4 bpm after every finish if you were able to do it without messing up. By the end, your fretting hand should feel pretty warmed up.
Be sure to keep stretching in between exercises for a few minutes!
Now, even though both of your hands are warmed up separately, the hardest part to nailing a difficult lick is often getting your hands synced up. You might be able to pick really fast or hammer on and pull off like a madman, but getting both hands to do this perfectly in sync is what stumps most players. Start off your metronome at a slow, comfortable, and clean tempo, which is most likely going to be much slower than you had either hand up to separately. Play the 1-2-3-4 exercise starting off with all down strokes, just like you practiced with your picking hand first. Build that speed up going all the way up and down the neck, then slow it back down and start over with a new picking pattern, say alternate picking.
This may sound extremely boring and monotonous, and that's often times EXACTLY what it is, but like I said, practicing through this is what separates your average hobbyist from a serious player. Also keep in mind that the techniques described above in section 3 can be used for any scale, mode, pattern, solo, lick, etc. Simply pull out the required or optional picking patterns, then work on the fretting hand, then SLOWLY put them together. The important thing to keep in mind, again, is that everything needs to be done cleanly, no matter how slow you may have to start. You need to build up your speed, not attempt to jump right into it and fumble all over the place. Leave that to your friends...
4. Challenging Yourself - These last two sections I've placed at the end because at first it may seem like I'm going back on a phrase I've repeated throughout this entire about eight billion times, but I have faith that you'll understand my reasoning. That phrase is "Make sure you keep it clean".
When you're trying to improve your speed with any technique, you will find that if you always keep it at a tempo where you are totally comfortable and never mess up, you don't really see improvement because when you speed it up, you start to get sloppy and the guy from that metronome article kept telling you this is a big no-no. Well, when I pound it into your head to "keep it clean", what I'm saying is that you never want to increase your tempo if the last tempo you were at wasn't totally clean. Of course you're going to need to challenge yourself to see any improvement.
For example, if you're playing a scale in quarter notes at 100bpm and you can play this totally cleanly, but at 102 bpm you keep messing up, guess what? You're going to have to sit there at 102 bpm stumbling around until you finally start nailing the riff. This is called challenging yourself. Play that 102 bpm for as long as you need until that tempo becomes your "totally clean" tempo like 100 used to be. Now move to 104. If you don't challenge yourself and give into the frustration of not being able to play cleanly at that next tempo, you're never going to see the kind of improvement you should.
5. Shocking Yourself - This last one is more of what I consider a "fun" exercise because it makes you feel so frustrated that you almost have to laugh, but surprisingly, it tends to work very well in most cases. And yes, it goes against that all important phrase I've been beating into your head, but there are exceptions to every rule, right?
Let's say you are playing that scale we mentioned totally clean at 100 bpm but no matter how long you sit there at 102 bpm, you can't seem to nail this riff. Well, it's time to shock yourself, and no, I don't mean by sticking a paperclip into the outlet. What I'm talking about is speeding it up to a tempo that's just obnoxiously faster than the tempo you're trying to hit. Take your metronome and crank it right up to 110, or go crazy and set it at 114. Now chances are you've got a better chance of winning the lotto that night than nailing this riff at that tempo, but for the next five minutes or so, give it everything you've got! Get angry, pick furiously, and try your hardest even though you keep screwing up only a few notes or phrases into it.
After 5 minutes or so at this frantic pace, stop and set your metronome back to that 102 you were originally aiming for. Guess what? It's going to feel easy. And I'm not guaranteeing success on your first shot or anything of the sort, but sometimes, just sometimes, a shock like this is all you need to push that extra step over the line and hit your goal.
I could easily write five more articles of this length on other various methods of using a metronome, but should be a pretty solid foundation for any guitarist to start building upon. It's just the nature of metronomes that for every exercise or technique you come up with to make use of it, someone else could come up with five more. But that's what makes it such a valuable tool. Any guitarist (or musicians, for that matter) of any skill level can find something to improve upon if they know how to practice properly with this device. The key ideas to keep in mind are that you will get bored, you will get frustrated, and you will want to just give up or smash your guitar into the wall at some point. What separates the casual guitarist from a guitar-god, such as yourself, is that they will give in to that feeling... and you won't.
Now start numbing your mind.