Many guitarists have a metronome kicking around, but how many really know how to use it properly and to its full potential? I'm sure that many were bought with the best of intentions to practice regularly with the metronome because the guitarist heard that it was important, but the discipline was quickly abandoned when they found it too difficult - usually because they tried to set the metronome much faster than they were able to comfortably play.
However, a metronome is an essential practice tool for guitarists who want to develop the kind of tight timing that ensures they fit well within a band or recording situation. In this article I'm going to describe the basic use of the metronome that should always be part of your practice routine, and also some more advanced metronome exercises that you may not have thought of that will help you develop an instinctive sense of timing and keep your playing rock solid even when the metronome is not around.
The most basic use of a metronome is just to set it to the tempo that you want to play at and play the piece or exercise along with it. However, it's important not to set the metronome too fast too early. You probably won't be able to play a new exercise accurately at top speed straight away, so start slowly and build up. The temptation amongst many guitarists is to play material too fast before they are able to play it accurately and ignore any errors they might be making, but remember: if you can't play something without any errors and with good timing at a given tempo then you can't play it at that speed!
Here's my suggestion to approach learning an exercise or piece of music. For a longer or complex piece of music, it's often a good idea to break it down into sections and treat each section separately for this:
At the risk of repeating myself, it's important to be honest with yourself about how accurately you are playing and only increase the tempo of the metronome when you are sure that you can play the exercise without errors. Be sure that you are hitting all the notes clearly without fret buzz and muffled notes. If you find it difficult to judge when playing, then make a recording of yourself to listen back to.
Using a Metronome to Develop Your Sense of Timing
Metronomes are invaluable for ensuring that you are practicing with accuracy, but once you're out performing whether on your own or with a band then you won't have a metronome to rely on to ensure that you are in time. Therefore, it's important for musicians to develop an inherent sense of timing so that your playing is rock solid even when you don't have a constant click to play to. So, here are some suggestions of different ways to use your metronome to help you develop your timing.
For practicing your timing you can use pretty much any repeated exercise such as scale/arpeggio exercises, or even pieces of music that you're learning. In fact I would encourage you to apply them to as many situations as possible. They do take the metronome outside of it's normal usage, so may not always be possible with traditional metronomes and a digital or software metronome with a larger tempo range may be required.
Normally, you set a metronome to sound on every beat of the bar. This is fine for helping you to learn a piece in time, but you are relying on the metronome for all of your timing indicators and you want to develop your own sense of timing. So the first step is to set the metronome to beat only on the first and third beat of the bar (assuming you're playing in 4/4 time). To do this, halve the tempo of the metronome. If your metronome has an indicator of the start of the bar it's best to switch the indicator off for these exercises so that the metronome has a constant sound. Then play through the exercise at the normal pace, counting 1..2..3..4, but with the metronome only sounding on beats 1 and 3.
Once you've got that, try a more difficult exercise - keep the metronome at the same tempo, but play the exercise with the metronome clicks falling on beats 2 and 4 of the bar. This is a bit more tricky as you have to start counting beat 1 when there is no sound from the metronome, but keep at it and you'll soon get the hang of it!
Now to make it really tricky - this is where you might have trouble if your metronome can't go slowly enough. Set the metronome to a quarter of the original tempo. Then play through the exercise repeatedly with the metronome click falling only on the first beat of the bar. This can be really tricky to get right, but once you can consistently play through a whole bar and hit the first beat of the next bar accurately with the click then you're well on the way to developing a great sense of timing.
We're not finished yet! For a real challenge, keep your metronome at the same quarter-speed tempo and play through the exercise letting the click fall on the third beat of the bar. Then do the same thing with the click falling on the second beat of the bar. Finally, let the click fall on the fourth beat of the bar. This is a real challenge, but if you can manage it then you'll really have developed your sense of timing to a degree way beyond what most other musicians achieve.
I've described these practice methods assuming 4/4 timing, but of course you could equally apply them to 6/8, playing the half-speed metronome exercise on beats 1 and 4, 2 and 5, then 3 and 6. Odd time signatures are more difficult to achieve using a standard metronome, but you could program a drum machine to play the clicks at the points you want in the bar.
Graham Pett is a guitarist and bassist from London, England. He is creator of the Guitar Notes Master software tuition system for teaching guitarists fretboard notes, intervals, scales, arpeggios and chords by learning to construct them from first principles.