How To Practice Songs With a Metronome – Improve Your Timing

A metronome and a tab for efficient practice

“How many of you practice with a metronome?” Steve Vai asked an audience of college students for a show of hands. “Not nearly enough!” he said with a smile that indicated he fully expected the result. The footage is a little grainy, but the 1985 seminar from GIT in Hollywood is a hidden gem on the internet.

So what about you? How would you answer? 

In the nearly two decades I have been teaching people to play guitar, I can count with one hand the number of students that made practicing with a Metronome a consistent part of their routine. They are the ones that consistently excelled!

There are three essential principles to adhere to, to make practicing with a metronome effective: 

1.Start By Using The Metronome At A Slow BPM

This step is crucial. There’s no need to try to play a song at the original tempo right away. 

Don’t be afraid to slow down the beats per minute (BPM) to a painfully slow speed in order to play without pause and without a stutter. 

The key here is consistent timing and proper spacing between notes or chords. 

If you are playing a chord change, set the tempo to the speed at which you can comfortably change chords without pausing or getting behind the click.

This can be frustrating because, at first, the speed you will need to set for yourself may be half (or even less) the actual speed of the song. 

Don’t let that deter you. Practicing a particular chord change or melodic passage of a song at a drastically slower speed gives room for some creativity. 

Try to make it as musical as possible by concentrating on the metronome, the notes, and trying some “creative expression.” 

If slowing down makes the light at the end of the tunnel look pretty far away, chances are your primary goal is speed. 

That is the wrong goal to have. Instead, your goal should be steadiness, accuracy, and note clarity. 

The speed will be the happy byproduct of achieving your primary goals (steadiness, accuracy, and note clarity).

2.Speed Up The BPM Gradually

You mustn’t rush to increase the tempo too quickly, or you will fail to achieve your foundation goals: steadiness, accuracy, and note clarity. 

When you are ready to speed up your BPM, go up by only 3-4 beats per minute at a time. 

That can feel like not a lot when you start at 60 beats per minute (BPM), and your goal is 140 BPM, but I’m telling you, this works like a dream.

There are two reasons to speed up gradually:

  • For one, your mind and fingers will adjust better and quicker when the increase in speed is only slight. 3 beats per minute is not always obvious, so you are being sly about making your hands play faster. 
  • The other reason is that this practice creates discipline and an overall sense of rhythm when you explore a more broad range of speeds. Making the jump from 60 beats per minute to 80 can not only be a shock to the system, but you miss out on what it feels like to play at 65, 70, or 72 beats per minute. It may seem like a small incremental change, but all of these speeds feel different.

Are you wondering when is it time to increase the speed?

Everybody seems to have different rules about when you are ready to increase the tempo on the metronome. 

Some say to play a given passage of music correctly, with zero mistakes, 5 times in a row. 

Others will say 10 consecutive flawless passes. 

I push the envelope and say 11! Because why not go one more, right?

The benchmark is up to you. 

If you want to be able to play a chord progression successfully without error three times in a row, that’s fine. 

Whatever goal you have, when you feel ready to make the jump, then do it. 

Just don’t jump too far. Stick to 3 or 4 beats at the most.

If you can play something at 71 beats per minute without making mistakes 3 times in a row, but find yourself consistently failing at 74 beats. Then either increase your threshold to 5-10 times in a row at 71 beats, or increase to 73 beats per minute instead. 

This can take some trial and error, but it is so worth it.

3.Do Not Stop When You Make A Mistake

Out of the three steps, this is actually the one I see students often disregard. 

When I say don’t stop, I mean play for several minutes without pause or interruption. 

If you make a mistake or a chord sounds a little sloppy, play through it. 

Don’t stop while you are practicing with a metronome to try to correct something. 

Instead, correct yourself in motion. 

Did your C chord have a couple of muted strings or buzzing frets? 

Try to correct it before you change chords, or wait until you come back around to the C and try to play it better the next time.

Whenever you stop because of a mistake, it kills all momentum. 

You will not sound perfect as you play with the metronome at first, but if you keep at it and play past your mistakes, those mistakes will become fewer and fewer.

As with increasing the tempo, gradually increase the amount of time you play without a break. 

Start with one minute. Play a full sixty seconds without breaking stride or starting over. Next, try three minutes – about the length of a typical pop song. 

If you get behind or ahead of the click, try to catch up. Just don’t stop.

If a chord has a misplaced note, move the finger or fingers in question while playing. Just don’t stop.

If you miss a note in a melody line or riff, play right past it as if it didn’t happen. Just don’t stop.

What Is Metronome Used For

Metronomes are used for two main purposes; to help the practicing student musician develop a sense of time and consistency. And in a studio setting or live performance to keep a band together.

The metronome can either be a mechanical, electrical, or digital device. It simply plays a constant click at a set rate to keep time. 

It gives the musician or group of musicians a time, or tempo, to remain at a steady speed.

How Do You Practice Solos With A Metronome

As a whole, slow down the beats per minute (BPM) in your metronome in order to play without pause and without a stutter. When you are ready to speed up your BPM, go up by only 3-4 beats per minute at a time. Finally do not stop for anything, not even a mistake. Keep the momentum going.

Solos can be more complicated than a chord progression (though not always). They may require breaking up into smaller sections, repeating these “mini solos” over and over with the metronome.   

Practice the first small section over and over at a slow speed, maybe half-speed, until you have memorized it. 

Then practice the next small section separately.

Once that second section is memorized, then put the two together. 

Repeat this process until you can play through the entire solo at a slow, steady tempo. 

Now you can begin to gradually increase the tempo.

A massive benefit to practicing a solo with a metronome is that it forces structure. 

It aids in the creation of a more organized practice session. 

It also significantly improves the quality of your solos because your solos will have a better sense of rhythm. 

When solos have a sense of rhythm, they are more expressive and dynamic. 

This is what separates a good guitar player from a great guitar player!

Should I Always Practice Guitar With A Metronome

As a whole, no, you should not always practice with a metronome. Although I believe that you should be practicing, rehearsing, performing, and recording with a metronome daily. You should also have some free form of playing to exercise creativity.

A metronome is a wonderful tool and ally. But it is also very unforgiving and devoid of emotion. 

I’m pretty sure if Mr. Spock were an instrument, he would be a metronome. 

After spending good, focused time working on a piece of music, turn off the metronome and just play. 

It’s good for you to utilize the beautifully imperfect internal metronome within you to exercise creativity.

10 Best Ways To Use A Metronome

Here are some tips I have found helpful in my own playing:

1. Use An Earbud Or Headphone To Isolate The Click

I will typically have one earbud in with the click and the other ear free to hear the room. 

It’s good to isolate the click to avoid room delay or reverb.

2. Have The Metronome Lower Volume Than The Guitar

Set it to be the same volume or slightly lower than your guitar. 

This helps to exercise your natural sense of time. 

If you can hear the metronome, you’re off!

3. Subdivide Beats To Help You Keep Time 

If you are playing a slow tempo, set the metronome to count eighth notes instead of quarter notes. 

This can really help you to keep time.

4. Use The Accents Feature In The Metronome

Most metronomes come with an accent feature that allows you to place an accent or different tone of click for the first beat. 

You can also accent other beats to help give you a sense of rhythm, especially when playing with a 6/8 time signature.

5. Automation Of The Volume Or Speed Of The Metronome 

This is a more advanced technique, but one worth considering as you start to get better. 

Some more robust metronomes can automatically change volume or speed. 

A practical use for this is to allow the metronome’s volume to cut out and then return a few beats or measures later. 

This can test you to see how well you can keep time on your own.

6. Change The Click Sounds Of The Metronome

Many metronomes have various click sounds to choose from. 

Change it up throughout the week to keep from fatiguing.

7. Change Tempos Gradually 

Change tempos gradually (3-4 beats per minute) when adjusting to slower or faster speeds for practice. 

A little can go a long way.

8. Set Metronome To The Rhythm Variation Setting

Rhythm variation settings on many metronomes allow for a pattern of beats using a combination of time values. 

This can help with creativity and help to break up the monotony of repeating quarter notes.

9. Use The Tap Feature To Find The Tempo Of A Song 

Use the tap feature to quickly find the song’s tempo you want to learn by tapping along with the music. 

10. Don’t Stop The Metronome Even When You Finish 

Keep the metronome on for an entire practice session, even when you stop playing to take a break. 

This helps to internalize the steadiness of the click and subconsciously develop your internal clock.

Does Using Metronome Help Your Rhythm

If you struggle with rhythm and find your playing to feel clumsy and stiff, using a metronome will help you develop the timing you need to improve your rhythm. 

There has yet to be a gene identified by science as a “musical” or “rhythmic” gene. 

This is something that can be developed, and the metronome is a critical tool in developing this skill. 

Make no mistake, anyone can develop this skill.

Conclusion

Playing in time is great. Playing in a groove is better. 

A groove is so much more than just playing in a steady time. It’s an atmosphere, a destination. 

The metronome will help your rhythm, but there’s more to it.

Having good timing is meaningless without expression. 

Your playing also needs accents and inflection, much like a human speaking voice. 

When you speak, your volume changes, you accent words to drive a point home, you use various forms of expression to capture attention, invoke emotion, and to just communicate. 

When you practice guitar with a metronome, please keep that in mind.

Timing developed by the metronome + dynamic playing = Groove!

Using these guidelines will rocket you into the fourth dimension known as “The Groove.” 

When you know how to groove and not just play in time, that’s when a breakthrough in your playing happens. 

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