How to Use a Metronome for Guitar Practice
(note: Videos are pretty far down the page, so if that’s what you’re after, you can scroll down.)
Chances are, you currently fit into one of three groups.
- You currently use a metronome for guitar practice, almost every time you practice your guitar.
- You have heard that you probably should use a metronome to practice, but you do not really do it. (You may or may not feel some shred of guilt about this.)
- You have no idea what a metronome is, why you would need one, or what you would do with it.
Most people fall into the second group. With any luck, this tutorial may inspire you to bump up to the first.
Frustrating, annoying, distracting
When you first start out using a metronome for guitar practice, it may not be the most positive of experiences. You may be thinking something like:
- “This sucks. Why do I have to do this?”
- “This clicking is so distracting. I play better without it.”
- “This is impossible!”
- “Wow, I never knew I could be so annoyed at an electronic gadget.”
If any of this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. The metronome is a tool, and like most other tools, there is a learning curve. In this case, a potentially frustrating learning curve. (But please read on anyway!)
Many tools seemed scary until you learned how to use them. Many technologies are intimidating until you get comfortable with them. Brave the learning curve, and you may just end up loving using a metronome for guitar practice.
Why use the metronome for guitar practice?
There are several benefits in regularly using a metronome for guitar practice. Some of these benefits are more immediate, while others benefit your long-term growth as a musician.
To start with, you can use a free app on your cellphone, or obtain any of the widely available digital metronomes online or at your local music shop.
Just as a mirror allows you to see that your hair is out of place or that you have spinach in your teeth, a metronome can alert you to places where your timing or rhythm is not-so-perfect.
In music with complex rhythms, a metronome can help to organize the rhythm in your head (especially if you count aloud). It can help you be assured that you are actually playing what is on the page.
In technique work (scales, arpeggios, stretches, exercises, etc.), metronomes can provide a point of reference that we can refer to over time. It’s encouraging to see that our scales, arpeggios, études, etc. are comfortably faster than they were a week, a month or a year ago.
One of the main benefits of playing with a metronome regularly in technique practice is that it builds our internal sense of steady tempo (or pace). It really is vital to develop the ability to keep a steady tempo throughout an entire piece of music.
Especially in pieces where some sections are more challenging than others, it’s important that we’re able to maintain a steady tempo throughout. If we haven’t built up the ability to maintain a steady tempo, we can find ourselves in all sorts of mayhem.
What’s good rhythm?
While most of us know what the metronome is for (to get better rhythm), not everyone knows what this really means.
Rhythm is one of the most powerful and least acknowledged of the elements of music.
Even children can immediately know if a player messes up the rhythm. Notes come and go. There may be a mistake in the melody or the harmony, and we would never notice. But drop one beat, or mess with the rhythm in any way, and people immediately know. We have some sort of primal instinct that recognizes and anticipates rhythms.
Still, most players will sacrifice rhythm for correct notes. Technically, it should be the opposite. Rhythm should come first.
So then what does it mean to have good rhythm?
Many people think that good rhythm means being able to play with the metronome, and to be able to play with a steady beat.
While this is part of the truth, it’s not the entire truth. I’ve never met anyone with good rhythm who could not keep a steady beat. But there’s more to good rhythm them being able to keep a steady beat.
–Having a well-developed sense of rhythm entails being able to place every little note in its proper spot. It also means keeping track of a larger pulse, ie. feeling the larger beats of the measure or the phrase.
Strong and Weak Beats
–Having a well-developed sense of rhythm also allows us to keep track of strong beats and weak beats. Not all beats are created equal. Just as in speech some words are more “important” in a sentence than others, so it is in music.(This was one of the biggest arguments against disco when it first came out, that it homogenized the beats, and made them all more equal. Don’t get me wrong: there are certain moments in life when nothing but disco will do. But as mature musicians we really do need to understand the difference between strong and weak beats.)
–Having a well-developed sense of rhythm also includes being able to inflect the rhythm of the piece of music with an appropriate “feel”. Some examples of this would be:
- can you think of others?
–Having a well-developed sense of rhythm also means being able to use rhythm as an expressive device. This means making subtle changes in the placement of each note so that it encourages a specific musical outcome. The basic timing and rhythm of the piece of music is still there, but we have used the rhythm in such a way as to be most effective at demonstrating the psychological character of the piece.
How and when to use rhythm as an expressive device is beyond the scope of this particular article, but many of the full lesson videos give specific examples of how to do so.
The single biggest rule
Listen. Listen like your life depends on it.
This is the number one, most important, must do, must have element of working with metronomes. Your ear has to be completely focused on every single click, beep or tock coming out of your metronome. Easy enough, right?
Here’s the problem
Let’s take a slight detour her into some pseudo-brain science.
We can only consciously track around seven things at any given time. If some of these are very complex, we may be only able to focus on one or two.
On the other hand, our subconscious mind tracks millions of things in any given second. It registers everything we see, feel, hear, and generally sense.
One of the ways that our brains balance all the different things that it has to keep track of is by recognizing patterns. If we’re consciously focusing on something and we need more brainpower, the subconscious mind will recognize any patterns and relieve the conscious mind of that “bandwidth”.
This way, the conscious mind is free to pay attention to something else.
This is quite easy to recognize in normal life.
For instance, you may have noticed, when driving down the road, that you can “space out” for a while. If your surroundings are very familiar, or if there is not much novelty in them (such as miles and miles of highway or farmland), our subconscious mind will recognize that as a pattern and allow the conscious mind to drift off to whatever else that wants to think about.
Here are a couple more:
- You aren’t aware of the noise from a refrigerator or fan, until it stops.
- You aren’t aware of the flavor of your food, until you get a spicy bite, or a bone/rock/shell in your mouth.
- In a room full of people talking, you aren’t aware that someone is talking specifically to you, until they raise their voice.
- Can you think of others?
This is where one of the biggest problems in working with the metronome (and practice in general) lives.
The metronome keeps a steady beat. And a steady beat is definitely a pattern.
“We are literally wired to ignore the metronome!”
So we are literally wired to ignore the metronome! This is great if your goal is to ignore the metronome. But if you want to actually practice with a metronome, and get good use out of the metronome, we have to do the exact opposite of what our brains are wired to do.
So what we have then is a battle between the conscious mind and the unconscious mind (or subconscious mind). We have to consciously maintain focus on the metronome, even though our subconscious mind wants to recognize it as a simple pattern and allow our conscious mind to go in a different direction.
The only way to win this battle is through the sheer act of willpower. We simply have to forcefully keep our attention on listening to every beat of the metronome.
There are no helpful tips or tricks for this. We simply have to grab the rudder and keep the boat of our attention on course.
This is the main challenge and goal of working with the metronome: listening. Listening and continuing to listen.
“It’s all about training the mind to focus.”
Of course our mind will stray to other things (such as counting, clapping, playing, food, sex, politics, etc.). When this happens, we must recognize that it is happening and gently steer our attention back to listening.
We do this over and over again. This is the true practice of working with the metronome. It’s as much about training our mind to focus as it is about playing with steady tempo.
How to Use a Metronome
What follows is a 4-video tutorial to get you started using the metronome, and to expand your abilities using a metronome for guitar practice.
Make sure to also sign up for the 14-day email course that turns you into a metronome master (it’s free!).
Lesson One: Setting Up Your Metronome
This video shows how to initially set up your metronome. While I use the free Pro Metronome app (for iOS or Android), the basics apply to whatever metronome you currently have. There may be some small points that do not apply to you, but most should.
Lesson Two: Getting Started Using the Metronome
In this one, we start at the beginning. This means simply keeping time with the metronome.
At first, just clap and count along with the metronome. You can play along with a guitar later. Remember that this is a lifelong tool, and spending a few days learning how to use it is time well spent.
Lesson Three: Exploring Subdivisions
When we subdivide the beat, we split it into multiple, smaller beats. We can take a quarter note and split it into two, three, four, five, six, or any number (within reason please!) of smaller beats.
It’s one thing to be able to clap along with the metronome. It’s another to be able to clap 8th’s while the metronome clicks quarter notes. Likewise 16ths, triplets, quintuplets, or others.
Learn how to count these subdivisions aloud, and be able to execute them precisely when we use a metronome.
Lesson Four: Displacing the Beat
In this lesson, learn how to make the “click” fall on a beat other than 1, 2, 3, or 4.
This challenges the ear, and completely changes the way that the time “feels”. Working in this way can add tons of spice to your practice, and can be a very fun challenge.
You may have to wait a while before really exploring this one. Go ahead and watch the video and give it a shot. If it’s currently over your head, you can always come back to it later.
Congratulations! You are now in the know!
But don’t relax too much…. knowing how to use a metronome for guitar practice and actually using it on a daily basis are two completely different things.
I encourage you to take a moment right now and commit to spending at least a minute or two each day for the next couple of weeks working with the metronome. Do this without the guitar, just clapping and counting aloud.
Remember, if you’re not counting aloud, you are likely doing much worse than you think you are! If counting aloud is difficult, simply work on it. (Something’s got to be difficult for you. If not this, then something else. Whatever it is, embrace it!)
Are you secretly in love with your metronome? Leave your deepest feelings in the comments below!
Hi, I’m Allen Mathews.
I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.
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