10 Tips For Practicing with a Metronome

Of the 3 fundamental elements of music (rhythm, melody & harmony) rhythm is undoubtedly the most fundamental.

Here I’d like to share 10 progressive tips that I’ve learned over the last 20 years of playing music.

These techniques apply to all string instruments played with a plectrum – but the focus here is on Guitar, Banjo & Ukulele.

First things first: I recommend the Practice+ App for iOS, (or similar for Android). I use it everyday in my practice sessions as a tuner, metronome, recorder, and speed workout. Check it out:

Ok – now that you’ve got yourself a metronome to work with – let’s start from scratch.

OPEN STRINGS

Getting your instrument properly in tune should always be the first place you start when you’re practicing, rehearsing, jamming, or performing. This involves becoming hyper-aware of the pitch (frequency) each open string. When I tune up – I highly recommend a clip on tuner like the Polytune Clip.

Once each string is tuned to the correct pitch, try jumping into some quick picking or fingering exercises just using the open strings.

If you’re using a flatpick, your only 2 choices are down ⬇️ or up ⬆️. I recommend all beginners on guitar, ukulele & tenor banjo start learning with a pick. This simplifies the equation and gets you playing right away.

The 5-string banjo can be strummed with a pick, but is more commonly plucked with 3 finger picks in bluegrass, and the nail of the index and/or middle finger, with the thumb on the top string clawhammer & old-time styles.

Regardless of what instrument, these exercises will help develop picking hand dexterity.

  • Down strokes ⬇️
  • Up strokes ⬆️
  • Alternating picking ⬇️ ⬆️
  • Triplets (⬇️⬆️⬇️ / ⬆️⬇️⬆️) & Odd Meters (2+3 / 2+2+3)
  • String sets: 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, etc…

SCALES

After rhythm, comes melody. Any melody you play will come from a scale. You can think of a scale like a color palette:

Color Palette

Simply collections of notes – a scale has an overall sound, feeling & tonality. Most of the focus when it comes to scales & chords is on the fretboard. But it’s important to remember: if nobody is in the woods to hear the tree fall, it doesn’t make a sound. In other words – a collection of notes does not music make, until they’re played in time.

So let’s add some rhythm again – this time to a scale – and make some music!

  • Down strokes ⬇️
  • Up strokes ⬆️
  • Alternating picking ⬇️ ⬆️
  • Triplets (⬇️⬆️⬇️ / ⬆️⬇️⬆️) & Odd Meters (2+3 / 2+2+3)
  • String sets: 2, 3, 4, 5, 6…

CHORDS

Again, let’s shift the emphasis away from the fretboard so much, and apply some strumming patterns to a simple chord progression. Chords themselves are easy to learn at first. It’s the transitions between chords – the rhythmic way they are executed that makes a song.

  • Down strums ⬇️
  • Up strums ⬆️
  • Alternating strumming ⬇️⬆️
  • Triplets, Waltzes, 6/8 & Shuffles (⬇️⬆️⬇️ / ⬆️⬇️⬆️)

SUBDIVIDE

Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s zoom in. On the cellular level of rhythm is where the subtleties lie. Feeling the downbeat is fundamental. Tap your foot to the pulse of the song. As your foot goes down, so should your down stroke or down strum. In between the downs, are ups. The ups must be as accurate as the downs for everything line up. Think a car engine, and what would happen if the timing of each stage didn’t line up properly. Watch the bowing direction of the violin section playing a unison line. It’s all synchronized.

  • 8th notes
  • 16th notes
  • Muting & Ghosting
  • Perpetual Motion

SLOW

The tempos of most popular songs are in the range of the human heart beat, 60-100 BPM. These speed generally come easy, because they align with our natural rhythms. But when performing a funeral dirge – it can be quite a challenge to feel:

Subdividing – as we just learned – is the art of feeling the smaller sub-beats that combine together to form a full beat. This becomes your only guide as you reach slower tempos. Like a life raft on the ocean, searching for help, slow tempos can leave you feeling stranded if you don’t have a strategy. Counting to yourself, or simply feeling 8th notes, or even 16th notes at slow tempos, works wonders to give you grounding.

FAST

Speed comes easy, once you’ve mastered something slowly. Witness John Coltrane – who would warm up before practicing with long-tones – improvising over the chord changes of his workout “Giant Steps”:

Practice slowly. Be precise, and work out all the kinks like fingerings and picking patterns. Once it all falls into place, and you can play all the way through from memory, it’s time to increase the tempo – but not before. This important because we can tell ourselves that we got it. To be sure, play the loop toss game. See how many times you can consecutively loop the same passage correctly. Each mistake forces you to start again at 1. If you can loop through a passage perfectly 8 times, challenge yourself by increasing the tempo a few clicks. Gradually work up this technique, and you should see improved efficiency in your playing.

“Tremolo” is the most extreme speed technique you’ll encounter. Essentially creating a sustained note by fluidly alternating the pick. I’ll go into more depth on this in a later post, and develop some exercises specifically for picking-hand control.

MOVE IT

At this point, playing along with a metronome or click track on the quarter note should be easy. To challenge how we feel the beat, let’s move it around a little. This also helps with specific styles like jazz and bluegrass, that rely heavily on the backbeat – beats 2 & 4. Take any exercise that we’ve already covered and simply adjust the click so that it only happens on beats 2 & 4, in 4/4 time. If it’s a waltz, try just the downbeat. If it’s 6/8 try just the 1st & 4th beats.

RE-MOVE IT

When a sniper finally commits and pulls the trigger, their eyes close as the rifle fires. In the moments leading up to the shot, they’re staring down the scope at their target. But the second they go for it, they can’t actually see.

So how do you know if something is there if you can’t see it? Or in our case, how do you where the beat should fall if your metronome doesn’t click? You’re “rhythmic intuition” allows you to feel it. As you develop it more over time, you’ll become more accurate at feeling more complex rhythms, and how they resolve back to the downbeat.

Use the iPhone app “Time Guru” created by guitarist Avi Bortnick to do exactly this. Described as a “self-muting, compound time metronome for developing your internal sense of time.” You may not use it every time you practice – but it’s worth checking out the concept to gain a deeper understanding of time feel.

CLICK ONCE

Start with the downbeat of each measure. Work hard to make sure your accurately filling in the space, and landing back on your feet on the down beat again. Challenge yourself by making the click only happen every 4 bars, or 8 bars, or at the top of each section. This is extremely difficult to pull off, but will leave you with a much deeper appreciation for solid timing.

LIFETIME WISDOM

Never stop working on your timing. But also never let your own curiosity dry up. Seek strategies and approaches from master musicians in person. Talk to drummers you play with, or see perform, and ask them how they think about rhythm and how they practice.❖

Chris Conly

About the author: Chris Conly is a musician & educator. He is a Maine native living in the borough of Brooklyn. Forever fascinated by nature, design, music & learning, Chris shares his passions with the world via his website, and with private students.