[MISTAKE NUMBER ONE]
Not using a metronome.
There are more self-taught guitar players in the world than there are self-taught every-other-instrument-ists. Which is part of why we wield this fine instrument in so many creative, crazy and unique ways. But going teacher-less is also why we suck at reading music and––let’s face it––playing with a click.
For the first eight years that I played guitar, I never once used a metronome. There was one on my sisters’ piano that I saw every day, but it didn’t occur to me to use it. Not surprisingly, the things I’ve struggled with most involve tempo, timing, and feel.
I’m not going to lay a guilt trip on you if you don’t use one yet. But I would like to point out that
- nothing will make you better faster than proper and regular metronome usage
- the best metronome in the world (IMO) is $3 and it’s in your hand or pocket right now
- and here’s a guide to the best, most effective, least painful way to start practicing with one
Owning & using a metronome is a good start, but it won’t help you much if you don’t address mistake #2…
[MISTAKE NUMBER TWO]
Playing without a metronome more than with one.
Once I finally did start using a metronome to practice, it still wasn’t doing me much good. At best, I practiced with it for a half hour or so each day, mostly running scales and such. Then at night, I’d go play a three-hour solo gig. Any good I did in the morning was completely undone (and then some) each night as I unknowingly sped up, slowed down and otherwise failed to groove. (This is why I run a click at my solo shows.)
Good news here, too: Tempo Advance is a much friendlier tool than metronomes of yore.
It has a volume control! It can change sounds! You already carry it with you everywhere you go! It has a headphone jack! The headphone output actually sounds good!
I’m certain that once you’re comfortable with the ins and outs of the app, you’ll use it more than any other metronome you’ve owned.
Still, any metronome is a harsh master, and no one enjoys feeling like a fool. The other half of the equation is some gentle hand-holding as you navigate the playing-with-a-click learning curve. (Which again, you can find here).
Once you’re spending a whole lotta quality time with your metronome, you’re on your way. Unless you’re making mistake #3…
[MISTAKE NUMBER THREE]
Using your top speed as a progress indicator.
This one is especially prevalent among the hard rock & metal guys, but I think we’re all guilty of it from time to time.
While there’s nothing wrong with trying to push up the tempo on a lick, scale, or song, there are dangers lurking there. In pursuing speed, it’s easy to push past the tempo at which you’re still playing the part well, with good form, in a relaxed manner.
It’s not worth your time to play it faster if it means practicing it sloppy and/or risking injury. Besides, there’s something else you should consider…
[MISTAKE NUMBER FOUR]
Trying to go faster without also trying to go slower.
I know, I know: playing slow isn’t as exciting as playing fast. But I promise you there’s more to learn down here than up there.
Playing slowly with a metronome is way way harder than playing fast.
There are more ways to screw it up, more time to notice that you’ve screwed it up, and more time to make corrections to it. At the same time, it’s easier to play relaxed and maintain good form––which ultimately will help you play faster too.
The best teacher I ever had once told me, “you should never try to beat your fastest tempo without also trying to beat your slowest tempo.”
The metronome is there to challenge you, to push you beyond your current abilities. But if you think that that only means going a little faster (or slower), you’re making mistake #5…
[MISTAKE NUMBER FIVE]
Too many clicks.
For the same reason that playing slowly is hard, setting your metronome to click half as often (or a quarter as often if you’re feeling particularly badass) ups the difficulty considerably.
The added bonus of this is that a metronome that isn’t clack clack clack clack-ing every quarter note is much more pleasant to listen to. Especially once you correct mistake #6…
[MISTAKE NUMBER SIX]
The wrong clicks.
Quick, turn on the radio. Listen to the first song you hear. The odds are good that the drummer in that song is playing the snare drum on beats 2 & 4. We call that the backbeat.
If you’re going to set your metronome so it only clicks half as much, you might as well set it so it’s playing your backbeat. It’s. So. Much. More. Musical.
Of course, when I say you should set your metronome to click on 2 & 4 instead of 1 & 3, what I really mean is that you should learn to feel the click there. Your metronome doesn’t care where you play. In fact, its job is to not care about you. No, you are the one who’ll have to get comfortable counting your way into a backbeat metronome click.
It’ll probably take you a bit of practice, but holy geez is it worth it. And while we’re talking about things that take some adjusting but are totally worthwhile, quit making mistake #7…
[MISTAKE NUMBER SEVEN]
Setting the metronome too loud.
Used to be, we didn’t have much say in how loud our metronome was. I remember putting blue painter’s tape over the speaker grill on my old metronome, and it was still louder than I set mine now.
There’s a sweet spot, where the balance between what you’re playing and the metronome’s click is just right. When you get it right––and you’re playing in time––the click should disappear into your music. The only time you’ll hear the click is when your time wavers.
It’s kind of a trippy sensation––there’s a metronome clicking a foot away from you, but you haven’t heard it in half a minute because you are in the pocket. It’s a beautiful thing. You won’t be able to get there, though, unless you’ve addressed mistake #8…
[MISTAKE NUMBER EIGHT]
Confusing time with feel.
Of all the things that I wish I would have understood sooner, this is absolutely #1. If someone would have sat me down and patiently explained this to me––and maybe shown me a few ways to work on it––it would have cut ten years of mediocre guitar from my life.
It’s possible––common even––to play in time but with bad feel. In other words, you can play without speeding up or slowing down the song, but still be sloppy in how you play within that tempo.
If that sounds too abstract, think about a pizza that was delivered by a crazy, speedy driver––the cheese and toppings are still on top of the pizza, but they’re all messed up, unevenly distributed and shifted over to one side.
Most people who have never consciously worked on it have terrible, cringe-inducing feel. And they don’t even know it. We humans are naturally bad at perceiving time and its nuances (ie. your feel).
Humans are also generally nice to each other, so chances are no one is going to tell you that your feel sucks, for fear of appearing rude or confrontational. What they’re more likely to do is not hire you again. Which is why you need to work on mistake #9…
[MISTAKE NUMBER NINE]
Failing to get critical feedback.
Again, don’t expect anyone to tell you to your face that you’re rushing the beat or that your triplets sound awkward. That’s on you to discover and correct. And the metronome, by itself, can’t help you with that.
You can’t rely on your real-time perceptions to know how you sound––in the moment they’re too busy with other things to give you an accurate reflection. You need to record yourself playing to a click, listen back immediately, take stock of what sucks and record it again. Over and over. Every day.
You don’t need some multi-thousand-dollar ProTools rig to do this. It’s a hundred times more important that whatever workflow you use is easy to set up, easy to use, and easy to afford. GarageBand or Audacity. A cheap mic or interface. A tape deck, digital voice recorder, or your phone if you don’t have the money to spare.
The important thing is to do it. Don’t be one of those wannabe guitarists making mistake #10…
[MISTAKE NUMBER TEN]
Consuming this information without acting on it.
You now know nine solid, concrete ways to improve your playing.
Whatever you do, don’t let these little tips wash over you without taking action.
If you’re not practicing with a metronome, you’re not practicing.
Join hundreds of other players who are actively working on their badassery. Join our free Metronome Boot Camp–a two week romp through the ins and outs of using a metronome like a badass.