Mention using a metronome to a budding guitarist and watch them cringe. Some liken this to being in Marine boot camp. Others wave off these timekeepers as being trivial or argue: “Keeping time is the rhythm section’s job, not mine!”
Well, guess what? If you’re playing bluegrass, you ARE the rhythm section. Half of it, anyway.
I challenge you to rethink your position and consider my following tips. If you heed my sage advice, I promise that not only will you improve as a guitarist, but you’ll mature as a musician, too.
Why use a metronome?
I can think of at least four ways a metronome can help you improve your chops.
Sync your internal clock
Using a metronome as you practice will train your brain to distinguish tempos and have a better sense of rhythm. Over time and with much practice, you’ll be able to estimate what 120 beats per minute is without using a beatbox or metronome.
Even if you never aspire to play a solo gig, developing your internal clock, or metronome, will enable you to “feel” the groove of a song better, which in turn will make you a better player. Here’s an exercise that can help you develop this timing:
- Set your metronome to 50 beats per minute
- Each “tick” represents a quarter note in the 4/4 time signature
- Strum chords (or play scales), making sure each chord or note lands on a beat or metronome tick
- Vary the tempo on the metronome and repeat the exercise.
Additional challenge: Decrease the metronome’s beats per minute. Like most aspiring musicians, you’ll find that slower tempos are actually harder to master—not so much from a technical standpoint, but in learning to wait for the beat.
Slay the dreaded Russian Dragon
I doubt this is exclusively a Nashville phrase, but I first heard it when I was in the music business here in Music City. After listening to a musician play live, my friend called him a “Russian Dragon.” Befuddled, I asked him to clarify.
“He’s rushin’ and draggin’!”
I immediately got it: this musician’s sense of meter, or time, was all over the map! The bad news is that most aspiring musicians have this beast lying within them. The good news is that practicing with a metronome can help you slay it.
Try this exercise:
- Set your metronome to 40 beats per minute
- As you count the beats in your head, divide each of the 40 beats in half; these are eighth-notes
- Strum (or pick a scale or lick) so that each chord or note lands on an eighth-note
Additional challenge: Lower the speed and divide each of those beats into four (16th-notes). If strumming this fast is out of the question then use a pick and play a scale or an open string. Focus on landing the first 16th-note squarely on the metronome’s tick.
As an ambitious bluegrass player, you no doubt are wowed by pickers who can fire off lightning-fast riffs to speedy tunes like “Orange Blossom Special.” To reach this goal, you start slow, not fast.
- Set your metronome to 40 beats per minute
- With every tick representing a beat, strum or pick your guitar so that each chord/note lands squarely on a tick of the metronome
- After several repetitions, double your speed by dividing the beats in half for eighth-notes; keep the notes in tempo
- Next, subdivide into quarters for 16th-notes and repeat the same process
Additional challenge: Once you can smoothly play your piece at 40 bpm, gradually increase the speed on your metronome. Note at how many beats per minute you peak. After days of practicing this routine, see if your peak speed has improved
Develop time signature skills
Although most of the music you’ll play will be in the 4/4 time signature, also known as common time, some pieces are waltzes played in 3/4 time. If you’re not familiar with a waltz, take a listen to Ricky Skaggs’ longtime guitarist Paul Brewster performing the Kentucky Waltz:
For 3/4 time (waltz):
- Set your metronome to 80 beats per minute
- Before playing your guitar, practice counting to three over and over again, putting most of your emphasis on the ‘1’
- When counting in 3/4 time feels comfortable, strum a chord and focus on landing it on beat 1 of the 3/4 measure
- Next, practice resting (not playing) on beat 1 but strumming on beats 2 and 3
If you’re unclear how this should sound, re-listen to the Kentucky Waltz noting how the rhythm section is playing. You’re to emulate this pattern.
Practice make perfect?
I’m sure you’ve heard it a thousand times: “Practice makes perfect.” Well, that’s fake news. You can practice incorrect technique and tempo for days on end, but you’ll never improve, you’ll only “perfect” your imperfections.
Your goal with a metronome is to focus on improving your weaknesses and inconsistencies. So a better way of stating that quote is this way: “Perfect practice makes perfect.”
Here are some tips to zero in on this goal…
Record your practice
As the saying goes, “Tape don’t lie.” So use your phone or GoPro and record your metronome practices. Then sit and study them carefully. Ask yourself:
- Was I a “Russian Dragon?” In other words, were you playing slightly before or after the beat? If so, did you see any patterns? For example, did you have tempo issues when you tried to play a tough chord or lick?
- How was my technique? Was your picking or strumming smooth or tense? Were your fingers transitioning smoothly along the frets or were they jerky or hesitant?
- If you played a song (either strumming or soloing), did your playing look confident and effortless, or were there sections that needed polishing?
Think outside the box
The examples I’ve provided are starting points, so take them and think of other ways to work on your groove. For example, I used to set my metronome at 40 bpm and play 32nd-notes to test my ability to play eight notes smoothly and in tempo. And with the tempo that slow, it’s a real test.
Another idea is to play on the offbeat. For example, set your metronome to 60 bpm but instead of strumming or picking on the downbeats, or the ticks, play in between the ticks which are the offbeats. As a beginner, this may be tricky at first, but in time you can master it. Besides, learning to strum chords on the offbeats is at the heart of bluegrass music.
Types of metronomes
Let’s go over the two types of metronomes that are available.
These metronomes have been setting beats per minute for ages and even in our digital age are still the go-to for many musicians. The Wittner 813M Wood Case Metronome not only has a great vintage look, but the wood gives the ticks a clock-like sound that, in my opinion, is very pleasing. This model uses a windup key so you’ll never need batteries or electricity. However, because of their size, they’re not ideal for touring.
The advantage of these models is that you can pop them into your guitar case, they’re rugged enough for touring, and some even double as a tuner. A case in point is the Korg TM-50 that’s versatile and won’t break your bank account. You can also find an app for your phone or go to YouTube for free metronome tempos.
I hope these tips and suggestions will encourage and motivate you to not only practice but to view the metronome as a tutor and not a Medieval torture device. Most importantly, I hope that your practicing puts you on the path to becoming a better player and musician.