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Blog overview

Using a metronome when practicing guitar

Team Soundbrenner, in Music insights
Oct 18, 2021 | 5 min read

Metronomes are important tools for anyone practicing an instrument – yes even guitarists! Here are some reasons why and how you should pay attention to your rhythm.

Metronomes are vital tools to improving your playing, especially if you are wanting to play more technically advanced pieces of music. 

However, quite often, even if guitar players are practicing with a metronome, they are not using them as effectively as they could be.

And using them more effectively means progressing faster… which is something that we all want.

In today’s article, we’ll talk about why we need to use metronomes, what they do and we’ll look at some examples of how to use them as effectively as possible in our practicing. 

We’ll also look at some of the most common mistakes people have when practicing along to a metronome and their solutions, so that you can have as pain free a time when using your metronome (at least, as pain free as possible).

Why do we need to use a metronome when practicing guitar?

We need to use a metronome because something every musician struggles with, guitar players included, is perceiving time accurately. 

As an example, go back to the start of this article and try and count to 10 while reading it. 

Or stop reading after 10 seconds. 

Pretty tricky right? 

We face a similar problem when playing guitar, especially if we are working on new material.

I’m sure you’ve experienced working on some new chords, and you slip out of time without realising it when the chord changes come round.

The metronome gives us an external reference to make sure that our timing is accurate.

guitarist with Limited Core Steel edition

What is the goal of using a metronome?

Often, guitarists think that the purpose of using a metronome to practice, is to play faster.

This is sort of true, but not quite. 

The goal of using a metronome when practicing guitar, is to play more accurately. 

And once you can play accurately, you will find your speed increasing, quite naturally. 

You want to think of speed as a by-product of accurate playing. 

Speed is a by-product of accuracy. If you want to play guitar faster, learn to play more accurately.

The top 10 mistakes guitarists make when using a metronome

Here are some common mistakes that guitar players make when using a metronome, along with solutions that you can use today to help make your guitar practice more effective:

1. Not listening to the metronome

This might be an obvious one, but you would be surprised how often it happens.

It is mainly a problem for beginner guitar players who aren’t used to practising with a metronome. 

When you use a metronome, you have to do two things at once – listen and play guitar. 

And doing these two things at once can be difficult. 

It’s common for a beginner to turn their metronome on, start practising… and the second they are playing guitar, they stop listening to the metronome, quickly going out of time. 

Now, listening to a metronome and playing guitar at the same time can be quite challenging, but make the mental push to listen to that metronome while you’re playing! 

Solution: Push your mental focus to the limit. Mental focus is like a muscle, it will improve with timing. The more you try, the easier it will become.

Jim Rohn has a great quote on this:

“Don’t wish it were easier. Wish you were better.”

2. Not leaving breaks between repetitions

This sort of ties into the previous problem. 

Sometimes when working on an exercise, a guitarist will use the metronome, they will be listening to it, and they will be playing repetitions of the exercise back to back. 

The problem with this, is that after a few repetitions it is quite easy to lose mental focus on listening and playing, and you slip into just playing without listening to the metronome. 

Let’s illustrate this idea with some tab. Let’s say we were playing the following exercise:

A minor pentatonic scale from root note on the 4th string

A simple exercise to work through the first position of the A minor pentatonic scale, from the root note on the 4th string. This is an exercise from the Minor Pentatonic Scales course in the members area.

Now, when practicing repetitions of this exercise, some guitar players may approach it as follows:

An A minor pentatonic scale in first position being played three times in a row

This is the same exercise as above, being played three times in a row. I recommend you do NOT take this approach to practicing scales!

If you look through the tab and compare it to the three bar example that preceded it, you can see that we have taken the scale example and are playing it three times in a row.

I recommend you do not do this. It is easy to lose focus and slip out of time with the metronome.

Often when beginners slip out of they cannot get back in time… and then they sit there playing out of time to the metronome.

A better way to approach this exercise is as follows:

Here we have placed a bar of rests between each repetition. This is a much more sensible way to practice a scale.

If you look at the above tab, you can see that we have placed a bar of rests between each repetition.

This gives you a chance to refocus, and count yourself back in.

This helps ensure that you are playing each repetition nicely in time with the metronome.

If you need to take two bars, three bars of rests before you come back in, take it. There is no need to rush!

Solution: When practicing an exercise to the metronome, make sure you give yourself a little break between repetitions. 

This break only needs to be a few seconds, during which you can refocus yourself and come back in. 

3. Starting to play without listening to 3-4 clicks or counting yourself in

Another common mistake is to put the metronome on and start playing immediately. 

When students do this, they never come in on time.

In fact, it is physically impossible to come in on time if you do this.

Let’s think about it for a minute. 

The metronome is used to measure the passage of time. 

In order to measure a passage of time, you need a start point and an end point.

You need to hear two clicks (at the very least).

If you have only heard one click, it is impossible to know when the second click will be. 

And most of us will have to hear 3-4 clicks in order to get a good feel for the timing. 

So by coming in too soon, you are guaranteeing that you will not be in time to the metronome.

Solution: When you practice to a metronome, give yourself a 4 beat count in (or whatever is appropriate for the metre you are playing in).

4. Not counting out loud to the metronome

This is a weird one.

If ever there was “one weird secret to improving your guitar playing”, this was it. 

When I first started teaching, I noticed some students would struggle to play in time to a metronome, even when playing something that was well within their ability level, and at a slow tempo. 

For whatever reason, they struggled to count to the metronome, and play the guitar, using only their “internal monologue”.

I found that when I made them count out loud to the metronome, their timing improved dramatically, often playing exercises close to perfect, after they had been butchering it just 10 seconds prior. 

I use this myself all the time when learning something new.

Sometimes, it can be quite tricky to get the hang of talking out loud and playing guitar at the same time, but I guarantee, if you put in the time to practice it, it will dramatically improve your timing and accuracy.

Solution: Always count out loud when practicing with a metronome. When counting out loud, count confidently, don’t whisper or mumble.

5. Not understanding the “count” of what they are playing

Maybe we should have made this an earlier mistake in the list. 

A vital part of using a metronome effectively, is to understand the count of the music that you are playing. 

What we mean by this is, are we counting “1 2 3 4” to the metronome, or “1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +”, or “1 e + a 2 e + a 3 e + a 4 e + a”, or “1 2 3 2 2 3 3 2 3 4 2 3” or some other method of counting?

Understanding this requires a good understanding of rhythm.

This is when in the members area, we have a whole course on rhythm and strumming – this course breaks down this concept as applied to strumming chords, but it equally applies to everything from strumming to shredding an Yngwie Malmsteen solo.

Solution: Study the theory of rhythm and learn how to count various rhythms. Practice it, so that you can take any rhythm and dissect it.

6. Not using the metronome to count every note

This is a mistake I certainly made when I was younger. 

I would often use my metronome to count the beat, usually quarter notes. 

However, this means that when it comes to playing subdivisions, I was effectively guessing (sometimes more accurately than others!). 

For example, if I was playing a section in 16ths and the metronome was counting quarter notes, how would I know if the 16ths that fall between the beat are being played precisely?

I wouldn’t.

Solution: Have your metronome count the smallest subdivision that you are playing. If you are playing an exercise that has 16ths, make sure the metronome is counting 16ths.

7. Not counting the start of the bar

This is different to Mistake 3, so please read on.

Another common problem is that, after setting the metronome to count the beat, or smallest subdivision that they are playing, the student starts playing, gets distracted with a tricky section, and an extra metronome click sneaks past without them realising. 

This is especially common when working on a difficult chord change. 

Maybe you’ve experienced this: You’re strumming away, perfectly in time to the metronome, the chord change comes up, it’s a difficult one, and while you are focussing on moving your fingers to the correct positions, an extra metronome click sneaks past without you realising.

Now, there are various techniques we can use to improve your chord changes, all of which we cover in the members courses. 

However, there is a nice simple trick we can use with the metronome to help use catch this mistake when it crops up.

Like a lot of things in life, awareness is half the battle.

Solution: Make sure the metronome has a different sounding “click” on beat 1 of the bar. 

After changing the metronome click, you’ll know that if you are half way through a bar and you hear the beat 1 click, that you have messed up and you need to go back and figure out what went wrong… and where.

We’ll look at this extensively towards the end of the article.

8. Not keeping a record of your metronome tempos

When practising with a metronome, you will be playing the same exercise for several days, or even weeks, trying to incrementally increase your accuracy… and tempos. 

It is well worth keeping a practice log of not just your tempos, but any difficulties you discover.

At the end of each practice session make a note of the tempo you started at, the tempo you reached, and any notes you want to remind yourself of for your practice session tomorrow.

Maybe you need to make a note that a particular section of an exercise had some string noise that you need to fix, or a fret-hand jump that you need to isolate in order to play correctly.

Solution: Download Bear (Mac OSX) or Evernote / OneNote (Windows / Mac). Make sure it is ways open when you practice. Read your notes from yesterday before practice, and make some quick notes after you practice.

Here is a screenshot from some of my recent practice notes:

screenshot of my guitar practice notes, using Bear for OSX.

My practice notes from working on some chord exercises. I like to use Bear for OSX for keeping notes, not just on guitar practice but everything.

9. Using the wrong type of metronome

This mistake is not so common any more, but some students still make it… I know I did! 

There are different types of metronomes, that broadly fall into the four following categories:

  • Analogue metronomes. Think of the stick that goes back and forth. A favourite of piano teachers. Avoid using these! They cannot count subdivisions, which is something we require in order to practice as effectively as possible.
  • Digital metronomes. These are usually credit card sized boxes that you can simply program. You can usually program subdivisions and change the type of click depending on the beat.
  • Apps. There are a ton of apps for metronomes for iOS and Android, of varying quality. The best by far is an app called The Metronome App by Soundbrenner. This app is free and is highly recommended – I use it quite a lot and recommend it to all my students. We’ll look at some examples of how to us Soundbrenner for practising guitar shortly.
  • Custom programmed metronomes. This is when you make a metronome using a drum track in a program such as Guitar Pro, or Logic Pro. Custom metronomes are fantastic for learning songs. We’ll look at some examples for how to set this up later in the article.  These are the best types of metronome we can use. An additional benefit to using a drum metronome is that we can write out the count on the drum part.

10. Not taking breaks across large stretches of practice

Something that cannot be stated enough, is that your progress on the guitar is dependent on the quality of your practice, not necessarily the amount of time that you practice.

15 minutes of high quality, focussed, distraction free practice will be 100x more effective than 60 minutes of noodling infront of the TV.

So to get the most from your practice time, it’s important to maintain a high level of focus while you are practising. 

If you try and practice to a metronome for a long stretch of time, you will find you rapidly lose focus halfway through.

It is not possible to sit for 60 minutes straight with a metronome, ane have the degree of focus at minute 60, that you did at minute 1.

Solution: Set a timer. Practice for 15 minutes, then take a break for 5 minutes. You can always play the same exercise afterwards for another 15 minutes.

You will find that, by doing this, you can maintain your focus much, much better.

Next, let’s look at three different exercises, and how we can use the Soundbrenner app and a custom drum metronome in Guitar Pro to practice the exercises as effectively as possible.

(You could use MuseScore if you want a free app for making a custom drum metronome).

About The Author

Sam Russell has released two albums and teaches guitar technique and composition. Sam currently free lessons and courses for www.study-guitar.com, a website for guitar players who are looking to improve their playing, theory and compositional skills.

Soundbrenner is a company dedicated to help musicians stay focused on what truly matters: their music. By creating innovative devices, such as Soundbrenner Pulse and Core, our goal is to deliver the best possible practice experience for musicians. Click here to find out more.

Got a question about Soundbrenner wearables? Reach out to us at [email protected], we’re happy to help!

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