The Metronome – A Love/Hate Relationship

We all hear it sooner or later. It’s the three words that send chills down every guitarist spine. “Use a metronome.” When you stop to think about it how wonderful is it to have that tool at our disposal. A little device that clicks at a specified pulse and is always, YES ALWAYS, correct in its rhythm. The metronome is a godsend. Anyone who has used it and used it correctly will attest to its glory.

I speak about the metronome with such reverence because it is such an indispensable tool in the quest for complete mastery of our instruments vast array of techniques. Many get frustrated with it because they do not know how to use it properly. The aim of this article is to help you learn how to use it and grow to love it.

The first exercise does not even involve the guitar, so put it away. We, I believe, are not rhythmic creatures – yes, we breathe rhythmically and walk rhythmically, and our hearts beat rhythmically. But we are not rhythmic beings. The beating of our hearts, and our walking and breathing are done on a sub-conscious level. We do not think about it. Since we do not think about it, it is not a natural part of our thought process and this is why beginners and even some advanced players have a hard time with rhythm.

So, for the first exercise, turn the metronome on and set the tempo to 65 BPM (beats per minute). Now count aloud and move your body back and forth with the pulse. This helps to internalize the pulse on a conscious level. There are several things going on here:

  1. We are feeling the pulse because we are moving our bodies to it.
  2. We are hearing the pulse because we are counting it aloud and that pulse is being reinforced by us hearing the metronome.
  3. We are forcing our bodies to move to it and we are counting it so we are forced to “think” about it.

All this helps to internalize the beat. When 65 is mastered move up in increments of 10 BPM, if 10 proves to be too much too soon then try 5. The important thing is not how fast you go but how much you can correctly “feel” a pulse.

Another exercise you can do is to play a piece you are working on and vary the rhythm. Let’s take the opening bars to the Bach Prelude in D Minor:

Example 1

It’s a steady flow of 16 th notes. Steady 16 th notes can be a very difficult thing to play evenly; the brain understands it but the hands sometimes do not.

One thing to do is vary the rhythm. The first alternate rhythm involves a dotted 8 th note followed by a 16 th .

Example 2

The next rhythm involves a 16 th note followed by a dotted 8 th .

Example 3

If you notice, the benefit to studying the opening measures to the prelude is that it’s one measure of material, followed by a measure of literal repetition, and then a measure with new material with the following measure a literal repetition of the one before it. This presents us with a great opportunity to practice it as a speed burst exercise:

Example 4

The key to this exercise is to set the metronome pulse as slowly as you need to in order to play it correctly, even if you have to set the metronome at 65 and each click represents a 16 th note. Whatever it takes to train the hand the right way.

Another thing to do is to play what is written but vary the accent from finger to finger. For example the first time through the thumb will be accented, the second time through “i,” or index finger will be accented, etc…Again set the metronome as slowly as you need to in order to play everything smoothly.

This is by no means exhaustive of metronome techniques and I will do a future article on metronome techniques. This article was meant just to get your feet wet and to get your brain thinking. The thing to remember is that the key to playing fast is playing slow, but playing slow correctly . And the key to playing slow correctly is using a metronome.