I don’t know about you but it has been a long time since I played with a band. Oh I’ve jammed plenty, but playing with a full band, onstage means that you have to be on top of your game. One key factor is keeping in time.

When you play solo, you can do what you like, speed up, slow down, often you don’t even notice you are doing it, but if you record yourself you will find keeping time takes a lot of discipline and work. I know from experience.

I play most of the instruments on my recordings. If I don’t keep to time, it can sound terrible and be disheartening. If I do have good timing the song or music sounds better and your skills improve.

There is nothing more embarrassing, even in a jam session, than when someone gives you the nod and it’s your turn to lead, but you can’t keep in perfect time to the others. I’ve been there. It’s embarrassing, intimidating and you might not be invited back another time.

Getting it right requires hard work, discipline and the right tools. Enter the metronome.

Using a metronome not only allows you to improve your skills, but it makes your music sound more professional and also makes it easy to find the right tempo to exactly fit your music.

My Tascam Digital Recording Station has a click track and if I don’t use it, I often find it really difficult to add bass and other instruments because my timing is out. It is incredibly frustrating and it can sometimes take me hours or days to finish a single track before its even mastered, because of that one simple problem

How do you learn to keep in time?

There is only really one way to do this. First you need an application or a device that clicks according to the beat. It should give you one beat to signify the start of a bar and another one beating the rhythm according to the tempo you desire, for example standard beat is 4/4 but if you were playing a Waltz it would be 3/4.

It is important to practice playing like this regularly. You will be amazed how difficult it is at first.

Keeping in Time Improves Your Guitar Skills

I remember when I first started at the Creative School of Musicianship in Auckland, classes included what we called Single String. It started with a class of maybe 10 or more people. We had to play all the different scales. We had to play them together and if people couldn’t keep to the rhythm we would start again. This sounds basic but as any musician, artist, dancer or performer knows, the basics are the foundation for your success. They can be boring, but they make the difference between OK and Great! If you get them right at the beginning, everything else sounds easy.

Whether it is a classical guitarist or someone who shreds amazing lead breaks, they don’t sound very good if they are out of time. What’s more important is if the timing isn’t smooth, it makes it much harder to play. If you have a nice sequence of notes in perfect timing, it actually becomes much easier to play scales, melodies or lead breaks.

What Does Good Sound Like?

One of my favorite guitarists is Carlos Santana. He can play any genre, perform with any artist or group and his guitar soloing and comping is magically accurate. Because his rhythm is so good, he can put accents anywhere in the bar, he can play those Uber notes that seem to go forever, but always stop or build into something else without a second thought. He has what some people like Harvey Mann, call body Rhythm. For some people this is fairly easy, for others it can take a lifetime to perfect.

Here’s how you can prove it to yourself. Record yourself playing a song. Get someone to count you in with a metronome and then play on without it. Now playback the recording and listen with a metronome playing. I suspect you will not be very happy with the outcome, which you might have thought would sound fine. I bet it doesn’t.

What sort of Metronome Should You Use?

To learn how to keep in time, I recommend an old school metronome with an arm that flips from side to side and a bell for the start of each bar. This gives you a visual to follow as well as the sound and even better, they are clockwork which means you don’t need a battery. They look good in your music room too.

If you want to travel and take a metronome with you, there are electronic metronomes that feature little lights as well as audible tick tocks. They don’t look as cool, but they do function really well. Some have extra features that can help you with your skills.

You can of course get an application for your computer or smartphone, but I like to keep my phone away when I am practicing because it is an easy distraction and might even ring or send you notifications while you are trying to play. As for PC apps, they can be good, but often I like to play outside, or in rooms where I do not have my PC. If it’s a laptop that means setting things up, when all you want is a beat.

There are lots of different types of metronome. Here are some examples.

This antique looking but brand new metronome is available for just over $25 and is very popular.

This one on the right is a quality precision product as you would expect from Seiko. One of the extra benefits is that it has an earphone socket. That means you can hear the beat but your audience won’t. Great for recording if you don’t have a device with a click track. You could of course also use the socket to output to a track on your recording software and then you have a click track. Again this is high quality but low cost at under $40 with free shipping to most countries. Check it out here. 

There are also lots of combination products like this one from Cherub, which is a guitar tuner as well as a metronome. At the time I wrote this you can get it for around $13. I generally prefer to have dedicated quality fit for purpose devices, but this is still a great buy.

Conclusion

Hopefully you will now have realized that your timing is not as good as you thought. You may have learned the hard way like I did, or you may not have realized how hard it is and how bad it sounds until you played something back. I don’t think it matters what you do in life, but if you think about any skill, they tend to start with what seem like boring basics. Whether it is a dancer, a singer, a painter, almost every famous creative, learned their basics first.

To learn how to keep in time, you need a tool, and they are not expensive. It doesn’t really matter what sort of metronome you use. It comes down to personal preference. I do recommend a device that is purely for that purpose because when you are performing you won’t have it with you.

Take some time, preferably at the beginning of a practice session, because it will improve the rest of your session. Practice doing solos, practice some of your favorite pieces. Often the sheet music, if you use it, will give you the time signature, which is the speed and the tempo. Then you can play it the way it was meant to be played.

You will find that your skills will improve, especially solos and lead breaks. you’ll be amazed how much easier it is to learn scales, breaks, triplets and other skills when they are nicely in time.

Do that work with the right tool and when you get praise after a performance, or invited to sit in with a band or in a jam sessions, or maybe even invited to join a band, it will be because you got the basics right. It may have been boring, but it was so worth it.

Do you have a metronome, or are you now going to get one. They are surprising low cost and the benefits are immense. I’d love you to leave a comment about your experiences.