The Metronome The Slowed Down And Sped Up
I’ll never forget the time I was working on timing with a student. I put the metronome on at a slow speed and asked him to play along. After a few minutes of struggling to synchronize with the beat he declared, ―I think the metronome is broken.‖ I thought he was joking, but to my surprise he went on to tell me he’d practiced the song many, many times and that there had to be a problem with the metronome. He insisted that it was slowing down and speeding up. What could I say? I was pretty sure the metronome worked fine. Over the course of several lessons and changes to his practice routine we both came to understand what was going on—and it wasn’t that the metronome had a mine of it’s own.
Guitarists are notorious for practicing alone, with no way to keep track of tempo. When they get to a difficult chord or passage they usually slow down slightly. Makes sense. What wasn’t as obvious was that over time this slowing down and speeding up began to sound normal to my student. Without other players or another source of consistent time like a metronome or drum machine to keep time with, his mind adjusted to the up and down timing. He lost the ability to discern that he was speeding up and slowing down. Until then I had never realized fully why my instructors had me play slowly with a metronome.
Smoothing Out Chord Changes With A Metronome
Over the years I’ve concluded that one of the biggest problem habits, and the most difficult to break for self-taught guitar players, is this inconsistent timing. It’s especially noticeable with chord changes. Changing chords with a slight hesitation gets to be a habit that’s difficult to break, mostly because after a while the student can’t hear that he’s hesitating. As an instructor I have students play the changes with me slowly without stopping. I’ll go as slow as I need to go so the student can change chords without hesitating or slowing down. Then little by little I speed it up.
You can do this on your own by practicing with a metronome or drum machine. Many keyboards have a built-in drum machine. A metronome is simple, portable and gives you numbers to track your progress. The trick is to go as slowly as you need to go in order to change chords without hesitation. Most people err on the side of playing too fast too soon. Isolate just two or three chords. First practice the changes without a beat. Then put on the metronome and see how you do. If it’s difficult, slow down. If it’s easy, speed up the beat little by little. Record the number that feels right and start there the next practice session.
Improve Your Strumming
A related bad habit is uneven or inconsistent strumming. My experience is that this tends to work itself out over time if you are doing the other things right. It does help early on if you practice a few basic, simple strums until they are smooth and even. You can build on these strums and they’ll give you a framework you can add to. Again the key is to stay relaxed, especially in the wrist. A smooth strum is achieved by a relaxed wrist, a slight wiggle in the pick if you are using one, a twisting motion in the lower right arm and, of course, lots of correct practice. When using a pick it’s easier to learn using a thin pick, because the flexibility of the thin pick makes it easier to get a smooth sound. You can progress to a medium or hard pick as you become more accomplished.