Timing's Everything: Should You Practice With a Metronome?

Should you practice with a metronome

Many musicians avoid practicing with a metronome. They either think it’s boring and something they don’t need, or they give it a try and quickly become frustrated.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. If you’re willing to stick with it a bit, practicing with a metronome can give you a big payoff. 

A while back I saw a video of the great guitarist Tommy Emmanuel teaching a class. In the video, Tommy tells the class that he always takes a metronome with him on the road! When he’s on stage, he relies on his instinct and the feeling in his body to keep time and rhythm. To make sure that his “body clock” is well calibrated, though, he practices with a metronome in his hotel room. 

For me that was a great affirmation. Yes, there are times when metronome practice is frustrating. But there are other times when it’s actually quite enjoyable. And after I’ve been practicing with the ‘nome, what I find is that later on, when I pick up my guitar, I can feel the rhythm as soon as I start playing. 

That’s the payoff: More ‘nome practice translates into more ability to find your natural clock. It’s just like baseball players who take batting practice in a batting cage. They’re working on their timing—adjusting their swing so they can make optimum contact with the ball in the strike zone. The more they practice, the more their bodies start to naturally “feel” this process. 

Time vs. Rhythm
It’s also important to remember that, while time and rhythm are parts of the same dynamic, they are two different things in music. Time can be equated as meter and beats per minute, and rhythm is related to a certain musical grouping of notes that add rhythmic, stylistic character within the time. 

For examples of rhythm, think of the different ways in which people move and dance to different styles of music. Imagine how people dance to rock music vs. how they dance to classical music. I’m sure you can see the difference in your mind. The reason for that difference is that the grouping of notes in each style of music naturally draws a different rhythmic, organic emotional response from the listener. 

Rhythm and phrasing in music are just as valuable to a song or composition as melody and harmony. And yes, practicing with a metronome will help you improve your rhythm and phrasing, not just your time. 

One note: Just because a metronome is a good tool to practice time doesn’t mean you always have to use it. And, it doesn’t mean that music must be metronomically perfect. Most music should, in fact, have some natural elasticity. In other words, music should be allowed to breathe. (More on that in a later post!) 

Get Creative
The bottom line: Yes, you should practice with a metronome! Don’t skimp on this, and be creative. Make up a 4-chord phrase that fits into 4 measures, and then set the ‘nome at a very comfortable pace for your level. 

As you improve your performance, try speeding up the ‘nome and try slowing down the ‘nome, too. Moving the speed in either direction will present a challenge for you to get back in sync.

The payoff is often not immediate. But with dedication to the process, you will gradually notice you’ll have more fluidity in your playing—and a more finely tuned internal clock.