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Background

I have been dabbling in guitar for over 20 years. I have decent dexterity, technique, and musical theory. However, I don't count time and never use a metronome. I always sound like a weak version of the spotlight guitar solo at a concert, doling out licks, scalar runs, and 'neat noises'. I know very few songs, and am a weird hybrid of "expert level" and "novice".

In all honesty, I live in abject fear of playing with others, because of my idiosyncratic sense of time.

The good news is that I am musical: I am an intermediate on piano, having learned "the right way", using the metronome, and I love it.

Question

Clearly, for guitar, I need to start working with a metronome, but what are some effective techniques to overcome decades of bad habits?

e.g. Do I play scales, counting triplets and 16th notes? Should I just jam to backing tracks on YouTube? Perhaps just pick a single song and truly learn it all the way through? I realize all of these are plausible suggestions but I am looking for proven tips from those who have been through this journey.

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1  
Your description of yourself is identical to me!! I rarely use a metronome and have been actively trying to incorporate it as I KNOW I play ahead of the beat. I have decent time and can remain relatively steady without a click, but when I do use one I discover how ahead of the beat I really do play. It's tough to use one when you normally don't, but I highly recommend at least using it for about 10mins of your routine practice regimen. –  InternalConspiracy Apr 3 '11 at 1:40
    
The short answer is "turn the metronome on". I have the same reluctance to embrace it myself, but that's what it takes. –  Wheat Williams Jul 24 '12 at 21:35

4 Answers 4

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Yes, play scales, arpeggios, chords, all that good stuff. Play eighth notes, play triplets. Play slowly.

I can't emphasize that last part enough. When you play fast, your timing "idiosyncrasies" are masked by the tempo and speed. But when you play slowly, all your timing issues show up like a zit on prom night. Set the metronome to 72 bpm and play scales in eighth notes. Then reset the metronome to 76 bpm and repeat. Then 80 and repeat. Be disciplined and listen to yourself carefully---make sure you're playing with the metronome. Resist the urge to rush; this is practice, after all, not performance, and you're not trying to impress anyone.

Another suggestion: use a basic drum machine to make patterns you can play along with. As a jazz player myself, I have a GarageBand loop set up with a simple ride/hi-hat pattern that I can practice to, just to get myself used to hearing the beat in that context.

Finally: learn other players' solos and play along with them. Pay close attention to their timing and get it right. This can be really hard, but it's ultimately very rewarding.

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Accepting this answer as it has the best mix of advice regarding metronomes and alternatives. I feel that it answers the question and goes beyond. –  Michael Easter Apr 5 '11 at 1:42

I've never used a metronome either, but I have a pretty good sense of time. However, I play solo most of the time anyway...

I would recommend standard exercises... scales, 4/4 and 3/4 simple strumming patterns, etc. Work slow and take your time. Likely to be boring but then most exercises are.

A program like "Band In a Box" is excellent for this sort of training as you can put down a simple chord progression and tweak it anyway you like; faster, slower, more chords, more instruments... A handy tool.

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Metronomes will help you keep a beat, but I find them booooring. Instead, I use Garageband and set up some different drum patterns. They're more interesting. Plus, you can set up other instruments if you want, and write simple songs.

You can even do polyrhythms or complex time signatures by using two different time signatures together, or snippets from one signature followed by a different signature.

It doesn't take sophisticated software or a lot of time, just something that doesn't distract you from counting, while letting you have fun and keeping your attention.

Something else that helps is to work with a drummer and have him help you. A good drummer always has the beat in his head and he could show you what to listen to as he's playing, either his kick or his snare or maybe a cymbal.

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Saw Victor Wooten talk about metronome work, and his suggested method is to take a repeating riff, set the metronome for a time and play along, then drop the time in half so instead of having it be 1 2 3 4 it is just the 2 and 4. (Or 1 and 3.) Then drop it in half again so you just have the 1. Then shift it to "and-a" or something. The goal is to make you have the good time, as opposed to Alex's, which is there to give you more speed. More speed is good, but not quite what the OP is asking about. A video can be found at: http://www.korg.com/ProSessionDetails.aspx?ID=647

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