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Recently I have started to notice as I have progressed more at guitar, that my timing is somewhat poor compared to my level of playing. For the majority of my playing I have used backing tracks and so have never bothered much about my internal sense of timing however now that I am playing in bands and with other musicians, I have begun to notice more and more that my timing is inconsistent and subject to tempo variation.

I want to practice my timing but I'm unsure how because, it's more than a technique or skill but a part of your musical subconscious - so how do you go about training it?

I need a method of practicing my timing so that I can stay at the same tempo as long as I want with almost no variation to speed.

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    Do you play with a drummer?I think Tim's answer is on to something. If you can play to a backing track, you should be able to play with a reasonably adept drummer. – Meaningful Username Jan 4 '15 at 11:56
  • I play with a drummer yes and I can keep in time when he's bashing out his part. I struggle whenever the drummer isn't playing or when I'm playing a lead part. – Tim Hargreaves Jan 10 '15 at 14:23
  • I see. Do you tap the tempo with your foot when the drummer is playing? If not, you should, and then continue when there's a break. The answers contain good hints for improving one's timing, but you need to actively keep time at least in the beginning. – Meaningful Username Jan 10 '15 at 15:35
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It's a good start that you are aware of the problem because many people never become aware of their timing issues. I suggest you use a simple DAW or a drum computer for producing drum grooves with variable tempo. Choose a comfortable tempo and keep playing a 4-bar vamp which is technically not challenging for you. The latter is important because as long as something is still technically challenging the timing will be poor or at least not perfect. Try to relax and try to lock in with the drum groove. Now it's important to record yourself because your perception of your playing might be deceiving. If you can listen to your playing without playing at the same time, you will be able to discern problems in your timing and you can try to correct them. Are you too fast or too slow, or does your timing vary?

The next step could be to use a 4-bar drum groove with the last bar muted, i.e. when you play along you have to fill in the timing of the last bar and see if your 'one' of the next 4-bar phrase is where it should be. In my experience, this is a great exercise and also a great eye-opener, because it can be pretty embarrassing at the beginning. Of course you can increase the difficulty by increasing the number of silent bars. One bar of drum groove and 3 bars of silence is extremely difficult, but it's good to at least try it to see how far off you are. If you do these exercises regularly, I'm convinced that your timing will improve a lot. Finally, it's also important to play with other (good) musicians to learn to feel a common timing, which need not necessarily be as rigid as the timing of a drum computer. Play as much as you can, and try to find a good drummer with whom you can practice.

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It may not be you! Having played in scores of bands over the years, it is apparent that there are many players out there who do not keep very good time. It sounds scathing - it's not meant as such - but it's true nevertheless. Drummers who swear blind they are solid, singers who come in in the wrong place. All good fun, and something to work on...

A metronome is a good little tool to use, but bear in mind that a lot of music will move off the beat slightly as the song progresses. That is what some songs do almost naturally.If it's for dancing, then it's pretty important to try to keep a solid tempo.

Recording the session is great for listening as a post mortem. If you've managed for years keeping time to backing tracks, you can't be that bad! Get the band to put in a bar of nothing during practice time. You'll hear who can't count up to 4 ! And yes, there have been times when I couldn't keep the beat - it does happen to all of us, often because concentration lapses and the foot doesn't tap, or the shoulder doesn't twitch.

  • I'm pretty sure that it's me going off in this instance but you make a great point. Recording sessions sounds like a good idea. – Tim Hargreaves Jan 4 '15 at 21:33
  • @TimHargreaves Tim's answer above raises a great point - the drummer in our band used to 'rush' his fills and after 20 odd years playing togethr I had got used to it. I started with another band where the drummer was more steady and found I was rushing ahead whenever he played a fill, expecting him to rush too. The whole issue was utterly sorted when my orignal band had the drummer play with a click track (metronome). The difference was startling. This makes it obvious when you've gone out of time. Try practicing (band or alone) with a metronome for a few months and it'll become 2nd nature :-) – user2808054 Jan 7 '15 at 15:53
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Egos lie, metronomes don't.

Your sense of time is foundational to your skills. You may have the greatest chops in the world, but a poor sense of time will make you sound sloppy and amateurish. Every musician needs to develop a strong sense of time.

Practice with a metronome often. Be very intentional about locking into the metronome, it's very possible to drift away from the metronome and correct yourself later. If you haven't been playing against a click much, start the click on 8th notes. You will probably want to play something that you know really well to give you the ability to concentrate on the click, scales and arpeggios can work really well here.

After you are comfortable with playing to 8th notes, change to quarters. Then to half notes, with the click on down beats (1 and 3). You might start noticing drift a bit more, such as rushing the 2 and then correcting yourself for the 3. You goal is to stop drifting, you want to be as steady as the click. The next step, which really helps develop a strong sense of time and groove, is to change the click to the offbeats, 2 and 4. You are now required to provide the downbeat and define the groove of the song.

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    This is pretty much exactly what I was going to answer with, plus more. Metronomes are ruthless as telling you when you'e ahead or behind, so it's great training to play along with one. – user2808054 Jan 7 '15 at 15:56
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In my piano lessons, my teacher never made me use a metronome, but instead wanted that I develop my own tempo sense. Of course that went over years of teaching, it's not something that you learn in a day or two. But I guess you already understand this.

Here are a couple of suggestions:

  • ask your guitar teacher, because it is something that must be trained constantly, and requires someone which can hold the tempo very very precisely even if you loose it when playing, so he can correct your mistakes;
  • stop listening to backing tracks: when I play, with my teacher or with others at school, if anyone is keeping the tempo it is too easy to just follow their movement and stop listening to your own internal tempo;
  • I think that listening to a metronome from time to time, trying to replicate the tempo could be useful - I sometimes to that with wall clocks.

At last, when I have troubles with the tempo of a piece, I use the metronome in my digital piano: I set it to the right tempo, listen to the beats for a couple of measures,then I start to play and stop the metronome at random, then restart it later to check if I'm still in sync. Of course you can ask a friend to do these pauses for you.

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You don't definitely say you play with a drummer but if you do they should be setting the time. Perhaps your band doesn't follow the drummer, or perhaps your drummer isn't great - either is bad but it's too easy to assume it's the drummer's fault if other players 'fight' to lead the rhythm.

You could try playing with a Click Track and see what happens.

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I can wail against a backing track but if I am playing only with a metronome my fills show my lack of timing. After practicing several hours with a metronome and going back to the track I was playing better. There are times when you have to have a good sense of time and not lean on a rhythm section. Many songs are easy but the cracks will show when the rhythm is all up to you.

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