Five Metronome Mistakes That Kill Your Guitar Playing

Five Metronome Mistakes That Kill Your Guitar Playing

By Leo Smith

Many beginning and intermediate guitarists spend a lot of time with their metronomes but get very little out of it. They slave away at scales, arpeggios, or drills for hours, only to see their speed stall and their technique get sloppier and sloppier. For years, that was me! I used the metronome religiously, but I quickly reached a point in my playing where I just couldn’t get any faster. Not only that, but even when I managed to drag something I was practicing up to a speed I wanted… it sounded terrible! I knew the metronome was an important tool, I’d heard plenty of great guitarists talk about how important it was for their development, but for some reason it just wasn’t working for me.

If you know what that’s like, don’t worry. There’s nothing wrong with you. :) Metronomes are useful and they will work for you – but you have to use them correctly. If you’re having trouble, it’s only because you don’t know how to use a metronome… and you’re not alone. Many guitarists don’t even realize that there are right and wrong methods!

I’m going to share with you five of the biggest and most common mistakes that guitar players make when they try to use the metronome. By learning these five mistakes now, you can look for them in your own practicing and eliminate any of these behaviors you find, so that you can start making real progress right away!


Mistake #1: Not Understanding What The Metronome Is And Does

This is the first and most fundamental mistake that guitarists make, and it leads to others. In short, these guitar players treat the metronome as if it were the “cure” rather than a tool for measuring and documenting the cure. I’ll explain.

Most guitarists are aware that the metronome is important for building speed and technique, but many don’t understand how or why it works. They assume, probably unconsciously, that the very act of playing along with a metronome is itself what builds speed. They assume exposing themselves to gradually increasing speeds will make them able to play at those speeds. They assume playing mindlessly along with the click will “cure” their slow playing. But that’s not how it works!

What they don’t realize is that big speed gains often require improvements to how they play guitar. But technique doesn’t improve just because you’re pushing yourself to play faster. To improve your technique you need to be mindful of it and be aware of what and how to change. You need to go into your practice with the intention of changing your technique and then focus all your thought on that. That is the cure that will improve your playing. Then you can use the metronome to track how fast you can play while still using your cure.

Now you understand why so many players fail to get great results with their metronomes! When players mistake the metronome for the cure, they train themselves to use bad technique. They may still get faster over time, but the results come VERY slowly because they are only getting better at playing wrong. (This is by far the hardest way to improve!)

To fix this in your guitar practice, make sure you really understand what the metronome does for you. Those clicks don’t have magical properties that make you faster! When you train with a metronome, focus on specific adjustments you want to make to your technique and use the metronome to measure the speeds at which you can make them. A professional guitar instructor will be able to tell you what to focus on and give you specific strategies for how to get the best results from your metronome.


Mistake #2: Using The Metronome For Speed Building Too Soon

The metronome is an incredibly powerful tool for developing a player’s speed and technique, but it’s not necessarily appropriate for every guitarist. Many players end up struggling quite a bit because they use the metronome to push their speed before they are really comfortable playing along with it at any speed. The problem is that these players aren’t ready to move on from focusing on rhythm. For them, just trying to play in time with the metronome at slow speeds takes effort and concentration.

Remember mistake #1? It’s not the metronome itself that makes you faster, but the mindful changes you make to your technique! If you try to push your speed when rhythm is still a challenge for you, then you have two big problems. First, it’s very difficult to analyze your playing because the rhythm is off. That means you won’t know what changes you need to make to your playing. Second, your limited focus is spent just on trying to play in time with the metronome. That means even if you know what and how to change your playing you still won’t be able to focus on it when you practice!

This is very common with beginners, but even experienced players may have difficulty with this aspect of their playing if they haven’t taken the time to address it before. If you’re at this stage then using the metronome is still a great idea, but you need to use it to build your sense of rhythm, not your speed. If you’re at this stage in your playing then you need to slow the metronome down and really focus on playing tight with it, with your notes landing right on top of its clicks. When playing in time is effortless for you, you’ll be ready to use the metronome for building speed!


Mistake #3: Using The Metronome To Practice An Item That Isn’t Memorized

This is similar to mistake #2, because it’s about trying to focus on speed too soon. In this case, the player already has a developed sense of rhythm and could potentially use the metronome to build speed, but they haven’t memorized the item they want to practice. They either need to think about how to play the item while they’re doing it, taking time to recall the information, or, worse, they need to actually read some sort of musical notation while they play! Having to do either of these things means that you aren’t able to focus on analyzing or making adjustments to your playing, and that means you aren’t getting better and faster. (I told you mistake #1 was fundamental!)

While the metronome can sometimes be useful in the process of memorizing things, you aren’t ready to use the metronome for speed building until you can play the item you want to practice without having to think at all about how to play it. If you are not at that point yet, just keep practicing and don’t worry about the metronome yet! More repetition will get you there eventually, and a professional guitar instructor should be able to give you specific strategies to memorize music fast.


Mistake #4: Fixing The Wrong Things, Or Fixing Things Improperly

Some players understand that playing faster and better doesn’t come from the metronome clicks themselves. They know that they need to be consistently finding and correcting problems with their playing technique. The problem is that players who are teaching themselves, or working with mediocre teachers, don’t usually know what to fix or how!

The truth is, without professional guidance you have to ‘guess’ at what to fix in your playing, and that’s a gamble you are usually going to lose. Guitar playing involves many different skills and these skills need to be developed in a certain order, depending on how they interact as well as the individual player’s strengths and weaknesses. So two players who are fairly similar in skill may actually need to focus on completely different things in order to progress! Trial and error may result in accidental victories, but those victories will probably be few and far between.

Further, even if you manage to guess at the right thing to focus on, you may know to change it, but not how to change it. That could mean that you don’t know how to do a thing “right” even if you know you’re doing it “wrong,” or that you don’t know a good strategy to change the thing from wrong to right in the first place!

Of course, if you can’t correctly identify the problems in your playing, or don’t know how to change them, then practicing with the metronome still won’t do you any good. It’s like knowing you have a cavity but rolling dice to decide which tooth to drill. Maybe you’ll get lucky, but probably you’ll just have to suffer through an unpleasant dental appointment for nothing. The only reliable solution is to work with a professional guitar instructor who can consistently identify what you need to fix and show you exactly how to fix it.


Mistake #5: Overreliance On Metronome

This mistake isn’t really related to the others I’ve mentioned. You might know full well how to properly and effectively use your metronome, but still hurt yourself… by using your metronome too much!

Earlier I told you that the metronome was a great tool for developing a sense of rhythm, and that’s absolutely true. Some players can benefit a lot from working to play tight with a metronome or click track, because it’s a very helpful crutch. A crutch can help you move around safely and protect your leg when it’s injured, but if you keep using it after the leg is healed you’ll never recover your old strength and coordination.

Similarly, the crutch that helps players with an undeveloped sense of rhythm can also hurt more advanced guitarists. This happens when players who can already play tight with the metronome never practice playing without it. They become dependent on it, like a post-op patient who is too scared to walk on their own, and it both limits what they can achieve as a player and makes them very vulnerable performers.

A good guitarist, and a reliable performer, must develop an internal sense of rhythm. That means your playing needs to be tight even when you don’t have a metronome – or anything else – to play against! Developing this skill allows you to play and sound way better without the support of a rhythm section, and as a performer it protects you from any number of things that can go wrong in live situations. Having this skill also makes you a more confident player, and that alone will make you sound much better and more compelling. That makes playing guitar a lot more fun even if you only play for yourself!

There are a lot of things you can do to develop this skill, but one thing you absolutely have to do is take some time to play away from the metronome. Just turn it off, and practice playing over complete silence. This alone, combined with regular training with the metronome, will go a long way towards developing your rhythm skills!

(c) 2017 Leo Smith