Let me get right the the point: the value of a metronome is in helping you learn to feel subdivisions of notes in time at various tempos. What do 16th notes feel like at 100bpm? What do 8th note triplets feel like at 120bpm? How does it feel to play them on your instrument? What tempos give you trouble? What techniques cause your timing to slip? Where are your limits, and where do you feel your technique and tone changing to keep up? The value of a metronome is not in being a test to see how fast you can alternate pick a single note.
The value is in teaching you, not testing you.
It’s not a score card where higher is better. A metronome won’t magically give you great rhythm just because you play along with it. It can absolutely help, though, if you use it the right way.
Like any practice, it’s important to focus while using the metronome. You need to notice if you’re putting notes ahead the beat, behind the beat, or right on. If you don’t notice what you’re doing, you can’t control what you’re doing. That control is key to having good rhythm, in my opinion. You’ll just be playing notes on autopilot. if you tend to rush, you’ll keep rushing no matter what that part calls for.
Awareness leads to control.
Other Ways To Improve Your Rhythm
Since guitar is my primary instrument, I’ve tended to focus all of my coordination in my hands. Forcing myself to tap my foot while I play has helped internalize rhythm for me. It’s made rhythm a whole body thing. It’s forced me to put my attention on the one until that’s became somewhat automatic. It’s helped with my rhythmic deficiencies just as much as hours with the metronome.
For many years I was lazy and just relied on the drummer to keep time for me. I listened to the hi hat and snare, and of course I relied on the drummer to cue changes. What a missed opportunity! I never learned to keep track of the song as I played, so if I didn’t have those fills I’d miss changes. I never developed my own good timing. I think I was a decent rhythm player in terms of finding good parts to fit the song, finding good voicings that worked with the other instruments, and having a good sense of blues and swing… but that internal clock was never solid.
I started taking drum lessons in 2018, and even though I don’t put in as much time as I’d like I do practice consistently. Learning to play drums, even at a basic level, has helped me internalize the placement of notes. I hear them better. I can communicate them better. I have more awareness. I also have much better individual control over my hands and feet.
There’s no substitute for recording yourself and listening back. Think you’re spot on? Create some simple loops with, say, 2 bars of a 4:4 beat and 2 bars of silence. See how well you can come right back in on the 1. Then try 4 bars of rest. Then 8. I bet you’re not as solid as you thought. It’s tough! I’ve found my success with this exercise depends greatly on what I’m playing. If it’s just strumming a 4:4 rhythm, I’m pretty darn solid. If it’s improvising a solo with lots of complexity I’m rarely on, particularly after 4 or 8 measures. Some note in my phrases will throw me off a hair, but it’s shard to tell which.
I put a zip file with several drum loops (1-2 bars of 4:4 beat, 1-4 bars of rest) on dropbox. Feel free to download and enjoy!
Every note can be the right note if it’s played at the right time, for the right duration, with the right articulation.
Finally, I think it’s important to put rhythm in its proper place in your playing: first. Every note can be the right note if it’s played at the right time, for the right duration, with the right articulation. It’s all about the rhythm. Clap “Happy Birthday” – most people will know what that is without the notes. So the next time you play, keep your mental focus on the rhythm and groove. Don’t worry about which notes you play, think about when you’re playing them. Do this enough and it will become part of how you play.
Late addition, but I wanted to share these random videos which I found contained some great exercises for improving your timing, feeling playing behind the beat and getting more control over placement. Definitely worth your time to watch.