To play classical guitar beautifully, we need good timing. We need to be able to keep a steady beat going, even when the notes become difficult.
But few of us are born with such solid internal rhythm. So how can we develop great timing?
Use the Right Tool: Turn on the Metronome
While metronomes may be scary at first, they offer a valuable form of feedback.
The popular foot-tap slows down and speeds up without our notice. We cannot trust it. Unlike a foot-tap, a metronome stays rock-solid. And it does this even if we become confused or distracted. No matter what, it does its one job – the steady click.
This means a metronome is like a mirror. We can use it to compare what we “feel” with the stark reality of time. As we do, we adjust our notion of what feels “right” to more closely match reality.
How to Use a Metronome to Develop Your Rhythm
We can use a metronome for almost all our classical guitar technique practice. And indeed, technique practice will be more effective when we use the metronome.
But we can also use the metronome in a special way to train our internal rhythm. Here’s how:
Step One: One Note Per Click
To begin, we set the metronome at a comfortable pace and play one note per click. This is the most common way to use the metronome. For example, we can set the metronome to 120 beats per minute (bpm), and play one note with each click.
We can do this with open strings, a scale pattern, or anything else. The notes matter less than the rhythm.
Step Two: Two Notes Per Click
Next we can set the metronome to click once for every two notes we play. For example, if we set the metronome to 60 bpm, we can play at the same speed as before and have two notes per click.
The trick here is to count the subdivision. This means if the click is “One, two, three, four”, we count “One and Two and Three and Four and One”.
The goal is to play a steady rhythm with the metronome click lining up with every other note.
Step Three: Four Notes Per Click
Once we have the previous step mastered, we can reduce the number of clicks still more. Now we have four notes per click.
If the metronome can go as low as 30 bpm, great. If not, we can set the metronome to 120 bpm with an accent on every four beats. Then, we can turn off the quarter note and leave only the accent audible.
(note: You may need to consult your metronome’s manual to discover how to do this.)
As in the other steps, the goal is to play with absolute rhythmic integrity. We play with military precision as the metronome clicks to every fourth note we play.
Step Four: Eight Notes Per Click
Finally, we come to eight notes per click. This means that the metronome clicks on the first note, then the ninth, etc.
If you’ve succeeded in setting your metronome to sound only the accent, as described above, you can now set the metronome to half the previous speed. For instance, we can set the metronome to 60 bpm and have the accent every 4 clicks. Then we turn the non-accented notes off.
Note: For all the exercises above, we play the exact same speed. One is not faster or slower than the others. The only difference is how often the metronome clicks.
All Variations are Legal
In these examples, we doubled the notes per click with each step.
We can also use subdivisions of three, five, seven, or anything else. However, most of the music we’ll encounter will use 4/4 or 2/4 time signatures. So the exercises above will offer the most benefit to start with.
Use This Exercise as a Stepping Stone to More Expressive Playing
With practice, we’ll be able to maintain a steady rhythm over longer periods of time. Once we do, we can play with stretching and compressing time.
To play expressively, we often slow down or speed up in our music. But without a firm foundation of steady rhythm to begin with, these variations in speed often come across “off” in some way. Instead of expressive playing, we have a parody of expressive playing (which is valid, if that’s what we’re going for). We can think of it as the musical equivalent of over-acting, or bad acting.
So the surest path to play beautifully with time is to develop a strong internal sense of rhythm. And the exercise above will help.