If you are not yet playing guitar at the level you desire, this can be due to a variety of causes. Certainly, there are many skills that need to be learned before one can become a good or great musician. From these skills, I want to focus on technique in this article. Physical technique serves as a vehicle for communicating your creative vision. You can be a great musical genius, but if you lack the skills to get your music out on your instrument, it will be hard for you to express it in the way that you intend. Technique by itself, like any isolated musical element, is not the “most” important element of the musical puzzle, but without it, you will be unable to play what you want to hear.
Many players acknowledge that a metronome is necessary for developing accuracy and control needed for high levels of playing. However, a lot of guitarists do not understand how to use this tool for maximum effectiveness. I often receive questions regarding how to practice with a metronome for higher speed development, and I wanted to address some of them in this article. I should mention that the practice approaches I am about to describe should be integrated into your practice routine and balanced by other musical elements. You want to make sure that all of the musical skills relevant to your goals are constantly improving and do not become out of balance in one area.
One of the most common questions that I receive about using a metronome is “what tempo should I start with?” It is difficult to answer this question in a general way. The answer (“your” answer) will depend in many ways on your current skill level as a player, the specific technique/exercise in question, and the note values being played (16th note triplets will require a slower starting tempo than regular 16th notes for example). So become clear on these elements before you begin.
In general, before you start a metronome routine it will be helpful to make a list of specific techniques/problems you want to improve, and write next to them the target speeds you want to achieve. Next you want to establish your current top speed at which you can play a certain technique comfortably. Write this down as well. All of this will help you assess your current skills and show you the gap that must be bridged before you can play at the level you desire. The more you understand about your current playing ability and the specific technical challenges you are facing, the easier it will be to overcome them. The metronome is only useful as a tool for “fixing” problems after you become aware of “what” problems need to be fixed! Please do not skip this step.
While writing this article, I came across a useful free resource that evaluates your technical skill level in greater depth. For the curious, here is the link I found: How Close Are You To Mastering Electric Lead Guitar Technique?
After you become clear about your current skill level and your goals, you will be ready to pull out the metronome. I generally recommend starting to practice at about 30-50% of your maximum speed. Your first objective should be to simply teach your fingers the motions and learn to be relaxed while playing the phrase or exercise. You also should make sure that your playing is totally clean and precise at this initial stage. If it is not, it will become much harder for you to develop the level of control necessary to play easily and cleanly at much higher speeds.
The next question I am often asked is “how much can I increase the speed and when do I do it? This is another issue that does not have a clearly defined answer, but I will share with you the approaches that I use. You should increase the metronome speed when you are able to play at the slower speeds easily, cleanly and accurately, and CONSISTENTLY. This means you should be able to easily play the passage more than once, instead of “nailing it” only one time. At that point it is safe to increase the metronome tempo by 1-10% of the previous speed. The closer you get to your maximum speed, the smaller the increase in speed should be.
Another common question is: “What if I get stuck at a certain speed?” In order to move past a sticking point on the metronome, you need to become clear on what exactly is going wrong with your playing at your maximum speed. Analyze where the mistakes are happening. Then slow the metronome back down to about 60-80% of your maximum speed and drill the exercise again, this time focusing more on the points where you noticed mistakes at your top speed. Make the motions more efficient and more relaxed in these spots. After doing this for a few minutes, move the metronome back up. The maximum speed should now feel easier.
This process described above is a general approach that I recommend starting with. There are several variations on this method, and they mostly depend on the specific skill level of the player. Sometimes, a different, more advanced method can be more appropriate. One of such tactics is described in this article. How To Practice for Maximum Guitar Speed – Part 2
In addition to the challenges of not knowing how to use a metronome, many players fail to develop high levels of technique because they believe in a common myth that persists among guitarists. Some people believe that having great technique automatically means that the player’s music begins to lack in feel or emotion. As a result, many choose not to pursue the really high levels of technical development, partly because of fear of becoming “sterile/soulless shredders”. This could not be more false. Great technique is only a tool, nothing more. You use that tool in a way that suits your musical desires. Also, do not forget that there are several DIFFERENT kinds of emotion (in other words, there is MUCH more to emotion than “bending a note”). Players such as Rusty Cooley, Theodore Ziras, Paul Gilbert may be on a completely different side of the technique spectrum from Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, and BB King, but all play with extreme emotion that is appropriate for their style and their musical vision. It is up to the listener to discern the emotion in the music. Just because one can only perceive emotion in a limited number of styles, does not mean that emotion is lacking in other types of musical contexts.
So my advice to you is to let go of any negative misconceptions you may have about speed and seek to acquire as much guitar technique as you need to play what you want to play. Admittedly, not everyone likes the sound of fast/virtuoso guitar playing, but if you do, then you “are” feeling EMOTION! This should reason enough for you to move forward with getting to that level yourself.
Use the process described above, believe in your own potential and you will surely begin to see much improvement in your playing!
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