2. Practice With A Metronome or a Drum Machine:
Rhythm is perhaps the most fundamental aspect of music. How well you keep time certainly matters when you are playing by yourself, but it takes on a whole new level of importance when you are playing in an ensemble. Much more than anything else RHYTHM is what brings and keeps the ensemble together.
In Tip #1 we talked about polishing up some popular songs and creating a small set list of songs you play confidently. How do you know when this repertoire is ready to rock? One of the best ways to test yourself is to make sure you can play all the parts in time with a metronome, drum Machine or some other external timing source.
A big part of being able to play with other musicians is being able to raise your awareness beyond what you are playing. You must learn to divide your focus and listen, not only to the part you are playing, but also parts played by other members of the group and the sound of the group as a whole. One of the first steps to developing this heightened awareness is to learn to play with the simple click of a metronome or simple drum loop.
Many students dread playing with the metronome. This is because playing in perfect synchronization with the metronome is not automatic. It is a skill that takes a good deal of focus initially. I recommend that you first introduce the metronome into your practice routine with only the most basic exercises. Play only one open string using all downstrokes so that you can concentrate fully on the task of listening to both your guitar and the metronome’s click.
You will have to learn to anticipate the click in order to produce a note at the exact instant the click occurs. Try holding the pick against the string with a little bit of downward pressure, similar to the way an archer draws back a bow. Then, at the exact instant you believe the click is about to occur, allow the string to escape and slide past the pick, releasing the note. Listen to hear that the note and the click are perfectly synchronized. Then quickly reset the pick by re-applying pressure to the string so that you can release the next note in time with the next click. It is very important to develop this sensation that the note occurring when the string is RELEASED. This is both more physically accurate and more musical than the very common misconception that the note is produced when the string is ATTACKED. The pick is not a hammer. Remember to think of the guitar string as a bow and note is released like an arrow.
Once you have spent a few weeks synchronizing your most basic technical exercises with a simple quarter note click, you can try playing musical material in time with the metronome. Figure out the BPM of all the popular tunes in your repertoire and record this information next to each one on your set list. See if you can play all the parts at the proper tempi. If you find any part difficult, slow the tempo down until you find a speed at which you can play comfortably perform with complete accuracy.
If you can find a drum machine with an appropriate setting for a particular song, it can be more musical to play along with that since your time keeping device will more closely resemble the actual song. If you can play all the parts to a song perfectly at the proper tempo, you may want to just play along with the actual MP3 of the song. One good idea is to make a playlist with MP3s of all the songs in your repertoire and see if you can play through the entire list from one song to the next without stopping. This is a very good way to make sure that you hit all the songs in your repertoire one time during your daily practice. It’s also super fun because it feels like you are playing with a full band.
Of course, if you can reliably play along to the actual studio recordings, I’d say you are certainly ready to try it with real live musicians… at least on a technical level. However, there is a little more to good ensemble playing. I’ve got 3 more tips I want to share with you before you go running off to the musicians board on Craig’s List. So please stick around for the next tip!!