It's About Time!

I'm sure I'm not the only guitar teacher who occasionally finds themselves sounding like a broken record.  Time and time again when discussing a challenge a student is facing, my advice is almost reflexive.  "Why not try slowing it down using a metronome?" "You're having issues with your picking hand?  I suggest you take out the metronome and try slowing it down".  Borrowing from my parents play book who would hide my vegetables in different dishes so as to disguise their presence in my food, I have taken to creatively rewording this advice to students who have studied with me long enough to sense when it's coming.  "Try going into your settings in YouTube and changing the playback speed to 75%".  "Why don't you try using a drum loop online?".  The reason that I endeavour to disguise this advice is because I find that the majority of guitar students are initially reluctant to start involving the metronome into their practice.  For whatever reason, the metronome has become something of a pariah for many beginner to novice level guitarists.

Like many things in the world of guitar playing, the democratization of advancing technology has changed the conventional metronome.  The metronome we use no longer needs to be this lifeless click with its deceptively steep learning curve.  In this article, I'm going to highlight the ways that YouTube, Garage Band, drum machines and metronomes can help modern guitarists to practice in time in ways that are entertaining and engaging in the hopes that we can start to make practicing in time and perhaps even practicing with a metronome feel a little less like convincing a child to eat their vegetables.

Using YouTube

There are a couple of ways that YouTube can be used as a tool to help guitarists learn to play in time.  The first of which is a relatively new feature offered in YouTube's playback settings. 

Slowing Things Down

YouTube now allows viewers to alter the playback speed of a video.  Guitarists who are my age will remember using third party software programs in the past like "The Amazing Slow Downer"  (which by the way still exists) to slow down CD's or audio files without affecting the pitch.  YouTube now allows users to do this for free on the settings of the YouTube video.  Step 1, click the "settings" icon at the bottom right of the video.  Step 2, click "playback speed".  Step 3, select between the playback speed options, or optionally Step 4 shows how you can select a "custom" playback speed.
YouTube playback settingsYouTube playback settings
The ability to slow down a challenging passage or song is a helpful learning tool because it allows you to hear the actual rhythm of the part you're attempting to learn.  In order to slow things down by using a conventional metronome, it is important that you understand the rhythm of the part to be able to do it correctly.  For example, if a particular phrase starts on beat 4 of the bar but you are not aware of this or you are not taking that into consideration, you likely will not be able to hear the phrase in your head by simply turning on a metronome and this can cause frustration.  Slowing the actual music down eliminates this problem because the actual part remains there for reference, and all you need to do is play along with it.  

One aspect to slowing things down on YouTube that is less than ideal is that as you slow a video down, the audio will begin to sound grainy and bad.  The more dramatically you slow the video down, the more apparent this degradation becomes.  Slowing things down too much can even make the part almost impossible to discern at times, depending on the particular song and video.  Still, this is a fantastic learning tool that I take advantage of often.  

Backing Tracks

If you are working on something that is not a song or a specific part but is more like a concept, backing tracks are an incredible help for this.  Concepts such as the modes of the major scale, minor or major pentatonic scales, or even more advanced things like triad coupling or polyrhythms can all be woodshedded by using backing tracks.  YouTube has a surprisingly vast library of backing tracks that includes everything from single chord vamps to 2 - 5 - 1 cadences, giant step changes, rhythm changes, blues progressions all the way up to full 32 bar jazz standards and just about everything in between.  

Backing tracks are an engaging way to work out a new scale or arpeggio or concept across your fretboard in time, while simulating an experience that feels a bit more like "making music" than perhaps a conventional metronome.


Garage Band

Garage Band is sort of like that U2 record a few years back.  It just comes with your phone or laptop, even though nobody ever asked for it.  Maybe its because of this that many guitarists just ignore it, or worse yet delete it all together.  

The truth is that although Garage Band may not be the best choice of software for you to master your bands upcoming EP with, it comes filled with free, usable and decent sounding midi drum and bass samples.  This means that using Garage Band, you can create your own drum loops and increase or decrease the speed of those loops without degrading the quality of the sound.  Depending on how adept you are with computers and how much time you have on your hands, you can even create full backing tracks that include midi keyboards, piano, upright bass, electric bass, whatever you need!  If you are new to programs like Garage Band, of course there will be a learning process involved with figuring out how to make your own drum loops, but like anything else these days there is so much free advice online.  

I found these videos to be particularly helpful when trying to understand how to make drum loops in Garage Band, and if you're looking to try it yourself, this might be a good place to start. 

Drum Machines

Drum machines have been around for decades, but modern technology means they are becoming more affordable and smaller.  For those of you who aren't sure what a drum machine is, it's simply a piece of electronic hardware that contains some samples of drum sounds that you can use to program and store automated drum sequences.  While drum machines don't really sound the same as an actual drum kit, they can still be a really fun way to practice your guitar playing in time.

 Teenage Engineering has some really interesting and easy to use drum machines that are portable and low cost.  The model on the left has not only drum samples, but also some samples of some melodic instruments.  This means it is capable of providing somewhat of a harmonic context as well.  The model on the right is just a drum machine, without the melodic samples included.  Both of these are really engaging practice tools and can help you to play in time.


Finally, I'd like to point out that metronomes have really come a long way from what they used to be.  Of course conventional metronomes are an absolutely essential practice tool for any musician.  Sooner or later, any musician who wants to be taken seriously will have to spend time with an old fashioned metronome.  Nowadays there are metronome websites and phone apps that are not only free but that can also subdivide beats in interesting and helpful ways, can respond to tap tempo, and all sorts of modern features.  

Recently a very modern version of the physical metronome has come onto the market that I find particularly interesting. 

 This metronome by Soundbrenner is worn like a watch and rather than giving you the tempo with clicks, the watch vibrates allowing you to feel the pulse.  This metronome boasts some pretty impressive features including the ability to sync up with other ones, communicate with DAWs and even save setlists.  For guitarists who are interested in technology, practicing with such an advanced metronome can be an engaging experience, and can make practicing with a physical metronome lots of fun.

Thank you for checking out my thoughts on practicing in time.  I hope you got something out of it, and as always please feel free to reach out with any questions or concerns.  Thank you for allowing me to be a super small part of your journey with the guitar, its something that I don't take for granted :)

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