Advice: Timing

Not so long ago I started thinking about the difference between my playing and that of the players I admired. How can they make the same set of notes that I’m playing sound so much better? I decided to record myself so I could listen to my playing objectively. I used Garageband on my Mac to lay down a basic backing track for “Whisky Before Breakfast”, and then recorded the banjo part. When I listened back I noticed my playing was not as even as I thought it was, and there were many tempo variations. I went on to record myself without backing, and the tempo issues were worse. I tended to rush the easy bits, then slow down when the rolls go challenging, and it was clear that I had to look at improving my timing. Sadly, unless timing comes instinctively to you, you’re gonna need to buckle down and do some real practice, and if you’re like me, a little impatient, and have never had a lesson in your life, you’re probably lacking fundamental skill.

So what can you do to rectify this issue. To my mind there is only one answer, which is to practice to a metronome. Someone once told me that if you can play a song really well slow, then you can play it better at normal tempo, this makes sense, and is true, because you have time to think about what you’re doing as well as being able to focus on the quality of the notes you’re playing, which is something you don’t do when you’re playing the song as fast as you can.

The best way to start practicing to a metronome is to go back to a simple banjo roll, such as a forward roll. Then you set your metronome at a slow tempo, such as 70bps, which will tap a steady 1,2,3,4 beat. Then start playing the roll to the metronome, one note every beat. This will feel really slow, and will be hard at first, and you might want to increase the tempo slightly. Once you have mastered this you can move onto playing two notes to the beat. The standard way to learn this is to vocalise the gap in between the beats on the metronome by saying the word “and”, for example “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 1 and 2 and...”. Here the “and” becomes the second beat of the pattern/roll. Again practice a basic roll at around 70bps. Once you have mastered this, start to increase the tempo by 10bps every minute (no less), until you can’t keep up with the metronome. At this point stop, as you will do more harm than good to your playing, however, you’ll probably have noticed you were able to play faster than you could before before, as this is a pleasant side effect of practicing in this way.

As I mentioned earlier, you can learn a lot about your playing by recording it. Use your computer or smartphone or whatever you have available to record yourself playing along to the metronome, and then listen back, you will always notice something you want to improve.

Eventually you will instinctively feel the timing, and your playing will be more even. I recommend that you continue to practice to a metronome, especially when learning new songs, as they really make you play slowly and not rush the learning experience.

If you don’t have a metronome you could use an on-line metronome, or if you have an iPhone or Andriod phone, you could download an app (I use Guitar Toolkit, which cost a few £’s, but there are many free alternatives). Failing that, you can go old school, and buy a real one for under £10 on ebay :)

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About Me

I have been playing guitar for over 20 years, at first playing in indie bands, followed by a long stint playing rockabilly on the streets of Oxford, a short excursion into dance music, followed by looking at early blues styles. Now after a few years of listening to Dylan, Guthrie, and early Americana I find myself in possession of a banjo, and I'm addicted! Currently I play Banjo and Guitar in an Oxford based group called Swindlestock, you can hear our music our myspace page.

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