One of the key ways to develop as a blues guitarist is to improve your timing. It is what separates average guitarists from those that are truly exceptional. And it is a skill that all of the best blue guitarists have in common.
Yet despite its importance, it is a skill that most guitarists do very little to develop. We focus on learning new songs and different scales, whilst all of the time neglecting one of the fundamental elements of music.
I was guilty of this for a long time. I spent all of my time focusing on other elements of my playing. And it wasn’t until I was started jamming with other musicians and realised that my playing was a bit sloppy, that I gave it the proper attention it deserved. My playing has since improved dramatically. So to save you going through the same embarrassment and to help you in your quest to become a better blues guitarist, here are my top 7 tips to improve your timing:
1.) Use A Metronome
I had the pleasure of being acquainted with my first metronome at the age of 12, when I was struggling to learn the violin. Metronomes are used a lot in the education of classical musicians, but much less frequently for blues and rock guitarists. And I think this is a missed opportunity, because they are a brilliant tool to help you improve your timing.
If you haven’t yet come across one – a metronome is a device that creates an audible click or beep at regular intervals, which you control. This click is measured in beats per minute (BPM) and you can adjust this up or down. So as an easy example, if you set a metronome at 60 BPM, it will click or beep once every second. If you set it at 120 BPM, it will click twice every second. Typically most metronomes allow you to go down to a tempo as low as around 30 BPM, and all the way up to around 210 BPM.
You can use a metronome in innumerable different ways, and it really is an essential tool if you want to work on your timing. Almost all of the exercises here require a metronome, so if you don’t have one, I would recommend you add one to your setup.
Metronomes come in a whole range of different styles – from the more traditional mechanical metronomes, to electronic metronomes, to apps. You can even buy watches that pulse on your wrist to help keep you in time!
The type of metronome that you use is totally up to you. They all perform basically the same function, but typically electronic metronomes have additional features that allow you to change the time signature, as well as alter the sound of the metronome’s click, amongst other things.
Personally I use Metronome Online. It is free, has all of the features that I need, and there is a great dashboard where you can track your practice time and set yourself daily goals.
2.) Go Slow
Once you have your metronome, one of the best ways to use it to improve your timing, is to play along to it as slowly as possible.
When blues and rock guitarists do use a metronome, they often use it to try and play faster. They set it on a high tempo, and then play scales and licks, trying to push the BPM a little higher every week. This is a great way to improve speed and technique. But if you want to improve your timing, you need to do the opposite. Set the metronome at a low BPM and play along to it as slowly as possible.
When you set your metronome at 60 BPM or less, there is a lot of space between each note. So the margin for error increases. If you are playing quickly and are slightly ahead or behind the click, it isn’t always that obvious, because the notes are close together. But when you play slowly, it is very obvious if your timing is off.
One nice exercise to develop your timing is to play all of the positions of the minor pentatonic scale up and down your neck and in a variety of different keys, with a metronome. This is often how I warm up, and it serves two purposes. Not only does it help to improve your timing; it also helps you consolidate the shapes of the pentatonic scale all over your guitar.
Start at a level where you can comfortably play your scales in time, using quarter notes. You should aim to play each note perfectly in sync with the click or beep of your metronome. Once you have that nailed, reduce the BPM by a couple of beats and repeat the exercise. Stick at this level until you can play each note in time. Reduce the BPM again and keep going. It will become more challenging the more you reduce the BPM.
3.) Know Your Subdivisions
It is almost impossible to develop a strong sense of timing without properly understanding different note divisions. As I covered in more detail here, in a 4/4 time signature, there are 4 beats per bar, or measure. But those 4 beats can be made up from a whole range of different note divisions. And developing a sense for the feel of each of these note divisions is important.
Some of the most important note values you need to know are as follows:
- Whole Note = 4 beats
- Half Note = 2 beats
- Quarter Note = 1 beat
- Eighth Note = 1/2 beat
- Eighth Note Triplets = 1/3 beat
- Sixteenth Note = 1/4 beat
- Quintuplets = 1/5 beat
- Sixteenth Note Triplets = 1/6 beat
The above list might not make a lot of sense in isolation. But it is helpful as a first step to establish how many notes in each subdivision you need to play per beat. So as an example, when playing a quarter note, you just need to play 1 note per beat. With your metronome set at 60 BPM, you would play 60 quarter notes per minute. When playing sixteenth note triplets, you need to play 6 notes per beat. So with your metronome set at 60 BPM you would play 360, sixteenth note triplets per minute.
To gain a sense of how these subdivision sound and feel, and how they sound when they are played next to each other, try working up through the note subdivisions, and then back down again, whilst playing along with a metronome. This is demonstrated brilliantly at the 1.22 mark in this video, which is where I first discovered the exercise. It takes you from playing quarter notes and works you up through each of the note subdivisions, right up to sixteenth note triplets, and back down to quarter notes.
In other words, you start by playing 1 note per beat, work up to playing 6 notes per beat, and then work back down to playing just 1 note per beat.
You can try going through the exercise on the video by following along, or by playing along to this audio track:
As in the video, the audio track is played by palm muting the open E string. However I have adjusted the exercise slightly, by reducing the tempo of the exercise to 60 BPM. This actually makes playing the longer note divisions like quarter notes more challenging, because there is more space between each click of the metronome. And this gives you more room for error. But I find that reducing the tempo makes it easier to hear the differences between the subdivisions, especially when you get up to playing 5 or 6 notes per beat.
Whichever tempo you choose to play the exercise, it will really help you get used to playing along to a metronome, and to develop a feel for different note divisions.
This is a tricky exercise and one that it took me quite some time to get to grips with. But stick with it, and pay close attention to the difference between eighth notes and eighth note triplets. This crucial is distinction in blues, because as I wrote about last week, triplet rhythms are used so frequently in the blues shuffle. So understanding how triplets sound and feel compared to the other note divisions will do a lot to improve your timing.
4.) Mix & Match
Once you have developed a solid feel for the different note subdivisions, you can add an extra layer of complexity to both exercises listed above. Playing scales using 1 note per beat at a slow tempo is challenging, especially when you get down to 30 or 40 BPM. And playing through all of the different note subdivisions at 60 or 80 BPM is also challenging. But you can make both of these exercises much more challenging in the following ways:
When Playing Scales…
Instead of playing 1 note per beat (or in other words, playing quarter notes); try working down the BPM on your metronome in the same way using eighth notes and sixteenth notes. The click of the metronome will happen very infrequently (once every 2 notes, or 4 notes, respectively). With the very slow tempo, this will leave a lot of room for rhythmic inaccuracy. This is a very challenging exercise, but one that will do a lot to improve your timing.
When Practicing Note Subdivisions…
Instead of consistently practicing the note subdivisions against a metronome set at either 60 or 80 BPM, try going through the exercise at different BPM settings. This will help you develop a feel for note subdivisions, across a range of tempos. It will also help you to navigate through the different challenges that different tempos present.
At a low tempo, the exercise will be more difficult to keep time when playing quarter and eighth notes. There will be more time between the clicks of the metronome, leaving more room for error. Conversely, at a higher tempo, it will be more difficult to differentiate between the short note subdivisions. Altering the tempo in this way will build a solid sense of timing that reflects playing in a live setting with other musicians.
5.) Channel Your Inner Slowhand*
Once you have made decent progression with playing your scales slowly, you can go up another level by applying similar ideas to your soloing. This was an exercise I came across for the first time in Matt Schofield’s ‘Blues Speak‘ guitar course.
It follows a similar pattern to the exercises above, except that here you apply the same idea whilst improvising. So instead of sticking on a backing track, just set your metronome in motion. Set it at a level where you can play a solo (without any backing track at all) and stay in time.
Then, as above, slowly reduce the BPM by a couple of beats and repeat the exercise. Take as long as you need at each level to stabilise and ensure that you are maintaining proper timing, before dropping the BPM. It isn’t a race to the lowest BPM possible, it’s about improving your sense of timing.
This is a lot more difficult than simply practicing scales or note subdivisions. You’re no longer just playing individual notes; you’re trying to create a sense of melody and craft an interesting solo. And this is very difficult when you get down to a low BPM. Schofield can do this effectively and still make it sound good at just 30BPM!
*As a brief aside, the nickname ‘Slowhand’ given to Eric Clapton actually had nothing to do with his playing speed. In early gigs, Clapton used to frequently break his guitar strings. He wasn’t the speediest at changing them, and the audience used to break into a slow clap whilst they waited for him to restring his guitar.
6.) Develop Your Ear
If you struggle to find consistent or sufficient time to practice, then I have good news! Every time you listen to music, you have the opportunity to improve your timing.
All you need to do is listen to a song – from almost any genre – and then establish the beat. Follow the beat by gently hitting the palm of one hand with the index and middle finger of your other hand, or by tapping your foot against the ground. Start by tapping along to the beat using quarter notes, and then as in the previous exercise, work through different note subdivisions. This will help you to further consolidate your understanding of how these different note divisions sound and feel. You can do this almost anywhere, any time you are listening to music.
If you feel too socially conscious to start tapping your foot in public, then all you need to do is listen. Just make sure that you really focus, and actively listen to the music. Do this with all kinds of blues music and listen to instruments other than the guitar. Listen to what the drummer and bass player are doing. Focus on the rhythm and the beat of the music, rather than the melody. Do this when you are listening to music at breakfast, in the gym, or on your morning commute. You will be surprised at what it does for your sense of timing and all round musicianship.
7.) Consistency Is King
There are certain elements of guitar playing that are immensely enjoyable. Developing techniques like bending and vibrato, or learning to play faster is fun. Unfortunately, learning to play slower and with a greater sense of timing isn’t quite so stimulating.
But it is crucial if you want to be a killer blues guitarist.
Effective blues guitar is all about nuance. Just look at a guitarist like B.B. King. Many of his solos are based around simple patterns from the minor and major pentatonic scales. And for the most part, he doesn’t play quickly. But his playing sounds amazing, in part because he plays each note with perfect timing.
Stevie Ray Vaughan is another obvious example. He was renowned for his ability to ‘play in the pocket’ and it really defines his sound. It is just one of the reasons that it is so difficult to imitate his style.
You might not immediately feel the benefits of these exercises. But stick with them. Incorporate them in your routine consistently and you will be amazed at what they do for you. They will improve every element of your playing – from your rhythm guitar, to soloing, to improvisation.
Good luck, and if you have any questions just pop them in the comments below, or send me an email on [email protected] and I’d love to help! 😁