It seems that the one, biggest problem facing the majority of ‘ukulele players is poor timing. Rushing, dragging, missing the 1, etc… The list of issues goes on and on, but it results in one thing: no groove. It’s unsettling to not be able to participate in music as a listener – which is essentially what happens when there is no predictable groove to follow. And people DO want to participate. How much music is so unappealing that you don’t want to engage with it in any way? Not much, I’d say.
So it’s a problem. A touchy one at that. Tell someone they are playing wrong notes and they’ll be hurt, but probably have a positive reaction: “I know” or “Really? Can you show me the right ones?” Tell somebody their timing sucks and instantly you are the bad guy. “Sorry! We just remembered that our ‘ukulele club wasn’t accepting new members when you joined. Please leave.”
That’s too bad because with the easy-factor of the ‘ukulele making waves and ushering in hoards of new players, there are more timing infringements than ever. The good news is that, given a little attention, you can improve your timing a lot. Here are some ideas to develop your groove.
Just like the standard reference pitch is A=440hz, timing reference is told by Beats Per Minute. 60BPM is one click per second. You certainly don’t count beats and check your watch as you play so let a metronome do it for you. A metronome is an endless click machine that ticks away at any number of speeds. Some are fancy, some aren’t, but they all do the same thing. Get one. A Google search will turn up some web-based freebies, but if you have an iOS device I highly recommend the Pro Metronome app. It’s free so you have no excuses!
Listen (To The Metronome):
Fire up your metronome and get it clicking. Push the buttons, slide the slider, twist the knobs – see what it will do. Make it go as slow as possible and then as fast. If you can change accents (like in the Pro Metronome app), play with that too. You’ll be amazed how much difference a harder click on the 3 makes.
One you’ve done your best to break the metronome (throwing it at the wall after a demo with uke-in-hand not included), pick a reasonable tempo (60-140BPM) and set it going. Do the dishes, write an email, read a book. See if you can start expecting where the click will happen. Get aquatinted with the brutal consistency of that clicking sound. Do this with all ranges of tempos. It’s harder to expect the beat when the tempo is slower so be sure to spend more time listening at the sluggish BPMs.
Clap (To The Metronome):
Set that uke down for a moment and get your metronome started. Something cruise like 80 BPM is great. Now clap on the click. It’s not really as easy as you’d think. Go for long enough and you WILL mess up. I have a book somewhere that says students of the author have only ever hit 40-something perfect claps in a row – essentially hiding the click. Spend some time with this. You can’t do too much clapping along. Again, use all tempos.
Strum With A Click:
A “click” is a fancy word for a metronome. It’s uber-hip studio lingo. (When recording you create a “click track” that is embedded in the song while you record. A metronome only plays by itself.)
The fastest way to get into the timing game with your ‘ukulele and without frustrating yourself too much at first is to break out the good ‘ol down, up strum. Get the click going at 70BPM and start strumming. Every time you strum down you should be playing on a click. Upstrums happen between the clicks. So it looks like this:
D U D U D U D U
Click Click Click Click
1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +
Start on an easy chord and get inside that beat! You will, most likely, be humbled by this experience. Once the first chord is steadily on beat, change to another, then go back. Try a simple chord progression like C G Am F or C Am F G7 to up the challenge.
Find The Off Beats:
With the click going, get into rhythm with it by strumming the muted strings of your ‘ukulele or clapping. Play on the click just like before, but this time, after you are in the groove, switch your rhythm to the “and” – in between the click. Like this – X marks where you play:
Click Click Click Click
1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +
| X X X X
Then go back to playing on the click. Practice until you can switch back and forth easily between on and off the beat.
A variation of this uses a faster tempo and less notes. Play on the 1 and the 3. Then switch to the 2 and the 4. Go back and forth until you can eliminate confusion longer than the hiccup.
Divide The Beat:
Now that you’re pretty comfy with playing with a click, time to break it down. Muahahaha! This is tricky, but well worth your time.
Turn on a slow click (40-50BPM) and clap along. Now you’re going to divide every beat into a higher and higher number. Start with two. You’ll now be clapping twice per beat (1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +). That’s great, but relatively easy. Try three. Now you’re playing triplets – 3 claps per click. Move up through 4, 5, 6, to as high as you can go. It might help to slow down the tempo even more for higher numbers.
The reason you do this is to get comfortable moving between note durations. When you clap once per click you are playing quarter notes. When you clap twice per click you are playing eighth notes. Three times: eighth triplets. Four times: sixteenth notes. Five times: five sixteenth notes into four sixteenth notes. Etc…
People rarely practice timing because it comes out naturally compared to other aspects of ‘ukulele playing. That’s a false sense of security that you should double check before you convince yourself that “My timing is fine.”
Bottom line: the more you practice your timing, the better it will be. Everything included above is an exercise, but for real-world practice, use a click when you play your songs. This is the ultimate goal.
Now go forth and play with good (or better) timing!