Learning to play with a metronome is one of the best cures for an ukulele player’s poor timing.
This can manifest as rushing, dragging, missing the 1, etc… The list of issues goes on and on, but it results in one thing: no groove.
It’s a touchy problem. 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 is my prescription for beginning to develop your groove by using a metrnome.
What is a Metronome?
A metronome is as important and useful a tool as a tuner. It’s a tuner for time.
If you don’t know what a metronome is, it’s a device (or app) that creates a clicking or beeping tone at a regular interval. The interval is determined by the BPM – or “beats per minute.” 60 BPM is one click per second. 120 BPM is two clicks per second and twice the tempo of 60 BPM.
You can get a metronome app for free if you have a smartphone. Pro Metronome is my choice and is available for iPhone and Android. If you’re more old school, you can get a dedicated digital metronome for $20-40. Or check your tuner. Often they have a built-in metronome feature.
How a Metronome Fits Into Music
The idea of playing a song with a metronome seems straightforward, but takes some practice. Usually the metronome’s click represents a quarter note. So for a measure of 4/4 music, you would hear a click on every beat – or four times in the measure. Like so (click = *):
1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 * * * * * * * *
That’s not too bad by itself, but as soon as you get off of quarter note rhythms and start playing eighth or sixteenth notes it gets tricky. This is because instead of playing notes and rests only on the click, you’ll start adding notes and rests between the click.
Since the majority of songs you’ll play on your ukulele utilize eighth notes to some degree, you really should spend some time practicing some exercises with the metronome. This way, when you go to play your own songs with the click, you won’t be completely confused.
Here some of my favorite metronome exercises. You should practice them until you are very confident and able to execute each one well. There is no such things as over-practicing so take as long as you want and revisit them occasionally to keep your feel fresh.
When working through these exercises, be honest with yourself. You’ll probably feel pretty dumb the first few times you try some of them – I sure did when I started. Don’t try to convince yourself you did it right – you probably didn’t. Just do your best and try to improve a little bit each time.
Listen to the Click
Pick a reasonable tempo (60-140BPM) and set your metronome going. Do the dishes, write an email, read a book. See if you can start expecting where the click will happen. When you need a change of pace, switch to a new tempo.
Clap (To The Metronome)
Set your metronome to 80 BPM and start it. Now clap on the click. Your goal is to hide the click under the sound of your clap. It’s not as easy as you’d think and you’ll only be able to go for so long before you mess up.
1 2 3 4 * * * * Clap Clap Clap Clap
Spend some time with this, using different tempos. It’s interesting to try this with a group if you have a way to play a metronome loud enough for everybody to hear.
Clapping on every beat is good practice, but you also need to be able to leave spaces – or rests – in the music at will. You can practice this by alternating the beats that you clap on. For instance, clap only on the 1 and the 3 beat. Rest on the 2 and the 4. Like this:
1 2 3 4 * * * * Clap Clap
To keep track of where you’re at, it’s important to count out loud at first!
Once that’s easy, stop and switch it around so that you clap on the 2 and the 4. Now you rest on the 1 and the 3. Like so:
1 2 3 4 * * * * Clap Clap
1 2 3 4 * * * * Out In Out In (Clap) (Clap)
The final challenge is to switch back and forth between these two patterns. Start by clapping on the 1 and the 3 for four measures, then switch to clapping on the 2 and the 4 and for four measures.
1 2 3 4 (x4) * * * * Clap Rest Clap Rest 1 2 3 4 (x4) * * * * Rest Clap Rest Clap
Increase the challenge by reducing the number of measures between the patterns one at a time (switch after three measures, then switch after two measures). The ultimate goal is to be able to play a single bar of one and a single bar of the other. Like this:
1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 (repeat) * * * * * * * * Clap Clap Clap Clap
The double rest and the double clap forces you to feel the measure in a much more awkward way. If you can get used to this, you can play most things using quarter notes.
Divide the Beat Into More Pieces
The next step is to learn to feel where the eighth notes happen in a measure.
If you divide a bar into eight pieces, you get eighth notes. This is the same as dividing a quarter note in half. So two eighth notes equal a quarter note. This means an eighth note only lasts half the duration of a quarter note.
Since it’s nice to have a way to count this out loud, we’ll vocalize with “and” after each beat. By doing this we double the possible rhythmic locations of notes and rests in a measure.
Now instead of counting 1 2 3 4, you count 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +. It’s easier to write it down with a “+” but you say it: “one and two and three and four and…”
This fits with the metronome pattern we’ve been using like this:
1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + * * * *
The number counts – called the “downbeats” – remain with the click. The “ands” – called the “upbeats” – are placed evenly between the clicks.
Try clapping eighth notes along with the click. When you do this, every other clap will be on the beat.
1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + * * * * Clap Clap Clap Clap Clap Clap Clap Clap
Again, this is probably easier at first if you count out loud.
Clap on the Offbeats
With the click going, get into rhythm with it by clapping on the click, just like before. Once you get in the groove, switch your rhythm to only hit on the “and” – in between the click.
1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + * * * * Clap Clap Clap Clap
Then go back to playing on the click. Practice until you can switch back and forth easily between on and off the beat.
As outlined in the tip box above, feeling the click physically as the outward motion of your hands might be helpful.
Divide the Beat: Level 2
If you’ve done your due diligence with the above exercises, I’d say that you’re pretty comfy with playing to a click. Now it’s time to increase the difficulty significantly.
We’ve already seen how you can divide quarter notes into eighth notes to create two notes per beat. This next exercise revolves around the idea of breaking the beat down even further. Instead of just having quarter notes or eighth notes, the goal is to create smaller divisions like three, four, or even five or more.
Turn on a slow click (40-50BPM) and clap along on the quarter note. Now divide every beat into two and clap twice as fast. You’ve already done this in the first “Divide the Beat” exercise. The hardest part will be switching from quarter clapping to eighth clapping. Jump back and forth between quarter and eighth notes until it’s comfortable.
1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + * * * * Clap Clap Clap Clap
1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + * * * * Clap Clap Clap Clap Clap Clap Clap Clap
Now it gets harder. Try dividing the beat into three pieces. Now you’re playing eighth note triplets – three claps per click. Be sure to fit the claps into the beat evenly so that the first of the three claps lands on the click.
As you’ll notice, my visual aid would need to get more and more stretched out to demonstrate these further divisions. This is why you start with slow tempos – so you have time to fit in enough claps. To make the visuals fit on the page, I’m going to now notate claps as an “X.” The location of the click is still shown as “*.”
Eighth note triplets:
1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + * * * * X X X X X X X X X X X X
Practice transitioning from quarter to eighth to eighth note triplets until you can move up and down through them easily. Trying to jump ahead at this point is counterproductive! Stick with it until you’ve really got it.
Next up would be to divide the beat into four pieces. This is the equivalent of sixteenth notes. Now you’re clapping on the downbeat, the upbeat, and also between both for a total of four claps.
1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + * * * * X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X
At this point the physical action of clapping can become too fast to do comfortably, in which case you should slow down the tempo of the metronome so that you have room to work when clapping the faster note divisions.
An Even Bigger Challenge:
Note divisions beyond this point are extremely tricky. If you feel like you’re ready to attempt them, it should be obvious to you how to proceed. Don’t go beyond this point until you’re really comfortable working from quarter notes up to sixteen notes.
That said, if you’re up for the challenge, playing five, six, seven, and even eight notes per beat is fantastic practice for a very advanced player. You won’t necessarily ever use these divisions in standard music, but the rhythmic comfort it will give you will be very useful as you improve.
The five, six, and seven note divisions are known as tuplet groupings – quintuplet (5), sextuplet (6), septuplet (7). These work similar to a triplet where you fit the notes evenly over the space of an even note. In this case, you’re fitting five, six, or seven over the space of a quarter note.
The eight note beat division is the same as 32nd notes.
For these higher divisions, I find it’s helpful to count them out loud as you’re getting them established.
Adding the Uke
If you spend the time to really get comfortable with all of these exercises, you will be well on your way to becoming a very time-sensitive musician. The key is to make sure you’re practicing everything correctly and evenly. If you’re doing it wrong, you’re wasting your time. Double check yourself with a more advanced musician or peer group if you’re not sure.
Because clapping is a natural motion, it makes sense to start there for these exercises. The obvious progression is to introduce a musical instrument to these exercises – your ukulele.
Any of the above clapping exercises can be played as a note or a chord. Just adding this alternate physical motion will make some of the exercises seem new again. Practice by playing a single note or a single chord until all of the exercises are easy.
The next level of difficulty is to add a chord change or a simple melody to the timing exercises. Try playing one chord for one bar and then switch to a different chord for another bar. Or divide the beat and add a different note for every new division.
The possibilities are endless. Use your imagination.
Playing Songs in Time
So far all we’ve discussed are exercises to get you more comfortable with the metronome. If you’ve followed along up to this point and spent several weeks (or more) practicing these exercises, you’re probably ready to try introducing the metronome to your music.
Doing this should be pretty straightforward and natural after working through the exercises, but I can give you a little bit of additional guidance.
Start with an easy song. So often people jump in headfirst with a challenging song, even when they have no idea how to execute the skill. Even if it’s not as exciting, you’re more likely to have success if you start simple. Choose something you’re really familiar with, something that you can already play well.
Next, figure out the tempo you should set the metronome to for your song. You’ll have to adjust the BPM to get the correct feel. You can play the song without the metronome and tap your foot on the beat to try and get an approximate tempo. Some metronomes have a tap tempo feature which can make this easier, otherwise you’ll have to listen to the click and adjust manually.
Once you have a solid click track set up, imagine the song in your head. Don’t try and play it on your ukulele yet. Just listen to the metronome and imagine how the song fits into time with it.
Try to hear in your mind which notes are played on the downbeat and which are played on the upbeat. When you rest, how long do you wait for? Are the chord changes happening in the correct places? (Usually a chord change happens on beat 1 – or sometimes beat 3.) If you’re landing in a strange place, you’re probably dropping or adding a beat somewhere.
A trick for correcting this is to imagine the song being played by an entire band. Since one instrument or another is usually playing at all times, this can help you avoid rushing through the rests or extended notes.
Slowing Down a Song
I believe any mediocre ukulele player can learn to play a song like “Flight of the Bumblebee,” perfectly. What? Absurd! How can this happen? By playing it incredibly slow.
If you slow down the tempo of a piece enough, it becomes simple to change to the next note in time – even if it’s a tricky move. Because the pace of the song is much reduced, you can plan ahead enough to work your way through it.
But you have to do it the right way. Many times, when people play a song or exercise slower, they reduce their speed inconsistently across the piece. This means some parts are slower and some parts are faster. If the tempo changes pace like this, you aren’t playing musically and you can’t establish a solid rhythmic groove on your ukulele.
The trick to playing slowly – and doing it well – is reducing the tempo evenly. If you can learn to do this, you can play anything you want. A metronome is the best way to achieve the goal of slow, even timing.
Here’s the famous part from “Canon in D.” Depending on the arrangement you’ll hear it played at different tempos, but oftentimes it’s quite fast; a pace that would make most beginning players freak out.
It features a lot of sixteen notes, which isn’t something we spent a lot of time on, but if you practiced the beat division exercise they should fit right into the picture. All you need to know is that they are the same as a quarter note divided into four pieces – a sixteenth of a bar.
Below is the notation with the quarter note counts – the click – above the notes:
Here is a software sound file of that played with a click at 120 BPM:
Below is another MP3, now at 110 BPM. Not a super noticeable difference, but also small enough that your brain doesn’t have to fight to comprehend what’s happening. When you make big jumps in tempo it can seem like an entirely new song.
Here’s 80 BPM for kicks:
Essentially what’s happening as we slow down the tempo is we’re stretching out the time. The notes and rests scale accordingly so that everything remains the same relative distance from each other.
This is kind of a clunky illustration, but I think it gets the point across. Pay attention to the distances between the notes and between the counts. At the top would be the faster tempo. At the bottom would be the slower tempo.
Music is not written like this, but seeing the visual stretch might help some people understand what’s happening. To get a better view on a desktop computer, you can right-click and “open in new tab” to see a larger image.
The ratios and relative distances remain intact but the spacing of everything is stretched out.
Here’s a brutally slow 20 BPM:
Once you get to a certain point, the spacing of the click is wider than is practically useful. It ceases to become a steady reference of time since there is so much room for error between the clicks. At this point it’s helpful to double the timing of the click and make it happen on eighth notes instead of quarter notes.
This is not the traditional placement of the click, but in our situation we’re using it as a learning device and this is the best way to implement it. So now the click happens on every eighth note:
1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + * * * * * * * *
This would normally be an excessive and fast metronome setting, but since we’re working at such a slow tempo it helps to make it playable. This would sound like:
To make your click work at an eighth note speed, just set the metronome for double whatever the current BPM are. Since we’ve slowed the piece down to 20 BPM, you would set the metronome to 40 BPM.
This painfully slow tempo brings each 16th note down to a standard quarter note speed at 80 BPM. Making a metronome play at eighth notes still might not be fast enough if you need to reduce the speed of the piece any further. In this case, you can again double the BPM of the metronome and set the click to happen every 16th note.
Just like we started by dividing the click into multiple pieces, now we’re kind of doing the opposite and fitting fewer and fewer notes into each click.
This is a really extreme case. At a certain point you have to use your best judgment as to whether a piece is appropriate for you to be learning. If you have to slow something down this much just to play it, you won’t be able to achieve a performance tempo with your current skills.
What I want to express with this demonstration is that you can slow down a piece by stretching its time and its tempo to such a point that it’s possible for anybody to play it. A more useful application will be taking a 120 BPM piece and bringing it down to 80 BPM to learn it. The concepts are the same, regardless of how far you reduce the tempo.
All of these drills, learning to play at a slower tempo, these things will help you learn to feel a more steady sense of rhythm.
Being able to incorporate a metronome into your playing is also a valuable skill for quantifying your progress. If you can identify what tempo you’re playing something at, you can keep track of how fast you can play something. With that knowledge you can increase the BPM of an exercise or a song by 5 BPM a week. These very slight but significant improvements can’t be measured unless you’re working with a metronome.
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 practice learning new songs. This is the ultimate goal.
Now go forth and play with good (or, at least, better) timing!