Many of the students I teach initially have problems keeping a consistent tempo, and in most cases speed up considerably as they are playing a song. First of all, this becomes an issue when your chording hand can’t keep up with the speed that you’re playing! But I notice that even people who’ve been playing guitar for awhile and are relatively proficient at it, have trouble maintaining tempo.
All you have to do to find out if you have problems is to play along with a metronome, a rhythm track (drums) or click track. You’ll realize pretty quickly that you’re getting ahead of the beat! Don’t worry, the truth is that all of us, even me, tend to naturally speed up over time without a reference beat to guide us.
A little side story: Ray Charles, the famous singer and pianist, always had trouble finding session musicians (these are PROFESSIONAL musicians!) who could play slow enough! He went through so many of them just trying to find the ones who could play consistently at a slow tempo on some of his recordings. The issue is that when you are playing slowly, such as in some blues or jazz songs or ballads, it’s hard to maintain a consistent beat. Why? Because we can’t hear the rhythm as well when we’re going slowly. When you speed it up, it’s easier to hear. This causes a dilemma, however, when you are not as good at your chord transitions, because you can’t change chords fast enough to match your own strumming. So you have to play SLOW.
As I’ve discussed in earlier posts, one error people often make when they are teaching themselves to play guitar is to stop every time they change chords. This simply ruins the flow of your playing and becomes a bad habit. You need to continue the strum and let your chording hand find its way in its own time, and it will! In fact, continuing the strum encourages the chording hand to move faster each time so you may actually speed up the process by using this technique.
But once you are adequately changing chords, how do you learn to keep a more consistent tempo? The simplest answer is to use a metronome, or a drum or click track as mentioned above. When you work with one of these, you will become acutely aware of your tempo and over time your tempo even out. The key is to never anticipate the beat, but let it LEAD YOU. When bands or artists are in the recording studio multi-tracking, the drums or percussion (if there are any) are always recorded first. This sets the pace of the recording and all of the other instruments have to let the drums lead. This is also true of live performances; those who know what they’re doing always let the drummer set the pace and never try to play right on top of the beat. If you anticipate the beat, you’ll more than likely be ahead of it! So it’s almost as if there is a slight lag between the beat of the metronome and your strum (or note, or whatever). Not an obvious lag, of course, just the slightest one. When you work with it for awhile, you’ll find what they call “the pocket”, you’ll be in perfect synch most of the time.
An average heartbeat is 60 beats per minute, or 60 BPM. When you first try out the metronome, do this: start strumming and then try to set the metronome to the BPM that most matches your strum. It will probably be somewhere between 120-150 BPM, and more likely on the higher end of the scale. So set it at whatever tempo you’re playing at and then follow it. You’ll feel it when you want to go faster. This is the instinct that we want to stop! Always let the beat lead.
When you feel you’ve become better at matching that tempo, then try reducing the BPM down. The idea is to learn to play more slowly so you can train yourself to play at any speed with no loss of “groove”.
Over time you’ll actually develop an “inner metronome” and be less likely to start racing through your songs and pieces. If you are performing, or even just playing for a friend or family member, you might become nervous and this also adds to your playing speed! So think about the tempo of the song before you even start it and try to match what you hear in your head when you begin to play.
A little bit about metronomes; you can purchase one at your local music store, but there are also plenty of them online and even apps that you can buy and use on your smartphone. Most of the time we play in what’s called “Common Time” (because it’s common!) which is 4/4 time. Without going into a lot of detail, 4/4 time means four beats to a bar or measure. So the count is 1,2,3,4. With a metronome you can often adjust these settings, but I would stick to 4/4 time at first. Most metronomes will ACCENT the FIRST beat so that you can hear where it is. If you’re strumming, your first strum should match the first beat of the metronome and the rest of it follows. Use an easy strum instead of trying to get too fancy.
If you are playing a melody or lead, keep it simple at first too. Don’t try playing something that has a lot of syncopation in it until you are more comfortable with the metronome. Here are two online metronomes you can try out:
The Web Metronome – this is as simple as they come and probably a good one to try first and it uses a blip sound for the beat
All Guitar Chords Metronome – this metronome has the look of an actual one with a tempo slider at the bottom that you can adjust, and the beat is more drum-like
There are many more, some Java-based, others that are more sophisticated and look like the old-fashioned metronome as pictured above. Digital metronomes are relatively inexpensive too and can be purchased at your local music store. However you do it, spending the time to work on your tempo will substantially improve your guitar playing.