Musician, Co-Founder and CEO of Ninebuzz Music Tech
“How is it possible that I practice all my drills and scales with a metronome, yet I don’t feel confident playing with other musicians?”
“How come I never feel like I’m playing ‘in the pocket’?”
“Why can’t I improvise without losing my place?”
I’ve heard these questions often from musicians I’ve played with throughout the years. I’ve also heard the myth that rhythm is something that you’re born with. Let’s clear this up: you’re not born with it. I definitely wasn’t.
It takes tons of practice to build rhythm. And not just that. The right kind of practice. Here are 10 practice tips I’ve picked up over the last 20 years that should help.
1. Practice Deliberately
Whatever you want to be great at, all research shows that you must lock into a routine and continually practice. Many talented musicians don’t deliberately practice rhythm and instead focus on memorizing buckets of riffs, scales, and mini-routines. Choosing to practice it deliberately is the first step. You’re already on your way!
2. Learn How to Improvise
A musician can still impress others and themselves without truly mastering rhythm. And that’s a problem. The truth is that becoming a better musician has less to do with clock timing, less with memorization of pieces and scales, and much more to do with brute-force development of natural-sounding rhythm. Learning how to improvise over different beats and music will help build your rhythm fast.
3. Avoid Click Fatigue
Metronome clicks are boring and can create tension. They will tire you out way sooner than practicing to a beat or groove. I call this “click fatigue”. To log the amount of practice hours you really need to master your instrument, make sure to vary the click sound before it slowly drives you nuts, or better yet…
4. Play to Beats Instead of a Click
Not only will practicing to real drum sounds feel better, it will make you a better musician. A metronome will build your awareness of the passing of time so you can keep a steady beat, but there’s a problem: how do you develop feel? You can’t. If you work solely with a metronome, you run the risk of never truly sounding musical. Develop your rhythm faster by training “on-the-job” with real drum beats.
5. Condition Your Senses
Musicians with great rhythm have fine-tuned their mind and body for small distances. For example, a professional drummer can sense when a snare hit is 1/64th late, in the same way that a machinist can feel when a sheet of metal has been cut too thick. This awareness comes from experience. A metronome will help with overall time, but you really need to train with beats or jam tracks to start fine-tuning your musical senses.
6. Whiplash Trouble Spots
This has been the one trick that guided my practice and helped me win an All-State Jazz competition back in the day, and I call it my Golden Rule. I would practice something until I could do it successfully, repeatedly, and as fast as possible without losing the integrity of it. If you’re doing it right, your rhythm practice should look a lot like a scene from Whiplash sometimes. Obviously don’t overdo it, but a little struggle never hurt anybody.
Taking a rest and coming back the next day is the second and most critical part of the Whiplash training loop. (That movie was nuts by the way.)
8. Play Rhythmic “Double Dutch”
A fun rhythm practice game is what I call Double Dutch. It’s when you purposely start an improvisation at a completely random beat and try to play it over and over again matched with the tempo of the song. This is where the fun is. This is jazz. You need to have the room to experiment and try things over and over. Another way to do it is by removing notes from your riffs, chopping off the beginnings or ends, and muting occasional notes or beats. Try to trip yourself up by jumping in the most unexpected time.
9. The Golden Rule to Practice
As referenced in tip #6: if it feels weird, keep doing it. This is the golden rule to practicing anything.