“Can musicians learn how to improve rhythm and timing?”
“I practice with a metronome, how come 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 you’re born with. Let’s clear this up: you’re not born with it. I definitely wasn’t.
It takes practice to build rhythm. And not just that. The right kind of practice. Here are 10 practice tips for improving your rhythm and timing that I’ve picked up over the last 20 years.
1. Intentionally practice rhythm
Seems obvious but do you deliberatly practice rhythm, or just practice whatever you feel like? Be honest.
Whatever you want to be great at, research shows we need to lock into a routine and continually practice it. And practice correctly!
What exercises do you do to practice your rhythm and timing? How may days out of the week have you planned to focus on it? Have you heard of “bar drops” or “alternates“? More about those later…
Point is, many talented musicians don’t deliberately practice rhythm. Simple as that. There are tons of free resources online but it needs to be a choice you make and commit to it. DECIDE TO HAVE FLUID RHYTHM! And devote some time to that goal. So instead of focusing 100% on riffs, scales, theory, and playing with effects and gear, spend some time lining up rhythm exercises. Seeking out this article was a great first step. You’re already on your way!
2. Spend time improvising
Memorizing songs can be satisfying and rewarding, but eventually our musical limitations will reveal themselves.
Spend time free styling. Grab a jam track on YouTube or from our jam track app, let loose, while trying out new rhythms and tricks. The goal is to get yourself is unfamiliar situations and work your way out of it. A little bit of “on stage” pressure will heighten your senses and make you better.
If you want to see one of my favorite tips on improvising, check out tip #8 below.
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 with a real drummer
Playing to a metronome is essential for building internal time, but – how do you develop natural feel?
As Jazz Legend Chick Corea said, apprenticeship is the ultimate key to building rhythm and timing. Using a quality drum machine, loops, or drummer friend can help you lock in and absorb and internalize a groove. Playing with a drummer with this goal in mind is one of the best ways how to improve rhythm.
5. Condition your senses
Our brain does a weird thing: the more we focus on something, the more we care about it. And the more we care about something, the more nuanced is our experience of it.
Musicians who’ve acquired great rhythm, through hours of careful listening and playing, have attuned their mind and body to small increments in time. They’ve become highly sensitive to rhythm and time, or in other words, they’ve developed “rhythm/time conscious”.
A professional drummer can easily sense when a snare hit is 1/64th late, as a machinist can feel when a sheet of metal has been cut a hair too thick, as an interior decorate can sense when that shade of blue on your isn’t quite dark enough, and so on. Sensitivity tends to aid those who focus obsessively on something. Use the power of your mind to kick butt at rhythm!
The best part? You can do this. And once you build these mind & motor skills, you never lose them! Don’t believe me? Try it!
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.
Maybe I’m weird, but I’d practice something until I could do it successfully, repeatedly, as fast as possible without losing the integrity of it. Or at least until my dad came home and told me to shut up.
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.) Your brain somehow figures out why you were getting stuck during your sleep. It’s like – dream practice…
8. Play rhythmic “Double Dutch”
A fun rhythm practice game is what I call Double Dutch.
It’s when you purposely “jump in” to a song or groove at a completely random time and try to play it over and over again.
This is where the fun is. 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. It’s fun!
You will eventually be able to jump in at any time.
9. The Golden Rule to practice
If it feels weird, keep doing it. I’m pretty sure this is the golden rule to practicing anything!
10. Use smart technology
Ok shameless plug, there are lots of metronomes and rhythm apps – but mine is the best 🙂 It’s called Drum Beats+ and it’s jam packed with natural grooves in all different styles. And some practice exercises like bar-drops and alternates.
Bar drops and alternates
A bar drop does just what the phrase suggests. One or more bars of a measure rest, or drop out, forcing the musician (you) to keep time until it returns. This exercise forces you to listen closely and will condition your mind to sense smaller and smaller increments of time. This is a key activity in how to improve rhythm and timing.
The Drum Beats+ app has a bunch of these in the Training folder, which comes stock with the standard $4.99 version.
Alternates are a technique that help you interalize different feels. It’s kinda of like rapid-fire rhythm training.
Basically, you play a little while in, say, a straight feel. Then at a specific time, you switch to a shuffle. In Drum Beats+, I made alterates that toggle between straight and shuffle and also different time signatures. There are only a few in the app, but trust me– you only need a few. Start at a slow tempo range and work your way up. If you’ve never done rhythm alternates before, you’re in for a treat! They will stretch your mind.
Last bit about my app, I think you’ll like it. They always say having a drummer around is important for developing your rhythm. What they don’t say is that most drummers are wild animals and don’t/won’t play the same thing long enough, or simple enough, for you to get any work done. That’s partly why I made the app. There are other reasons, but that’s a good one. See here.
Thanks for reading and best of luck on your rhythm practice!