The better you get at your instrument, the more you realize how bad you are at keeping time.
Having a great sense of time and feel is one of the most important and deceivingly difficult parts of working on your instrument.
Some instruments, like drums and bass, lend themselves towards working on timekeeping a lot. But others, like guitar, keys, and many melody instruments, don’t naturally lean this way.
If you’re making melodies on an instrument, you’ll often spend more time focusing on creating that melody than focusing on how the melody sits rhythmically.
Yet, when you listen to the masters of any instrument, they always have a great sense of rhythm and time. It’s essential. It helps the song feel settled and allows individual parts to sit “in the pocket”.
Drummers and bass players know this, and they spend a great deal of time working on it. Practicing with a metronome, practicing to drum machines, recording themselves, etc.
Often, these players will spend more time just working on timekeeping than they will working on chops or learning new harmonic ideas.
So, if you’ve been feeling like you need to improve your timekeeping, you’ve come to the right place. I’ve spent the last three years mostly working on this, and I can’t tell you how much it has improved me as a player.
Even the simplest parts sound professional when they’re well-executed and in time.
Here are my favorite exercises for improving your timekeeping.
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1. Recording Yourself & Listening Back
The single most powerful habit you can introduce to your practice is recording yourself and listening critically.
It’s very difficult to know what you really sound like when you’re playing your instrument, and it’s usually only upon listening to yourself that you hear your mistakes.
Like listening to the sound of your own voice, you may suddenly notice that certain aspects of your playing need improvement.
I often found that I would rush through sections I found difficult, or make little mistakes and just barrel through. When I started recording myself, I began to get a lot pickier with myself.
If I noticed I was rushing a section, I would do the opposite. Take the metronome down to 60 bpm and practice it there until I could play it full speed.
If I noticed I was making little mistakes and covering up, I would tear the section apart. Practice my left hand and right hand separately. Play it slowly. Work my way up.
Being picky with yourself when you’re practicing allows you to be creative when you’re actually writing, playing, and creating.
The only tool that allows you to actually dissect your playing in this detail, is recording yourself.
A simple recording will do – your Voice Memo app on your smartphone is perfect.
You should keep a few of these recordings too. It’s very satisfying to look back on a month of hard work and see how much you’ve improved.
2. Playing To A Metronome All The Time To Improve Timekeeping
I know this is a super boring tip, but it’s literally the best thing you can do.
Metronomes have been around since the ninth century. While there is such a thing as musical time vs. metronome time (the difference between where the metronome clicks and where you actually play the note), they are still the best way to keep time.
Your time will never be perfect, but the closer you get to perfect, the more technical ability you’ll have to place your notes wherever you want.
Being able to play to a metronome well will help you play with drummers and other musicians much better. If you’re a drummer, this should be your primary focus.
Keeping time in a musical group is not just the drummer's job, it’s everyone’s job. You must all be focused on driving the music ahead, sitting in the pocket, and making sure it all feels good.
Here are a few specific exercises you can do to work on your metronome skills.
Set The Metronome At A Very Slow Tempo
Setting the metronome very low seems pointless, because you rarely play songs that slow. Playing scales at 45 bpm, however, forces you to subdivide aggressively and work on your internal sense of time.
Set The Metronome On Beats 2 & 4
Most of the time, you’ll be playing to snare on beats 2 & 4. This is referred to as the backbeat, and it’s the backbone of most popular music.
Setting the metronome on beats 2 & 4 is good for your brain, because you’re forced to arrive at beat 1 all by yourself. Many musicians have the inclination to rush to beat 1 after beat four, or to drag towards it.
If you’re doing this, then you won’t arrive at beat 2 on time.
Slowly, you’ll develop a great sense of feel, through arriving at beats 2 & 4 exactly when you need to.
Set The Metronome On Other Unusual Beats
Once you get your head around having the metronome on beats 2 & 4, start removing other beats.
Set the metronome to click only on beat four. Or only on beat three.
Better yet, set it to click on the & of beat 2, or the & of beat four.
These exercises force you to rely on your internal sense of time, but also center yourself once every bar or two. It also is very challenging, and can be quite fun.
Play To A Visual Metronome
Many metronomes and metronome apps will flash or blink on the beat. You can turn off the audible click, and force yourself to just rely on the flash.
It’s much harder, and I’m not sure how useful it is. But, it does force you to listen to yourself.
Some musicians (me included) struggle with relying too heavily on the metronome.
I would often find myself waiting to hear the metronome before playing.
Instead of playing with the metronome, I was fighting it.
Using a visual metronome can be a good way to get yourself out of this habit.
3. Play To A Drum Machine
When I practice bass, I pretty much exclusively practice with a metronome and a drum machine. In that order.
Working on your time with a metronome is great for developing your internal sense of time, which is hugely important and should probably be your focus.
That said, a lot of the time you are practicing alone in order to play better in a group setting.
If this is true, it can be very fun and useful to practice with a drum machine.
Here are a couple great, free drum machines:
If you have a laptop or an iPad, you can use GarageBand (or any other DAW) to make your own drum loops. GarageBand has preset “drummers” that are fun to play with as well.
You can also look up drum tracks on YouTube and play along to those.
I often just practice scales and technique along to drum machines. I find this is a fun way to work on my technique.
Otherwise, I’ll just set up a drum machine at the BPM of a song or lick I’m working on, and practice along to the drum machine.
Drum machines are great for working on your “musical time”.
There are a lot of styles, like hip-hop and neo-soul, where you’ll be purposefully playing behind the beat, or dragging a little bit.
It’s hard to know if you’re doing this right when you’re practicing to a metronome. Practicing these feels with a drum machine can be far more helpful.
Always remember to record yourself practicing. You won’t know what you sound like if you’re not recording it.
4. Work On Subdivisions
One of my favorite exercises for improving timekeeping is working on subdivisions.
Here’s how to do this:
- Set the metronome fairly low, around 55 BPM, or slower if you can.
- Start playing a scale or technique exercise in quarter notes. This will be challenging.
- Then play the same exercise with eighth notes.
- Switch to triplets. Then switch to sixteenth notes. You should now be fitting 4 notes between metronome clicks.
- Keep going with this pattern. You’ll get to the weird ones. Fitting 5 notes in between beats, fitting seven notes between beats, fitting 9 notes between beats, etc.
You may not always be playing groups of fives in songs, but that’s not the point.
The point is to develop your internal sense of time, by forcing your brain to subdivide in unique ways. You’ll train your brain to think of the note in many different sections, and that will help you keep time.
Also, in certain types of music, busting out a group of five or seven in a solo is pretty impressive sounding – even if only musicians realize what you did. Trust me, you’ll sound like a pro.
5. Work On Limb Independence
Limb independence exercises can be hugely helpful in your journey towards perfect time.
On instruments that require heavy use of multiple limbs (drums, piano, and to a lesser extent bass and guitar), time problems are often the result of one limb being slightly less practiced than the other.
This is perfectly natural as most of us have dominate limbs. Even if we don’t, one limb often gets more practice than the other ones. On piano, this is usually the right hand.
When drummers start recording themselves, they often start noticing that certain limbs are responsible for feel problems.
For instance, their kick drum will be slightly early or late, even if their snare is perfect.
This leaves parts feeling slightly unbalanced.
Working on limb independence allows you to free up your hands from technical limitations and focus on making great music.
When you’re doing this, always work with a metronome.
Some of my favorite limb independence exercises are:
- Playing exercises where one hand is working in a different time signature. For example, one hand plays in 5/4 while the other is in 6/8.
- Practicing playing all groups of three in one hand and all groups of four in the other.
- Practicing Hanon exercises, to improve the relationships between individual fingers.
6. Play Along To Recordings
Playing along to recordings is probably the most fun way to practice, but it’s also not super effective. I usually find that I cannot really tell what I sound like when I’m playing along.
My favorite way to dive into a song is to import the song into my DAW, and record the part I’m learning along to the song.
This way, I can play along to the song, and see how well my part sits with the recording.
You can also learn other things this way. How close does your tone match the original tone? How good is the drummer in the recording? Does the song’s time naturally ebb and flow?
Some bands release stem tracks of their songs. This is an amazing practice tool.
Vulfpeck, one of my favorite bands, released a bunch of stems on their website.
With these, I can import them to my DAW, and play the bass line with their actual drummer. I can then listen back, and see how it sits.
I could literally do this with every instrument in the band if I wanted to, just to see how well I could sit in with the band.
When you look at playing along with recordings like this, it becomes a fun part of your practice and it’s also a useful tool.
If you’re learning specific parts or looking to learn a different musical “language”, listening to albums in that style and playing along to them can be the difference between someone who plays the style with “feel” and someone who just sort of plays it.
Conclusion: Best Exercises To Improve Your Timekeeping On Instruments
Working on time is incredibly important, but it can also seem intimidating.
At the end of the day, it’s not intimidating. Trust me.
You can work on your time while working on literally anything – it doesn't matter what it is. Just put the metronome on, and try to stay on time with it.
If you do that, and add in 15 – 30 minutes of any of the practice tips I’ve detailed above, you will see improvement in no time. Keep at it!