No one likes the metronome.
When I was a student I sent more than one flying across the practice room in a fit of frustration. Of course, I was frustrated with myself and not the device. But the metronome is the most accurate measurement of where you are versus where you want to be, and that’s both a blessing and a curse.
The fact is, though, that the metronome is a really useful tool. And there are ways you can use it that will maximize the benefits of working with one. Both of these techniques also make the experience more musical and powerful. It will also help you get comfortable with playing to a click track or loop, which is essential to modern recording techniques.
1. Speed building
Most people try to increase speed by gradually increasing the tempo one or two ticks at a time. This is the right way to build up technique over the long term, but it’s much less effective for problem-solving “spot work”. If you’re trying to increase your speed on a particular section, there’s a better way.
Start off by playing the section at half speed. You can set the metronome at the target tempo and treat the ticks as eighth notes instead of quarter notes, or just cut the number in half. This will allow you to really zero in on the hand movements and check your accuracy. If there’s any fuzziness in your mind, this will clear it up. Remember that accuracy comes from clarity: when you know exactly what your target it, you’re a lot more likely to hit it.
Now raise the tempo by ten or twelve bpm. Play the same segment and see if you can maintain your accuracy. Don’t try to play the whole song, just a small section. If you can’t nail it, make the segment smaller. Identify the biggest challenge and concentrate on that one spot. This might mean playing two notes, then three, then four, gradually adding on until you’re comfortable with the whole segment.
Repeat this process two or three times. Each time you raise the tempo you may need to focus on a smaller segment. Keep going until you reach the target speed, and then keep going! At this point you don’t need to get it perfect, just close. Continue raising the tempo until you can’t keep up at all.
Now go back to the target tempo. You will likely find that it feels a lot slower and less intimidating. You may not be able to play the entire part up to speed just yet, but that’s ok. Repeating the process over the course of days or weeks will recalibrate your mental sense of how fast “fast” is. Your slower practice builds accuracy, while your faster practice pushes your limits past the target even if you can’t play the part cleanly yet.
Of course, accuracy is always a goal. You should spend more time on slow practice, and use the increased speed at the end of your work on each section. But the trick it plays on your ear is very powerful and extremely helpful. Remember, though, your “target” should get smaller and smaller with each increase. Over time, you’ll be able to add more notes until you can play the entire section faster than you need to. At that point, playing it at tempo should be much more relaxed.
2. Groove and pocket
The previous exercise should have shown you something about the relative nature of rhythm. Tempo is terms of beats per minute is absolute. Your sense of how it feels is not. Using the metronome to emphasize different parts of the beat will use that relative sense to strengthen your pocket.
“Pocket” is the term musicians use to describe the place the beat needs to be. It’s more specific than just being in time with the metronome. It means that the accents fall in the right place for the music, and create the rhythmic feeling you want to communicate to the listener. Remember that rhythm is visceral: we feel it in our bodies. So these subtleties translate into how the music moves, and in how your listener moves to it.
Most people practice to a metronome or click set at the quarter note: one, two, three, four. This is standard timekeeping, but it may not be where you need to feel the accents. Rhythm works is dynamic “layers”: there are strong beats we might feel at the beginning of a bar or group of bars, accents we feel that subdivide the bar, and smaller subdivisions that add movement. Consider a simple drum beat:
Listen first for the downbeat:
ONE two three four ONE two three four
Now listen for the alternation of the kick and snare drums on the quarter note. You might perceive this as a back-and-forth between low and high, or thump and snap:
One two three four
kick snare kick snare
Now listen for the “tick-tick-tick-tick” of the hi-hat on the eighth note, filling in the space between the kick and snare drums.
Each part of the drum kit is played at its own dynamic level, and so we feel the accents differently. Of course, different grooves will have different parts, but the idea here is to hear the difference in the emphasis each rhythmic grouping or subdivision is given.
Now try doing the same thing with your metronome. Set it to whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, and eighth notes. You will probably find that each setting makes the tempo feel slightly different. Playing to the eighth or sixteenth note highlights your accuracy, while playing to the half or whole note highlights your sense of pocket: where you put the beats in between the ticks of the metronome. These are all elements that need attention when you practice, and setting the metronome in different places helps you work on the different aspects of your timing.
3. Swing and feel
One more really useful trick is to reverse the accent and let the metronome give you the offbeats instead of the count. This can be tricky to feel at first. Count out loud with the metronome, then speak the “ands” in between the beat. Leave out the quarter note beats and just count the eighth note offbeat, and when you’re comfortable switch to counting numbers in between instead of “and”. Repeating this for a little while should allow you to find the new downbeat, the “one” at the beginning of each measure.
Once you can feel this, try playing to it. You might set the metronome to give you the backbeat, the 2 and 4 of each measure. This is where the snare drum hits, and creates much of the sense of forward motion in the music. I use this trick frequently playing to a click track when recording, as it creates more of the sense of playing with a drummer and makes it easier for me to feel the pocket. As you explore this, you will start to feel a difference in how the music moves as you switch back and forth between the downbeat and backbeat emphasis. This is great practice for your sense of pocket and groove.
When practicing single note lines, try shifting your downbeat one eighth note over so the metronome is giving you the upbeat “and”. This emphasizes the lift we feel on the upbeats. After all, it’s called the “up beat” for a reason! I learned this technique from the wonderful late jazz guitarist Emily Remler. When you turn the metronome off, you will find that you feel that lift much more strongly. This is a big part of a player’s “swing” and also enhances your more subtle sense of pocket.
These techniques will make your use of the metronome much more musical and satisfying. Give them a try and see what it does for your timing, rhythmic subtlety, and groove. I think you’ll find them very powerful.
The photos are all of old style mechanical metronomes. Is that a hint? I don’t have one but of course I’ve seen them before when that’s all there was.
I can imagine that they are better — you can actually see something, you can see the beat coming. Whereas with the electronic ones, each beat is a surprise out of the blue.
Of course, it’s not supposed to be a surprise, you are supposed to know when to expect it. And I think that is the hard part, the frustrating part.
You are not supposed to be playing to the metronome (correct?), you are supposed to be playing to the beat in your head and just using the metronome to keep in time (right?)
To practice keeping in sync. External versus internal clock.
Alex Scott (JamPlay) emphasizes the advantage of moving your body to the beat, to help that internal clock.
Chris Liepe (JamPlay) says that playing to a drum track is easier than playing to a metronome. That’s the skill you want to develop anyway.
It’s easy enough to make such a track at any bpm now, so wouldn’t that be preferred to a metronome click?
Yes, the old-fashioned metronomes do give you a useful visual reference. But you’re also right in that the ultimate goal is for the metronome to be a reference for your own internal sense of time, not something to follow.
I agree that moving to the beat is very helpful, and that it’s easier to groove to a drum track. But a metronome is more unforgiving, there’s nothing to hide behind, and is also easier to use with the techniques I described. A drum beat is more concrete and best for practicing groove and flow.