If you want to play well--any instrument, any style--the use of a metronome is vital. Here we will cover how to make the best use of it in order to help you improve as fast as possible. The first two sections cover basic and not-so-basic background information. Then Parts I-IV go into detail.
Why is a Metronome Important?
A metronome is the tool by which you learn to control the time element of your performance. How can you know whether your tempos are even if you don't know what "even" truly is? And in the case of elastic tempo situations, how can you create steady accelerando or ritard unless you have first developed a solid sense of playing evenly? Musicianship is about developing control over all aspects of music, and good timing is a biggie.
Just how important is timing? Beginning musicians invariably pay more attention to notes than to timing. Perhaps this is because we commonly stretch time from the start; we begin by slowing things down to learn them accurately. Or perhaps it is because the fingering of the notes is visual while timing is somewhat more abstract. But did you ever stop and think about the fact that it is just as "wrong" to play the right note at the wrong time as it is to play the wrong note at the right time?
The recording environment exposes all faults, and nothing is worse in the studio than a musician with poor timing. Everything sounds bad! The inexperienced musician pushes the pulse, giving a stilted, jerky quality to the performance. On the other hand, laying back "in the pocket" is what makes the magic happen. This invariably comes with experience and practice, of course. But you can do a lot to hone your rhythm and timing ability with the correct use of the metronome in your practice. You can even guide yourself subtly forward and back on the "click" (another name for the metronome pulse). On the other hand, without adequate metronome practice you may find it difficult to even hand on to the pulse reliably, let alone worry about subtleties like pushing or pulling it!
Developing Rhythmic Ability and Groove
Every note of music occurs at a precise time in relation to the underlying pulse. If we cannot feel it, we cannot express it. And that means we have no groove. Ideally we want to develop the feel of rhythm deep in the core of our being. Then it will come out naturally and effortlessly wherever we like-in a head bang, body sway, tapping foot, etc.
Now in order to develop that internal rhythmic clock, it helps to articulate it in different parts of your body. At the very least, you should be able to feel that pulse by tapping our foot and/or hands.
Mentally counting is the least reliable method of time keeping. After all, the mind is a poor time keeper as evidenced by the simple fact that time seems to move faster when we are busy or occupied versus when we are bored. Movement-based time keeping is a far better guide. Rhythm is motion, and motion is physical. So we want to practice expressing that pulse physically. There is a big difference between thinking about something (like pulse) and doing it as a physical expression of motion.
Therefore, when practicing with a metronome, make sure you keep some of your body moving in time with it. Don't sit motionless trying to anticipate the metronome click. Supply your own groove. Feel the pulse, listening to the click and self correcting as needed to stay with it.
Before we even play a single note, try this little rhythmic exercise:
Turn on a metronome at a moderately slow tempo, say 90 beats per minute. Tap your foot or hand, or clap along with it. Now try to make each foot or hand tap occur perfectly in time with the click. It's harder than you might think!
Next, try moving you hand in a circular motion throughout the length of time between those metronome clicks. Articulate the click with the same tap or clap as before. Now, with a regular motion to help keep timing accurate, it becomes easier. Keep the speed of your motion constant.
Try feeling and marking the midpoint (eighth note) subdivision, exactly halfway between each beat as your hand moves through each beat's "circle motion". Then try slowing the click down slightly and counting and marking the four sixteenth-note subdivisions of each best as well.
You will inevitably find that slower tempos are actually more difficult to keep accurately in time. This is because you must supply more of the groove yourself, rather than having it handed to you by the metronome timekeeper. Novice players tend to rush the pulse, and this is worse, the slower that the tempo goes.
Now that we've got some background context here, so you understand the nature of the task at hand, let's take a look at some specific ways to use a metronome to improve our technique and overall sense of timing and groove.
Part I - Five Steps of Practice
Step 1: Turn Off the Metronome. Now that I've convinced you just how vital a metronome is, I'm telling you that the first step is to turn it off! What?!? Yes, exactly. When you first begin to learn a new musical phrase, you will need to familiarize yourself with the notes without regard to rigid time keeping. Let yourself feel the patterns or chord shapes, taking as long as necessary to get each change and to memorize it. After you have the notes down, only then is it time to break out the metronome.
Step 2: Moderately Slow, then Build. Turn it on and play moderately slow. Don't try to play at the speed of the song, or even the speed you can play the easiest part of the phrase. Of course the exact tempo of "moderately slow" depends on the part and on your general level of technique. Generally speaking, an eighth note phrase may be moderately slow in the ballpark of 80bpm, while quarter notes might be moderately slow played at 120bpm or more. And of course, what is slow for a beginner will not the same as a more advanced player. The point is, find a range that feels comfortable to you through the entire phrase. Then raise that tempo gradually.
Step 3: Find the trouble Spot. Music is never of equal difficulty throughout. There will be easier motions and more difficult motions. As you raise your tempo, you'll notice problem spots and "stress points" appear. The metronome's unforgiving nature will help you identify these spots. Without it, you are likely to unconsciously slow down at these points, as you attention is drawn away from the pulse and becomes absorbed in the difficulties at hand. But by keeping that relentless clicker clicking away in perfect time, the trouble spots are more obvious. Don't avoid them! It is by correcting such things that you will become the player you want to be!
Many people push through those difficult spots hoping to get through without a mistake. Then, each time they mess up, they go back to the beginning of the song (or phrase), over and over again. This is a terribly inefficient approach that is unlikely to ever yield mastery. Instead, seek to isolate the motion at the trouble spot. Figure out why it is so hard. Does one finger move in an unfamiliar way? Does it require several motions simultaneously? Does one finger cause stress in another finger and prevent a necessary motion?
To say a bit of music is "difficult" really just means that you have yet to put in the requisite level of mastery over that particular motion. Any single note by itself is not difficult. Therefore, reduce the music to this level; one note to the next. Look to find exactly where the problem lies. I am reminded of the great composer J.S. Bach, who when asked about his remarkable keyboard ability, simply said, "I just put each finger in the right place at the right time, and the keyboard plays itself!"
Step 4: Practice Outward from the Middle. With the metronome off, try playing just the notes and/or chords that lie on either side of the difficult spot. In other words, play just the difficult motion by itself, in isolation, over and over until it feels comfortable. Keep in mind you may need to take this extremely slow at first. It doesn't matter. This is far more beneficial than blasting through it and engraining more mistakes into your technique. Next, add a note or two ahead of the difficult spot. And add a note or two after it. Now you are playing into and out of the difficult spot. Continue building slowly from the "center" in both directions, gradually increasing the tempo as is comfortable. Literally, I have seen students achieve more in a few minutes of this kind of focused practice than in weeks of the common approach of "roll through it fast and hope for the best."
Step 5: Rinse and Repeat. Now turn on your metronome and play the whole phrase moderately slow. If done correctly, you will find that you remain much more relaxed through what used to be a trouble spot. Now you maintain a consistent tempo without errors, and you can begin to push up your tempos without undue stress. If faster tempos are yet required, repeat this entire procedure. Identify the new stress spots and refine your technique as appropriate.
Part II - Principles of Mastery
Music is Easy
Many of us have the mistaken notion that difficult sections are innately "hard." The fact is that when the proper level of mastery is attained, there are no "hard" sections. Mastery by definition is effortless. There is of course a some level of effort required to physically move, but I what I mean here is that there is no additional stress associated with the music. There is no uncertainty. Every note comes out perfectly, every time. Knowing this puts things into the proper perspective; now you can strive for the same stress-free experience, although it will need to be at somewhat slower tempos early in the process. Eventually though, with enough repetition, your tempos will build to higher levels. Still, throughout that process, let it be easy! Focused, yes. But struggling and constantly battling "hit or miss," no.
Perfect In Makes Perfect Out
While on the point of "perfect" playing, it should be mentioned that overplaying in terms of tempo is generally not good. There is an exception I'll cover in a moment. But generally speaking you want to repeat the correct motions over and over. Playing too fast with lots of mistakes is counterproductive. As I first wrote in Speed Mechanics for Lead Guitar 30 years ago: "Play it perfectly 100 times at gradually increasing speed and the 101st time is likely to also be perfect. But play sloppy and with errors 100 times and the 101st time is likewise going to be sloppy and full of errors."
So how well do you want to play? Sure, we are all guilty of pushing a little more than we should from time to time. I mean, we are impatient and we want to be better than we are. That's okay. In fact sometimes a little push is a good thing…
While the majority of your practice time should be spent playing at controlled tempos, playing at "full speed," even when you cannot perform it well, also has a legitimate role. It provide a sneak peek ahead for what it will feel like at that final tempo.
This has one big advantage in particular: Faster tempos often require smaller motions. In other words, the technique that works great for you at moderate tempos may not work at higher tempos. In that case, trying to work it up gradually using the wrong technique will produce a feeling of hitting a "brick wall" and you just can't get past it.
But by getting a glimpse of the future, so to speak (what it feels like to play at faster tempo), you can notice if significant technique alterations will be necessary. Then you can implement these changes in technique at slower, controlled tempos and build up the right technique to get where you want to go. But don't overplay tempo more than maybe 5% of your practice time or it will erode your accuracy!
Part III - Speed Training and Advanced Metronome Tricks
To develop the highest level skills, you must master the fundamentals to the point of perfection. This enables faster and faster tempos without undue stress or inaccuracy. One great way to go about this is to extract those difficult motions you isolated previously and build exercises out of them that force to play these same motions repeatedly. Or you can use "pre-selected" sets of exercises from books like my Speed Mechanics for Lead Guitar, or Hanon for piano, or whatever. Every instrument has its own advanced studies. Here is a blueprint for speed training:
After familiarizing yourself with the example, begin at a moderate tempo with the metronome. Focus on smoothness of transitional motions. Even if the notes are moderately slow, the transitions can be snappy. Also focus on evenness of dynamics. Sometimes I like to improvise various dynamic accents to keep things more interesting. Or trying playing exceptionally quiet, then full volume.
Raise the tempo a few notches and acclimatize yourself to the new tempo. Continue such tempo increases at you repeat the example until you begin to feel some stress, as you are approaching your controlled top speed.
Drop the tempo slightly. Then push it above the comfort level. Focus on relaxing the excess tension that develops here.
Drop the tempo again but less so. Then push it up slightly higher than the previous peak. Again, focus on relaxing the excess tension. Keep in mind that your technique may need to be modified slightly (reduced motions) at faster tempos. Of course the increasing tension may cause an increase in the size of your motions as the tempo rises. Avoid this.
Continue this escalating tempo attack until you've had enough. Then try a different example beginning again at slower tempos.
Advanced Metronome Practice Tricks
A helpful trick to strengthen your timing ability is to play around with adding and removing subdivisions of the click. For example, instead of playing sixteenths over a quarter-note click, try doubling up the click so it is doing eighths. Yet as you play over this, retain the feel of the main pulse only on downbeats (every other click). In this case the "middle" eighth click is there just to help you mark the upbeat more precisely so you can focus on hitting that note (the 3rd sixteenth) precisely on time. After playing like this a while, then halve the click tempo back to quarter notes and focus on supplying the same articulated feel of the upbeat -- but without that middle click to support you.
Along the same lines, try removing beats entirely. Transform 16th notes into 32nd notes by halving the speed of the click. Or you can think of this as still playing 16ths, except the click only cues you to every other beat. Then let the click hit just every third beat. That's tough! The slower the click goes, the more space you must fill accurately to stay in time. And that takes a really good feel for groove!
When playing exercises or pieces that might contain a constant flow of notes (for example, a long stretch of straight eighth notes) my favorite trick is to move the click to different notes of the pattern. Try a 3:2 ratio (called a hemiola) to start. This way, instead of playing eighth notes, change the pulse to fall on every 3rd note. Now you can play the same sequence in triplets, breathing new life into old, stale exercises. The 3:4 (triplets on sixteenths) pattern gives a similar effect. You can also try 4:3 and 5:4 for a little more adventure. After a little practice with this kind of rhythmic interplay, it comes easy. Yet it always feels more interesting. It feels and sounds brand new, yet your fingers seem to already know the way.
Finally, try moving the click to a rhythm off of the beaten path. That is, instead of making the click define the pulse, you make it play quarter note triplets for example. And over this, YOU now generate the feel of the pulse as it clicks away seemingly "against" you. Now play that same old exercise in constant eighth or sixteenth notes (or whatever it is). This will put an entirely new spin on everything and challenge your groove-ability to reach a new level!
Part IV - Metronome Recommendations
What are the Best Options?
A drum machine is the most versatile metronome you can get. You can program virtually any pattern and use any sound. But there is something to be said for the simplicity and ease of use of the standard metronome. We don't really need full drum patterns here. A small handheld metronome is the simplest option and nice for portability. But these generally lack volume and selectability of sounds. And there are various options in between. There are several good phone apps these days that work better than dedicated metronomes.
Or, if you happen to practice in the vicinity of your PC, perhaps using it in conjunction with a recording system, there are software metronomes that are fuller-featured and can be integrated into your studio system.
In regard to metronome apps for the smartphone, I like the "Beats" metronome. It is a little jumpy when you try to adjust tempo using the slider, but you can also input tempo by entering numbers. The ads are a bit annoying in the free version, so an inexpensive upgrade may be in order.
For the PC, the "Fine Metronome" software download below is a good choice. It offers a wider tempo range than you will ever need: 1 - 999 bpm (most hardware metronomes top out at 208 and drum machines at 240 or so), plus has a range of sounds, a large visual beat flash, tap tempo, variety of subdivisions, control of accent volume levels and separate sounds, etc. Yet it is quite simple to use; everthing works fine in the default mode. You can just install and hit "Play" to be off and clicking away. You can enter tempos either by keyboard or by dragging the slider. You can find it here: Fine Metronome Software Download for PC