Modern Drummer Education Team Weighs In On: Practicing With a Metronome
What are the pros and cons of practicing with a metronome? Can a metronome actually make your time worse?
There are many good things that come from practicing with a metronome. I feel that the best use of a metronome is when it acts as a barometer to gauge various aspects of your playing, like the following.
Pocket/time-feel consistency. The metronome can help to ensure that key elements of a groove are placed consistently. In rock music, we typically want the bass drum played strongly on beat 1. In jazz, beats 2 and 4 on the hi-hat are integral to how much a groove swings. The idea is that over time, these elements will become more consistent when you’re not playing with the metronome—like on a gig!
Going around the turns. Most drummers, at some point, struggle with speeding up when playing fills, especially in transitional moments (verse to chorus, chorus to bridge, etc). Fills should be played in time, with taste and musicality. I find the best fills to be an extension of the groove, rather than a disruption. Practicing beats and fills with a metronome will help to keep the heads bopping—and not stopping.
Monitoring progress. It’s important to remember that when we want to increase the speed of something we’re working on, we should maintain proper spacing along the way. This is applied to everything: hand technique, double bass, grooves…you name it. I use this concept with my students, especially when working with books such as Groove Essentials 1.0. Many of the grooves have slow and fast play-along tracks, with the latter often being at twice the speed of the slower version. If the slow groove is at 80 bpm, I’ll have the student also practice the groove at 90, 100, 110, and so on, until he/she arrives at 160 and can play with the faster track.
Sessions. Nearly all recording sessions are done with a click track. Practicing with a metronome will help you prepare for those moments when time is money. Conversely, many bands now incorporate backing tracks into their live performance (playing extra instruments, percussion, background vocals, etc.). You could increase your chances of getting work if you can play with a metronome well.
Personal pride. With Pro Tools, people are chopping and lining things up so perfectly that a drum track often ends up being a copy and paste job rather than an actual performance. But I feel that drummers should strive for giving a complete take from start to finish. If you need to punch in a fill or two, fine. But don’t allow someone else to manipulate your performance. Give ’em the goods, and call it done!
I don’t feel that a metronome makes someone’s time worse. Some may feel that a metronome could potentially make your groove too stiff. However, that would be attributed more to something that you’re doing with your body, such as how you’re playing the hi-hat (accents, no accents, etc.) as opposed to being the fault of the metronome.
A metronome is just a tool, and if used correctly can help a drummer in a variety of ways. But it’s not magical; turning on a metronome and just playing along with it doesn’t mean it’s going to improve your time. Playing time that feels and sounds good isn’t the same thing as playing mathematically and metronomically perfect 8th, triplets, 16ths, etc.
I believe one of the best ways to develop good time is to internalize the tempo first. If you’re going to practice a lot with a metronome, make sure that you’re trying to feel and move to the pulse. Keeping your limbs relaxed and moving fluidly in time with the pulse or music will help develop your feel and groove, which will also improve your time. I also recommend setting the metronome to quarter notes or half notes (depending on the tempo and time signature), so the notes between them (8ths, triplets, 16ths, etc.) can breathe a little. In jazz, rock, folk, second-line, Cuban and Brazilian styles, and even symphonic music where there’s no drummer, the time breathes and the music feels great.
If you practice correctly, your time will naturally improve the longer you play. I’ve heard drummers who can play rudiments and rhythms perfectly matching 16th notes with a metronome but who have trouble playing with a good feel when they sit at a drumset. That’s why I strongly encourage my students to practice to music, recordings, and loops; play in a band; and listen to and analyze a lot of music in order to develop a good sense of time and musicality. Many of our musical and drumming heroes never even owned a metronome; they developed good time by practicing, playing, and listening.
It’s possible that if a drummer uses a metronome incorrectly, he or she might not see improvements in time at all. This happens when you become overly dependent on the metronome, which could slow the development of your natural internal clock.
My point here is to find balance. A metronome can be a valuable measuring tool to mark progress and to identify correct tempos, and it’s imperative for developing your ability to play with a click track. I encourage my students to balance their use of a metronome with a large dose of playing to music and learning to develop their internal clock.
I think a metronome is a very useful tool. I use one myself, and I use one with my students, because it lets you know if your internal clock is close to the mark.
Being able to play a groove with a metronome doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily be able to play it with good time without a metronome. But a metronome can help you develop the confidence to play something with good time on the gig. In short, a metronome can help build confidence and authority, and that’s where good time comes from.
Metronomes are perfectly steady, and they don’t breathe—there’s no ebb and flow. They don’t respond to what you play; they are just there. Despite this, I don’t have any problem using them from time to time.
As a practice tool, I like to use the metronome as a guide to help check rhythmic accuracy. And it can be used in creative ways. Back at a recording session in 1973, I had the pleasure of hearing African master drummer Kwasi Badu play a bell pattern using a metronome to mark the third note of each pulse in 12/8 meter. He heard the metronome as a representation of the beginning of one of the supporting drum parts, which didn’t start on the downbeat. Badu then proceeded to build on the bell pattern with the metronome still playing in its displaced position. The piece was a version of the West African dance Adowa. Kwasi overdubbed all of the parts this way.
From then on, I tried to think of many ways to make use of the metronome more creatively. One way is to set the metronome to any tempo and then play completely freely, with the only rule being that I keep listening—but not adhering to—the metronome. I just let myself fly around the beat. After doing this for a few minutes, I then land on the beat and play in time.
To me, a metronome is just a tool that can help to control some, but not all, time-related issues. I think of practicing with a metronome as like playing with an extremely stubborn percussionist.
Being able to hear the click in different rhythmic places, like on the “e,” “&,” or “ah” of the beat, can be a good workout. When used in this manner, the metronome helps to develop a better sense of pulse. I also see benefits to using metronomes on gigs to make sure that you’re starting a song at the correct tempo. (Adrenalin surges can ruin your sense of tempo.)
The con of the metronome is that if you start being so dependent on it, you can loose your confidence in finding the right tempo for a song without the help of your little electronic friend.
I believe that working with a metronome is crucial to a player’s development as a timekeeper. I’ve never seen any drawbacks to working with a metronome. To me, learning to play with a metronome makes your time better when you’re not playing with one, and makes it easier to work with a click track. There’s no such thing as perfect time, but you can greatly improve your internal clock with practice.
I’ve heard session drummers talk about playing behind the click or playing on top of it. This never made a whole lot of sense to me. I mean, if you play the whole song behind the click, you’re still playing with the click—you’re just landing a few milliseconds later. I would hear other players talk about playing around the click, where they’re playing behind it during the verse and ahead of it in the chorus. But in the age of Pro Tools, where rhythm guitars and shaker parts are snapped to the grid most of the time, I don’t have that luxury. Therefore, it’s my job to make the music feel great even when playing in the center of the beat. That means I have to be aware of my tendency to want to rush fills at slow and medium tempos and work on controlling that.
I also have to create energy and lift in a track without moving the tempo. That can be quite a challenge, and it takes a lot of practice. But playing great time with a metronome is an acquired skill. One huge mistake bands make is that they practice their songs without ever using a metronome. Then when they go into the studio, where they have to play with a click, they wonder why it sounds like a disaster.
There are actually some pretty good reasons to use a metronome on your live gigs as well. The first benefit is eliminating any discussion if someone says, “That song was too fast.” I’ve also observed that the more times that a particular song is played in a band’s set, the faster the tempo gets. Just listen to any bar band play the Steve Miller song “The Joker,” and then go back and listen to the original. You’ll probably be shocked at how much slower the original recording was. Working with a metronome takes that out of the equation.
Don’t get me wrong: I love playing without a click and letting the music flow. There are certain styles of music, like bebop, where playing to a click might be inappropriate. But I feel that if you want to play popular styles of music at a high level, then being able to play well with a metronome is a requirement.
Practicing with a metronome can gauge one’s development over a period of time. This can lead to a greater sense of accomplishment and boost a player’s confidence. I use a metronome in my practice sessions because it won’t speed up when I play slow patterns or slow down when I play fast ones. The metronome is also very useful when teaching a student to control subdivisions, as well as the transitions between odd rhythmic groupings such as fives or sevens. Practicing technical exercises, like those in books like Stick Control and Master Studies, with a metronome prepared me for playing with click tracks in recording studios, too.
As important as the metronome is for practice, there’s no substitute for live playing experience with a band. My time on the bandstand has improved most by playing gigs with inconsistent musicians. Recording rehearsals and performances have taught me not to follow bad time, but to resist it and provide a magnetic force of rhythmic and sonic consistency in an attempt to bring them to my beat.
Use the metronome wisely and with care.
In today’s musical climate, a drummer should be practicing with a metronome, or some sort of backing music, as a click is almost always used in recording sessions. The bigger issue, however, is developing your perception of timing. When we’re playing on our own without an electronic guide, we’re playing our best perception of time from a first-person perspective. If you record yourself playing without a metronome and then listen back from a third-person perspective, it’s likely that you’ll hear problems in your time and feel that you weren’t aware of when we were playing. This is why recording and listening back to yourself is one of the most important things you can do with your practice time.
A metronome helps train your first-person perception of rhythm as you learn to correct your flawed tendencies. When I sit down and play without a metronome, I half jokingly call it “flying blind” or “making myself worse.” I can only trust my own perception so far, but the guiding light of the metronome will always steer me into accurate rhythm and timing habits, which in turn makes me a lot more enjoyable for other musicians to play with and for audiences to listen to.
I do believe that it’s also good to occasionally practice without a metronome. I tell my students that the metronome is not your timekeeper; it’s a musician you’re locking in with. As you develop your ability to lock in with the metronome, you’ll also be able to lock in at higher levels with other musicians.
Studying with Richard Wilson and Murray Spivack, everything I was assigned was to be practiced with both feet tapping along with a metronome. These assignments included rudiments, reading, and technique exercises. Many lessons began with the metronome set at 40 bpm. I’m sure that the thousands of hours I spent practicing this way helped me to develop my internal clock.
With certain styles of music, where there may be ebb and flow or a certain feeling of playing behind or on top of the beat, a metronomic timekeeping sense might be a bit of a hindrance. I recently had the opportunity to perform with a fine bassist. We were playing a very up-tempo samba that required a pushing “on top” feel. It was difficult for the bassist to really lock in. I felt like he was so concerned about playing steady time that he forgot that the music wanted to breathe. Fortunately, we straightened everything out!
I don’t know if practicing to a metronome can actually make your time worse, but it can certainly affect your feel if you become too dependent on it. In addition, having a click constantly present can perhaps cause stiffness in feel, or if you pay too much attention to sticking with the metronome other areas of your musicianship may be sacrificed. I usually suggest doing what I call “checking in with the metronome.” Start the metronome at the desired tempo, and internalize it for a bit. Then turn off the metronome, and play the exercise (or piece of music). When you’re finished, turn the metronome back on to see how far you’ve drifted from the original tempo. This type of practice requires you to internalize the tempo ahead of time so you can fully concentrate on playing musically once the metronome has been turned off.
Practicing with a metronome allows you to understand how pulse is measured, so we can then learn to control the time of the music across a wide range of tempos. I believe in using a metronome so that when I play a gig without one (which is most of the time) my internal clock is attuned to a level that gives me the confidence and conviction I need to play at my best.
The pros of being able to play comfortably with a metronome outweigh the cons. I know of some legendary drummers who are averse to using metronomes, but I need to be just as comfortable working with one as without one because I often do gigs or sessions that involve playing to loops, clicks, or sequenced music. Having said that, however, I believe more firmly that a good sense of time is a greater skill than playing time that’s so rigid or metronomic as to be inflexible.
Einstein said that time is relative, and this applies to rhythm and tempo. Sometimes it’s much better if the time can flux a bit, but in those situations it’s better if that’s by design rather than by accident. I want to know if I’m accelerating or decelerating the tempo, and using a metronome has helped me hone that skill, as has practicing very slowly with one. By doing that, you learn how the space between the beats is just as important as the notes you’re playing.
One con of the metronome, particularly when you’re first starting to use it, is that it can destroy your confidence. Playing to a metronome can be frustrating, and some players cop the attitude that it messes up your feel. That can be true if you don’t work to get past that stage in your development. I often think of the great Andy Newmark on the classic Sly Stone track “In Time,” where he played along with a drum machine. That was one of the first recordings to feature such a device. Andy plays as free as a bird, which goes to show that playing with good feel along with a metronome is possible, as long as you’re willing to put in the practice.
One tip for making friends with your metronome, which comes directly from a 1984 Modern Drummer interview with Newmark, is to imagine the click to be your friend. Andy said he thinks of the late, great studio percussion icon Ralph MacDonald playing a cowbell. By making that his mindset, he could relax and play comfortably with the metronome’s time.
A final word of advice on using a metronome comes from Peter Erskine. He recommends recording yourself playing the same thing both with and without a metronome. By listening back, you can gauge your consistency in tempo, pulse, and feel.
Just about every recording session and every Broadway show that I’ve played required me to play to a click. If you want to work in these types of contexts, you need to be able to play to a click. Therefore, it’s my opinion that there’s no sense worrying about the click making your time worse until you’re pretty much an expert at playing along to it. While you’re developing this ability, however, I believe that you should devote some of your practice time to grooving by yourself and to playing along with recordings in different styles. This will allow you to hone your own sense of time.
The overall goal is to be able to make the music feel good, avoid speeding up or slowing down (unless it’s done intentionally), and give the other musicians something to lock to, whether you’re playing with or without a click.
The pro to playing with a metronome is that it will help improve your timing. The metronome will also help you to become aware of tempos you’re not comfortable playing. Some of my students have a hard time playing slow tempos, so I encourage them to practice at 40, 50, and 60 bpm.
The metronome is a great tool when exploring different rhythms, such as pieces of music that include triplets, 16ths, and 32nd notes in one bar, and it can be a big help when working on advanced metric modulation ideas. The metronome won’t let you get away with anything. It’s also a great friend to have on a gig when you need a reference for the tempo of a song.
The cons of playing with a metronome is that sometimes people depend on it so much that their playing sounds robotic, or it can lead to an underdeveloped internal clock. I stress to my students the importance of learning different tempos by memory. You should be able to count off 60, 100, or 140 bpm fairly accurately.
A metronome can help you learn the proper space between each note. Not only does this lead to an even time feel, but it also aids in your ability to execute spacious grooves effectively and confidently. Once these spaces are mastered, you’re able to move on to beat placement (ahead, in the middle, and behind the beat).
Oftentimes drummers mistake playing even time with rigid time, so they’ll tighten up while practicing alongside a click. Not only is this potentially damaging to your body, but it also leads to a stiff-sounding groove. If a drummer doesn’t monitor this tendency, it can translate into his/her live performance too.
There are certain ways to practice to a metronome. I prefer to hear the click at different rhythmic positions, or as a different pulse, while practicing an exercise. For example, I’ll start by hearing the metronome on downbeats for four measures, and then I’ll switch to hearing the metronome click on offbeats for another four bars. This develops a level of freedom for playing around the pulse.
If you have one of the old analog metronomes (the ones with the swinging arm), try playing along with it. You won’t be able to hear it when playing your drums because it’s too quiet, but you can look at it every once in a while to check your tempo.
In my experience, there are no cons of practicing with a metronome. Most modern music is quantized, sequenced, edited, looped, so you need to have a solid sense of time to handle contemporary gigs. I also think that having a solid metronomic sensibility will make more human-sounding music come across better. For example, I do a lot of Broadway gigs, and in those situations the drummer has to forfeit control of tempo to the conductor. In that situation, a drummer with a strong sense of time will be able to keep things solid while also making little adjustments to help keep the train on the tracks.
I don’t think you should always practice to a metronome, especially if you’re playing something new for the first time. I suggest giving yourself a chance to work through the motions, sounds, and feel of a groove, fill, or exercise before trying to play it with a metronome. Then add it in once you’re comfortable.
Practicing with a metronome is one of many things we can do to improve our general sense of time. I believe that developing an ability to deliver an unimpeded performance while the click is on brings us a great deal of confidence. (To anyone who’s never tried to play their “stuff” with a click, I recommend they give it try; it can be a thoroughly humbling experience!)
I think about playing with the click in the same way that I think about playing with another musician—a meeting point must be found. Of course with a click, this is a bit of a one-way street, so the responsibility is in my hands in terms of finding that meeting point and staying with it. I also believe that, for purposes of practicing, the click is best used when spaced out. In other words, when practicing at 120 bpm, set your click to 60 bpm. This creates the need for your subdivisions to be more precise, as you can’t rely on the beat-for-beat relationship between the tempo you’re playing and the metronome’s pulse.
I compose and play a lot of odd-metered music. When practicing odd times, like 5/8, 7/8, or 9/8, I like to have the metronome click straight quarter notes to create a pendulum effect. Placing the click on beats 2 and 4 while practicing swing, or one beat 3 when practicing half-time backbeat grooves, gives you yet another perspective on your beat placement.
Everything I just wrote would seem to point to someone who has made a great deal of use of the metronome. The truth is that my ability to play steady time has come much more from playing to music then from playing to a click. Only about 30% of my practice is done with a metronome. I also don’t believe that playing to a click is a must—there are some amazing drummers out there who never do. But given the fact you will most likely be asked to play to a click at one point or another, it’s a good skill to develop.
Playing with a metronome gives you a great point of reference to figure out whether you rush or drag a given groove or fill. Your groove might lock perfectly with the click, but every time you play a fill you come in a bit early. Now you know that you have to mentally prepare yourself to pull back a little in your fills. Modern-day metronomes also give you the ability to hear specific subdivisions (8ths, 16ths, sextuplets, etc.), which allows you to work on your vertical time. A drummer may have the ability to always land on the one when the click is set to quarters, meaning that their horizontal time is spot on, but the notes in between each measure might be a bit sloppy. By working with a click that has a hint of 16ths, or whatever subdivision you struggle with, you can begin to clean up the notes inside the measure.
It’s almost a certainty that the first time a drummer goes into a studio to record, he or she will be asked to record to a click. If this is new to them, it won’t matter whether they have great natural time or not; the presence of a constant beep or cowbell will throw them off. Learning to play to a metronome is a skill just like any other aspect of drumming (independence, groove, feel, chops, etc.), and it has to be practiced. Eventually, instead of throwing the drummer off, it will become a way to double-check that their time is spot on.
I’ve never experienced a student whose time became worse through the practice of playing with a metronome. I think more than anything, the metronome shows us what type of drummer we are. Very few musicians are born with perfect time. We either naturally rush or naturally drag. A metronome just lets us know what type of drummer we are so that we can correct our tendencies. I naturally rush, so I know that if everything feels great then in reality it’s probably a bit too fast. If everything feels like it’s dragging, then it it’s probably spot on.
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