There are many ways to go about using the metronome to develop our musical skills. I want to share my own thoughts on working with it, and how we can maximize our practice time. I also want to state that keeping good time is everyone’s responsibility, not just the drummer’s.
When I have new students looking for their first metronome, there are a few things I advise them to keep in mind. First, make sure it has a headphone jack. This way we can isolate the metronome in a pair of headphones, even though most are only a mono signal (hearing it only in one ear). Also, if there is a volume control it can help us make the sound audible above the drums. Our first metronome doesn’t have to cost a lot, maybe $30, but I will discuss options and models at the end of this article. The last thing I get students to check is that the metronome has beat-subdivision options (triplets, 1/16 notes, 1/8 notes, dotted 1/16 notes, etc.), and that it has a tap function as well.
PUTTING IT INTO PRACTICE
Now that we have our metronome, how do we use it? The first thing I get my students to do is to play a quarter note single stroke roll on a practice pad. I set the metronome at 60bpm, and we play together on the same pad. I get them to listen to the metronome, and also concentrate on the space between the notes. I tell them not to move their notes around if they can’t hear the metronome, as this means they are right on it. I will keep the same tempo and play quarter note doubles and paradiddles, all along keeping the same things in mind. Then we move to 1/8 notes and 1/16 notes with the metronome still pulsing the 1/4 note. To become comfortable with using a metronome, the key is consistent practice. We must chip away at it each day, and with this we overcome our fear of the metronome. One way that I always work with the metronome is to have it on and just sing/count different subdivisions without even playing. This will include quarter notes, 1/8 notes, 1/16 notes, all triplets and a variety of syncopated rhythms as well.
OUR INTERNAL CLOCK
The more we work with a metronome or time source, the more we develop our own internal clock and how we “feel” the space between the notes. I believe that our internal clock, like our ability to play music, can be natural for some, while others need to work to develop their skill. When I first started working with a metronome many years ago, it was somewhat natural for me, but I quickly became obsessed with playing perfect time. When I started playing, many of my musical influences were from the 80’s (laugh, if you will). In that era, the drum machine was becoming a standard tool of the trade, and a lot of the music was in perfect time (lacking feel, but perfect time). In my obsession, I would practice on a pad everyday with a metronome clanking in my ears for hours. I would also sleep with the metronome on, thinking that subconsciously I would wake up and have perfect time. Another daily activity included going for a walk or run, setting the metronome at a tempo and moving my whole body in perfect quarter notes. I would also try walking in triplets and many other subdivisions, sometimes looking like I had a broken leg to anyone watching I am sure. I was becoming more stiff and machine-like in my playing, which I thought was what I wanted. That was until I became very aware of players like Steve Gadd, Jeff Porcaro, Jim Keltner, Rick Marotta and many others that had this special “thing” in their playing.
Their time was impeccable, but their grooves made me feel all fuzzy inside. As I talked to musicians who were older and more experienced than myself, the word “feel” kept coming up in reference to drummers they liked working with. Who cared about feel, I wanted perfect time. Well, was I wrong! I quickly realized that I needed to work on my time and internal clock, but this should not outweigh the music’s feel as I played. Through reading about all of these great players, I realized that everyone is human, and no one has perfect time. Everyone’s note sways a little while they play, but the great players have very sharp intuition and can correct this within a millisecond. This is what our internal clock does. It allows us to feel ourselves moving our notes forward or backwards and make the proper adjustments. With this in mind, I found myself concentrating less on the notes the metronome clanked out, and more on the space between them. If the spaces were equal, so would the notes be, right? My friend Billy Ward has some great readings on this subject, and I do have a shirt of his that says, “Love the space between your notes.”
DEVELOPING OUR FEEL
The first thing I want to state here is that it takes years of practice to develop our feel, groove and pocket. This is developed through playing along to songs, listening to a variety of styles of music, playing with other musicians and working with a metronome. When we play along with songs, we are essentially playing with a metronome, as most music in the past twenty to twenty five years has been tracked in the studio to a click track. But how each of us feels the pulse of the metronome can be quite different. Some people, like myself, feel the pulse a little bit behind the beat, while others might feel it ahead or dead on. Which one is right? Well, that depends on the music we are playing, and what is needed from us as drummers. Can you imagine hearing a band playing AC/DC songs, and the drummer approached this as if it were a tight Tower of Power feel? It wouldn’t sound right, as AC/DC’s Phil Rudd sits on the backside of the beat, and David Garibaldi’s approach is more forward in momentum and is on top of the beat. When we listen to music, we really need to understand how it feels. Is it relaxed? Does it feel like it is on the verge of speeding up? Does it sound like a machine? I know when I have to play a groove that is on top of the beat, I need to choke up on my sticks and sit a little forward on my stool. This helps me to sit right and play the proper feel for the music. We all have to experiment to find our own way of playing the right feel all of the time, and that is exactly what it takes, time.
When we practice with a metronome, we need to play grooves and fills and not have our tempo shift up and down; I call this a “tempo tantrum.” One thing I find that a lot of drummers do is hold their breath—thus inducing a tempo tantrum. We need to breathe to keep the flow of oxygen constant, and our heart rate to remain steady just like our playing. Next time you are practicing, really concentrate on your breathing and not holding your breath, especially when you go to play a fill. Also our body motion can dictate our feel. If I need to play very machine-like for a certain song, I will lock my wrists and elbows. With this technique (or lack of), I can simulate grooves from a machine that are right on the beat. I normally play very relaxed in my grip, wrists and whole body, but I have learned what I need to do to lay down different feels for the music I am playing. Shawn Pelton from the Saturday Night Live Band is a great example of how I want to look when I play. He is dancing while he plays, and his whole body is playing the groove and time (maybe he used to walk with a metronome as well?).
Being able to work with a metronome is an industry standard these days. When I work in the studio, it is always with a metronome or time source. For live shows I am sometimes using a metronome for whole songs or for tempo references to start the song off (singers love to have consistency in their songs from night to night). I also do gigs where there are backing tracks that I run from a computer, and there is a click/metronome on these tracks. With all of the different work that I do, and learning so many songs for different artists, I need a metronome for a reference. I have played with artists who know the tempo of their songs so well, that if I bump the tempo up by one or two beats, they will notice instantly. My job is to make the singer feel comfortable, and if I know the tempo they are comfortable at, I should be able to do just that night after night. After you have practiced/played with a metronome for a while, it becomes very natural to do. When I hear a metronome, my approach is to get that tempo inside of me as quickly as possible and let my body feel the pulse. Another thing I find is that lots of drummers want the metronome to be so loud that it hurts. If the metronome is too loud, we end up being a slave to it and our feel goes out the door. Try practicing with your metronome quiet. At first it might be a little strange, and we may find ourselves playing out of time. As we work this approach for a while, our listening and feel can develop at a higher level, and you will find yourself playing along with the metronome and not playing to the metronome.
In my collection of metronomes, I believe I have at least six (not including a couple of drum machines), I have found a few that work great. Korg makes great products at a reasonable price with most of the features I have listed above. They are a nice size for travel, and they have a replaceable battery and a volume control. I also have a Tama Rhythm Watch. This is a little more expensive (about $100), but it has lots of features. There is an external power supply, as well as battery, a scroll wheel to move quickly between tempos, and you can store different song tempos in the memory. This has become a very standard metronome for live gigs with many of the top players in the world. My metronome of choice is the Yamaha Clickstation. It is a great piece of gear, and I won’t use anything but. My first experience with this metronome was being in the house band for an internationally televised broadcast, and our playing was all live to TV. I needed to get from tempo to tempo very quickly, and it was flawless. It has a great display, lots of volume control, a vibrate function so we can get the tempo without even hearing it, a key pad to quickly type in your next tempo, and you can also store several different tempos/songs in this as well. In my opinion, this is the grand-daddy on the market right now. It is a little expensive, around $150 plus, but, for myself, it has been worth every penny night after night. You might need to ask around or do some reading online about the different metronomes available. Once you figure out which one will work for your applications, get it and have fun putting into your practice routine. It is your friend.
Jayson Brinkworth is a professional musician, educator, author and owner of Music In The House based in Regina, Canada. Find him online here.