First things first, I’m not trying to open a “metronome debate.”
I’m also not trying to lecture people about using (or not using) a metronome during their practice sessions. Instead, I’m going to shed some light on why and how metronomes can be useful tools when it comes to practicing and experimenting with your instrument. We’ll examine the differences between using a metronome versus a drum machine for your practice sessions as well as an effective method to use for practicing.
When people ask me about practicing with a metronome, the greatest reason for using one I can offer is this: the metronome keeps you accountable for time.
Imagine having a job where you didn’t have to show up at any particular time (insanity!). You could show up whenever you wanted, complete however much or little work you wanted, and you may never get out of your pajamas. This is how I envision practicing without a metronome. In reality, most people have jobs where they need to show up at 9:00am, which means that they need to wake up, shower, have breakfast, allow for travel (and traffic), and end up in their office, ready to tackle a task.
This accountability helps us be more productive and gives us a specific goal or deadline. The metronome is that 9:00am arrival time. By practicing with a metronome, you’re held accountable by the click; you must strive to play a certain note at a specific time.
So, what’s the difference between using a metronome versus a drum machine?
The difference between the two comes down to function. Both tools are used for keeping time, but a drum machine creates a full percussive backdrop to your practicing and the metronome simply provides a click.
Here are a few of my favorite reasons for using a metronome instead of a drum machine:
- It’s pocket sized. We all love tiny gadgets, and the standard “Quartz” metronome is just a little bit larger than a Blackberry phone. It fits in your gig bag, on your desk, next to your pillow, etc. It also works on battery power and it is completely portable.
- They come in black. It goes with everything, it shows less dirt, and it’s slimming. Some metronomes come in other colors too, like blue or silver.
- There is a “vintage” style metronome for those who are into the old school knick-knacks. They look like mini A-frame houses and can be great conversation starters if used as a table centerpiece.
- They have one function: to make a click noise at the rate of ___ beats per minute.
- The metronome can give you any feel, at any tempo, in any time signature. You can play straight, swing, rock, R&B, country, metal, or any other genre that you can think of. Since there is nothing other than the click, you can play in 6/8, 4/4, 5/4, 7/4, or any other time signature, simply by deciding what your time signature should be.
- Sometimes, your “creative juices” can flow in new ways when you have nothing holding you back. If the only thing you have is a click behind you, you can be free to come up with your own groove or progression, and this can truly help you determine your voice as a bass player. The good ol’ metronome click can give you a rhythmic framework, but it doesn’t imply any musical aspect other than time. Everything else is left up to you.
Some people claim that a metronome is obnoxious, abrasive, monotonous, and stale, which is why they prefer to use a drum machine that has a preprogrammed beat.
Here are some good reasons for using a drum machine:
- They give you a desired genre-based groove. If you’re trying to come up with new R&B lines, you can find a pre-programmed groove that may help inspire you.
- You can usually program in your own beat using the keypad.
- Many of them have a standard metronome function, if you decide to use it that way.
- They usually let you emphasize a certain beat, such as beat one. If you’re working on playing in odd-time signatures and you have a hard time keeping track of 5 or 7, you can emphasize beat one to help you stay on track.
- Some drum machines allow you to program chord progressions, which can be a useful tool when you’re trying to practice soloing, walking bass lines, or maneuvering through a specific kind of progression.
Despite all of the useful things that a drum machine can do, I’m an old fashioned kinda gal (this may explain why I still don’t have an iPad or a Kindle). I like to have my metronome in my gig bag at all times, so if I find some down time and can practice, I’m on it.
Speaking of practice, here’s a guide to using a metronome for practicing, especially if you’re working on technique. If you find yourself staring at your metronome, not knowing how to use it effectively, try going through these steps:
- Pick an exercise. Let’s say we’re working on playing an A major scale.
- Remember that if you’re working on technique, you want to be aware of not only playing the correct notes, but playing them in the correct manner (finger directly behind the fret, using the appropriate finger for the note, getting the note to sound strong and clear). Holding yourself accountable for “good” notes is a crucial part of practicing.
- Turn your metronome on (preferably to a middle-of-the-road tempo, such as 88bpm) and see if you can play the scale at that tempo, playing one note per click. If it is drastically too fast, try playing a note every other click so that you will essentially be playing half notes instead of quarter notes. If it is incredibly slow, try playing two notes per click (or eighth notes). If it seems a bit too fast but not worthy of cutting the tempo in half, bring the tempo down a few clicks.
- Find the appropriate tempo for playing the exercise with no mistakes and incredible ease! Identify this as your “comfort” tempo… it should be slower than you expect it to be and you should be able to play the scale there all day, every day, without a problem. There’s nothing wrong with starting out slow, and you’ll feel better about the amount of progress that you can make if you start at an easy tempo.
- Play the exercise at least 3 times with no mistakes, then increase the tempo by a small increment (4-6bpm).
- Continue doing this until you find a tempo that gives you difficulty. This is your “threshold” tempo. Try playing the exercise at this tempo, striving to play it correctly and with “good” notes. If today you can’t get past it, try tomorrow.
- Write down the threshold tempo as your current goal and during your next practice session, start at your comfort tempo, increase the tempo at small increments, and try to achieve your goal and set a new one.
- Remember that some days are better than others… especially when you’re working on technique. There are many things that can influence how well your hands are working on a given day, such as the temperature (if you’re hands are cold, they won’t work as fast), the amount of stress you’re under, if you’ve warmed up already, if you had a gig the night before and played your heart out, etc. Try not to get discouraged if you’re having a bad day.
So what are your thoughts? Let us know about effective practicing methods that you have, and whether you enjoy using a drum machine or metronome. Post your thoughts in the comments.