Repeat After Me: Metronomes (and Drum Machines) Are Fun


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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. They have one function: to make a click noise at the rate of ___ beats per minute.
  5. 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.
  6. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. You can usually program in your own beat using the keypad.
  3. Many of them have a standard metronome function, if you decide to use it that way.
  4. 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.
  5. 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:

  1. Pick an exercise. Let’s say we’re working on playing an A major scale.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Play the exercise at least 3 times with no mistakes, then increase the tempo by a small increment (4-6bpm).
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.

Happy practicing!

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and playing sessions, she fronts an original music project, The Interludes and teaches private lessons. Visit her website to learn more about her music or to inquire about lessons.

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Leave a Reply to Patrick Rowling Cancel reply

  1. I don’t have a drum machine, but I do have and use a metronome. I second the thoughts in the article, and would add two more:

    1. I find that it helps me concentrate when I have trouble getting into a technique drill, like a scale or arpeggio. The drive of the click gets me focused.

    2. Try setting the click to it plays on the 2 & 4, or so it plays at the beginning of triplets, etc. If you haven’t done this before, you may find it hard – I did.

  2. If you have ab iOS device – for.99 you can have both a metronome and a basic, but quite nice and fully adjustable drum machine. It’s called “Back Beats” available at the iTunes Store. Description: Demo: Download: can plug it right into your amp as well! Great for jamming and practice.

  3. Once again, Ryan, tremendous article. I actually use both. I have a little Korg Metronome and I also use the Style playback on my Yamaha Keyboard. It’s how I build and maintain speed, dexterity and most importantly control with both hands. I find them both indispensable. For me, there is no debate. I just know what I do because a metronome and/or drum machine (see above) insures that I lock things in and shows me progress. Sometimes, especially when doing scale exercises and intervals, we don’t get the sense of a melody or song and so redundancy sets in and invariably we look for reasons to not practice our scales. When we see progress in our ability to perform our patterns and intervals, that’s motivation! We’re doing better! One day, I set the STYLE on the Yamaha Keyboard to 16Beat at a tempo of 96 to start. Then, I began with a Dorian minor in D. Pretty soon, I was building lines. Some simple and some extended and complicated. Always making sure I was locked in tight. Sometimes we THINK we’re in. These prove it to us.

  4. Good article. I use both devices, too. Here’s another article that covers this subject in a slightly different way

  5. With my students they are subway elves. Metro gnomes. OK it’s really pushing it, but they groan and remember.

  6. Great article. Bought my quartz metronome 20+ years ago and still runs like a champ. Still shows up my shortcomings, too!

    Nowadays there’s so much useful technology – online apps, web sites, videos, video conferencing, downloadable music – it’s a musician’s paradise. But as a simple and portable tool, you can’t beat the metronome.

  7. a useful method of metronoming I’ve found for increasing tempo is to go up two clicks (click = metronome interval, such as 4, or 6 bpm), then down one click. rinse and repeat with three reps per tempo.
    going down in tempo briefly gives your hand a bit of rest, and allows for you to focus more fully into technique on that set of reps, instead of tempo.

  8. Great article Ryan, I often tell people that the reason my time is so good is that I spent my first few years practicing electric bass acoustically with a metronome.

  9. Metronome apps can go up to ~400 bpm, which can be useful for practicing dotted eighth/sixteenth rhythms (putting the click on the 16th), which I think are the very hardest for students to get. Plus, kids are *intrigued* by anything on a screen. However, iPods, etc. aren’t loud enough for many instruments w/o headphones or a speaker.

    I have my students practice all different ways with a metronome, the metronome on the half, the quarter, the eighth, the sixteenth, etc. I tell them that w/o a metronome part of your job is to “generate” a beat; so w/ a metronome (or playing with your teacher) something/someone else is taking the burden of generating a beat from you, so they can concentrate on getting it correct. They also have to do clapping exercises w/ the metronome at very slow speeds, for instance clap off-eighths, or the third triplet eighth, or the fourth sixteenth. It’s a very fast way to get them to subdivide accurately. Challenge a student to play an etude with 8ths with the metronome on the whole note, and you’ll see a student not only improving fast, but also understanding subdividing in a whole new way.

    I like your terms for “comfort” tempo and “threshold” tempo very much, and I use a very similar concept. I tell students this is a way to document small increments of progress that they wouldn’t be able to discern otherwise. Without this documentation, you can feel discouraged that you haven’t progress, whereas the metronome tells you that indeed you did get it 2 clicks faster than yesterday.