Through the years, I’ve consistently noticed first hand just how confusing a metronome can make a particular situation for a number of players. I struggled with it’s true purpose for so many years and when I had the “aha” moment of really using it to my advantage, I became less intimidated by it. Below I will break down my philosophy of when and how to effectively use a metronome/click track to get the most out of your playing.
There are two types of situations that come to mind (personal and in the studio) when I think of how to effectively use a metronome and I want to focus on each separately.
Using A Metronome For Personal Use
First and foremost, understanding how a metronome works will only have positive effects on your development as a musician. I can’t truly break down “how a metronome works” in a blog post but if you’re already thinking “I don’t need to know this crap” trust me, understanding how to effectively use a metronome will launch you into the next level of playing much faster than trying to get there without it. I say this from first hand experience of previously being the “I don’t need this crap” mentality. If you truly feel this way, the rest of this post may not be for you and that is ok. As I always say, everyone is different in their approach to playing music.
Getting started is as easy as switching your mindset. Next time you sit down with a metronome, think of it as a tool or guide to develop your playing. Don’t look at it as “ok, I’ve got to line up with this or I’m a garbage musician.” That’s not true and I can’t tell you how many years I wasted as a drummer with that mindset playing like a damn robot. It’s true a metronome’s main function is to “keep time” but let’s be clear, it’s not to tell you where to place all those little notes you decide to play within that time.
Let me explain. As a younger musician I would learn new fills, grooves, patterns as so.
turn metronome on
find desired bpm marking
begin learning new skill as precisely as possible in time with the click
move the bpm marking up or down based off how well I’m grasping the concept
rinse and repeat with new material once I was “happy” with the previous material
All I really learned doing it this way was how to play with a metronome. I’m not saying that’s not a valuable tool, but the material I thought I was learning suffered because I was so focused on playing everything “in time” and my feel as a musician wasn’t developing.
Now lets look at my current approach to learning new material.
decide what I want to improve on
learn the lick/groove/song/pattern as slow as possible to get everything correct and “feeling” the way I want it
once I have a grasp on the material, I turn the metronome on and play with it at a comfortable tempo
record and analyze where things may be pushing/pulling and decide if that is intentional in the playing or if I’d prefer it to be more “in time”
record without a metronome and see if I can notice if the feel is “out of time”
listen to the takes with and without the metronome back to back
from here, it’s an artistic choice to either play more in time or with a “human feel” approach
repeat with new material
So what’s the difference between the two approaches? In the first approach to my dismay all I truly cared about was being “in time” and there was no true artistic decision making happening. In the second approach, I direct all focus to the material at hand before introducing the metronome. This helps me understand how I naturally want to “feel” things and I record them to see if the correct idea is being conveyed to the “audience” and whether it feels “in” or “out of time” as a listener and not a performer.
The most explicit example of this I can think of is this: think of placing both a drum corp and jazz drummer on a kit and how they would approach the song at hand. The drum corp approach would be to place all limbs directly in the center of the beat perfectly in time and the jazz musician may be intentionally pushing and pulling in certain parts of the tune to help create movement. Neither one is “correct,” it’s just understanding the approach you’re going for and the musicians you’re playing with.
Another way to use the metronome to your advantage is called the gap click. In this approach, a metronome turns on and off while you are playing with it. For instance, you groove for one bar to a click and it disappears for a bar while you keep playing and see if you land back in time when it turns on again. This will inform you just exactly how much you are naturally pushing or pulling and is a great way to build your time keeping skills as an individual while learning your natural tendencies. With this exercise you begin training your body to “internalize” the beat without having to have it fed to you non stop 24/7 to play in time. Test it out by playing with the two videos below.
Gap Click Example #1 (1 bar click, 1 bar nothing)
Gap Click Example #2 (4 bar click, 4 bar nothing)
Don’t forget to be creative, the click doesn’t always have to be felt on all the downbeats. Try playing along using it on all the upbeats or every fourth 16th note. This will train your ear to hear those odd accents while keeping a solid foundation beneath it. My guitar teacher (ya one semester, don’t call me for your show) in college always told me to use it as the “2” and “4.” It was difficult to do, but once I got it I started hearing phrasings so much differently. Again you are using it as a guide/tool because guess what, it’s not the boss of how you play. YOU ARE.
Using A Click Track In The Studio
The metronome is more often referred to as the click or click track in the studio. So from here on out, I’ll use the term click to help keep it concise. Using the click in the studio will always be a situational basis. Ideally, you should be able to perform a tune both with or without a click and choose to have the option to use it as a guide for the tune. There are many things to consider when making the decision to use a click and keep in mind, sometimes the decision might not be yours.
The most fundamental reasoning for doing a tune with or without a click is the type of song or artist you’re working with. If you’re sitting in on a pop session or something that is guaranteed to be played on the radio I’m telling you right now 9/10 times you’ll be tracking with a click. The non musician’s ear has been trained to hear things perfectly over the last couple decades and that’s just how it is. Noticeable fluctuation of time usually ins’t acceptable unless it’s very intentional.
Maybe you’re doing a session with your punk rock band. This will more than likely be light years different than what your are going for end product wise vs a pop record. Naturally things like to pickup in the second verse or chorus and that’s ok. Track that puppy without a click and make sure you’re happy with the take. It’s not wrong, it’s just what you’re going for, right?
How about a funk band? Chances are all of the musicians can do a solid take with or without a click. That mindset is going to change based off the ensemble’s decision. Do they want it to stay one tempo throughout or should there be a little flexibility between verses, choruses, solos etc.. I guarantee the whole band will have input and a decision will be made based off that.
If it’s truly your setting, your vibe, 100% your choice well lucky you. Again, it boils down to “what am I going for?” There have been many times I’ve gone for a very direct and precise approach where I’m trying to line everything up as much as I can with the metronome. A lot of those songs were tracked in Penicillin Baby days and I’ll post an example below.
With most rock and punk vibes I have opted no click because I knew certain sections pushed or pulled and they were intentional. Trying to map it with a click would just suck all the “human” element out of those particular songs. One example would be tracking with Tennessee Scum no click but I definitely didn’t want a song to ever slow down as it was a high energy band. I made sure to be conscious of this so nothing slowed down when tracking and listening back to the takes.
With a more techy/math band like FutureDog I would prefer to have a click so I know everything is “landing” in time. However, I wouldn’t be going for a “machine” or “robot” type feel. It would just be used as a guide to know all the busy playing is landing together even when pushed or pulled. *Please excuse my contradictory example below as my philosophy has changed since we tracked those songs*
I could go through thousands of scenarios but the post would never end if I did that. If you’re in the studio, ideally you’re prepared to play any of the tunes with or without a click because most of the time that decision just isn’t yours. This is especially true if you’re hired to do one session and not a core member of the group.
Finally, there is a magical thing that happens when you play to a click and everything is locking in correctly. It disappears from your headphones. I truly believe this happens when your focus shifts to using it as a guide instead of using it to tell you “am I in time or not.” You should ultimately be comfortable with a click and be able to play to it without having to listen to it. I’m hoping that’s not too heady of a way to sign off but trust me, it makes sense when it happens. I’ll post the aforementioned examples below and feel free to e-mail me with questions any time at email@example.com
Playing in line with click as much as possible
No click with gradual pushing intentionally
No click trying to keep a very consistent tempo, there are small fluctuations but it “feels” human
No click with the idea of keeping a consistent tempo and picking up slightly in the second verse