Years ago teaching at Musicians Institute, at the end of a quarter I would give “one on one” tests. Students would sign up with a teacher and we would check their progress. I recall a certain test I was giving, students had to perform a funk/blues rhythm. I’ll never forget one student. I had my metronome in the room, set at the appropriate tempo. I asked the student to set his volume so he could hear the metronome, then go ahead and play when he was ready.
He set his level, then started, but he could not stay in time with the metronome. This student stopped and told me my metronome was slowing down! I said that I didn’t think that was possible. I started the metronome and I played the chart along with the metronome perfectly, it was as steady as a clock.
He tried again but stopped and complained that there really was something wrong with my metronome. As I recall, I failed him, and he left the room very frustrated and angry with me. I think he actually thought there was a problem with my metronome.
One thing I am sure about is, that student practiced with a metronome about as much as he did with a garden gnome. The moral is, don’t be that guy. If you can’t keep solid time with a click it’s a huge problem! When I play with an amateur player, “time” is the first thing I notice. If the other player, guitarist, bassist, drummer, whoever, doesn’t have solid time, I just want to unplug and get out of there. If your timing isn’t right it’s like being out of tune, it’s painful listen to. An untrained ear will notice too. Maybe they can’t put a finger on what’s wrong, but they know something’s wrong.
Playing to a drum machine, computer or online metronome is great, but nothing replaces a good hand-held metronome. In the 80′s I bought the Super Mini Taktell, that’s the one my gnome has in the picture. When I graduated to digital I bought a $19 Seiko that you could put on a keychain. It was about the size of a thick credit card, it had no volume control and it beeped so loud I would use a pillow over it to attenuate the volume. But it was great! I kept it in my guitar case. Now, I have a Boss DB-30. It’s also small and very handy. One of the features I like about the DB-30 is when it’s stopped, I can tap in a tempo and it’ll display the speed I tapped. Btw, if you have a smart phone maybe a metronome app could replace a hand held. But, I’m old fashioned and my iPhone battery wears down quickly and I like to practice for extended periods of time. I just downloaded three metronomes for my iPhone, stay posted I’ll try ‘em for a while and let you know.
Most pro drummers use a metronome at rehearsals and gigs to check tempos. When I played with my old friend Gary Hoey for a Warner Bros. showcase, Doane Perry was the drummer (a great drummer)! Not sure how it worked but Doane had a digital display attached to his drums that checked and displayed the tempo he was playing. As I recall he usually played the choruses a click or so faster than the verses. I thought that was very cool because most of the time in the studio I had always played to a steady click.
If you asked me right now, without a metronome to tap 100, 120, 140 or 160 BPM, within a few numbers I can do it. Most pros can do this, it’s like ear training. You visualize a song that’s at the named tempo and voila, tap at that speed. It’s not rocket science and it’s a handy skill, something good to practice. But if I drink coffee I’ll start songs a bit fast. If I drink beer I’ll start them a bit slow. Without a metronome you can’t really know exactly what the tempo is.
In a recent interview with Herman Li from Dragonforce, I told him, the first time I heard his song “Fire and Flames” I grabbed my metronome to verify the tempo. I tapped along with the song, it was about 200 BPM. Because I’ve used metronomes I associate 200 BPM with certain riffs and songs, so I know how fast that is. For me 16th notes at 200 is fast! Just picking an open string at 200 is hard. Paul Gilbert kills me! In the 90s we did a book together for Hal Leonard along with Steve Trovato and Nick Nolan, it was called Master Tracks. In Paul’s segment he did a string skipping solo at 200 BPM. I couldn’t believe it! My fast segment was 170 BPM or so.
A tempo is almost like a key. It’s great to know what riffs or licks you can play at certain tempos. If someone says “E minor” I visualize all kinds of things to play. If they say 140-160 BPM, I visualize licks and riffs at that tempo. At 100-120 BPM I visualize a different set of licks.
Metronomes are great for learning tempos but they are a measuring device too. If you can do a lick at 160 this week. Then you practice it, if you can do it at 162 next week you know you are making progress. A few years ago I had a ski accident. I overshot the landing of a jump and landed on my head. (That’s what I’m told anyway). I woke up in a ski patrol toboggan and got an ambulance ride to the hospital. I had to cancel a trip to the Dallas Guitar Show the following week because I couldn’t play. But day after day, week after week I tracked my brain’s healing by watching my ability to increase the speed while playing along with a metronome! A doc friend told me this was a perfect way to track my brain’s healing. That’s since I learned to play with one in the first place.
Practicing rhythms and leads with a metronome improves your time. I have a drummer friend who used to set his metronome and have it run all day in his pocket, periodically changing the tempos. He told me he believes this helped him develop his rock-solid time. He also told me he would get weird looks when someone at a grocery store would pass him and hear the steady beep coming from his general direction!
Playing with a metronome or click is something every player should be at ease with. It will help your time, and you don’t want to be like that guy who thinks the metronome is changing speed.