The metronome is an essential but often overlooked tool for practicing and improving your time feel. Rhythm is arguably the most important component of music so it’s important to have a strong understanding of it.
Some of you may have already attempted to use a metronome in your practice. Good! However, if you’re relatively new to using it, it’s almost certain that you’ve experienced a lot of error and frustration in attempting to play along to the click. Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Many students give up at this point and never use it again, exclaiming “I can play with perfect time without it, why do I need to use it?” The difficult truth is that you just suck at playing in time with the metronome, and avoiding it isn’t going to improve your time at all.
Like with all difficult tasks in life, it’s important we break things down into more manageable segments so that we can start to make even the smallest improvements. What is the simplest way to use a metronome? Don’t start with scales, or arpeggios, or anything else that’s fancy. I get my students to start with only one note and to play exactly at the same time with the click, IE quarter notes. Most people will be able to lock in with the metronome after a few tries, sometimes drifting away in time and then quite often fluctuating back into time. The important part is to lock in so tight that the metronome click “disappears” into the note you’re playing. If quarter notes are too difficult, try half notes or even whole notes.
Once you get used to this, your internal time keeping (IE, without the metronome) will vastly improve. Now it’s time to start to introduce different subdivisions of the beat. The most logical step after quarter notes would be eighth notes. Then eighth note triplets, then sixteenth notes. Now you’ve covered the most common subdivisions you will encounter in music. Always start slow (about 60bpm) and increase in small increments. Remember, the goal is precision and accuracy, not speed.
Now that you have the basic subdivision, what can you do? Well, having strong fundamentals will open many doors for you. The next step I recommend is to get the classic book “Syncopation for the Modern Drummer” by Ted Reed. It’s a book that contains most of the possible permutations of rhythmic figures based around quarter, eighth, triplet, and sixteenth notes. Again, start slow and play each figure perfectly with the metronome. If you can get through the whole book, you will be prepared for so many different musical situations.
What to do after the Ted Reed book becomes easy for you? Now we can start to think about interpreting the metronome clicks on different parts of the meter. One common way to do this is to play the metronome at half the speed you are intending to play and interpret the clicks on beats 2 and 4. This mimics a snare drum which is often placed on beats 2 and 4 in most popular forms of music today. Some other options for the placement of the click include: only on beat 4, only on the “+” of beat 4, only on the off beats (kind of like a reggae rhythm guitar), only on beat 1, etc.
One thing to remind yourself in the journey to improve your time, is that it’s not about becoming as accurate as a metronome. Music and rhythm can breathe and flex and be imperfect yet beautiful at the same time. That’s the end goal, to create beautiful music. Remember to keep some of that “human” element and that even if you mess up once in a while, it’s what makes music all the more interesting!