When I first made the transition from bartender to sideman-for-hire, there were so many things that were brand-new to me.
There were dozens of new vocab words, unspoken rules, counterintuitive best practices, and common experiences I had yet to share.
One of those was the realization that all the badasses now surrounding me were using their metronomes in ways I’d never heard of, and getting vastly more out of them as a result.
Today we’re leaning into the same exercise as yesterday, but I want to share some of these less-than-obvious uses of the click. Let’s start with the two obvious ones.
Spend a little time interacting with musicians on the internet and you’re bound to come across someone saying that metronomes should really only be used to mark the tempo of a song, that they were never designed to be played or practiced along with.
In a sense, this is true––the original purpose of a metronome was simply to mark down tempi (the plural of tempo isn’t tempos). And if you’re strictly a classical musician, maybe this is still true. Classical music is meant to “breathe,” with subtle variations in the tempo to best express the composition.
But I’ll let you in on a little secret:
Non-classical professional musicians are generally disdainful of the rhythmic integrity of most classical players.
We have a derogatory term for someone who plays only classical music, and meekly at that: a tee-tah.
Yes, a metronome is a great tool for conveying tempo.
Yes, you should use it for that.
But anyone who tells you that a metronome wasn’t meant to be played or practiced along with shouldn’t be trusted. They’re either a tee-tah or they’re trying to justify their own laziness.
The second obvious use of the metronome is to measure your progress. This is an especially popular one for those of us who are fans of metal, prog, bebop, and other technically demanding art forms.
As I mentioned on Day Zero, there’s nothing inherently wrong with trying to bump up your top speed on some lick, phrase, or song. But there are dangers lurking there.
People who view the metronome like teenaged drivers view the speedometer frequently suffer from such ailments as:
- failure to groove
- mediocre feel, and
- lack of paying work
I’m tempted to list an uneventful love life too, but I’ll pull up just shy of that.
The good news is this: if you master some of these other uses of the metronome, you can pursue speed all you like.
I wish I could say that this was also an obvious use of the metronome, but I’m sad to say that it doesn’t seem to have occurred to many guitarists.
Let me be perfectly clear:
Working on your technique without using a metronome is like expecting to grow huge muscles from the sheer weight of all the McDonald’s you’ve lifted up to your face: counterproductive in the extreme.
This is doubly true for a number of techniques that tend to “fall down the stairs” (that is, to unintentionally pick up speed as you go) like hammer ons, tapping, economy picking, & sweep picking.
The reason you practice your technique isn’t to be able to play something faster and faster and faster, it’s to be able to faithfully articulate something at any tempo.
Performing: Tempo, Groove, Arbitration, Recording
Before in-ear monitors were within reach of working bands, it used to be that the drummer would run a click in one ear, either just to count everyone in or throughout the song to keep it from running away.
These days it’s not nearly so cost prohibitive to put the whole band on in-ears, so more and more acts are running a click for everyone. This really helps the overall groove.
It used to be that if the singer was way out ahead of the beat, the rhythm section would have to willfully ignore her and concentrate on each other to avoid speeding up to meet her (and if they sped up too, she’d likely continue being out ahead of the beat, further ratcheting up the tempo). Now we just defer to the click.
It’s also useful in arbitrating potential arguments––THIS is the tempo. Same as it was last time we played it. We’re not playing it any slower than we did before, it just feels that way because you’re rushing.
And of course, very little gets recorded these days without the click––it makes overdubs, fixing flubs, multiple takes, and multi tracking sooooooo much easier.
Playing With Samples or Tracks
While the use of samples & tracks can easily be overdone, no one whose opinions matter will judge you for not touring with a keyboardist or horn section for the two tunes in your set that require them.
If it’s ok for Van Halen, I think it’s ok for you too.
Of course, in order to pull it off you need to be damned close to the tempo of the sample or tracks, and this means using a metronome click in your in-ears (or at the very least, in the drummer’s).
But none of these things are the things I was referring to when I said that the musical badasses I’d recently surrounded myself with had different and better ways of using a metronome.
Like a bad accent on a would-be spy, my feel was the most glaring thing that tipped my hand as an outsider to these proper musicians.
Not only did I not know, I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
Feel is such a slippery term, both because it’s difficult to verbalize and because it means slightly different things to different people.
I’d heard the word before (maybe you have too), used to describe everything from someone’s vibrato to the conviction with which they played.
But that’s not what pros mean by feel at all. There are three things that fall under our definition of feel.
1. Feel – Where you perceive and place your notes in relation to the beat––ahead, behind, or right on top of the beat.
If this is the metronome click…
…do you place your notes ahead of the beat:
behind the beat:
or directly on top of the beat:
2. Feel – What your divisions sound like. Are your eighth notes perfectly even?
Or are they ever-so-slightly (and charmingly) lopsided?
Are your triplets uniform and evenly divided across the beat?
Or do you put a little extra stank into the first note in a way that’s personal and just… you?
3. Feel – The interaction of those two things, both within your own playing and as part of the ensemble.
When Questlove plays drums, his hi hats and kick are right up on top of the beat, almost leaning out ahead of it.
But his snare drum is comparatively laid-back, deep in the pocket of 2 & 4.
Meanwhile, Pino Palladino plays bass so far behind the beat he’s almost late.
The tension, the push-pull between it all, creates something that feels like a million bucks.
Understand that what we’re talking about here is over-the-top, utterly first class, best-in-the-world shit.
Now is not the time for you to worry about creating feel that’s on par with two of the working-est musicians on the planet.
At the same time, it’s waaaaaaaay past due for you to be aware of this dimension of music, and to start working on getting your own feel together.
That’s why we’re spending so much time doing the Bury The Click exercise.
You can’t bullshit Bury The Click.
Either you made the click disappear or you didn’t.
I’m asking you to spend so much time on it precisely because it’s so important––and because it’s one of two exercises that changed my musical life (and by extension, the rest of my life).
Building A Sense Of Time
The last use of the click I want to hip you to today is strengthening your inner clock.
It might seem like any practicing you do along with a click is going to improve your time. But the sad reality is that that’s only true up to a point––and that point is still a long ways off from badassery.
No amount of riding a bike with training wheels will make you proficient at riding on two wheels.
The element of randomness introduced by lifting actual weights through the air produces greater strength gains than those complicated machines at the gym ever will.
Badasses sound great with or without a click, and the only reliable way to get the latter is to practice knocking the legs out from under your table, one by one.
- When a metronome clicking on all four beats stops being challenging, you take half of those clicks away.
- When that gets easy, you put the clicks on the other two beats.
- When that’s no problem, you take it down to one click per measure.
- Then you move that click around to the other three beats.
- Then you slow it down.
- And then you slow it down some more.
Your sense of time gets stronger in response to ever-increasing difficulty.
A click on every beat doesn’t give you enough chance to fuck up. You have to get it a little wrong, hundreds and thousands of times, and make subtle corrections.
When it gets easy, you make it harder.
Which is exactly what we’re going to do.
Nice work! Next we’ll make fun of Benedict Cumberbatch’s piano playing and talk about eighth notes.