“A man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life.”
― Charles Darwin
Did you know that tracking time is among the most important breakthroughs that allowed our species to become dominant in our planet?
Imagine what it would be like if you could not tell the hours, days, months, years...
Keeping record of time is very important in any endeavour, and music is no exception.
In this lesson, I'll show you why you need to get a metronome ASAP, including:
What a metronome is.
How they work.
How to use it to skyrocket your progress.
Why you need a metronome, in 10 seconds
You need a metronome to play just about anything. A band cannot play coordinated if they don't have any reference to adhere to, and it's here when the rhythm comes into play. A good musician cannot have a poor pace, or else he/she will be unable to play in a band, which would render the musician pretty much useless.
Because you are going to play according to a certain rhythm, you need to get used to practicing to a rhythm as well.
Of course, when we are practicing we don't expect a drummer with us to keep pace, although that would be cool.
You wanted to know in a nutshell why it's so important to play with a metronome? That is why.
What? Did it take you longer than 10 seconds? Time is relative, according to Einstein.
What is a metronome?
A metronome is a device that delivers a certain pattern of rhythm. Normal metronomes can be configured at a specific BPM (beats per minute), which is the basis of their usefulness.
What the BPM means is that the metronome will "beep", or make just about any other sound, at a specific frequency.
60 BPM means 60 beats per minute, which in turn means 1 beat per second (60 seconds in a minute, right?).
120 BPM means 120 beats per minute, which in turn means 2 beats per second.
More complex metronomes will have the additional function of selecting the number of beats per bar. These will have a range of time signatures you can select (usually 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, or 5/4). The metronome will typically beep with a distinctive sound on the first beat of the bar, and with a different sound for the rest of the beats.
Types of metronomes
You can find metronomes of two kinds:
Both of these kinds have advantages and disadvantages over the other. Otherwise there would be no reason for the two kinds to exist, so that's what we are going to learn now.
No, there are no steam-powered metronomes as far as I know. They would be cool AF, though.
A mechanical metronome works like an old-fashioned mechanical clock. In fact, you can think of a mechanical metronome as a clock in which you can change the duration of the "second".
This is a pretty standard mechanical metronome. Nothing fancy, but does what it is intended to do.
On the right, you can see the right side of the metronome, where you can see the bar indicator (top) and the winder (bottom). If you look closely, this metronome can be set up either for a 2, 3, 4, or 6 beat bar, which means that it will tick with a distinct sound on the first beat of each bar. You can also set it to "0", which means it will tick with the same sound each beat.
Maybe your grandma had one of those antique pendulum clocks that went tick-tack ad infinitum and seemed to come alive at night, therefore providing material for countless horror movies. These clocks have to be wound up to "charge them", and so happens with mechanical metronomes as well.
The way they work is very simple. The vertical bar pivots around the bottom from left to right, and you can slide the small weight up and down over it. The scale on the back contains the BPMs, and shows where the top side of the weight must be placed on the bar. You have to move the weight to align its top side with the scale.
In the following photo, the weight is set up for a BPM of 120:
When you release it, the pendulum will start oscillating. Each time the metronome "ticks" would be the same concept as when the clock ticks, with the exception that the clock is designed to tick once a second, which is why you can use it to track time, duh!
The range of BPMs on a mechanical metronome roughly fall between 40 and 200 BPM, so you have a wide range to use in any style of music.
They don't require batteries, as you "charge" them by winding them up. It might not seem like a big deal, but believe me, it is quite a nuisance to run out of batteries and find out you don't have spare ones. A full charge will be enough for many minutes.
They look vintage and cool. Can't beat that.
Because they are mechanical devices, they will most likely not be as accurate as electrical ones, which often have a quartz oscillator. This might not be perceptible when you are using it, but if you were to record separately with a mechanical metronome, when you mix it with other recordings done with other references, it will most likely be off.
Because of the pendulum movement, they require to be on top of a fairly level surface or else the beats will not be uniform.
The range of BPMs might be large, but you cannot select anyone but a discrete number. Just take a look at the scale and you'll see that, for example, you cannot select 135 BPMs.
You have to wind them up, duh. Some people do not like having to do this. Yes, each generation gets increasingly lazy.
They tend to be more limited in their functionality, especially in the bar configurations (mine can only have a 2, 3, 4, or 6 bar).
They are usually pretty big and fragile.
An electrical metronome works just like a modern watch. They run on batteries rather than requiring winding up, and they have a speaker that emits a ticking sound.
This one is a simple metronome that runs on a 9V battery. A simple dial sets the device off when taking it counter-clockwise, and if you rotate it clockwise you can get the BPM you want by moving the black indicator line on top of the scale. On its right side, there is a small switch that activates/deactivates the ticking sound; the metronome already flashes a red led on the top on each beat. I never used it without the the sound, and I don't know why the manufacturer chose to include that feature, but there it is.
This one does not have any bar configuration capability.
The exact way you set them depends on the metronome itself. Usually you will have metronomes that have a rotating dial with a scale on it (like mine), or you will have a screen that shows you the selected BPM.
On the following photo, I've set my metronome to 88 BPM.
Their range of BPM are similar to mechanical ones, although these can have a higher top value.
Very accurate. You won't have any trouble here.
They have typically long working periods on a fresh battery
They are usually pretty small, easy to handle, and sturdier than mechanical ones.
They work just fine anywhere you lay them, in any angle.
Many of them can be configured to any BPM within their range, unlike the limited values that a mechanical metronome can be set to. Mine technically can be set to between any of the scale marks, but you won't have a reading of the actual number of the BPM, so it's not recommended.
Some powerful ones (like this one) can set up to just about any time signature you want for the bar. Yes, maybe even a "Time-Reverse Time Signature" like 69/42. Usually not needed, but great to have if you want that extra capability.
Depending on the design of the metronome, you might get inaccuracies in the BPM when the battery starts getting low.
You can run out of battery suddenly. It's a nuisance. I know. Yes. I recommend using rechargeable batteries.
Despite being very accurate, it always comes down to how the metronome works. If it has an analogue dial (like mine), you have to read it correctly or else it won't be accurate. To solve this, there are some which have digital displays and give you a reading of the exact BPM.
Not fit for an alpha musician. Don't blame me, nature works that way. Alpha musicians go old-school always.
As you can probably tell by now, I'm a hard-core mechanical metronome fan.
Players who use electrical metronomes are known to be pussies, pampered, and beta.
One of the last two statements is false.
The two types of metronomes we've just seen are, of course, referred to stand-alone devices. Yes, in this day and age you can either get an app for your smartphone that works as a metronome, or you can use software on your computer (this last part is used when recording, BTW).
Although these last two kinds would technically classify as electric metronomes, they are still somewhat different, and that is why I recommend you get yourself a stand-alone metronome, which tend to be cheap.
If you are eager to get yourself one, here are a couple of suggestions:
Any of these will be fine, and as of right now, they are all selling for less than $20.
You can always buy a used one if you can find on eBay, Craigslist, or just about anywhere.
There's no need to overspend on this, so if you are low on bills, you can go cheap guilt-free.
How to use a metronome for practice
I said at the beginning of this article that in order to play to a rhythm you need to practice to a rhythm, remember?
Right now, we'll see how to do this.
We can distinguish two kinds of uses:
This is mostly the case when you are practicing either a full song or a part of one.
It's pretty straightforward: just set the adequate BPM and fire it up!
Sometimes you will use a fixed beat when playing some exercises, like chord changes, but in my experience this is not usually the case, in favor of practicing songs.
When practicing new skills it's often needed to start playing at a very slow speed. Then, as you start gaining more experience and confidence, you can gradually bring the speed up to push yourself out of your comfort zone.
To do this, it's a good idea to play in runs with small, increments in the BPM.
Although this approach is key and often requires some fine tuning, I'll give you a basic ballpark idea of how it works, starting at a BPM where you can play the exercise without screwing up any note:
Play it a couple of times; four, five, six, or more times, until you start getting the hang of it.
Increase the BPMs slightly (around 5 BPMs are OK).
Repeat until you can't play it any faster. This would be your actual maximum speed.
Decrease the BPM slightly (once again, 5 BPMs are OK).
Play it a couple of times. This time it should feel easier than when you were climbing the BPMs.
Repeat until you get to the starting speed.
This kind of approach is called Ladder.
I first came to learn about this from physical exercise. Trainers would usually make you exercise with sets of ascending number of repetitions, until you reach the point in which you cannot perform any more repetitions, and then come back down.
This method is very useful for building muscle, but if applied to guitar playing, it becomes very useful to build up our skill with the instrument.
What do you think would happen if you were to practice without a metronome?
If you answered "nothing", then you are off! Sign your name at the door as you leave.
This is when our psychology tricks us for the worse: if you get used to practicing without metronome, you won't really notice much at that moment.
Here's my dare for you: play something and record it with your phone (or whatever it is that you have close at hand), and then listen to it. Unless you are a freak of nature, 99% of the times you'll listen that your timing is off. You'll notice that some times you play early, and other late.
What happened here?
Well, our brain has limited capacity to concentrate. When you are performing a complex task that requires a considerable amount of concentration, your brain start to let other things slip by to make up for the required attention.
This is what's referred to in Psychology as Selective Attention.
What? Don't you believe me? Watch this video right now and see for yourself.
Back to our guitar, this means that if you are deeply focused on your finger movements, your perception of time starts to dwindle, and that in turn makes you play off beat.
I don't think there's any need to point out that if you consistently learn to play off beat, even if it's not consciously, you'll have a harder time playing to a rhythm with a band. Don't do it, please!
Trust me, use a metronome to keep timing for you so that you focus on what you really need to: developing your skill.
How to use a metronome for recording
When it comes to printing the music on your head into 0's and 1's on your computer (or going old-school with magnetic tape), there are a couple of considerations in order.
Having a fixed reference is needed, and it has to be the same for every musician recording into it. There's just no other way to do it.
Usually a band that records in a studio might record the rhythm first. If the drummer records first, then every other musican will then record with that recording as a reference, which in turn means that you are still indirectly using the same reference.
Now, let's say you are at home, without any fancy gear, and you are going to record a song with your Internet friend on the other side of the globe (yes, globe, the Earth is not flat). You cannot really get together to record at the same time, and this is a good moment to record separately with an equal reference.
Remember when I said that mechanical metronomes are not very accurate? Here's when it comes into play. The risk is much higher of inaccuracies between two mechanical metronomes than with two electric ones. If you are going to play a song at 70 BPM, then using an electric metronome at that speed will yield the best results for all musicians involved.
It would be awful if you were to mix the tracks and find out that one of the tracks sways off beat...
If you are using any DAW software, you can always get a metronome reference generated by the program itself, which is easy and you can make sure that every other musician will get the reference, so it's a win.
In conclusion, having a metronome reference while recording will ensure that all recordings will be coordinated even if they are recorded separately. Sweet!
I hope that by now you understand why it is so important to have a metronome and use it regularly. Note that when I say "regularly", I mean always.
Don't forget that it's always better to have a cheap metronome than no metronome at all, and you don't have to spend a lot of your hard-earned money to get a decent piece of metronome gear.
Oh, and if you want to be a true musician, get a mechanical one!