Improve Your Groove: 7 Metronome Tricks to Become a Groove Monster Part 1

What Time is It? Time for Humiliation
A few years ago I did a recording with a notoriously obsessive arranger/producer that could have gone a little smoother.

(If you're looking for Part 2 of this series, click here.)

I had a really long day and didn't have a lot of time to prepare for the recording but I had done what I thought of as my homework and felt good about the upcoming session.

The job was to record some acoustic guitar parts and also some electric, syncopated funk with a lot of kicks and a few odd-meter sections. Sounds like a lot of fun, right?

I got to the studio, set up and realized that I was recording to a click which I'm all for, but there were no other instruments recorded. It was just me and the dry click. No reference point, no harmony to work off of, no drummer to lock with. Nothing.

I was not psyched about this.

Not only were there no musicians or even a prerecord track for me to play with, there was just that stark metronome clicking without even a different pitch to mark the 1 of each new bar. I knew I was going to be spending my time counting and not really playing.

I did my best, played the tune down and after a couple takes thought I had done a good job even though they were tough circumstances. But the worst part of the session came when I got into the control room to hear my work.

There was Mr. arranger/producer and the recording engineer staring at the computer screen with my guitar track laid across a grid. I could see—they didn't have to tell me,  though they did—that I was not perfectly lined up with the click at all times. This was humiliating to say the least. I think of myself as having good time, but here was proof I didn't staring me in the face. I offered to re-record the part but they waved me away while the engineer poked and tugged my guitar parts in line with the click using ProTools. They wanted it perfect and I didn't deliver that. I still remember that sinking feeling like it was yesterday.

I swore that I would do everything I could to never let this embarrassment happen again.

What Time is It? Time for Redemption
There are tons of creative ways to use a metronome beyond just having it click out quarter notes for you. My interest began with how to use a metronome to test myself and enable me to develop a better internal time feel. I figured if you could do ear training for harmony and melody you could certainly do it for time.

Here are 7 exercises in two parts that I've created or adapted from tradition to do just that. With some thought along these lines you could come up with lots more. For each exercise I have a screen shot from one of my three favorite metronome apps, Tempo, DrBettote TC and Time Guru. A few of the exercises require an app like Time Guru, a drum machine or sequencer like Apple's GarageBand. There are lots of free or extremely cheap options for both Macs and PCs as well as the iPhone and Android phones for sequencers and drum machines. Please feel free to suggest them in comments if you have a favorite to help other players out.

At the end of this article is a YouTube video with me demonstrating these three exercises. Part 2 of this article and a new video will be posted next week.

On to the exercises!

1. The Swing 2 & 4 -- rating: easy
While I was in school, a number of  teachers advised me to work with a metronome hearing the click as 2 & 4 of a 4/4 measure to develop my swing feel. This idea was foreign to me at the time but now I can't imagine practicing jazz or any kind of music that swings without it. Here's what the notation looks like:

If you've never practiced with a metronome clicking out off-beats like 2 & 4, you will most likely hear the clicks as one of the strong beats like 1 & 3 or even as 1 2 3 4 of a slower tempo. You're going to teach yourself how not to do that.

100bpm with only 2 & 4 sounding
Pick a comfortable tempo to start like 100bpm. If you're using a traditional metronome set the tempo to 50bpm because you're only going to be hearing 2 out of the 4 beats in a 4/4 bar (beats 2 and 4). However, if you're using an app like Tempo, you can set the tempo to 100bpm and just have beats 1 and 3 be silent.

Start the metronome. Your internal clock will most likely hear that click as 1 & 3 or maybe even a slow 1 2 3 4. To start programming yourself, every time the click happens, say out loud "two." Keep doing that for a bit until you've erased the urge to hear it any other way. Next, when a beat comes up say your normal "two" and the next click say out loud "four." Keep doing that, back and forth again until you're comfortable. Finally when you're ready, fill in the silent quarter note with an out-loud "three," the next click as "four" and the next silent space (in time!) as a strong "one." If it feels weird to you, and it probably will, just keep doing this for a bit until you're ready for the next step.

Now it's time to play something you know with this exercise. Make it something simple and comfortable, you want to give yourself a chance to internalize this time feel. It doesn't have to be a song, it could be just playing scales, but do it. Practicing with the metronome on 2 & 4 will greatly increase your time accuracy and especially your feel for swing.

2. The Slow Jam -- rating: moderate to hard
DrBetotteTC set to 20bpm
This exercise was suggested to me by Ben Monder. Like most of the exercises in this post, this one will teach you to subdivide beats internally allowing you to feel time and tempos accurately. This exercise will also develop your patience.

If you don't have a metronome that will click at extremely slow tempos like 40bpm and below, try this free one called Metronome for Mac. I'm sure there's a PC equivalent.

Set your metronome to 20bpm. That's one click every 3 seconds for those decent at math. Now play a scale, any scale you like, one note per click. This is very difficult to do at such slow tempos. If you'd like to practice chords, play a chord in all its inversions up the neck, again one chord per click.

My guess is you're going to be in the dark when you first try this exercise so how can you get good at it? Listen to the click, now try to subdivide either in your head or by tapping with your hand 4 beats per click. In other words, if we're treating each click as a quarter note, you're feeling or tapping out sixteenth notes. The notation looks like this:

Now try to play the scale including the 16th note subdivisions so you'll play 4 notes per click. Once you're comfortable doing that, go back to playing only one note per click but beat out those sixteenths in your head or say them out loud if it helps. Do this for 10 minutes as a warm up exercise playing a scale you may not be as familiar with or chord inversions you're not adept at. This way you're learning not only the new scale or inversions but you're learning to accurately subdivide as well.

3. The 4 On 4 Off -- rating: moderate to fun
A great way to test and practice your time accuracy is to freely improvise while using an app like Time Guru, (for a review of Time Guru, click here), a sequencer or drum machine to beat out time for you for 4 beats and then be silent for 4 beats.

You can think of the exercise as improvising over a two bar phrase in 4/4. The test is, do you nail the downbeat of the first bar after improvising over silence for 4 beats?

If you're using a drum machine or sequencer, only have it beat out the 4 quarter notes of bar 1 with a rim click or something similar, not a full blown drum pattern. This is because you want to train yourself to feel the subdivisions yourself, not have the drum machine provide them for you.

Above and to the right is a screenshot of how I've set up this exercise in Time Guru. I've got the random mute slider set to 0% so that no clicks are randomly dropped out, and the first 4 beats of my phrase are audible (indicated by the highlighted "4" and quarter note below it) while the next 4 beats are always silent (indicated by the grayed out "4" and quarter note rest sign under it). The notation would look like this:

Note that the highlighted number 4's beats (bar 1) will always sound while the grayed out 4's beats (bar 2) will always be silent, but if I slid the "Random mute" slider to 20%, then a random 20% of the highlighted four beats would be muted, adding another layer of complexity on to the exercise.

Start your drum machine, sequencer or Time Guru and begin improvising over the four quarter note clicks. Don't stop improvising during the following silent four beats unless it's a normal break in your phrasing. Do you nail the downbeat when the clicks come back in? If you don't, you're not accurately tracking the time while there's silence. Try simplifying your lines or try comping a familiar song form like the blues for this exercise. If it's difficult, the more familiar elements you can add to it will give you more security when playing over silence.

There's Always More
I'll have the the second part of this exercise up with an accompanying video in a week. Hope you enjoyed these tips. Below is a YouTube video where I demonstrate these three exercises if you had trouble understanding any of them.

For Part 2 of this series, click here.