Improve Your Groove Part 2: 7 Metronome Tricks to Become a Groove Monster

What Time is It? Time for More Exercises
I covered 3 exercises in Part 1 of this two-part article, and now for Part 2 with four more exercises to improve your time-feel and groove.

At the end of this article is a YouTube video where I demonstrate these four techniques so you can see them in action. 

On to the exercises!

4. One, One and Donerating: Difficult
If you want to challenge yourself beyond the 4 On 4 Off exercise from Part 1 of this article, here's a way to expand on it using either an app like Time Guru, a drum machine or a sequencer.

I call this One, One and Done because we're going to set up our pattern so that you only hear beat 1 of bar 1, and beat 1 of bar 2 of a 4 bar phrase. That means you're going to have to keep track of 14 beats of silence yourself. No easy task.

If you're not using the app TimeGuru, skip to the next paragraph.

If you are using TimeGuru, set the app like I have to the right so that you have have four 1s up, the first two highlighted with the rhythmic value of a quarter note.The next two are grayed out and with the rhythmic value of a quarter note rest. Though the rhythmic value is set to quarter notes, you're actually going to count and feel a total of 4 beats per quarter note. Or, to think of it another way, four bars of 4/4 total.  Set the bpm to 28 which would mean the quarter notes you're feeling are at 112bpm (4 x 28 = 112).

If you're using a drum machine or sequencer, the notation looks like the lower line in the music below. The upper line labeled "Felt Subdivision" are the beats that you're feeling internally to keep track of the time.

Start your metronome/drum machine/sequencer and play. Do it over a tune you're learning, a chord and its inversions, the blues, whatever it is you want to work on. The idea, as usual, is to feel all those subdivisions so you feel the time accurately. The metronome is only giving you the downbeat of the first bar and the downbeat of the second bar so you're really going to have to feel the tempo and keep track of those subdivisions.

In the video I do this exercise to the guitar line from James Brown's "Give It Up or Turnit a Loose" from his live record Lover Power Peace. If you don't know this record for the sake of music everywhere, get it. You will not be disappointed. Below is the music for it if you're interested.

I recommend before you attempt this to have a metronome beat out 112bpm for you for at least 30 seconds or so to get the tempo in your head before attempting to play. It will save you the time of feeling around in the dark for the correct tempo.

5. Syncopation Nation Exerciserating: Difficult
This exercise ups the difficulty considerably by testing your ability to feel and play syncopated beats with no help from your metronome. This exercise requires either an app like TimeGuru, a drum machine or a sequencer.

If you're using a drum machine or sequencer, set up the audible clicks like I have notated here:

Unfortunately this exercise is not possible to set up on a normal metronome. Below and to the right I have a screenshot of how I set up TimeGuru. You could practice playing these syncopations yourself but you wouldn't be able to have the metronome click them out for you like I have here.

Syncopation exercise in TimeGuru
 The idea of this exercise is to feel the downbeat of bar 1 as well as the tempo strongly enough so that you can track all the sixteenth notes. You'll then be able to accurately play the fourth 16th note of beat 2 and the "and" or third 16th note of beat 4. The faster the tempo, the harder it gets to distinguish between these two subdivisions.

As you'll see to the right, I've set the tempo to 100bpm which is a comfortable groove, like a laid back funk feel. I've also put 4 quarter notes of silence at the end of the exercise which makes it much more difficult. If this is too much for you at first, either kill those last four beats or have them audible so you can get your bearings.

Like all these exercises, you might want to have a metronome beat out 100 bpm for you so you can feel and internalize the tempo first. Then, starting this exercise, have the downbeat of bar 1 audible so you can orient yourself a bit then move to silencing it.

The real exercise is to only play the syncopated notes. If you're a harmonic player like piano or guitar, play chords on those syncopations and if you're a melody instrument like a horn just play one note on them. This makes the exercise much more difficult as you'll really have to feel the time accurately if you're going to play the syncopations correctly.

And if you really want to up the difficulty, improvise over those last four quarter notes in order to distract yourself a little and make the challenge harder.

6. The Disorienter—rating: Difficult
 This exercise builds on exercise number one which has you playing with the metronome on 2 & 4, but now we're going to up the difficulty and have the metronome click only on 2 with a much faster tempo.

If you can do this exercise well and consistently then I would argue you have very good control over your internal time sense. Why is that? Because having the metronome only clicking on 2 will test your ability to feel 1 strongly. The exercise exploits our tendency to hear a strong sound in time as 1. This phenomenon is referred to by some as a "dominant sound source," and since the metronome is only clicking out one beat for you, it's going to be very tempting to shift your perception from hearing it as beat 2 over to beat 1.

Playing with the dominant sound source idea is something good drummers do all the time. They begin emphasizing beats other than 1, sometimes setting up a fill and hitting a crash cymbal on 4 or 2 and the listener's natural inclination is to hear and feel that cymbal crash as 1. That's why you get lost when listening to Afro-Cuban music—that style manipulates this phenomenon brilliantly.

Only beat 2 is sounding
If you're using a traditional metronome set the tempo to something like 55 bpm. Since we're only hearing 1 beat out of the 4 in a 4/4 measure, the real tempo we'll be playing at is 220 bpm (4 x 55 = 220). This is a pretty bright tempo and depending on your proficiency it may be too fast for you. If you need to, slow the tempo down but that will make the exercise easier. Remember, whatever you set your tempo to on a traditional metronome, multiply that number by 4 and that will give you the real tempo you'll be feeling.

If you're using an app like Tempo, you can set it like a traditional metronome, or set it to the real tempo, in this case 220 bpm and mute beats 1, 3 and 4 like I've done in the picture to the right.

Start the metronome and every time you hear the click, say "two." Now start subdividing the rest of the beats adding in the 1, 3 & 4 where they belong in the measure. Once you're comfortable, start playing.

This one takes some work, at least it did and honestly still does for me. It's very tempting to turn the time around and start hearing the click as the 1 of a new measure and sometimes I'll even shift the 2 over to 4.

You might try practicing scales at first playing 8th notes over this as a way to warm up to this exercise, but even that can be tricky. Really emphasize the 1 when you play this way. You'll probably want to emphasize the 2 but if you do it, more than likely soon you'll turn the beat around.

Work up to practicing fast songs using this exercise as your template and before long you'll be swinging like Tarzan.

7. The Song Form Exerciserating: Very Difficult
I saved the hardest for last—you're welcome.

You can expand on the 4 on 4 Off from Part 1 and the One, One and Done above and practice song forms with a little creativity. For this exercise you'll again use either an app like TimeGuru, a drum machine or a sequencer.

For an introduction to this idea, I'll be using the 12-bar blues form but you could do it with nearly any song form. Just like the One, One and Done  above, you're giving yourself a tempo for reference and then you're responsible for keeping track of a number of silent beats yourself.

If you're using TimeGuru, I'd recommend setting it like I have to the right, though you could make it easier or more difficult with a few tweaks. 

To the right you'll see there are 4 clicks of 16th notes, each of which you'll be feeling as beat 1 of bars 1, 2, 3 and 4 of a 12-bar Blues. To feel the time accurately, you'll subdivide that click into 4 beats which are the 4 quarter notes of each bar.

Next in the image to the right is a 1 followed by another 1. Here's where it gets really difficult to play over. That one quarter note click represents the downbeat of bar 5 and you're responsible for keeping track of the rhythm until the last click which is the downbeat of bar 9 (see image below). So each quarter note click encompasses 4 bars of music. This is why the tempo here is set to 7bpm. Since we're actually feeling each quarter note as 4 bars of 4/4 which is 16 beats, the real felt tempo is 112 (7 x 16 = 112) which is a pretty nice, moderate blues tempo to play on.

If we were to look at it in notation or you were going to program it into a drum machine or sequencer, it would look like this:

Start your exercise and just play a 12-bar blues over this pattern and see if you line up your down beat of bars 1 2 3 4 5 and 9 of the form. Don't be surprised if you fail miserably at first. You wouldn't need to do an exercise like this if you had perfect time already. That's why we're practicing.

At the request of user 13thAMG on YouTube, I have transcribed and tabbed the blues progression I play on the video. It is included below:

This exercise is very, very hard and will take work for you to get right. To increase your accuracy, like the other exercises that require you to keep track of long periods of silent beats, I'd recommend practicing first at the real tempo with the metronome clicking all beats for you in order to internalize it and get it under your fingers. It also couldn't hurt to just sit with this exercise counting out loud or tapping the beats before you even get your instrument in your hands. Adding the element of having to play and improvise over this greatly increases the difficulty of the exercise but also gets to the heart of why you're doing it—to make your time better.

Hope you enjoyed this one, the YouTube video is below and as always comments and questions are welcome.

Enlarge the Circle: How One Thing Leads to Another

A few months back, a drummer friend and I were talking about how it feels like we're constantly hustling. Always on the lookout for the next money gig, it can become easy to get tunnel vision and forget why we started playing music in the first place, before it became a way to make a living.

We decided it was time to stop complaining and get together just to play free. No tunes, no gig, no recording, no plan, just show up and blow. We called up a bass player who was like-minded and scheduled some time.

On our inaugural session, we showed up to the drummer's rehearsal space only to find out that one of the guys he shares it with was using it. While standing in the hallway figuring out what we were going to do, a producer my friend knows who rents space in the same building came through. He very generously offered to let us use his rehearsal room.

"Great!" I thought.

But he also wanted to play us some tracks of a singer he was producing and writing with.

"Not great!" I thought.

The truth is I just wanted to stick to the original plan, to play and then get out of there. The angel on my shoulder though reminded me he was being generous by letting us use his space. What the hell, I decided to humor him for a little and listen to those tracks.

It turned out the singer he was working with sounded fantastic and the songs had real promise. He asked us if we were interested in backing her up for some gigs. We talked it over and thought sure, why not?

Our first rehearsal with her went really well. In addition to the three of us original guys, the producer brought in a keyboard player who is a producer in his own right. A very nice guy and good player who I ended up hitting it off with.

Woody Allen
Three weeks later, the keyboard player/producer called me out of the blue asking if I'd like to do some recording work. Paid recording work.

This reminds me of a saying attributed to Woody Allen: 80% of success is showing up.

What started as a desire to play creatively with no thought of money and no plan ended up only a few weeks later netting me some really great paid recording work.

Talking about it later with my drummer friend, I was saying that all this came about because contrary to my initial impulses which were to just get the hell out of there, I was open to playing with and meeting new people—I jokingly referred to it as "enlarging the circle."

Though this seems like a no-brainer, I realized that like me, many musicians I know tend to stick with the same few people they know and play with, resistant to new situations.

I don't have a tremendous amount of wisdom to drop here other than the obvious. Had we just shown up and played free, that would have been completely satisfying in and of itself. However the fact that we were able to do that and I was able to get some great extra work out of it is a testament to keeping your mind open to new situations and new people.

Enlarge the circle.

The Lady is Right

A reminder to keep your head on straight.

"Don't love yourself in art, love the art within you."
-- Stella Adler