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How to Use a Metronome

Have you ever found yourself asking someone how to use a metronome? Most guitar instructors seem to assume a student knows how a metronome works (me included!), but that is not the case. You know what happens when people assume...

I recently received an email recently saying that exact thing: isntructors tell you to use one, but they don't tell you how to use a metronome!

Let's get that covered here today.

What is a Metronome?

traditional metronome

A metronome is a mechanical or electronic device designed to give you a basic beat to follow. Metronomes maintain a consistent tempo (speed).

When you use it during practice or recording, the consistent beat will help you learn how to stay in time with the established tempo. If you've ever heard a band playing that wasn't in time with each other, the music tends to sound disjointed, like each musician is doing their own thing.

Metronomes have been around for a long time. Musicians needed a consistent way to practice orchestral music so that when they came together to perform they would all play at the same tempo. It was first patented in 1815 and Beethoven is noted as one of the first composers to note metronome settings on his compositions.

How To Use a Metronome

A metronome is a fairly simple device. You really only need to know three pieces of information to set it up before practicing.

  1. What is the time signature of the song
  2. What is the tempo
  3. What subdivision will you use

Tempo is measured in "beats per minute," or BPM. For most music, this is the only setting you need to worry about before practicing. Most metronomes will allow you to set the tempo as low as 40 BPM and up to 280 BPM. The lower the number, the slower the tempo of the song (or practice piece).

The time signature of a song tells you how many beats are in a measure and what the value of each beat is. Most popular music is in either 4/4 or 3/4 time. So to translate the 4/4 time signature, this means there are 4 beats in each measure, and each beat is a quarter note. The first beat of the measure is usually accented (stressed using a different tone) so you know you have started a new measure.

The subdivision determines how each beat pattern is broken down (see Metric Structure). Are you practicing to a straight beat (one click per beat) or something like triplet (three clicks per beat)? For example, if you are in 4/4 time, there are four beats in a measure and each beat is a quarter note. If you set the subdivision to one (1), the metronome will play four clicks for the measure. If you set the subdivision to 3 for triplets, there will be three clicks for each beat of the measure.

I guess some audible examples of how to use a metronome will be helpful here, so there is a link with recorded examples below so you can hear what each sounds like.

Good Methodology To Improve Your Timing

OK, I hear you - who cares how it works if I don't know how to use a metronome?!

If you are working on improving your speed, the best way to start is at a very slow tempo. Set the metronome at something like 60 BPM, 4/4 time and single subdivision. The goal for this first tempo setting is to be able to play whatever it is you are practicing as close to perfect as possible. Practice whatever you planned on, staying in time with the click of the metronome.

Once you can consistently play your material perfectly at that speed, it's time to increase the tempo. Bump the tempo up by 4-6 beats per minute and repeat. Continue this process until you have reached your speed goal. If you find the slow tempos to be too easy, set the metronome to a speed that feels just beyond your ability. You should be able to play most of your practice material without mistakes, but once you start "messing up," stick on that BPM until you are playing your riffs clean and perfect.

This is really good for developing your soloing chops, but it can also be very helpful for chord changes and improving your finger dexterity.

If you happen to be looking up some tabs for a song, sometimes you will find a note in the beginning of the score telling you what the tempo of the song is in the BPM format. When you know that, just set your metronome and play along. Or if you already know the chord progressions or have figured out the musical parts, simply play along with the song to practice (this is how we did it before the Internet!).

Here are some good general videos on how to use a metronome:

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Metronomes Make You Robotic?

There's an argument out there that says you shouldn't use a metronome because it will make you sound robotic. Like it will replace your natural sense of rhythm and make your playing sterile. I can certainly see how that argument might come up, but I don't necessarily agree that using a metronome would produce these results.

Humans are not known for being mechanical beings. Each and every one of us is unique and irreplaceable. Even the most technically practiced and precise guitar player will never play a song 100 percent identically to any other time they played it. We are constantly changing. We are influenced by our environment and by our internal feelings (both physical and emotional). Our bodies change daily. We have great days and days that could be better.

The point about using a metronome to practice is that it takes the place of a drummer to keep you in time. It trains you to pay attention to the beat and allows to to improve your consistency. If you play in a band or aspire to play in a band, your timing is key, and a metronome is an excellent tool to prepare you to stay with the beat. Our ears are tuned to prefer more synchronized playing between musicians - it's more pleasing and easier to hear.

When musicians don't play in time with each other (think about a recital of four year old children or an orchestra tuning up), it is chaotic and our minds have a difficult time deciphering the sound. It can be downright painful to listen to this! Training yourself on how to use a metronome to keep consistent time gives you the solid footing for performance. You can incorporate your own feel and groove to the music once you can maintain consistent timing. Consider it adding your personality to the music.

Here are the audio examples of how to use a metronome as well as a discussion about figuring out the tempo of a song. Let me know if you have any questions about how to use a metronome.


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