How to make the metronome your new best friend.
Before my first experience recording in a studio, I thought I could play well enough to launch a career as a session musician. I had practiced for years, gigged plenty, had a bag full of riffs and solo ideas, and could dial in a decent tone. Forgive me. I was a stupid kid. Within seconds of the first take it was apparent that I was going to stink up the session, because the relentless click track reminded me with every clanking quarter note that I sucked.
The problem was that I didn't really know how to be a good musician. I thought memorizing finger patterns and learning chords and songs would make me play well, but playing notes is not the same as playing music. Music needs rhythm and I'd focused almost entirely on the harmonic and melodic aspects of playing. Consequently, I never developed a strong sense of time.
Players who have great timing are rarely born with it. They likely developed meter through hours of focused, dedicated playing. After I discovered my Achilles heel in the meter department, I tried practicing with a metronome, but, again, I didn't know how. I just turned it on quarters and tried to match the BPMs.
Then two women came to my aid with the same advice. I watched instructional videos by jazz guitarist Emily Remler and bassist Carol Kaye of the Wrecking Crew. Both talented players suggested the same practice technique. They set the metronome on one-half of the tempo and let the clicks land on the 2 and 4 beats. Say you want to work at 120 BPMs. You set the metronome on 60 and count “2" and “4" for every click until you feel it. Then you count “1" and “3" for the spaces in between the clicks. Then jump in and play with the clicks accenting the 2 and 4.
This was a breakthrough for me. Before, when I played with a metronome banging out straight quarter- or eighth-notes, I listened and tried to match them. But when I left space between the notes with the clicks on the offbeats, I could feel the meter when I played.
There are a lot of great players who are anti-metronome. Adam Rafferty, a killer guitarist and instructor who does amazingly funky fingerstyle arrangements that blow my mind, maintains that timing is about feeling the rhythm in your body—and that does not come from a click. Rafferty has great meter. When he plays, he moves with the music. If you listen to him, the groove is so infectious that you'll start moving, too. His “body rhythm" is an effortless groove that you don't have to think about—you feel it.
For most of us to develop an inner pulse, we need a solid reference like a click to keep it steady. Being a good musician means playing well with others. Practicing with a click forces you to check in with the world outside of your inner groove. If you can establish a cool groove with something as stiff as the clank of a metronome, you can lock with anything.
I know a lot of drummers who are so hooked on click tracks that they never want to kick off a song without it. But the click should serve as a reference to help you develop a stronger internal sense of time and learn to match a groove. It shouldn't become a dependency. By setting the metronome on as few beats as possible, the click is not driving the beat. It's just letting you know your inner clock is running on time.
To play well together, great musicians have to be able to lock to the same reference. Do you remember Earth, Wind & Fire? Reportedly they had a game they would play while killing time on flights or backstage. One member would count off a tempo and the entire band would count silently. Then, without any visual or audio cues, the group members would clap in unison on the 100th beat. That's a band that's locked in.
When I filmed a Premier Guitar Rig Rundown on Tommy Emmanuel, his gear was about as minimal as it gets, but one thing he always carries is his metronome. Emmanuel said it took him a long time to make friends with the metronome, but now it's his constant companion. That's really how it happened for me. It's a bit like broccoli. I hated it when I was a kid. Then I liked the idea of it because it was good for me. Eventually, I found myself missing it when I didn't have it. Now, when I'm alone, it's much more gratifying to play with a metronome hitting 2 and 4, because I feel the groove harder. When it really locks in, it's like what I imagine a runner's high feels like. Your body is in sync with the universe and you can go for miles.