This series started with a couple of articles.
Firstly I talked about the Catch 22 Of Learning Songs – you can read that here if you’ve not already:
Secondly I talked about the first method you can use of making practice time spent on going over songs you already know work to help you improve as a bass player.
Today I want to talk about another way of going over songs you already know help you improve as a bass player. When you play in bands and you have gigs or rehearsals coming up you’ll find that there are always songs you need to go over. And you don’t want to be that guy or girl who DOESN’T prepare for gigs or rehearsals – that never goes down well with your band mates.
So back in the mid 2000s I had an upcoming gig at an outdoor festival (around 2000 people) in South West England. The band was a disco-funk band and the repertoire was songs that I’d played before, but hadn’t played for a while. Chic, Sister Sledge, James Brown….that kind of thing. And the germ for this article came from a conversation I had with the drummer (Ciao Pascal!) when giving him timings, directions and set lists and so on.
We were chatting away and I told him that I was going to be going over the material two or three times in preparation for the gig. And he suggested something that I’m not sure I’d heard before at the time, but have seen (especially in regard to walking bass practice) many times since. That ‘something’ was to practice with a click on beats 2 and 4 of the bar.
So I gave that a try.
And it was a really useful exercise.
Only there was something missing…
That something missing was harmony. Ever since I discovered Band In A Box way back in the 90s (on an Atari St of all things….which I purchased JUST to run Band In A Box), one of the ways I’ve used it in my practice has been to play along with tracks that have both rhythmic AND harmonic material. That way you get a ton of subliminal ear training practice whilst you’re practicing other things.
And playing with a click on the 2 and 4 meant that there was no harmony. Which was disappointing as I like practice exercises that do double and triple duty where possible.
In 2010 I found a way of creating something I call a harmonic metronome that hit beats 2 and 4 – and that’s what we’re going to cover in the rest of this article.
So What’s A Harmonic Metronome?
Here’s how my discovery of what I came to call a harmonic metronome happened:
Back in late 2010 I was prepping some backing tracks for the first Lessons of my Cracking The Detroit Code course (don’t ask, no longer for sale). And I was using Band In A Box and using their real tracks. (Real tracks are drum and instrument loops played by real musicians that work with the band in a box program). I was trying to create a style that sounded vaguely Motownish by combining different real tracks and sounds. (Band In A Box now has Motown and Soul styles, but they weren’t released until 2014 or 2015).
I had drums and I had piano. And I was looking for something to mimic the guitar ‘skank’ on beats 2 and 4 that was a big feature of the Motown sound – often Motown had three guitarists playing that skank sound in various positions on the fretboard. As I was checking out various Band In A Box styles to try and find something similar I was soloing the guitar parts to hear precisely what the guitar was doing….and when I finally found a style that did what I wanted to do and had it on solo….my mind went back to the exercise with the metronome clicking on beats 2 and 4.
Because now I had simple muted guitar chords (i.e. short duration) that were playing on beats 2 and 4.
And this became a regular part of my practice – and I gave it the name of “harmonic metronome.”
There’s a recognizable piece of rhythm on beats 2 and 4, that’s the metronome parts of the equation, and those pieces of rhythm are also short, chopped chords so there is harmony present too. Hence…harmonic metronome.
So you can really get the gist of this….here’s the first 12 bars of Sweet Home Chicago played with a harmonic metronome:
How To Practice With A Harmonic Metronome
I talked above about how I like to practice to do double duty or triple duty (or more!) where possible. In the Catch 22 article I talked about the frustration for working musicians when they have to use their valuable practice time to go over songs they already know for upcoming gigs…and how if they already know them then they are not really learning anything.
Going over those songs with a harmonic metronome changes that dynamic up.
Because know you’re going over the songs you already know….but there’s a learning element added in. Because you’re using the harmonic metronome, you’re only get tie information for Beats 2 and 4. That means that YOU have to provide the time in your playing for Beats 1 and 2. So all of a sudden the time you are spending going over songs you already know becomes valuable practice because you are now ALSO working on developing your own internal sense of time.
So you can give it a go, here’s a harmonic metronome track for the 12 bars of Sweet Home Chicago – if you don’t know the bass line I’m playing or missed the original Sweet Home tutorial when it was out, then just play a generic E7 blues:
Over time as your sense of time gets better you may find that practicing with the harmonic metronome set to click on Beats 2 and 4 gets comfortable. If that’s the case then you’re no longer practicing in “the learning zone” so you need to change things up.
There are two simple ways to do this:
#1 Slow the tempo down. This has the effect of making the space between each ‘click’ longer. So your sense of time has to be better to stay in time. Here’s the first verse of Sweet Home Chicago again….this time played 20 BPM slower:
And you can take this to the nth degree and slow it down even further. Or do it increments over time. Remember that ultimately the goal of practicing is to make yourself better. One of the foundational skills a bass player should work on and develop is their sense of time….over time you can really slow things down and work on that! This is one of the few exercises in bass playing pedagogy where the slower you make it, the harder it gets!
#2 Take Away Clicks
If you find that the harmonic metronome with clicks on the 2 and 4 is getting comfortable – and it’s surprising how quickly that happens – then reset it so that it clicks on ly on Beat 2. Or only on Beat 4. Here’s the first verse of Sweet Home Chicago a third time today – this time with the harmonic click on Beat 2 only:
Your Imagination Is The Limit Here
You can combine the two ideas above and slow it down and have the click sounding only on Beat 2. Or have the click sounding on Beat 2 every other bar. Or every fourth bar. The goal is to be constantly pushing how much space you are playing with and how much you can keep track of. We’ll touch on another way of doing this in Part 3 too.
Final Word: Tools
Now it should be fairly obvious that I use the program Band In A Box to generate my harmonic metronome. There are other tools out there that can do this I’m sure. My recommendation is that you find tools that can do the job and suit your practice set up and work out a way to add the harmonic metronome to your practice toolbox.