You know what a metronome is right? It’s something that gives us a regular click to practice with – whether it’s a machine or software based. Wikipedia gives the following definition:
“A metronome is any device that produces a regulated aural, visual or tactile pulse to establish a steady tempo in the performance of music.”
Back in the day electronic metronomes weren’t invented and we had to use mechanical ones, but you can now buy a cheap digital metronome that’s got a ton of features for around $20.
A metronome in some shape or form is one of first items on the must-have list for the beginning bassist. You can use a metronome as a progress indicator over a period of time (for example say you’re working on a 16th note exercise and you keep a record of what tempo you can reach in your practice journal, over time you should see the maximum speed you can play the exercise at increase, so giving you an accurate measure of your progress over time).
The primary use for a metronome though is to keep time.
Keeping time is one of the skills/abilities/traits all bass players need to develop – and using a metronome is one of the ways you can work on this.
(Quick Sidebar: one of the many reasons that I recommend bass beginners to spend the bulk of their time learning – and playing along to – songs is that with each song they learn they get a subliminal lesson in time keeping.)
Now the obvious way to use a metronome is to set it clicking at 4 beats to the bar at the tempo you want (assuming you’re working on something using 4:4 time of course!). Now there’s nothing wrong with that approach – when you’re working on parts of songs or exercises for example, it works just fine.
(you knew there was going to be a but, didn’t you?)
If you rely on this approach for the majority of your practice then, yeah you’ll develop the ability to play in time but you’ll find that the metronome becomes a crutch without you even realising. After a while rather than developing the ability to play in time, you’re actuallydeveloping the ability to play in time with a metronome.
What’s the problem with that? Playing in good time is playing in good time right?
Well, yes. And no.
The problem with this approach is that your own personal sense of time doesn’t develop – the metronome provides the beat for you, and you learn to play to that.
Here’s a simple exercise for you to try out to see if this is the case or not (though the easiest way to do this is with midi files so you’re gonna need some midi software for this). Take a tune you know really well, either program the drums for the tune or find a midi file on the net (either commercial or not) and strip everything out but the drums. Now pick just one part of the song, maybe the verse or the chorus, doesn’t matter which, and cut the drum part down just to a 2 or 4 bar loop. Now copy this loop a number of times, 50 will do. Now at random points delete 2 or 4 bar sections.
Now play along with the drum file.
If every time the drums disappear you’ll know your time is pretty good if when the drums come back in you’re right there on the 1 with the bass drum. Record yourself doing this exercise, have a listen to it later, be totally honest in your analysis. Are you there on the 1? A little behind? A little ahead? Not sure? Then take the recording to a friend and ask his opinion – BUT ASK HIM TO BE HONEST? Really, wouldn’t you rather know if there’s a problem so you can work on it and sort it out? Believe me, it will make you a better player in the long run. (And if you wanna play in a band – and I’m guessing you do – you’re time needs to be spot on!).
If you used a 2 bar section and you think you did pretty well, try taking out random 4 bar sections. Or 8 bar sections. You’ll probably find that somewhere along the line there’s a discrepancy and you go out of time.
This is the problem caused by reliance on a metronome (or drum machine) to give you the beat.
To fix this problem what you need to do is to work on your internal sense of time, and funnily enough you can use a metronome – or metronomic device – to do this. (In a future post I’ll show you how to customise a piece of software called Band In A Box so that it works as your own personalized internal time enhancing metronome!)
Here’s how you get started. Take a piece of a song that you know really well, that you can play without thinking about it, doesn’t matter what it is PROVIDED you’ve got it under your fingers to the point of being able to play it without thinking about it. Then instead of playing it with a metronome giving you a click on every beat, you play it with the metronome clicking on beats 2 and 4 only.
(Quick Sidebar 2: this works really well for funky lines, if you’re playing in a groove band take all your songs for a ride with a click on just the 2 and 4, you’lll be amazed at how funky your playing starts to sound!)
Now, playing on just the 2 and the 4 will mean that YOU have to supply the missing clicks, the 1 and the 3. Make a 10 minute ‘groove’ session where you do this as part of your practice regime for a month, record the results as you go, and then analyse them at the end of the month.
After a month you should notice a marked improvement in your sense of time. (Quick Sidebar 3: another thing you can do is record yourself playing a part of a song WITHOUT a metronome. Then listen back, see if you can hear the time in your playing – there will be more on this in a future article).
When you feel comfortable with the 2 and the 4 it’s time (no pun intended!) to shake things up again. Same exercise as before, take a part of a song you know really well, only this time instead of setting your metronomic device to click on 2 and 4, set it to click on 2 only.
Suddenly this is starting to get really interesting. Now your internal clock has got to provide 3 of each bar’s 4 beats (this is why you should do this exercise with lines you know really well, so you can concentrate on the time and let your fingers do their thang and play the notes).
Again, make sure you do this as a regular part of your practice routine, you can change the songs and tempos to keep it from getting stale – if you want to freak yourself out try it with a ballad, this is much harder at slower tempos (but rationalise much harder as working on your internal sense of time much quicker, if that makes any sense???). Also record yourself, honest self analysis always leads to improvements in your abilities.
Once you’re feeling comfortable with playing with just the 2, try playing with just the 2 on alternate bars – so now you’re responsible for providing 7 beats out of 8. And then take it to the next level, play with just the 2 sounding once in every 4 bars.
If you can get the hang of that, try the 2 sounding once every 6 bars, or 8, or…..you get the picture!
If you do this exercise – and its variations – for only 10 minutes a day I guarantee you that a year from now the improvement in your internal clock will run through everything you play on the bass guitar!
Still here?time’s wasting, get down on the 2 and 4!