Adam Rafferty – Guitar and Spirit

All about music, guitar, spirituality, personal development and being happy

Don’t Use a Metronome

38 Comments

Recently a new fan who found me on YOUTUBE asked me if I used a metronome to develop my sense of groove.

Not a simple question, or topic, I am sure I’ll say some things here that will raise some eyebrows.

That being said – “there is more than one way to do it” . I can only tell you what has worked for me, and I still have a lifetime of learning ahead!

Here goes.

I have never, ever, ever practiced with a metronome. I do not recommend it at all. I’ve tried a few times, but shut the damn thing off after 5 minutes, for real. No joke.

Let’s start wayyyy back with these questions: What is groove? What is rhythm? What is time? What do you think you’ll get out of practicing with a metronome? Why do it?

I was lucky enough to have the greatest teacher around – pianist Mike Longo – teach me rhythm, and he learned from Dizzy Gillespie.

There is a big difference between “head rhythm” and “body rhythm”. Also – there is a difference between mere “time” and a “pulse”. To play music with an AFRICAN rhythmic concept is very different from a European rhythmic concept. The experience that led me down the right path was learning how to play African rhythms on a simple hand drum (which Mike learned from Diz).

What happens is a law of physics gets activated when “the drum” is played properly. It’s a 12/8 rhythm where all the 3’s 4’s 6’s and 12’s subdivide – but this is not intellectual at all when you’re doing it! A European rhythmic concept can have all these poly-rhythms and subdivisions, but the “accents” which are unique to the African concept are buried in the drum rhythm.

When you are playing it or hearing it properly – you experience “body rhythm” and your body starts moving like James Brown or Count Basie- without effort, without “trying to look” like you are grooving for the sake of appearances. Nope, this groove is the real thing. You can feel it, and everyone else can too. It’s an “US” thing – with the performer and audience, not a “ME” thing.

I’m not judging one or the other as better. What I am saying is that just as Einstein “uncovered” E=mc squared, African drummers and musicians “unlocked and uncovered” certain musical aspects of rhythm that to my knowledge, no one in Europe did. Likewise, the great composers- Bach, Mozart, Beethoven,Chopin, Ravel, Stravinsky – to name a few – unlocked realities regarding harmony, melody, rhythm, counterpoint and form that African musicians did not.

Once you experience this groove it on the “drum” the choices you’d make on your instrument regarding dynamics, fingerings – everything – start to shift to accommodate the new rhythm concept.

Here’s a fun tune where I get into a groove, and let me just say – I am still a servant and a student of music!!!

Let’s imagine things in life that beat to a “pulse”, and that could not be set to an external clock: jumping rope, spinning a ball on your finger, juggling, dancing, the human heart beating – to name a few. None of these things could be set to an external clock, nor would that be the point! Imagine trying to jump rope to a metronome!

The misconceptions in “practicing to a metronome” are 1) that time is linear (it’s not, because it’s one big NOW moment) and 2) that these pulsating things – (African rhythm, juggling, jumping rope) produce perfectly measurable and evenly spaced pulsations. They don’t! There is a natural correct ebb and flow – and speeding up or slowing slightly is LEGAL and correct, depending on context.

Hitting beats at even time intervals has NOTHING to do with groove or body rhythm. Click tracks can KILL the groove.

I have played with many musicians with “perfect time” and no groove. As well, I have played with groovers whose time is not the greatest, but their groove is happenin’!

I recently played in a band where a musician was not pulling his weight groove wise. Sometimes he sounded too fast for the band, sometimes too slow. He was thinking “metronome time” and the band was thinking African time – so we had apples and oranges as far as rhythmic concept. It was a far deeper problem than what musicians call “rushing” or “dragging”. It was 2 different universes!

Grooves can get faster or slower and still be right. Put on an old Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind and Fire or Count Basie or John Coltrane. Did it speed up or slow down? You bet – but them grooves is 1000% right! On the flipside, some of the most non-grooving crap I have ever heard is all the music done with sequencers and drum machines – with perfectly metronomic beats, which my mathematical standards (but not human heart standards) is played to ‘perfect’ time!

No words I can write here will give you the experience of what I am talking about. No matter what your level of talent is, you’d need to play with a more experienced musician whom you honestly trust groove wise (in your heart) to teach you. It’s a tradition that is handed down.

I have two words for you now: Alvin Queen – the greatest jazz drummer alive right now. Play a slow groove with him, and it’s so big, deep and in the pocket – it makes you feel like you are ahead of him. Play an uptempo – and watch out, it’s time to get smoked because he is so intense, and you feel like he’s pushing you. Look him up on you tube! He’s the greatest – ask anyone who has played with him.

=-=-=-=-

What can you do to deepen your groove?

1) Go with your gut more than your head.

2) Dance!!! I don’t care how good someone says their time is. Git on the dance floor and let’s see what your feet and body say. I love dancing. Feel funny dancing? Well, than you’re just as funny playing music. No excuses – dance!

The sad reality is that I have seen MANY regular people at disco’s exhibit a greater sense of body rhythm with their dancing than many musicians dowith their playing!

3) Play with the heaviest groovers around. Go right into a situation that feels intimidating and go up against any fears or insecurities you may have.

4) Play the blues, play with soul. It’s easier and more natural to get more complex with harmonies and melodies on a basis of blues and solid groove than it is to play complicated music and try to go back and find the groove.

5) Know that people like grooves. Get your audience to participate,and not just watch you. It’s not about you – it’s about the vibe and the magic.

Most people don’t realize that when I am playing complex lines I am focusing on groove. As well, staying “in the pocket” has offered me numerous technical solutions I would have never come up with otherwise.

Rhythm is the basis of music, so treat it as such!!!!!

“It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing” – Duke

“Just because a record’s got a groove don’t mean it’s in the groove” – Stevie

“Never trust a drummer that can’t dance” – Art Taylor (I think)

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Author: Adam Rafferty

Adam Rafferty. Fingerstyle Guitarist. Recording and Concert Artist. Meditator. Philosopher. Lover of Groove.

38 thoughts on “Don’t Use a Metronome

  1. True, true, true indeed! I play the drums, the hand drums and the piano and have been pondering the metronome for years asking all the best musicians I’ve ever met what their thoughts are. Never thought of just searching it on the internet though, actually the reason I searched the topic was because I wanted to find out how prominent the metronome figured in Bachs’ life.
    Sweet groove, I love it! It was fownke…

    Dome

  2. DUUUUHHH well, apparently the metronome wasn’t even available until after Mozarts death!! Go figure, and my piano teacher taught me Mozart and got pissed of when I told him I hadn’t practiced with the nome!
    Dome

  3. Thank you for the excellent post. It was a joy to hear about the deeper thoughts of a musician which are hard to come by on the net. There are too many websites / books that only discuss notes, chords and strumming but don’t mention anything about “MUSIC” or anything else that would give me the impression that the material was written by a human with a beating heart and not simply auto-generated by a computer. I hope you continue to include such personal wisdom in your posts.

    Jeff, Canada

  4. Very well put. Everyone that I ever tried to teach I let them know right away that I could not teach them very much technique wise but I could teach them about making me believe and feel that one note….

    thanks for your thoughts.

    Sal

  5. Interesting debate, I understand what your saying , although I don’t agree with you at all.

    The problem that you discussed, in my opinion is very relevant to another more frequently asked question, which is “should a musician learn theory or should he just build up his own thing ?” and my answer is and always will be is that theory starts when talent stops, at least to me that’s how it is.

    Both the theory topic and the one you discussed are very tricky, simply because they are both something that are very critical and there is no one to judge your playing but yourself. Too many theory will make you play by the book, and none of it will be directly depending on your talent, which could result in you making many mistakes while your thinking they are “ok”, they are not, because the people around you get ear damaged, you can say well you have to play what you believe in and what you think is true and don’t care about anyone else, well I would agree to that but I will have to remind you that music doesn’t flow through you since your birth, you are born and then you hear the music not the other way round.

    My point is your music is not the absolute truth and although “wrong” is respective to the musician, you can be mistaken even to yourself, only you might realize it a few minutes, weeks or years later, maybe even never.

    If you find a guitarist or a musician that can just play what his heart desires and feel the groove then why the heck would you want him to learn any theory or play by the metronome ? He’s talented enough to pull it through. However if he can’t feel the groove, or if he can’t play well say with a certain chord progression, then he has to sit down and do something about it, weather it would be dancing like you mentioned, or breaking it down to pieces.

    Anyways to cut this story short, the metronome is good if you want to play with other musicians, because they play by it and you can play like the beats of a heart beat “not even” but you can do that alone. Just like the human vocals have notes that you will never be able to achieve with you guitar doesn’t mean that you can neglect learning scales.

    If you can play without the metronome than good for you, it doesn’t mean that it can’t help other players through, not be their divine judgmental instrument, but just help them.

  6. Using a metronome has been a huge help to me learning drums. I’ll be using a metronome for the rest of my life. I can’t dance, does that make me a crappy drummer?

  7. Hi. I’m a long time drummer. I have always avoided metros as well. I only used them during the occasional practice sessions where I feel I just need a bump in the right direction.

    However, I prefer to sing what I want the feel to be and use my body ( swaying right to left, back and forth ). I will speed up and slow down the tempo a bit during songs, in fact, I have been known to stall slightly right before a guitar/keyboard solo, then explode into the solo at a slightly higher tempo. I can achieve freight train strength grooves through solos that will literally knock you backwards.

    Pick up a tempometer. This will track your time, and you can set windows of acceptance which allow you to stray – ever so slightly – from time for a creative feel.

  8. Very well stated, agree with it entirely, this is why I don’t use a click. Occasionally it’s useful for some applications, but generally is not need if you’re a good musician.

  9. Hey dude i definitley understand your side of this. I dont use a click either. I really have only used it once or twice. My time use to be really bad, but once you get the feel for really playing you dont really need a metranome.

    Also, that video you playing superstition was great. You dont happen to have tabs for that do you?

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  11. Great playing. The time rushes.

  12. A really good read!! I also play the traps (40+ yrs)…I have practiced (a little) with a metronome, only because it was what I was told (still learning and studying!) that was what was required to learn to feel the subdivisions, hence at some point learn to groove around the ‘perfect’ clicks. It has shown me to some extent how to play behind or just ahead of the ‘perfect’ click.
    Your explanation of ‘groove’ is right on! You respect the origins therein. You posit very good examples to prove your point.
    I feel that this should be required reading for any musical group situation/interaction. The guys in our trio will…read and hopefully get this.
    You are a ‘funky’ cat…practice what you preached.

    Yeah, ‘body’ or ‘african’ time is where it’s at! Jah bless…

    Gruv On!

  13. I don’t know about that. I’m not sure I agree with your ideas. I’ll just agree to disagree. Thanks…for the post.

  14. Congratulations for posting such a useful weblog. Your blog isn’t only informative but also very artistic too. There normally are very couple of people who can write not so easy articles that creatively. Keep up the great work !!

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  16. Great post.

    Metronomes are screwing up they rhythm of a lot of people and have done so for many years.

    Check out the wikipedia page of the metronome, for some nice historical perspective!

    Note also that there are many styles of music that only the very best jazz drummers can handle. These are styles where there is no “conventional” underlying drum-rhythm, but rather, the rhythm is based on the melody and “musical phrasing”:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Musical_phrasing

  17. Hello Adam,

    Yes, yes and yes.

    But here’s the question :

    Why specifically *avoid* the metronome?
    Isn’t it just another practice tool?

    Marc-A

    • Here’s why to avoid it. Grooves have many little microscopic musical decisions where things speed up and slow down. By going with a machine, you take your instinct off finding the magic.

      Go ahead – take the funkiest recordings you can find, Stevie Wonder, J5, Michael Jackson – and put a metronome on. They won’t stay together. So, perfect time and perfect groove are in different universes completely.

      If you hear a groove and think it is perfect time, it is an illusion. And, I think no new “computer based” music has a groove anywhere near a great musician actually playing.

      You need to experience this inside, so 2 people can’t argue about this. The reality needs to be in YOU. Words from my mouth to your head have nothing to do with it at all.

      I would need to see you dance and see if your body knows groove – because if you are not a groover, but a thinker – then the metronome will make more sense “logically”.

      – Adam

  18. Hey Adam! Funny you mention dance. My daughter is a champion west coast swing dancer that has selected your version of “Ain’t No Sunshine” to compete with. It has just the soul, musicality, and variety that she and her partner need to complement their dancing. Check her out on You Tube: Jen DeLuca Arjay. Dance/music are inextricably linked!

  19. Hey,

    My one question about this post would be: how can you make something groove if it’s out of time?

    I mean, sure a metronome doesn’t teach you groove- but it’s not supposed to! A metronome is there for the count (1, 2, 3, 4 etc,) and without any kind of count there’ll be no groove at all!

    Also, a metronome will prevent you simply slowing down for the difficult parts of a song and speeding up the easy parts! So therefore it’s an invaluable PRACTISE tool!

    Where you take the beat from there is up to you, but without a sense of time you’ll be lost…

    • Of course you need time. But that’s natural to a human being. You think all the groove masters of Africa and elsewhere over the last hundreds of years before metronomes had bad time?

      Well why not do what they did?

      Again, I urge you – get a metronome out and play older Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Count Basie and Earth Wind and Fire. Try to get the metronome to stay with teh music. Watch in amazement and delight as the music and metronome do not agree.

      I’m done on this topic – gotta go practice 🙂

      – AR

      • The problem is that nowadays there are so many people who’ve been brainwashed into playing with a metronome; that more often than not, you can probably set a metronome to the performance, and will see that they actually agree. What we need to realize, is that these are sub-level mediocre performances!

        So about metronomes… There’s an enormous amount of disinformation out there.

        Take it from Jeff Berlin who talks about guys who say “practice with a metronome because it’ll help your time.” and them mentions about them: “It’s those guys that are screwing up a whole generation of kids.”
        I bloody-well agree!
        http://www.innerviews.org/inner/berlin.html

      • That’s right, JJ – they are screwing up a generation of kids. Before music schools were the rage (Berklee, 70s etc) if you couldn’t swng you lost the gig.

        No coddling.

        Now however, the schools want to keep the students so they say “her little Johhny, you can get better with the metronome”.

        Old school would have been a kick in the a–. I know because I have been on bands and seen old guys do that to young guys and yes- almost give them nervous breakdowns.

        Metronomes help the schools democratize rhythm and not “expose” the ones with lack of rhythmic talent.

        The truth and yes it will hurt some!

  20. Agree, but only to a certain extent.
    There no such thing as lack of rhythmic talent***.

    Everyone can learn to groove!

    BUT it requires something: spirituallity! (for lack of a better word)

    Only someone who regards art in its proper context, i.e. spiritually, can learn to make other people feel. And that’s what music is about: projecting your HUMAN self!

    But if you are unspiritual, and use a metronome, then that’s what you’ll project: cold, sterile, meaningless adhesion to cold facts.
    And no-one is gonna wanna hear it – those guys will lose a gig – for sure.

    *** though there is lack of spirituality!

    • When we (or Jeff Berlin…) say, that people who recommend a metronome are “screwing up a whole generation of kids”; then what is meant is that these people are taking and hindering the spirituality and personality of these kids!

      It means that they stick a metronome in front of the kids, and require of them to adhere (not to their own feeling and perception, but to) to cold, dead clockbeats of modern society.

      This is one of the most disgusting things, that I’ve ever come across; but it’s happening everywhere.

      It’s time we start to recognize that we need to nurture people’s hearts; and not make them conform to a modernist society and its expectations.

      Regards from a guitarplayer from Vienna! 🙂

  21. I think using a metronome is very important in the beginning. So many people go on and on about metronomes making your playing mechanical and groove-less. It’s not true.

    A metronome is a great practice tool that helps in developing good muscle memory in the shortest time possible by forcing you to play at a slow and consistent tempo.

    I have and always will recommend to my students that they use a metronome when they practice. Obviously you need to maintain some balance and play along with real songs or real musicians to help develop your own groove but that’s not to say a metronome should not be used.

  22. Interesting discussion. As a songwriter I write from what’s in me. But because I don’t have the playing skill, I usually work with other musicians to get the best out of my songs. I have found over and over again that the ones who know theory can often bring something that others can’t. I wonder how many modern bands have depended on others once they get in the studio to flesh out their material? Probably most- it’s the one’s who know theory that help those who don’t to appear talented!

    It’s the same with tempo. I can sit down, play my guitar, and I’m always speeding up and slowing down as I play. It’s part of the joy of expressing myself through song. But there’s nothing worse than trying to perform with a drummer or a guitar player that’s always rushing. It would probably do them a world of good to practice with a nome. It’s called PRACTICE. You can always turn it off and just play from your heart- it won’t steal your soul- but it might help you to be able to play consistently enough that others find it enjoyable to play along with you.

    • Mike

      Thanks. Rushing or slowing is usually due to single accent being off in someones musical concept.

      Just the other day I showed a guitar player when playing swing to play a DOWN stroke on the + of 2 and 4. Even though it is an upbeat.

      Ok – it seems small, but added up over a whole song, it’s like steering 1% in one direction everytime you do it – and steering 1% in the opposite direction if you don’t.

      Doing what I described will create a pocket that feels good to my body. Not doing it makes things feel rushy.

      You see- this will never be corrected by a clock on the outside – only a concept shift inside, since it is an itty bitty direction.

      I will say this – in preparing for my last CD I practiced SLOW and that made what many would perceive as “metronome” time sound steadier. Slow practice is very important.

      Thanks again!

      Adam

  23. Hi, I play mostly classical piano pieces on the piano, and I’m having a terrible time with using a metronome. I can’t get my beats to agree with the metronome at all, but my music teacher will swear by the good virtues of a metronome. My question was this:

    What is the African rhythm and could you explain the technicalities of that more fully please?

    And also, could I apply African rhythm to a classical piano piece by Beethoven?

    And the last question was do you believe that a metronome should be used in piano practice? Thank you so much!

  24. Pingback: Hello Adam! I'm a 17 year old guitarist from Liverpool England, I've been playing and writing since I was 8 and music has always been the most important thing to me, I am currently studying to take music in university next year.  Here is my pro

  25. This is very interesting. Got me thinking. I have an open mind on this, but what I will say is that when I spent some time in the past playing handdrums a lot, and working on syncopation and stuff on them (getting the left hand to play 1-3 … and the right to play things like latin clave and other stuff) … it helped my playing move on a lot. I had used metronome a lot before that, and my playing had become rhythmically boring. It helped a great deal.

    At the moment the issue I am working on is that when I play swing (or other styles) at medium tempos I can play with lots of rhythmic freedom and things seem to “flow”. At higher tempos, I have the feeling of almost being constrained by the time, and it shows in what I play. I have been trying to deal with this by using the nome but maybe that is not the answer.

    you gotta keep an open mind and try different things … 🙂

    Nice post Adam, thanks. Great version of superstition too.

    D

  26. Been thinking more about this. You can look at it two ways.

    Clearly there are plenty of records out there that do not have “metronome time”, but still have great groove.

    Are there records that were recorded to a click (and so have metronome time) – and also have great groove?

    Well, I can’t name any, but … probably.

    The point is to play in time with the other musicians. If the band speeds or slows a bit – just be there with it. Or if they don’t … the same.

    I don’t think using a met actually *harms* you in trying to achieve this …

  27. I agree on one hand and completely disagree on the other.

    A metronome is a great tool in developing your personal memory for a song without accompaniment. I believe a metronome is invaluable when trying to develop your own voice (especially as a bass player).

    There are a host of players out there who are completely dependent on the cues of others to remember parts. Those are the players who interrupt the grooves the most when playing because they have not taken ownership of the song in any relevant way. Those are the players who will acknowledge in their minds that they have “made a mistake” rather than quickly assess the non-orthodox way in which they have stated something and adjust to that new dynamic that most of them are unaware that they have made in the first place.

    Playing a song from beginning to end, alone, with a metronome is one of the most helpful exercises in developing a line that quote “sounds like that tune” with an easy reference happening in the background that is always moving forward. It helps to keep a focus on the song continuing rather than starting and stopping and being able to act on the “fly” in a coherent way.

    On the other hand…If you are playing with a band you had better have the interdependency to break free from the metronome dynamic and participate. Time never has to be “perfect” in a band situation. It only has to feel right.

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  29. Agreed 100%. Music aint just notes and beats!

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