I recently came across my first metronome. I haven’t kept everything from my teenage years in the late 1960s, but I held on to that, perhaps because of all the hours that metronome and I spent together exploring Haskell Harr, Podemski, Stick Control, and countless other drum books.
I couldn’t use it for drum set practice, however; I couldn’t hear it. It was one of those that came in a wooden case in the shape of an elongated pyramid. When you removed the front panel, a metal bar was revealed that rocked back and forth like a pendulum after you wound it up with a key. It had a weight at the bottom and a slider that served as a counterweight. The bar was marked off with tempos, and the further you slid the counterweight to the bottom, the faster the bar would swing back and forth, making a click at each end of its arc.
If the device wasn’t sitting absolutely flat, those clicks would be somewhere between straight time and a shuffle, so I had to be careful with its placement. When I went to college, I advanced to an electric metronome. I was getting pretty tired of having to stop every few minutes to wind that original metronome up again.
While in college, I started teaching drum lessons at a music store. Parents would often ask if there was something they could get their son or daughter for a birthday or Christmas that would be related to drumming, and I would recommend a metronome. Many of the parents took my advice, but many of the students told me, in all honesty, that they hated practicing with that thing ticking away.
It wasn’t just kids who hated metronomes. Countless professional drummers have confessed that they despise having to play to a click track in the studio, feeling that it destroys all hope of getting a good “feel.” But not everyone feels that way. Andy Newmark (whose credits include recordings with Carly Simon, Sly & the Family Stone, John Lennon, and Roxy Music) told me that he always pretended that the click was master percussionist Ralph McDonald standing in the next booth playing a cowbell, and all he had to do was lock in with Ralph to achieve a steady tempo. He felt he could still be loose within that framework, but the click would prevent the time from speeding up or slowing down.
I also encountered the argument that “if you always practice with a metronome, you’ll never learn to keep time.” I agree with that to a point. If you always use a metronome, it can become a crutch. But if you never practice with a metronome, how do you know if your time is steady? So I practiced both with and without it, and advised my students to do the same.
I agree, though, that those metronomic clicks were never the most pleasant thing to listen to. So when digital drum machines came out in the 1980s and, instead of just listening to a click, you could program, say, maraca sounds to use as your metronome, the idea of playing to a metronome became more pleasant — and more musical.
In those days, not many students could afford a LinnDrum or a Yamaha DMX, so they were stuck with traditional metronomes. But these days, most people have some kind of device that uses apps —a tablet, smart phone, or related device. And most metronome and drum machine apps range from free to under $10.00. GarageBand comes loaded on Apple iPads and iPhones, and it has a wide variety of pre-programmed drum and percussion loops that are fun to play along with. It’s also easy to create your own with that any many other apps.
It is certainly more fun to play along to a percussion groove than to mechanical-sounding clicks. With these apps, it’s easy to adjust the tempo, so from almost day one, when a student is learning rhythms made up of quarter, half, and whole notes, I’ll find a basic groove on whatever device that student has, show the student how that tempo relates to the patterns in the book, and use it as a play-along. I don’t let students advance the tempo until they can play their lesson perfectly at whatever tempo they’re at. That’s a big motivator for most students, whether they are eight or eighteen. (Heck, it motivates me, too!) They love coming back a week later and showing off how much faster they can play it than the week before.
Of course, another huge advantage of these devices over my original metronome is that they all have earbud jacks or Bluetooth capability, so students can wear headphones and play along with something when practicing drum set.
I haven’t forgotten the caution against “always” practicing with a metronome. As students become more advanced, we don’t use the apps quite as often. It’s fun for younger students to play along with a full out drumset-and-percussion groove, but for older students who have been playing a while, I’ll often program just a bass drum, cowbell, or shaker pulse. It might start out as eighth notes, but then I’ll back it off to quarter notes, then half notes, then whole notes. By the time the app is playing whole notes, a drummer is by no means being straightjacketed by a mechanical click. There is plenty of room for feel, but that bass drum or cowbell on the downbeat of every bar lets you know if the tempo is steady.
There are all kinds of creative ways to use these metronome and drum machine apps, so download a couple and play around with them. You’ll probably find some ways to rejuvenate your practice while reinforcing your sense of time in a way that’s just as effective as using a metronome — but a lot more musical and fun!
Rick Mattingly is a drum teacher, an editor and author of drum-instruction books for Hal Leonard Corporation, and Executive Editor of Percussive Notes.