How To Use A Metronome

The metronome will help you increase speed and play with the correct timing, particularly when learning new breaks or solos. You may want to have your banjo and a metronome handy. As you read through this, if you have had any of the following experiences, a metronome can help: 1. You cannot figure out how a measure or lick is supposed to sound. 2. Every time you get to a certain lick in a song you get lost. 3. You have difficulty playing with others. 4. Your playing does not have the clarity that you desire. 5. There are particular licks and songs that just do not sound like the recording.


Look at your metronome and check three things that will make it ideal: 1. Can you change speeds easily with one hand without having to remove your picks? 2. Can you hear the metronome above your banjo, i.e., does your banjo drown out the metronome? 3. Does the metronome have a headphone jack or an audio output?
Now let’s talk about what we are trying to accomplish (our goals): 1. We are trying to improve timing. 2. We are trying to increase speed. 3. We are trying to increase accuracy - not only accuracy of timing but also note clarity. Let’s relate the use of this tool to getting in shape.  We know that the results of getting into shape (losing weight, being more alert, and having more energy) is something that is wonderful. The process of getting there, most of the time, is not fun and is not designed to be fun. It is designed to be efficient. In the same way, while the metronome may not be an end in itself, the joy of being able to play a song correctly that you have been struggling with for several weeks or months or being able to play a break flawlessly with other people is almost indescribable. So the first step is to think of the metronome as a tool, as a means to an end, rather than as an end in itself.
The second step to being successful and motivated is having a way to measure progress. Basically, to keep moving forward and be motivated, you need to believe and have proven to yourself that the metronome is a significantly faster, more efficient way to learn than whatever you have been doing that has resulted in your inability to play many songs from start to finish. The best way to do this is to keep a log. For example, you may say to yourself, “You know it took me six weeks to play Cripple Creek at a slow speed and I still make mistakes” vs. “I used a metronome on Boil Them Cabbage down and was playing correctly at the same speed as Cripple Creek and it only took 10 days.”  As in weight lifting, we recommend that you keep a log of what you practice, how often you practice, and how fast you were able to play each song or exercise. Using a metronome in conjunction with a log will not only help you to progress in slow steps, it will keep you in a positive frame of mind as you see progress over time.


Select a piece of music that you want to learn and pick your first measure. For this exercise, I recommend one or two measures.
Before beginning, I recommend that you study the piece of music very carefully to see which notes are being played, which strings are played, the left and right hand fingers that are going to be used, and any patterns such as forward rolls in the music. Take your finger and touch each note on the paper to make sure that your eye focuses on every detail. After studying each measure to determine how we are going to play it, we then play through it two or three times very slowly. It is important that we think of the measure as individual notes at this point as opposed to licks or patterns. Then we set the metronome at around 80 and play through the measure a few times at one note per click.
Now play the music at increasing speeds while still maintaining accuracy. We may play the measure at 80 two times, then 100 two times, 120 twice, 160 twice, and 200 twice. We are fishing around trying to determine what the speed limit or accurate upper limit is at this time. This is still an exploratory procedure. Once you have found a speed that is comfortable, we will go to the next step. This process on an individual measure can take anywhere from 30 seconds to a couple of minutes.
The two important things at this stage are to relax and to play accurately. Make an agreement with yourself that you will spend a few minutes now to have great rewards later. We have completed all of the above steps which, once you get the hang of it, may only take 20 or 30 seconds for a particular measure. Set the metronome at about 80% of the comfortable speed you found while going fishing. Play the piece at this speed five times in a row perfectly. If you make any mistakes, start at the beginning and play until you play it correctly five times in a row. Once you have accomplished this, increase the metronome speed by five and play the measure five times in a row correctly. Continue doing this for about 15 minutes. NOTE: Because of the concentration involved, take a long break every 15 to 20 minutes. If you start getting tired you may  notice that your playing totally disintegrates. You will also notice that after a 30 minute rest, all of a sudden you are playing the piece perfectly.
We examine the music carefully, play it slowly several times, go fishing to determine how fast we can play the piece of music accurately, back off 20%, then gradually increase speed and take plenty of rest periods.


The goal of using a metronome on a piece of music is to discover the hard parts or difficult measures. We basically play the piece from the beginning until we come to a measure that we cannot play up to speed. We then use the metronome to help speed up and clarify the troubled measure. You work with the measure until you can play it faster. You then go back to the beginning of the song and play it until you bump into another hard measure. Keep doing this until you can play all the measures in the song at an appropriate speed. If you are playing with others, this may be determined by the speed at which they want to play it. If you are using jam tracks, you would work with the metronome until you can play the entire song at the speed of the jam tracks. As you go through this procedure and start putting the measures and licks together, you run into other problems. Use the metronome to solve these.


After working with the metronome for a while, you will want to test yourself. For this reason, every hour or so, increase the metronome setting 20% or 30% faster to a speed which you think is not possible and try to play along a few times. Totally relax and play the strings softly. Many times you will amaze yourself and be able to play at the faster speed. This is because you have played the piece so many times perfectly that it is ingrained in your head so solidly that your body goes into automatic. This speeding up also identifies which measures you can play better than others.


As you are working with the metronome, you will be saying or thinking things to yourself that either cause you to relax or tense up. For example: “Today is a great day. This is fun. I looked at my log and I’m playing this piece better than I did two days ago. I had a good nights sleep last night. The weather is great. I’m glad to be alive.”  These thoughts will enable you to relax and play better. “I’m cold. This banjo sounds horrible. I need to be able to play this song by next week or I am a complete failure. Gee, will I ever be able to play this? My good buddy can play this, why can’t I? I must be a loser. What if I try to play fast and fail? What will people think of me?” These thoughts will cause you to tense up. Work on your thoughts and self-talk. Positive self-talk will do wonders for your progress and the good news is you can control your thoughts.


Once you have reached the speed of  250 on the metronome (one note per click), where do you go from there? First, play the measure at 250. Second, set the metronome to 125, which is half of 250. Play the piece at two notes per click of the metronome. To aid in hearing the beat, count  1  2  3  4  1  2  3  4,  one number per click. Continue on and say 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &. Say the numbers with each click.  Say “&” in the space between the clicks. Starting with 125, increase the speed as necessary. Hopefully this gives you more perspective on the use of a metronome. Once again, you don’t use the metronome all the time, just when you need to speed up or improve accuracy. There are also several sources of jam tracks, amazing slow downer computer programs, etc. that enable you to play at different speeds and are more like playing with a band. These are great, but I would also work with a metronome because a metronome is precise and you can hear it and your instrument clearly and separately when practicing.

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Geoff Hohwald is Master Banjo Instructor who has been teaching and playing banjo for over 40 years. Geoff wants you to become the banjo player you have always wanted to be. He has written numerous banjo instructional books, teaches one-on-one banjo lessons, and even hold regular banjo camps at his mountain retreat in North Georgia.