Metronomes

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

The question: I just purchased a metronome and trying to figure how fast Casey and you are playing “Nine Pound Hammer” on Easy Songs for Banjo. In recent jams I seem to speed up and slow down and do not hold a constant beat. I am hopeful that purchasing the metronome will assist. What are your thoughts? Feel free to use this on your blog.  -Drew

Hi Drew,

Thanks for the question. I hope I don't put you off by saying I am not a fan of the metronome. I'm sure it has its usefulness somewhere---I know Lynn Morris used to use one to sharpen her picking skills to a fine point---but for banjo students, especially beginning ones, I don't find them useful. I have never suggested that my students use a metronome. And if they tell me they are using one, I just try to pretend like I didn't hear them!

The timing problems beginning banjo students have are usually related to timing in a way that the metronome cannot address (or fix). Their timing problems tend to be related more to not hearing a lick correctly or not being able to execute it properly or just flat out not understanding how the timing is supposed to sound. (Like that “D” lick in John Hardy, the one that has timing like “In The Mood.” Once you understand that timing in your head, once you can “hear” it in your head, you can play it. Until then, it’s just a series of notes. But the metronome cannot help with that.) Or their timing problems are the result of simply being a new student who doesn’t yet have the small-muscle motor skills to play smoothly or fast.

Sometimes, even with the help of the DVDs, a student will simply get the timing wrong. And easy example is the E minor lick in “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” Some students have been known to play those eighth notes too fast initially. We can usually straighten that out quickly by me playing along with them and/or playing guitar. But if you’re doing it wrong and don’t know it, that will sure throw you off in a jam!

Without hearing you play, it’s hard to know what the speeding up and slowing down in jams is all about. My guess it’s more likely a result of nervousness, being a new jammer, and/or having rhythm players who are not too solid. And a metronome can't help with that.

My guess is that you probably just need to play each song many, many, times over in a row (without stopping) until you can develop some solidity. And of course there’s nothing like jamming to help you learn to jam. Metronomes cannot help with jamming—that’s a whole different kettle of fish.

Again, I think metronomes are for fine-tuning your timing, something a professional player might want to do. I’ve heard that Ron Block uses a metronome a lot.

And, lest you think this is a case of me telling you one thing and doing another, I confess that I have never used a metronome for more than the few seconds I needed to find out that I didn’t like them. They simply would not stay in time with me!

Hope this helps!

Murphy (Do you think you could get a refund on that metronome??? )

4 thoughts on “Metronomes

  1. Steve (in Japan)

    In some of your instructional DVDs Chris Henry sure works like a meteronome. Check out the “Improvising: The First Stage” DVD and your’ll see what I mean. I heard that said about Doyle Lawson too.

  2. Arden Peters

    All of that is helpful to see put in words, and makes sense to me. Your using the D lick in “John Hardy” hits home with me, as I still have not succeeded in getting it down corredtly yet.

  3. Murphy

    To Steve: Chris learned everything he knows about timing from me! It was that steady heartbeat!

    And to Arden: You might try (seriously) getting a copy of Glenn Miller’s “In The Mood” and listening to that over and over. That REALLY helped Bob Mc!

  4. Martha Sheperd

    When working on fiddle tunes at home on the mando, I find a metronome superior to bass players in a jam who can’t hold the tempo or who push it! Otherwise they make music sound too mechanical.

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