I love metronomes – both as objects and as tools for more effective guitar practice. I still own my very first Wittner Taktell wind-up mechanical metronome that I bought in high school, as well as a small collection of digital and mechanical metronomes I picked up over the years, none of which does more than provide me with a steady pulse. The digital ones are, if anything, less practical because you can’t trick them to go faster than 208bpm, like you can with the mechanical ones – very useful if you want to practice Bulerias with a metronome. Sadly, not a single one of my “vintage” metronomes has gone up in value over the years.

And while I love metronomes as practice tools, I also strongly believe that there are right and wrong ways – or maybe I should say useful and harmful ways – to use them. So here are a few thoughts on how, why and when to use metronomes or apps in your practice that I hope will help you get the most out of your practice time.

Put That Metronome Down

Probably the most dangerous way to use a metronome is to “push yourself to go faster” before you’re ready to do that. And a close second to that is using the metronome at all  before you can comfortably play the passage in correct time.

There’s a point in learning any new piece of music where you finally feel like you can play that piece in compás. Sometimes it takes a few minutes and sometimes it takes months. But before you get to that point, using a metronome in any way is very likely to amplify any bad habits you might already have, and even to create some new bad habits. This is quite simply because your technique does not get better when you are frantically diving to hit the next note in time – on the contrary, it basically falls apart. On top of that, madly dashing from note to note or chord does not tend to encourage feeling the flow of time as well as you might if you’re playing with control over the technique of the passage at hand. If you use the metronome before you’re ready you can mess up both your technique and your time. I’m guessing that this isn’t anyone’s big practice goal.

So until you can tap your foot or really feel the pulse as you play that new passage, there is not only no benefit to playing with a metronome, but there’s the potential to do some real harm. You might even want to record yourself playing without a metronome to judge for yourself if you have sufficient command of the music – both technically and rhythmically – to move to the metronome.

Pick Up That Metronome

Assuming you’re now at that point with your new passage, or that you’re working on something you’ve been playing for long enough that you’re comfortable with it, I would now grab the metronome and determine what your comfortable tempo is. Many apps and digital metronomes have a Tap Tempo feature, so if you don’t have a number for your tempo you just tap in the time that you want and the metronome tells you what the bpm is (bpm = beats per minute). Once you have that number, I recommend reducing it by at least 15% before your first attempt with the metronome.

One big reason for starting slower than you know you can play is that the external pulse of a metronome puts a bit of pressure on you. Without the metronome you are of course doing your best to play in time. But the click waits for no one, so if you have any little moments that aren’t as solid as you had thought, you can easily slip into that frantic mode I mentioned above, which I hope you’ll agree is not a good thing.

Stay Slow

So give yourself a chance to just relax and feel the pulse as you play. See if there are any spots you want to clean up before setting the metronome to your “comfortable” tempo. In fact, I would suggest that your first goal in using the metronome should be to work up to playing at your comfortable tempo with the click. In other words, don’t just assume that you’ll be able to play at the same tempo with a click that you can without one. It’s possible you will be able to without much trouble, but by taking the time to be sure, you ensure that the metronome will help and not hurt your progress.

And if you’re at all resistant to going slower than you think you can, remember that Paco de Lucia famously would lock himself up for hours and play everything at half speed. He often claimed that this was the key to his technical abilities. So one other very important use of the metronome is to keep you from going too fast. This is a great way to learn to feel real control over time, tone and technique while hopefully being very relaxed about it all.

Speed it Up

Just kidding! I still don’t think you should use the metronome to speed things up even once you’re confident playing at your “comfortable tempo” with the metronome. If you’re serious about improving your technique and your groove, what I recommend is to now stay at your comfortable tempo and learn to relax more. Relax more than you thought you ever could as you play at your comfortable tempo. And then relax some more. Can you stay in time, keep your flow and your groove, and still feel like you have control over your technique and your sound? When you can honestly answer yes to these questions and play with something approaching zero tension in your body, that’s the time to see if you can speed things up.

Some folks like the the “2 clicks forward, 1 click back method,” [those “clicks” made sense with mechanical metronomes, which have notches (the “clicks”) on the rod that are usually set to specific tempos rather than every possible tempo – from 40 to 60bpm they go up in increments of 2, from 60 to 72bpm in increments of 3, from 72 to 120bpm in increments of 4, from 120 to 144 in increments of 6, and from 144 to 208 in increments of 8]. So if your comfortable tempo is 100bpm, you might first play at 100, then bump up to 108 (two clicks), and then go down to 104 (one click back). The idea behind this is that you push yourself a bit more than will be comfortable, then you slow back down to a speed which is slower than what you just played, but faster than your initial tempo. If that’s comfortable you can call 104 your new comfortable tempo and repeat the process. It’s possible that at your next practice session 104 will still be the new comfortable tempo, but it’s just as likely that you will have to repeat those tempos for a while before 104 becomes the new comfortable tempo.

Another fun way to use a mechanical metronome is to not look at the numbers at all (this is obviously harder to do with an app). Some days I’ll turn the metronome around so I can’t see the numbers and start at a random but very slow tempo. Then once I feel relaxed at a given tempo I’ll bump it up one click, without looking at the numbers. Since I don’t know my starting tempo, I never know exactly what tempo I’m at. I just stick at a tempo until it feels easy, then I’ll bump it up. Some days I’ll surprise myself by just how fast I can go just by turning off the part of my brain that says things like “you can’t play this any faster than 168bpm.” It’s a good reminder of how powerful the mind is and how those numbers can mess with us if we let them.

Since there are so many variables in practicing, there may well be days when what felt easy yesterday feels harder today, and other days where what felt difficult yesterday is suddenly a breeze. This is all a normal part of practice, so if you’re working with a metronome it’s important to not get too attached to those numbers, as they can mess with your head if you let them.

screenshot of ProMetronome - a digital metronome appPractice Mode

With metronome apps that subdivide, I also really recommend setting the subdivision to that of whatever you’re practicing – arpeggios, rasgueados, picado, whatever – and go slowly to really hear if you’re subdividing quite as perfectly as you think you are. I’m often amazed at how much more even my playing can become if I spend a little time warming up by actually hearing if my subdivisions are all there. It’s a little annoying to hear a click for each and every note, but it’s a very powerful practice technique.

These days many apps have a feature that will bump up the tempo gradually as you practice. In my trusty Pro Metronome app by EUM this is called Practice Mode. You can set up your starting tempo and your final tempo, plus how long you want to practice, and it increases the tempo every so often so that you don’t have to think about it as you practice. I like this feature, but keep in mind how things can fall apart when we try to go way faster than we’re currently able to, and use common sense when pushing your limits.

Cool Down

I once heard about a study of elite high jumpers that made a big impression on me. One group of jumpers was told to keep raising the bar (literally) until they finally failed, and then call it a day. The other group was told to do the same, but before quitting for the day they lowered the bar to a height they knew they could clear and do a successful, if easy, jump before quitting for the day. On the following day, the jumpers who had successfully cleared the lowered bar at the end of their session did better than those who had quit immediately after failing. What the study suggests is that the body remembers succeeding – possibly because the jumpers reinforced not only the feeling of having succeeded but also the good habits that go into a successful jump.

My takeaway from this is that if you push yourself to a speed where you start to lose control, you want to make sure you go back to a speed where you’re in control before quitting for the day. Again, you reinforce the feeling of playing it right, and you also reinforce the mechanics of the good technique you use to play well. You don’t want your body to remember that out of control feeling more than it remembers what control feels like.   

These days flamenco players are just as likely to use loops or a compás app as a metronome, but I’ll leave that topic for Part 2 of this post.