How a Metronome Can Help You Play Live

You might balk at using a metronome during a live set, but here’s why you shouldn’t.

How do you take your performance as a band to another level? One of the best ways to improve your performances—no matter your skill level or style of music—is to start playing with a metronome or click when performing live.

You may consider a metronome only a tool to be used in the studio. You probably have considered it a necessary evil and are thankful to be able to escape its evil clutches when you step onstage. And now I’m suggesting to include it in your performance? Why would you ever dare?

1. It Makes You a Better Musician.

I’ve heard often from musicians who are resistant to using a click that “real musicians don’t use a click.” That’s simply not true. Using a click isn’t because of a deficiency—i.e., not a good enough musician to stay in time—it’s a tool that can be used to enhance what you’re already doing. A bad musician playing to a click is still a bad musician. A good musician playing to a click is a good musician. In the case of the bad musician, at least playing with a click will eventually improve their timing.

Playing with a click is a necessary discipline on the path to becoming a great musician. Your timing will improve, and in turn your skill will improve. Including a click in a live setting will only further that improvement.

2. It Helps Keep Everyone in Sync.

Modern music calls on musicians of all types to implement rhythmic effects into their arsenal. Keyboardists need to play arps, sidechain pads and rhythmic bass lines. Electric guitarists use delays to create “The Edge”-style rhythmic parts. And vocalists can drown their vocals in reverb and delay to create a produced vocal live. Playing to a click makes sure everything is perfectly in sync.

Guitar players can finally rest their right foot and not try to tap the tempo every section of every song. Everyone can program the tempo of each song into their keyboards, pedals and consoles and recall the correct tempo for each song. Or you can connect everything with MIDI and automatically update the tempos without any human intervention.

With everyone at the same tempo, everything will sound together and tighter. Trying to pull off tight rhythmic performances without a click is difficult—if not impossible. Keep the click going and watch how quickly your performance tightens up.

3. It’s the Truth.

A drummer friend of mine once said, “Click don’t lie.” That has always stuck with me. It means 75 bpm is 75 bpm. You can argue as much as you’d like, but the click isn’t slowing down—you are. Having the click set the time for everyone removes any question about what the tempo really is, and if you’re at it.

When you play to a click, it gives you access to “the truth” and frees everyone (especially the drummer) up to just focus on playing. You can lean back, or stay on top of the click, based on the style of music, but everyone has the true tempo as reference. Drummers everywhere rejoice, your jobs just got easier.

4. It’s Freeing.

I don’t envy drummers. They have one of the most difficult jobs in the band. First the band plays a song at 72 bpm, then we expect the drummer to count us in to a song at 120 bpm immediately after the last measure. You’ve got to have a great memory, and muscle memory, to go from 72 to 120 in a measure—and get it perfect.

5. It Will Help Improve Your Transitions.

There’s nothing like watching a band play live as they come out of a big song, with a big ending, into a new song that starts with vocals and pad. There’s a beautiful moment, and then you hear it—“Chh, Chh, Chh, Chh”—and the vocals start. Since they’re not playing with a click, the drummer has to audibly keep time for everyone.

Get a band on in-ears, and get them playing with a click, and the drummer can take a breather for a few measures. (Drummers, I’m trying to make your lives easier with this article.) Music can flow seamlessly from one song into the next, and everyone will be able to keep time and know exactly when to come in.

Great transitions will make a good band great—and a great band even better. If you want to instantly improve your transitions, get your band playing with a click live.

ADD IN TRACKS.

Once you’ve mastered playing with a click, add in tracks. You can keep the pad in the tracks and play the piano part live. Keep the rhythmic keys parts in the track, and play the lead line. Add a filtered drum loop or tambourine in the chorus to take your sound to another level. Tracks can help you re-create the sound that you had in your head in the studio onto the live stage. And you can only use tracks if you’re first using in-ears and playing with a click.

CHANGE YOUR PRESETS PERFECTLY.

Are you changing presets on your keyboard throughout the set—while trying to balance playing the part just right? Do you have to buy a new pair of shoes each month because you wear them out tapping on pedals throughout the set? If you’re playing to a click, then you’re one step away from running a MIDI cable to your keyboard and using Ableton Live to call up your presets perfectly every time. And you get to focus on what you do best, playing the part.

Add a true bypass looper to your pedalboard, connect your pedals, save a few presets, and run a MIDI cable from Ableton to your looper. Now your pedals turn on and off at the perfect time.

Simplicity is superior to complexity, but a properly set up system can take the complex and make it simple. Set up a few MIDI cables, and your sounds can switch perfectly in time, and you can nail the part every time.

And it’s only possible if you’re all playing to a click live.

SYNC THE PRODUCTION.

Imagine being able to take the stage and have lights and video perfectly in sync with the band, every set. If you’re playing with a click, that’s possible. Use Ableton Live to control Resolume or Qlab for video, ProPresenter for lyrics, and every video and lyric will be in perfect sync. Send MIDI or Timecode from Ableton to your lighting console, and every look will be perfect every time. When your band is comfortable playing with a click, you’re only a few steps away from syncing all the elements of your production.

Playing with a click live allows musicians to focus on being musicians. And once you master it, you can enhance your performance with tracks, production and more. It’s time to take the click out of the studio and bring it on the stage.

This article was first posted on Sweetwater.com. Used by permission.