Updated: Jan 3, 2021
I like to tell my students (half kidding), “You have one job; hit the drum at the right time.” There’s a lot more to it than that but our main role is timekeeping. So how do we develop good time? There are several tools and techniques at our disposal but like anything else, it takes practice.
The first word of advise from any music teacher will be, practice with a metronome. Wait, a metro-what?! A metronome is a devise that keeps a steady beat. It’s sometimes called a click track. You can adjust the tempo (speed) in bpm (Beats Per Minute). My favorite app is Pro Metronome. There’s a free, limited function version and a paid ($3) full app. It’s totally worth the 3 bucks so don’t be cheap, just buy it. For loud instruments (like drums) you’ll need to plug in a pair of headphones.
A metronome may be overwhelming for some beginners. In that case, it might be better to revisit it at a later time. Important things to remember when playing to a click are:
Listen. The metronome won’t follow you so you must listen and follow it.
Relax. Don’t fight it. Your time will improve when you’re relaxed.
Subdivide. Subdivisions of the beat should always be running in the back of your mind.
Be flexible. Don’t try to play with perfect time. The key is making constant micro-adjustments.
Sequenced tracks. Some bands use pre-recorded tracks, requiring you to play to a click on stage. You’ll soon discover not everyone has perfect time. Even if you’re solid, you‘ll still get push/pull from the other band members. If you feel the band pulling away, don’t go with them. Stay with the track! They’ll have to make adjustments to get back in sync with you. Worst case scenario, they’ll drop out while you continue playing with the track. No one in the audience will be aware there was any problem.
Live BPM. A great app for monitoring your time is Live BPM. It’s not a metronome. It only displays the tempo you’re playing. I put tempo markings on my set lists but it helps to hum the chorus before counting off each song. You’ll be in the ballpark and can make adjustments after you start playing. If the tempo has to be spot-on from the beginning, I’ll have my metronome app at the ready for accurate count-offs.
No safety net. I don’t often perform without technological aids but when I do, here are some tips that help:
Hum the chorus. This is the best way to get the tempo in your head before counting off a song. Even if it’s not exact, it’ll be close. Besides, I think every performance should have a life of its own. If the band’s grooving, don’t mess with it!
Feel the beat. Each tempo has it’s own feel. If it’s laid back, try to maintain that laid back feeling in the chorus. If it’s faster, don’t loose your edge in the verses. You can change the intensity using dynamics and different sound colors (closed hi hat, open hi hat, ride or bell).
Listen from the audience. Don’t get locked in your head. Try to listen as if you’re in the audience. It’s easy to focus too much on what we’re doing and not the overall sound of the band. Listening from the audience will bring you back to the feel and intent of the song.
Dance in your seat. Manu Katche got this bit of advice from Peter Gabriel. I got similar advice from my teachers, Jerry McKenzie and Gary Stuck. The way Jerry put it was, “The more limbs you have keeping time, the more solid your time will be.“ Gary would bob his head and say, “Get your whole body involved in the timekeeping!”
I hope this helps in your pursuit of steady time. Don’t try to be perfect, they have machines that can do that. Embrace your human feel! Most importantly... relax, have fun and enjoy the moment you’re creating with your band and audience.