Like myself, anyone who has studied music in a high school or college environment has heard something like the title above. In my observation, outside of those environments it doesn’t seem to be discussed much especially with rock musicians.
When I was in college all of my teachers used to say “as musicians, TIME is our greatest asset no matter what your instrument”. As much as we were drilled in theory, tone, technique, reading, etc we were drilled in playing with good “time” even more. Now that doesn’t mean to cause your playing to be “robotic” or “stiff”, just that your time is consistent and doesn’t vaccilate. Playing in time doesn’t mean to be absolutely right on with the metronome either. Depending on the feel you’re going for you may play slightly ahead of the beat to give the groove a sense of anticipation, right on the beat, or slightly behind the beat for a more relaxed feel. For a band to accomplish this together, all need to have a solid sense of awareness of what is happening or at least a consensus of the feel they want to go for.
In an orchestra, there’s no question where the tempo or feel is decided. It’s with the conductor however all need to not only follow the conductor, but also need to be in sync with one another. The section leaders will zone in on each other while others in each section will follow their section leader’s feel, phrasing, and intonation. In a big band or as some refer to it “swing band”, the director may or may not be “conducting”. Often they will count off time and walk away or stand and give cues for key entrances. From that moment all are working together to stay in time and not let the tempo sway too much unless the arrangement calls for it. Most pop music has a solid, non wavering “four on the floor” beat that all are bound to. Now I ask you, what is one common thread in these examples? IT’S NOT JUST THE DRUMMER’S RESPONSIBILITY!! Who is responsible for the time? The answer is EVERYONE. One clinician I remember said time isn’t set by the drummer but that the drummer “colors” the time. More of a reminder of where time is.
Now let’s look at the world of rock music. In this world we tend to put all responsibility for time on the drummer. Blaming the person with the sticks for the time being lost but what happens in those parts of the song when the drummer stops and there is no “click” or beat happening? If you’re a basic trio or quartet and either a guitarist, bassist, keyboardist, or vocalist have the break on their own then you have the freedom to let the time sway a little and the rest of the band can follow. In so much of today’s rock, metal, pop, or even country music backing tracks are becoming more and more prominent. In this situation, most likely the drummer has a click and backing tracks in their headphones while the rest of the band plays to them. Again, the drummer stops, there’s a droning keyboard part coming through the PA with no “beat” or “click” and other players in the band need to keep time while the drummer has stopped. Will we still be in time when the drummer comes back in with the click? Now we’re in serious danger of the performance becoming a complete train wreck. This happens much more then most audience members (or even in some cases, band members) realize. Guess what folks, the iPod isn’t going to follow you!
So how do we practice to prevent this from happening? First step is to realize the responsibility for time that every musician carries. Next is when something isn’t quite right, assume that it is YOU first then mentally step back in the music, gain awareness of what is happening and adjust to fix it. In Victor Wooten’s latest video he told his students to not only practice with all beats of the measure in a click, but to reduce the number of clicks. Play with one click per measure, then one every two measures, every four measures, every eight and so on. Let’s see how close you are when you only get one click every eight measures to gauge how solid your time is. Now can you still blame the drummer? Or maybe the metronome is off (yes I’ve heard that one!!)
No matter what your instrument, and yes the “voice” is an instrument as well, work on your time. Even though they may not realize it, your time is the most important thing that will make people want to play with you.
Groove well my friends.