The Fundamentals – Keeping Good Time

Famed football coach Vince Lombardi always stressed fundamentals, and so it is with drumming.

In our case, “the fundamentals,” are keeping good time, getting a good groove happening, embellishing the music, and making the musicians you’re working with want to play. There’s nothing worse than a drummer with bad time and no sense of groove. Drummers like that are usually shown the door quickly.

Musical trends always cycle and recycle over again, and right now, the trend is toward a more organic time feel and sound on many, many records. In other words, click tracks and sequencers are somewhat less prevalent than they were ten years ago, unless you’re playing Top 40, commercial R&B, hip-hop or the like, where machines still seem to rule the roost.

That doesn’t mean that today’s drummers don’t have to concern themselves with keeping good time. Not so. But how do you develop good time?

In my own case, when it finally became clear that my time was all over the map, I bought a Roland TR-505 drum machine, learned simple programming, got a solid click track of kick drum/cowbell going, and sat at the drums and played with it off and on for about two years (although it may not take you as long). At first, it was like torture keeping up with the click, but after a couple of days, I found I could lock in quite well and keep it there. Then, I practiced fill-ins with the click, making sure not to speed them up. That was tough at first too, but eventually it fell into place as well. Many drummers, myself included, have a tendency to rush the fill and therefore, anticipate the downbeat. Working with the click taught me not to rush the “one,” and leave a space between bars if necessary.

Ok…so once you’ve gotten your time together, the trick is not to play like a stiff, right? Your band might as well trade you in for a drum machine! Set the click at different tempos, from slow to fast, and play around with the beat, speeding up a hair or pulling back at times. Music that is recorded without click tracks or sequencers should breathe a bit here and there. That’s fine, just so long as the music calls for it. On the other hand, if you do a session or live date and the leader wants rock solid time played with the click or sequencer, you’ll be able to cut it with no trouble. If you’re a hired gun, the professional thing to do is give the person paying you what he or she wants, regardless of your personal feelings.

The whole object of playing good time is to push the music forward and make it feel good.

And even if your band doesn’t require spot-on precision, you, as the drummer, still must keep solid time, no matter what kind of music you’re playing (with the exception perhaps of free jazz). Don’t fall into the trap of laziness. Your fellow bandmates, especially those with a developed sense of time will be able to tell if you’re off.

I used to tell all my students: You’ll get more gigs playing great time than you ever will playing a dynamic drum solo. Your musician buddies will sit up and take notice and compliment you on your time if it’s together. If it’s all over the place, you’ll hear about THAT also! The former is decidedly better than the latter. I don’t know about you, but I think rejection sucks.

Hey, drum solos are fine, but they’re only the icing on the cake.

Playing great time IS the cake.