Time In - Time Out

I wrote an article a while back called Eight Essentials of the Artist Drummer, where I define an artist as the ultimate drummer – a Buddy Rich, so to speak. A true artist drummer has eight essential qualities, including Solid Time, Authenticity, and Good Dynamics. (See Eight Essentials of the Artist Drummer for more.) Eventually, I will devote a separate article to each of the eight essentials. This week, we'll cover the first one: Solid Time. You'll learn what Solid Time is, how to get it, and how to keep it through proper practice with a metronome. As a bonus, you'll find that this type of practice will greatly increase your studio drumming skills.

You're In For Defeat, If You Ain't Got That Beat
A drummer has one main function in any band – to keep a steady beat. The tempo should not speed up and it should not slow down. And while it's true that no human can keep a tempo as steady as a machine, a tempo that varies noticeably will quickly destroy any groove.

An exception is when you play in free tempo. While free playing does have its place, here we'll concentrate on what it takes to develop a steady tempo – especially important if you want to develop steady work.

The Metronome
The most useful piece of equipment to any drummer, aside from drums and sticks, is the metronome. A metronome is a device that you can adjust to sound a click at various intervals from about 40 to 208 beats per minute (bpm).

There are many different models of metronomes available today. When shopping for one, I strongly suggest that you choose one rated high in accuracy. Stay away from the old style pendulum types. Battery and plug-in electronic types are much more accurate.

Baby Steps
Drummers, especially beginners, usually have a tendency to rush right in and start banging out solos on the skins during practice sessions. Believe me, there's nothing wrong with that. That's part of the fun of drumming. But you should also devote a portion of your practice time to playing along with a metronome. Here are two major reasons why:

  1. It's the best way to develop "rock" steady Solid Time.
  2. It'll prepare you for studio recording work.

Most recording session work today requires you to play along with a "click" track, which is simply a metronome beat pumped into the headphones of all musicians on the session. While this may sound simple enough, it takes plenty of practice to play with a click track and still maintain the groove. First timers usually end up sounding like a bad electronic drum machine. The best way to develop Solid Time and prepare for studio recording work is to practice with a metronome.

How To Practice With A Metronome
Set your metronome on 100 bpm (beats per minute) and play a single stroke with your right stick followed by a single stroke with your left stick. Continue alternating your strokes, playing two taps to each single metronome click. The trick is to play each tap as evenly as possible. Repeat this simple pattern for a minute or two.

Next, move the metronome tempo up to 120 bpm and repeat the same simple exercise, playing two taps to each metronome click. Continue playing for another minute or two.

Once you've completed that, set the metronome down to 40 bpm and play the same exercise again. What happens? Do you find it harder to play evenly spaced beats? Welcome to the wonderful world of drumming and time keeping.

Contrary to popular belief, it's much harder to play at slow tempos than fast ones. Why? Because slow tempos leave you so much more room to make mistakes!

You can use exercises from practically any drum book to play along with your metronome, and it doesn't matter if you play on a practice pad or drum set. But if you do plan to practice on an acoustic drum set, you'll need to get a metronome that includes a headphone jack – if you actually expect to hear the click sound over your drum sound!

Solid Time Skill Test
There are some metronomes that have both a flashing light and audible sound. They usually let you turn off the audible sound while maintaining the tempo with the flashing light. If you have one of these models, here's a little skill test you can practice. Play along with your metronome for a while and then turn off the sound (or have someone do it for you) while you continue to play. After about 5 seconds, turn the sound back on. Are you still exactly "on" the click or has your tempo varied?

This is a fun exercise and one that usually takes time to get good at. But once you can consistently maintain any tempo (slow, fast, or half fast), try extending the time that you're playing without the audible click. Try to get up to about 30 seconds, but don't cheat. If your metronome has a light, make sure you can't see it.

Three Types of Time
Although this article is aimed at beginners to the metronome, you should know that there are actually three distinctly different types of time that experienced players use. This article covers playing directly On the Beat but you can also play slightly On Top of the Beat (for a more exciting feel) or slightly Behind the Beat (for a more laid back groove). I suggest that you first become comfortable playing directly On the Beat before attempting the other two time feels.

Not For Beginners Only
Some drummers feel that practicing with a metronome is strictly for beginners. This is a big mistake. Practicing with a metronome is something that you'll never "outgrow," no matter good you get. Not only does it improve your time and ability to play along with click tracks, as we've already discussed, it also makes a very useful "chop" measuring device.

Do you know how fast you are? How fast can you play right-handed Triplets? How about left-handed ones? What about Paradiddles and Single Strokes? How about your double bass drum Single Strokes? Practicing with a metronome can tell you. I suggest that you get a notebook and label it for your drum practice only. Use it to keep a dated record of your maximum tempos on a variety of basic rudiments and update it from time to time. Weeks, months, and years down the road, you'll be able to look back and see a written record of your progress. And if you notice that you're not making any, then you'll know it's time to find a new drum instructor!

Until next time: Stay loose and stay on that click track!

Tiger Bill Meligari


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