After years of both studying and teaching drums, I have come to the conclusion that there are three kinds of drummers in this world.
-...are under the illusion that their timing is amazing.
-...know their timing sucks but don't know how to improve it.
-...regularly train themselves to have solid timing.
As a professional drummer, solid timing has always been a crucial 'tool of the trade' for me, so in a big sense, I have regularly been at a point where I needed to re-evaluate my ability to keep solid time. In this blog, I will briefly share my experience and journey of developing my 'internal clock' with the aid of a metronome, and it is my wish that you would be both inspired and empowered with this information to train and maintain your own sense of timing as a drummer.
Walking The Tightrope of Timing
One of the best analogies that I've found for playing with a metronome is on Benny Greb's instructional DVD called "The Art & Science of Groove". He explains that playing with a metronome is very similar to walking on a tightrope. When you get onto it for the very first time you generally tend to lose your balance and fall off to one side. Then, if you're brave enough to try again, you step out onto it, only to overcompensate when you start losing your balance again, and you fall off on the opposite side. Similarly, when playing with a metronome for the first time you tend to start off great, but then somewhere down the line you lose your "balance" and your timing starts drifting away from the metronome's time.
Now, with a professional tightrope walker, it may seem like they remain perfectly balanced all the time, but in reality, they actually go "off balance" just as many times as the average person.
The difference between a tightrope walker and the average person is that tightrope walkers have trained themselves to adjust a lot sooner to restore their balance, and because they react much quicker when they sense that their balance is "drifting" they need smaller adjustments to get themselves back into balance. Similarly, when you listen to an experienced drummer grooving with a click it can sound like he or she is always perfectly in sync with the metronome. In actual fact, they probably drift quite regularly (in small increments) from the metronome's time. But, because they pick it up really quickly and then make very small adjustments to get back onto the metronome's time, you hardly hear it.
So, the moral of the story is this: the more you practice with a metronome, the better you will become at identifying very quickly those times when you start drifting away from the metronome's time, and the better you will become at making just the right amount of adjustment to get yourself back in time with the click.
The Quarter-Note Click
For most musicians, their first introduction to a metronome is one that has a straightforward quarter note pulse, and for someone who has never worked with a metronome before this is probably the best place to start. Normally it is quite a revelation when you try to play with a click for the first time because suddenly there is this little machine that seems to constantly shout at you: "You're losing time!!" But eventually, with some practice, you manage to actually stick to the metronome quite regularly and easily.
I started playing to a metronome fairly early in my "drum life", but it wasn't until much later that I realised I wasn't quite playing 'on top' of the metronome. This came to light during one of my first studio recording experiences, where the engineer kept telling me I was playing behind the click (in other words, I was "too slow" in relation to the metronome). After some self-analysis, I eventually discovered that I was literally waiting to hear the click before I played my stroke... I wasn't waiting very long, obviously, but just waiting long enough for my groove to sit 'behind the click' the whole time.
I think this felt like a bit of a safe zone for me because the click was pretty much keeping the time for me, but as I started exploring my relationship with the click I realised that I needed to actually listen to the click's timing and instead of waiting for the next click before playing my stroke, I need to try and calculate and anticipate where the next click would fall. I then timed my stroke to try and land it exactly at the exact moment where I predicted the click would be. This was quite scary at first because I wouldn't know whether I was 'on time' until after I had heard the metronome click.
I got more comfortable with this eventually, and a new sensation opened up to me in this whole process. While I was doing my best to play my strokes at the exact same time as the metronome click I started noticing that the metronome click would disappear every now and then. Once again this was an unnerving feeling for me, but I soon realised that the reason for the click disappearing was because I was playing my stroke perfectly on top of the click. So in essence, my strokes started eclipsing the metronome clicks, creating the illusion that the metronome has disappeared.
From then on, whenever I play with a quarter-note click I normally try and see if I can play as accurately 'on top' of it as possible and recreate that eclipsing experience with the click. (There are some exceptions where I will try and play behind or in front of the click on purpose, but that's a story for another blog ;-)
This concept of playing directly "on top" of the click is very often described as playing "in the pocket". The best way for me to visualise it was by seeing a little ball that bounces in tempo and keeps moving to the right (kind of like that bouncing ball on the lyrics of the Disney sing-along videos). Every time the ball hits the bouncing surface there is a beat or a metronome tick.
Now if you could trace the path of the ball as it keeps bouncing to the right you will see a V-shaped "pocket" form around each of the metronome beats. So when someone says you are playing "in the pocket", that means you are putting your strokes right in the middle of that "V" every time the metronome ticks.
Here are a few video examples of playing "in front" the metronome, playing "on top" of the metronome (or "in the pocket"), and playing "behind" of the metronome:
Playing "In Front" of the Metronome
Playing "On Top" of the Metronome
Playing "Behind" the Metronome
Adding The Subdivisions
Another timing-related issue that arose in my playing was with little in-between details, especially when it comes to drum fills or complicated grooves which require more advanced independence. I was listening to recordings of drummers like Dave Weckl, Vinnie Colaiuta, and Russ Miller from an early age, and there was one aspect of their playing that really made them stand out for me above so many other drummers: every one of the notes they played seemed to be in exactly the right place. Not only do they manage to maintain a consistent tempo overall, but it always sounds like all of their strokes are exactly aligned with some kind of invisible "time grid".
I started paying attention to where all my "in-between" strokes landed while I played, and in an effort to even out my 16th notes I started dialling in the 16th subdivisions on my metronome. This gave me a nice little grid to measure where each of my strokes landed (as long as I was playing within the straight 16th note subdivision "grid"). I approached this in the same way as I learned to approach the quarter-note click, trying to eclipse each of the metronome's subdivisions with one of my strokes.
As a side note, I did the same thing with 8th note subdivisions on the metronome and I found that it actually felt different to me. The 16th subdivisions made my groove feel a bit lighter and obviously busier, but when playing with the 8th note subdivisions it felt like my grooves had more weight, for some reason... I guess I approached it with more of a "Rock" feel, as opposed to the 16ths which I intuitively played with more of a "Funk/Fusion" feel.
There was a long time in my drumming where I would always dial in as many subdivisions as I could while playing (even during live gigs and recordings) in order to make sure I have something to measure the tightness of each of my strokes. And then one day I was in a position where I couldn't use my metronome during the gig... That felt like one of the "shakiest" gigs I ever played!
After that gig, I realised that I had once again fallen into a 'comfort zone' with the metronome. Instead of using the metronome to stabilise my own sense of time, I had become dependent on the metronome to keep my timing in check.
The 'Gap Click'
So from there, I started exploring again to try and find better ways to train my sense of time, and it was during this time that I was introduced to something called a "Gap Click". This opened up my understanding of timing beyond just "sitting with the click" to a place where I could start training my inner sense of time to be more consistent and reliable.
A "gap click" works as follows:
The metronome plays a few bars in order for you to get a feel for the tempo, and then the metronome is "muted" for a bar or two, leaving you to "fill in the blanks" with your own "internal metronome". After a "silent" bar or two, the metronome comes back in, giving you the opportunity to gauge how well you kept time during the metronome's silence.
Some gap clicks can be programmed to drop out at specific intervals, and some metronomes have a kind-of "randomise" function which makes the "drop out" bars unpredictable.
When I first got to hear about a gap click I didn't yet have a metronome that could be programmed to give me "gaps", so I had to improvise. The concept to me was obvious: get something that doesn't indicate every single beat when it keeps time for me so that my internal "clock" can start training to keep its own consistent time. So I started by taking the tempo I wanted to practice at and dividing it in half on the metronome. In this way, when I put on a quarter-note click, the metronome would in effect only give me beats "One" and "Three" while I was practising. And it didn't take long for me to switch the metronome back to the original tempo and start using it with only the "one" count (or as I like to call it: "The bar indicator") ticking.
Another cool exercise that I got from Benny Greb's first educational DVD, "The Language of Drumming" was his exercise to use the click as an "off-beat". You would, for instance, turn on the metronome and then try to hear the click as up-beats instead of on the down beats. In this way, when you play a straight forward groove, the click is supposed to fall exactly in the middle between each of your bass drum or snare drum beats. This is also a handy tool to use in trying to get your sense of time solidified because the metronome does give you time, but not in the way that you are used to. It's almost like those math problems where they give you the answer to one variable and you have to figure out from there what the values of the other variables are.
I won't go into any more detail about this method of "time-training", but I will encourage you to try it and explore it even further!
The Multiple Uses for a Metronome
Throughout this exploration quest to find the best way to train and develop my timing as a drummer I have come to realise that a metronome can be used to train all the different aspects of timing by simply adding or removing the amount of "time indications" that the metronome indicates for you. I visualise it as a tool that can either zoom in to scrutinise the finer details of your playing or zoom out to analyse broader view of your timing consistency.
I did eventually get myself a metronome that has the capability of programming 'gap clicks'. This is proving to be very useful in the sense that I can now utilise my metronome in three different manners simultaneously while I'm practising: Quarter-note clicks, a subdivision grid, and gap clicks.
I use my metronome in each of these ways whenever I practice or train my sense of time:
-The quarter note click helps me focus on a steady and consistent pulse. This is especially important for when I am tracking drums in a studio environment where I don't always have the luxury of a click track with subdivisions to "hold my hand".
-The added subdivisions help me measure whether my "details" are nice and tight. I still use this practice method whenever I get the feeling that some of my grooves or fills are feeling a bit "loose".
-The gap click trains my internal sense of time to know what a solid & consistent tempo feels like. I spend some time with this whenever I start feeling that my sense of tempo feels "floaty" or unsteady.
So, these are the things I have figured out in my dealings with timekeeping and metronomes thus far, but the one thing that twenty-seven years of drumming has taught me is that there is always something new to learn, explore, and to try out.
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