Drummers from every style of music have been interviewed in this magazine, and while they might express widely different philosophies or advocate various techniques of playing, they all seem to agree on one thing: the importance of keeping good time. Bandleaders and bass players have also been quoted as saying that good timekeeping is their number one requirement in a drummer. For a show drummer it is important; for a club drummer in a dance band, it is critical.
I define good time as the ability to control the consistency of the tempo within a song; either to keep it rock solid (against the tendency of a soloist to rush or drag, for example) or to engineer deliberate shifts in the tempo in order to achieve an intentional effect.
But having the best time in the world won’t help if the group has difficulty establishing the correct initial tempo for a song. This is a common and very understandable problem in club bands. When any individual counts off a tune, he is pulling a tempo out of thin air, and that tempo is going to be based on his particular concept of how fast that song should be. On any given performance, his concept is going to be influenced by a number of, what I call, “controlling factors.” These include:
- Basic metabolism. Different people live at different speeds. This is why we call some people “hyper” and others “laid back” or “low key.” These people will actually perceive the “correct” tempo for a song at widely differing rates of speed, based on what is comfortable for them relative to their own inner clock.
- Physical fatigue. A tired player will generally feel tempos slower than one who is fresh. If you come to the gig after a long day of yard work, and the other players have spent the day on the couch watching the ball game, you’re likely to feel the tem pos at a slower rate than they will.
- Emotional level. You might be very rested, but a little depressed about something. Again your perception of tempo is likely to be slower than normal. On the other hand, if you’ve had an extremely “up” day, and you come to the gig excited and happy, you could have a tendency to feel the tempos a good deal faster than usual.
Conflict over initial tempos arises when some members of the group fall into one of the above-listed categories, while the rest fall into another. Thus, the perception of “correct” tempo differs from player to player, and nobody feels comfortable. The importance of “correct” tempo to a club band is based on a simple fact: your audience is already familiar with this music. They have heard the songs on the car radio or stereo at home, and are used to the tempos they have heard. The feel, and especially the danceability of the song are affected if your tempos are too different from what they are used to. Many customers will criticize a band with something like the following statement: “They sound fine—they’re good players. But they seem to rush (or drag) everything; they just aren’t danceable.” The complaint isn’t that the tempos shift within the song (that the time isn’t consistent), but rather that the initial tempos aren’t comfortable.
Of course, audiences are subject to the same factors controlling perception of tempo that I listed for players. On a crowded, busy night, the general enthusiasm level tends to build, and as people’s adrenalin level rises, their perception of tempos usually accelerates. This is why concert acts usually play their songs faster than the recorded version. But you have to keep in mind that your audience members are also including physical movement dancing—in their reactions to your songs, and while their emotional level might accommodate a different tempo, their bodies may still not be comfortable with anything other than what they’re familiar with. You can’t let the charge you get from a happy audience allow you to run away with tempos. That happy audience can be alienated very quickly without ever realizing why.
Standard procedure with most bands isto have one individual determine the tempos. Most often this is the bandleader, who counts off all the tunes. But he is not impervious to the “controlling factors,” and although he may be very conscious of them, there’s no guarantee he can overcome them. He’s only human. So my band took the responsibility off the shoulders of the leader (or any of us, for that matter) and gave it to an individual who was not subject to the “controlling factors”: a metronome. And before I get letters decrying my cop-out to a mechanical device instead of relying on training and musical ability, let me tell you how we used the metronome, what it achieved, and what our attitude was toward its use.
How We Used It
The idea was simple. Since most people feel that the correct tempo for any given dance song is the one they’ve heard on the record, we played the record for each of our tunes and clocked it against the metronome to establish the beats-per-minute tempo setting. (It was interesting to note that very few tunes were rock-steady against the metronome. Even recorded versions tend to accelerate and decelerate within each song.) Once we had the tempo settings, we listed them alongside each title on our song list.
We used an AC-powered electric metronome, so it would not be subject to battery slowdown or require re-winding as a clockwork unit does. We could rely on it to re main accurate at all times. The unit had a blinking light on top, as well as a switchable click sound, which we left in the “off” position. I simply mounted the unit in an inconspicuous place on stage where I could reach it, and masked it from the audience with a little gaffer’s tape. I could see the blinking light, and our bass player could also; the audience could not. When our bandleader called a tune, I checked the tempo setting on the list we had made, and set the metronome to that reading. I took a few beats from the blinking light and then counted off the tune for the band accordingly. It didn’t take long for me to begin to memorize the settings for our most frequently-played songs, so there was very little time taken up for this operation. Since many of the songs were at the same basic tempo, I was not required to make setting changes for each and every one. Also, we tended to play our slow songs without using the metronome at all.
What It Achieved
We achieved very dramatic results using the metronome, and they weren’t all musical. Since we now had an objective, reliable source of tempo information, we no longer had conflicts between band members over what was the right tempo for a given song. This had become a serious source of discord, caused only by the difference in personality-related tempo perception I have already mentioned. The metronome was not subject to either physical or emotional highs or lows, and could give us the same tempo, night after night, for each song. This released us from a tremendous psychological pressure. We became free to concentrate on playing well, rather than on how fast we were playing, or was the audience comfortable with it, or were we comfortable, etc. Our complete attention could be turned to the expressiveness of the performance, rather than the technical elements of playing. We discovered that the metronome could even be used to adjust to the ups and downs of audiences. If it was a busy night, and the audience was excited and energetic, then the overall pace of the evening could go up. To achieve this, we merely increased each listed tempo setting by a few beats per minute. In this way, we and the audience felt more comfortable, and the songs maintained the same general impression of tempo variety relative to each other.
Our Attitude Towards It
Our attitude towards using the metronome was skeptical at first. None of us like the idea of relying on a machine to control a major element of our performance. But as we started working with it, and realized how far afield some of our tempos had gone from the original recorded versions, we saw the need for some kind of reliable guide. We also had the sense to realize that this was a tool, and we were to use it, not the other way around. As might be expected, after a few weeks of using the unit, we improved our own sense of tempo, and did not rely on the metronome for each song. But when critical songs came up, we had it there as the final arbiter of “correct” tempo, and we could turn to it and be sure we were giving our audience the “danceability” they sought.
Every drum teacher I’ve ever known has advocated the use of a metronome as a developmental aid, helping to improve the ability to play comfortably and well at various tempos. We simply took the same ap proach as a band, using the metronome to help us establish the best tempos to work with in order to make our performance as enjoyable as possible for our audience and for ourselves.