A good friend of mine recently went through a tempo crisis. For several years, he had been playing with a group that consisted of a guitar player, a bass player, a keyboard player, and my friend, the drummer. The group had an opportunity to do some recording with the idea that they might be able to land a recording contract.
At the first recording session, the guitarist decided to change one of the arrangements that the band had been rehearsing for several months. He also decided to play the song slower. Playing a song slower than you are used to playing it—especially when you consider the pressure of recording—can be very difficult. It is usually easier to increase the tempo than to decrease it. At any rate, each time an arrangement was changed, any resulting difficulty was blamed on my friend, the drummer. Some of the arrangements had some very involved drum parts. Rhythms, lyrics, and tempos were being changed, and tempers got shorter and shorter.
Each time the group listened to a playback, someone found fault with the drummer. Comments such as, “Why can’t you play two extra bass drum beats in that break? Why don’t you play a different rhythm in the first section? That’s not the feel I want,” and “I don’t like the drum sound” became the order of the day (or actually the week).
Due to lack of direction (or the lack of a good producer), the demo recording session disintegrated into “We can’t play with this drummer!” The group broke up, and the guitar player blamed the drummer. Finally, the bass player began to agree with the guitar player. “Yeah, you are right. We need a better drummer.”
Unfortunately, my friend began to feel that the whole mess was his fault. The harder he had tried, the more critical the group had become. Every mistake or slight fluctuation in tempo had been blamed on him, and finally, he was blamed for “destroying” the recording session.
I have several observations regarding this situation and others like it. First of all, the biggest problem that drummers have is that a melody player and/or singer is usually the leader of the band. Such people often have little understanding of what the drummer can do or is supposed to do. For example, have you watched most guitar or horn players tap their feet? Rarely is it really in time. If they rush a phrase, their feet also rush. They often lack the coordination to tap their feet evenly while playing syncopated patterns. However, these same people feel qualified to instruct the drummer on tempo problems.
Secondly, the misconception exists in many groups that the drummer should maintain a perfect tempo, even if other members of the band rush or drag. They seem to think that drummers can play without listening to—or being influenced by—what is going on around them.
Thirdly, a problem is created when the guitar player and the bass player crank up their amplifiers to an ear-splitting level. How can a drummer hold these players together if they don’t listen to him or her? Sheer volume can be overpowering when the drummer is attempting to keep the band from rushing.
Finally, if the guitar player and the bass player are entitled to criticize the drummer, why can’t the drummer criticize them? Why shouldn’t it be possible for the drummer to tell the guitar player that he or she is rushing on certain phrases? Why can’t the drummer criticize the settings on the bass amp? If everyone is concerned about the sound of the group, then everyone—including the drummer—should have a voice in making decisions that affect the group’s performance.
Here are some suggestions for keeping our friends honest: Suppose someone in the band says something like, “Can I offer you some advice on the way your drums sound?” You should say, “Sure, if I am allowed the same privilege. Can I offer you some helpful advice as well?” This will usually get across the idea that criticism is a two-way street. So is respect.
If there is a time problem on a particular song, point out to the group that you can’t correct it all by yourself. A band is a team, and a team functions best when the members cooperate. Each person in the band contributes to the sense of tempo and the time feel in a group.
To improve communications in a band, don’t try to fix the “blame” on someone. Try to work out the problem through mutual respect and cooperation. It takes a little effort, but other musicians will respect you if you concentrate on the problem, rather than on personalities.
If you are going to record, try to have a clear understanding of your material before you get into the studio. A recording session is really not the place to rehearse or rewrite material. Obviously, changes can be made after listening to a playback, but a clear idea of what you want to accomplish will eliminate many problems and help to reduce the pressure of recording.
If possible, have a producer, a friend with some recording experience, or a very experienced recording engineer on hand to give some objective comments during the recording session. This can help to avoid friction between the band members, and it is one reason why top groups hire a good producer.
Remember that you are human. Drummers are not drum machines. Drum machines may be perfect, but they don’t swing, and they can’t project emotion. Remember, too, that your sense of tempo is no better than the people you play with. My friend is now in a new band, and suddenly his tempo crisis is over. Everyone in this new group thinks he plays just what is needed. The last I heard, they were thinking of making a record.