This article will deal with time in its basic form, as applied to swing, bebop, gospel, Dixieland, Latin, rock, country & western or whatever. The basic principles will apply when playing any rhythmical style which requires a steady pulse.

Time = Tempo. First of all, I’d like to clarify the word “time.” The word “time,” as used in the jazz vernacular, generally means “tempo,” i.e., “He/She has good time,” or “He/She has bad, sloppy or sad time.” I’m sure most of us have heard these words before, whether they have been referred to someone else or, at some point or other in our careers, either statement could have applied to ourselves.

What is meant by “good time” is that one can keep a steady, swinging or funky groove or tempo/pulse. “Bad or sloppy time” refers to an erratic or unsteady pulse.

Whose responsibility is it to keep the pulse steady? Here is another debatable question. Ideally it would be great if everyone had a perfect sense of time/tempo once it is kicked off. Unfortunately, this is not the case, so it has fallen upon the drummer to establish and hold the pulse steady.

In recent years I’ve heard some say that the bass player has it. Well, as I said before, it’s debatable. However, what any “pro” will tell you, is that whenever the tempo waivers in a band, the first person everyone looks at is the drummer. The fact is that in reality everyone in the band looks to the drummer to hold the tempo steady. One can think of the drummer as the heartbeat of the group.

If you take a human being whose heartbeat is unsteady, then that person becomes unbalanced. The same thing happens with any group, large or small. If the drummer doesn’t have an excellent sense of “time/tempo,” then the group is not going to function very well.

Just as everyone is not born with perfect tonal pitch, the same applies to being born with or without a perfect sense of time/ tempo. Relative pitch can be developed to the point that it enables a player to function with and up to the same capacity as a player born with perfect pitch. This also applies to developing an excellent sense of time/pulse.

There are aids one can use, such as a metronome, or a click track to practice with. One can also play along with recordings which have players in the rhythm section known for having good time.

The most valuable lesson I ever had on keeping a steady pulse came from my father, Ben Thigpen.

After several nights of playing with his group, and just following his subtle snap of the finger on “2” and “4,” and watching him step out the time in front of the band, he told me that the key to keeping good time was concentration. One must learn to listen to where the tempo is kicked off, then lock that tempo in your mind and hold it there all the while you are playing.

For the drummer this means you must be able to relate whatever rhythm pattern you play to the given tempo.

As mentioned before, one way to start developing an excellent sense of time or tempo is by using a metronome. If it is possible, I would recommend the use of one powered by electricity or battery. The mechanical wind-up type is also good, except they run down after a short period. At any rate, the steady pulse of the metronome allows you to see and hear immediately whether your pulse sense fluctuates within a given amount of measures or minutes.

Another way to make use of the metronome is to use it for checking your ability to retain various tempos.

This is done by first setting a tempo on the metronome, say 60, 100, 120 or whatever. After listening to, and tapping out the tempo along with the metronome for a few minutes, turn the metronome off and try to remember the tempo. The next step is for you to set the same tempo yourself, say e.g. quarter note = 88 met. Tap out the tempo; while you are still counting out or tapping in tempo, turn the metronome on again and see how close you are to the metronome tempo.

This, of course, requires concentration on the tempo first set with the metronome, and locking it into your memory.

The next step will be to apply what I call the nuances of time. The nuances of time occur when we begin to play various rhythmic patterns or “mini-pulses” within the established tempo or basic pulse.

Try the following simple exercises:

  1. Set a slow tempo, i.e., quarter note = 60 met.
  2. Tap the pulse with your foot and count out loud in quarter notes: one, two, three, four. Repeat this for two or four measures.
  3. Continue tapping your foot in the same tempo and count out loud in even 8th notes: one, an, two, an, three, an, four, an.

Repeat this for two or four measures.

  1. Continue tapping your foot in the same tempo and count out loud in triplets: one trip let, two trip-let, three trip-let, four trip-let. Repeat for two or four bars.
  2. Continue tapping your foot in the same tempo and count out loud in 16th notes: 1 e an ah, 2 e an ah, 3 e an ah, 4 e an ah.

Repeat for two or four bars.


Repeat the same exercise, only this time I would like you to make yourselves consciously aware of the feeling of the basic quarternote pulse being tapped with your foot, as you count in quarter notes audibly. Next, the feeling of the basic pulse tapped with the foot when you count in 8th notes. Next, the feeling of the basic pulse when counting in triplets, and finally the feeling of the basic quarter note pulse being tapped with your foot when you count in 16th notes. The idea is to transfer the counts and feeling of the “mini-pulses” down through the basic quarter-note pulse in tempo. Notice how the feeling of the basic quarter-note pulse changes with each of the various counts or “mini-pulses.” This is a practical first step to relating rhythm to the basic pulse. When playing in a set tempo the nuances in the time feeling will depend on the interpretation of the written or improvised rhythmic patterns.

Rhythm is created by variations in the length of sound and silence. One way to become aware or conscious of the feeling of rhythmic patterns is through the activation of the silences between the notes or beats played. To do this, I have devised a method utilizing what I refer to as a “Hand Motion Line.” The way this works is that you set your hands and arms in motion, synchronizing the movement with an audible count; i.e., a quarter-note count is synchronized with a quarter-note hand-and-arm motion.

Time and it's nuances 1With an 8th-note audible count, move the hands and arms in an 8th-note motion:

Time and it's nuances 2

The same would apply to the triplet note count.

Time and it's nuances 3

And of course the 16th-note count.

Time and it's nuances 4To better sensitize yourself to the feeling of the above “minipulses” and their relations to the basic quarter-note pulse tapped with the foot in a steady tempo, I strongly recommend that you make the movements in the air space in front of you without actually hitting any surface. I mentioned before about the activation of the silences between the notes or beats to be played. The Hand Motion Line is a very good device to use for this purpose. Take the following rhythmic pattern:

Time and it's nuances 5

For an exact 8th note interpretation, try this: 1) Set a steady slow or medium tempo. Tap out the tempo with your foot. 2) Continue tapping your foot in tempo and count in 8th notes, moving your hands and arms in a synchronized movement with the audible count.

Time and it's nuances 6

The Hand Motion Line is to be made continuously in the air, striking a surface only at those points designated by the written note. Remember the movement of the Hand Motion Line continues in the air where no notes appear or there are rest signs. This will thereby activate the silence between the sounded notes or beats.

Time and it's nuances 7

Same pattern played with a triplet feeling interpretation:

Time and it's nuances 8

The idea of this exercise is to enable you to become aware and actually feel the related mini-pulses between the struck or sounded notes. These pulses also must be related to the basic time in tempo. It is this silent activity which gives the sounded notes or rhythm its own distinct feeling.

I would recommend that you re-read the explanations again slowly. Try the two examples given again, applying this logic, and allow yourself to be conscious of the difference in feeling between the two, within the mind and body.

Doing these exercises very slowly will allow you time to be totally conscious of each count and movement. Once you have done this, the next step is to apply this same approach to a basic time-keeping pattern, i.e., the basic jazz ride rhythm with a triplet feel.

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Please note that the triplet is counted and felt on the first and third beats as well as the second and fourth beats. When this is done the whole pattern becomes balanced.

Further nuances

Subtle changes in the time feel may occur when the same rhythmic pattern is played in a different tempo or split up between different implements of the drumset (independent coordination).

Time and it's nuances 10

Use 8th note mini-pulse count.

Time and it's nuances 11

Same pattern with triplet shuffle feeling.

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Or the same pattern played at half-note = 100 met. Creating a Charleston feeling.

Time and it's nuances 13

Note that the basic 4/4 pulse is divided between the bass drum and hi-hat, giving a 2/2 feeling, although in reality we are still in 4/4. The accented 2nd and 4th beats in the ride rhythm also add to this feeling.

The placement of accents within the basic ride rhythm pattern is also another device one can use to alter the time feeling. When using accents, however, I strongly recommend that you really know the melody of the song you are playing.

If you do not play a melodic instrument, such as piano or vibes, etc., then I would suggest you learn to analyze the rhythm of the melody. You may not have the tonal intervals always on pitch, but you should at least be able to sing the rhythm of the song and be able to relate that to your basic time patterns.

A suggestion for practicing this is as follows: First, determine the interpretation you are going to use rhythmically. By this I mean to determine whether you are interpreting the melody with a basic 8th-note feeling or a triplet feel.

The style of the music or the interpretive styles of individual soloists will also have a definite influence on how one should interpret a basic time pattern.

In Latin and rock-oriented music, rhythmic accompaniment patterns utilize 8th and 16th note “mini-pulses.” In jazz styles (swing, bebop, avant-garde, jazz-rock, Latin jazz, etc.,) the triplet feel is utilized to a greater extent. Jazz will also mix the “minipulses,” creating a wide range of accompanying rhythmic patterns. This is quite evident in contemporary interpretation of jazz music. The most important thing to remember, however, is that the time must be felt, and above all, use good musical taste.

In this article I am stressing an approach to basic time. The next and equally important step is to learn to listen, and analyze. Listen to how each melody is interpreted rhythmically. Whenever possible, try to get a copy of the written melody to the song you are to play. When the written music is available to you, break it down and analyze the rhythmic structure of the melody.

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For a jazz triplet feel, the rhythm of the melody should be interpreted in triplets with the “an” count coming on the “let” count of the trip-let, as follows:

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Try counting each group of triplets out loud on the underlined beats and syllables, and silent on the beats and syllables not underlined. Do this while maintaining a steady slow or medium tempo 4/ 4 tapped with the foot or bass drum. Next play the basic riderhythm pattern while singing the phrase of the song.

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The count produces a triplet shuffle feeling which is transferred to the basic ride pattern. The addition of the hi-hat perfectly synchronized on the second and fourth beats gives an added accent on those beats creating the swing indigenous to jazz rhythm.

Dynamics, tension, and release are also factors that must be considered when playing time. When to apply these various devices will depend on the structure and interpretation of the melody or improvised solos being played. It is therefore imperative for you as the drummer to listen very carefully to the band and the soloist, so that you are able to react instantly to their interpretations.

Playing excellent supportive time is an art in itself. You must understand that whatever the band or soloist plays must be built on and come through the “time” being played by the drummer and bassist. Since most drum parts give only a minimal indication of what’s happening within a given piece, you must rely on your ears and creative instinct for the most part of your performance.

It is, therefore, extremely important for you to be constantly listening to as much music as you can. Do not restrict your listening to just one or two types of music. Be open to all musical ideas. This way you will gradually build up a broader spectrum of musical devices automatically and be able to more easily relate to the nuances when playing time.

Working With Your Partner in “Time,” The Bass Player

It is absolutely essential that the drummer and bass player complement and agree on their time feel. Talking it over when the two of you feel different about the feeling, can save a lot of frustration. Here’s a good test and practice routine for you both.

Take a blues tune; 12-bar standard changes. Adapt a standard blues melody. Both of you sing the melody while playing some basic time pattern for two or three choruses. Try the same blues melody in different tempos, i.e., the first time slow, say about 60 met. The second time, in a medium tempo, say 108. The third time, in a fast tempo, 160 or faster, depending on your own present ability. Try the same tune at different dynamic levels, p, mf, f.

Next, one of you play “time” while the other plays the melody. For the drummer this means you must play the exact rhythm line of the melody. Do this on the snare drum, accompanying yourself with a steady 4/4 bass drum pulse, adding the hi-hat on the 2nd and 4th beats of every bar.

This may also be done playing the hi-hat on all four beats in the bar and playing the melody on the bass drum.

Finally each of you play an improvised solo, while the other keeps time. These suggestions are only a few ways in which you can get a pretty accurate sense of your own time/tempo control. The important thing is that you are aware of your own control and time sense, both as a soloist and an accompanist.

If some section of the group or the soloist has a tendency to “rush” or “drag” in tempo, you must develop the ability to be able to steer and keep them in tempo. The best way to do this is by gaining the other members’ respect for your sense of time and its nuances.