4 Ways to Improve Your Timekeeping

Ask any musician, especially a nondrummer, “What’s the number one role of the drummer?” Nine times out of ten, you’re going to get the same answer: keeping time.

As I consider this, I’m amazed by the lack of educational material relating to the subject of timekeeping, yet there’s no shortage of material dealing with rudiments, independence, and other ways to fly around the drumset like a highly trained acrobat. This highlights an ironic situation for us as drummers: Our main purpose is to keep time in a variety of musical situations, yet there are limited resources available for students seeking mastery of this skill.

My theory on why this is the case is because timekeeping is a very subjective skill. In other words, it’s based entirely in the mind and reflects a mastery of emotions and discipline rather than pure physical skill. Simply put, timekeeping isn’t as easy to teach as, say, a double-stroke roll. While this article will only scratch the surface of what I believe is a vast area of discussion, I’ll share observations that have helped me in my professional career.

Play the Space
For about a hundred years, the drumset has been used primarily to drive the pulse of popular music. Yet when itcomes to teaching timekeeping, instructors have continuously repeated one piece of oversimplified advice: Practice with a metronome. The purpose of doing that is to increase a student’s awareness of time through strict adherence to the rigid and unforgiving pace of the metronome, hoping that one day the student will internalize that pulse.

Practicing along with metronomes, drum machines, and sequenced music might help to build your perception of accurate time, but you really need to focus on internalizing consistent spacing between the notes, regardless of the style or tempo. Many drummers focus mostly on the note attacks and tend to forget about what happens after the attack. I think this oversight is the leading cause of pushing and pulling within a groove and is also the cause of tempo fluctuations during fills.

In order to understand this concept more clearly, think about the room you’re sitting in right now. Try to find and point to the exact middle of the room. Now find and point to the middle of this page. The center of the page is a lot easier to locate, because the space you’re working with is a lot smaller. This correlates with the difference between fast and slow tempos in the music we play. As drummers we need to account for this space precisely, and it’s easier to do so when we use the simple concept of subdividing.

Go back to the room analogy. If you were to draw a grid across the entire floor, you could easily find the center of the room by counting groups of smaller blocks. This is exactly how subdividing works in music. It’s achieved first by establishing the quarter-note pulse. Then, in your mind, divide that pulse into 8th or 16th notes, depending on the tempo of the song. Faster tempos require less subdivision, while slower tempos need more, because, as with our large room, too much space exists in which to calculate the exact center. Here’s a general rule: At medium to fast tempos, think twice the speed you’re actually playing. At slow tempos, think four times the speed.

Move With Patience
Consider the common analogy of the drummer being the driver of the music. If music is like a car and the drummer is the driver, then consider the highway the metronomic pulse. When you drive a car, the highway severely limits your ability to steer left or right. Notice, however, that you don’t keep a rigid hold on the wheel, or else you would eventually sway and crash into a ditch. As we drive, we make small adjustments left and right, and somehow, in spite of the minor fluctuations, the car maintains a straight course. The same is true of driving a band. You need to allow yourself a small margin of error.

The best players know how to manage their margin of error and keep the car—meaning the music—tight in the lane as they drive down the road. Less experienced players tend to swerve too much or jerk too suddenly in order to compensate when getting sidetracked. Even masters will sometimes waver a bit off course, but these players are distinguished by the ability to steer back to the center over the period of a few beats. Correcting mistakes at this level requires an enormous amount of confidence, discipline, and, most important, patience.

Focus Your Energy
As I’ve said, mastering the skill of timekeeping requires discipline and the ability to keep your emotions in check. It’s easy to push the tempo of a song when you’re excited and adrenaline starts to take over. Here’s where the practice of patience comes into play. When you’re feeling the rush of the music, it’s important to breathe, maintain self-control, and direct that emotion anywhere else but on the pulse. I like to lay into the drums a little harder, or I turn the raw emotion into creative energy, perhaps playing something different from what I normally would. But, at all costs, I keep the music steady. If you’re really in tune with managing the spaces, it’s possible to focus your emotion in such a way as to create a sense of stretch in the music. This is an advanced means of manipulating time.

Keep It Elastic
Much like a rubber band, time can be elastic. With maturity comes the ability to manipulate and stretch time purposefully, creating depth within a piece of music. Given the unique nature of our instrument, drummers are especially well suited for this.

In order to stretch your musical rubber band, one end of the time must be firmly attached to one spot, while the other end is allowed to flex. Simple enough, right? Think of the bass drum as the anchor, and use the snare to stretch the time, to the brink of snapping. This is easily demonstrated in a basic exercise: Set a metronome to 78 bpm. Play a simple groove with the kick on beats 1 and 3 and the snare on 2 and 4. Try to nail the kick exactly with the metronome, while purposefully playing the snare late. (Think of flamming the snare with the click.) Experiment by laying the snare as far back as you can without it sounding as if it’s landing on a different subdivision. Work to maintain a consistent stretch throughout a particular song, and always start slowly before trying this at faster tempos.

These are just a few examples of ways to approach the management of time within the music we play. Again, most of this stuff is subjective; it’s not like learning to memorize a piece of music. Becoming a great timekeeper is more like learning how to balance on one foot with an uneven stack of dishes in each hand. It’s also about knowing your place in the music. You’re the driver, so drive! We drummers need to develop confidence in this role, or else the music will sound tentative and lackluster.

Good timekeeping goes hand in hand with this heightened sense of purpose. Of course, practice with a metronome, but learn to play with it so that it challenges your inner balance. Use the click as resistance, like the way a weightlifter uses iron to challenge his muscles. Your sense of time is similar to a muscle, in that in order to grow it must be met with measured amounts of resistance. Good luck!

Ben Sesar is the drummer for country superstar Brad Paisley.