Time is an interesting subject. I will do my best to remove myself (meaning my ego) from it.
Everything is in time.
This means that if you were to throw a metronome up, and play random notes, they will be in time. Theoretically, the notes played will sit in some kind of grouping of one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, etc., until you go into infinity. Somewhere on the line, it can be nailed to a definable point.
Understanding this redefines your vision of what time actually is.
It removes this mentality of time as an undefinable, abstract idea, into a very real, tangible concept.
This doesn’t mean that you play whatever you want, whenever you feel like it (you can do that if you choose, but it probably won’t sound good). That’s not the point of this.
This is to place time in a definable, fixed position.
But that doesn’t help with what makes someone “groove”, does it?
There are a few concepts of groove to dive into. The following are simplified definitions of each point. Each point can be expanded much more than what I do here, but for the purposes of this blog, this will do.
If you’re playing in a metal band, the time will be different than in a bebop setting. The flow will be different, the mentality of what the music means is different. The sound of time is different.
Music means nothing without the context to back it up.
There’s a reason why Miles Davis’ “Four and More” sounds the way that it does. There’s a purpose behind Meshell Ndegeocello’s “Comfort Woman” record.
The sound of your instrument heavily dictates how the time feels. Replace the tones from Aphex Twin’s “Drukqs” album with the drum sounds from John Mayer’s song “I Don’t Trust Myself With Loving You”. One isn’t better than the other, but flipping the sounds probably won’t be pleasing to the ear.
The interesting thing about sound is that, if you’re creating something new, you can make it sound however you want. Take from different genres, replace and sample different sounds to create something unique.
There is no such thing as a perfect sound. There is only the appropriate sound for the situation you’re in. And even then, that can change in an instant.
Third: laid back.
This is a big one.
I will use a Steve Gadd quote for this one.
Someone asked him (and this is paraphrasing), “what’s your style? Do you play behind, on top of, ahead of the beat?”
He said, “I always play on- on the feel of the song”.
There are times when you play behind the beat. Sometimes on. Sometimes ahead. Pay attention to what feels appropriate. There is no set answer for this. It will be different for every context you’re in.
Fourth: head space.
Having musical ideas in your head defines the time.
Do you play every note with the bass player? Leave some out? Copy the guitar rhythm in the hihat? Use the bell? A stack? Half notes? Whole notes? Just blast beat your way through the whole song, leaving a trail of tears from the guitarist as he gently weeps over his right hand not being able to keep up with your badassery?
Use your ears. Listen to what’s going on around you. Not everything has to be a moment for you to whip out every lick you know.
Listen to each other.
Listen to the click.
Don’t fight each other for dominance.
You’ll get to the end of the song at some point or another. Might as well go along with each other for the ride.
When it comes to time, there is no band leader. There’s no dictator. You are all in it together.
This is, above all else, is the most important aspect of time.
If you don’t trust each other, the time will be bad. It’s even worse if you don’t trust yourself. There is no way around this.
This is what makes a song feel good. The trust between players is sacred. Don’t break it.
There’s one more aspect of time I want to dive into. I think it’s just as important as trust.
That is the perception, or the illusion, of how fast or slow something sounds.
A problem that every single person I’ve ever worked with has is whether or not something is too fast or too slow. How many times have you been on stage, and felt like every song is way too slow, and immediately felt the need to fix it?
Take a deep breath.
Are you tired? Hungry? Sleepy? Angry? Long drive to get to the gig? Hung over? Happy? Not really feeling anything?
All of those things affect how you perceive how fast or slow a song is.
I have an experiment I want you to try: go on a run. Get a mile in, maybe two. Make sure your heart is pounding, the adrenaline is going.
Now listen to your favorite song.
Do you hear how slow it sounds?
Now listen to it a few hours later. Now all of a sudden it sounds right. Or maybe now it sounds too fast. What’s happening?
It’s not that you aren’t a good time keeper. It’s that your mood is changing. Your body – or more importantly, your mind – is perceiving time differently, based on how you’re feeling.
This is ok. Accept it. This happens to literally every musician who has ever lived. It happens to greatest musicians alive today. If it didn’t happen, you’d be a machine, and I’d be honored to meet you.
Happily, there is an incredibly simple solution: set everything you do to a click. This eliminates the argument of too fast or too slow.
I am a firm believer that time can be learned.
I absolutely do not believe that you are born with great time.
Can you point me to the time gene? No? Exactly.
Time is universal to all of us. There’s no escaping it.
Practice time. Eventually, you can break through the confining walls of accurate time to find out who you are on the instrument.
Drummers Resource Podcast, episode 203, “Steve Gadd: The Undisputed Master of Groove”
Drummers Weekly Groovecast, episode 37, “The Essence of Time”
Benny Greb, “The Art and Science of Groove”
Gavin Harrison, “Rhythmic Perspectives” and “Rhythmic Illusions”
Peter Magadini, “Polyrhythms – The Musicians Guide”
Bob Moses, “Drum Wisdom”