Very few of us were born with the gift of “Perfect Time” (akin to “Perfect Pitch”). The rest of us could stand to improve our time. What is “time” in the musical sense? It refers to the ability to maintain a steady tempo while playing grooves and fills, as well as the awareness of how many beats per minute a given tempo is. It also includes the ability to subdivide individual beats into eighths, sixteenths, various triplets, etc., with accuracy and balance. “Good time” is extremely important not only for drummers, but for all musicians!
Okay, so how do we go about improving our time sense? Bring out the metronome!! “No!” you scream, “It burns us!” Calm down. Practicing with some type of mechanical time reference won’t kill you! Yes, if you’re not accustomed to playing with a “click”, it will increase the level of difficulty of whatever you’re working on, but having good time is not an option anymore (was it ever?), especially for drummers! Since the advent of drum machines such as the LinnDrum in the early 1980’s, musicians as well as the listening public have gotten used to drum tracks of highly quantized precision. Whether this is a positive development is a moot point; the genie is long out of the bottle! Chances are, the guitarist and the keyboard player as well as the other musicians you’re playing with have been practicing along with sequenced drum tracks. The bar is very high! We are expected to have our act together, so let’s get to it!
First, get a metronome. It can be an actual device such as the Korg MA-30 (my favorite!), or one of many apps available for your phone or tablet. All of us should at least have a metronome app on our phone!
I read in an interview with Steve Smith that when he got the drum gig with the band Journey, lead singer Steve Perry took him aside and told him that he needed to work on his time, and that he should practice playing grooves to a metronome at extremely slow tempos. Steve Smith, Berklee School of Music “Fusion-Master” though he was, humbly took his new bandmate’s advice to heart, and spent hours practicing to a metronome set as slow as it could go. He realized that he did indeed need to fine-tune his time awareness, and the slow click did the trick!
Metronome exercise #1
Set your metronome to 40 beats per minute. Play along with one hand at a time, with the left hand for one minute, then with the right hand for one minute, trying to hit each stroke exactly with the click. It’s not easy, right? If you are striking the pad (or snare, or whatever) at the exact same moment as the metronome is sounding, you won’t be able to hear the metronome. It will disappear! Be aware of when you are striking with regard to the click. Are you early, or late? Try counting 16th notes (four counts per click) and see if this helps you to “lock-in” with the metronome. Next, repeat the exercise using single-stroke (LRLR or RLRL) sticking. Is this easier or more difficult than using one hand at a time?