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I started out as a classically trained guitarist and spent my high school years playing bass in a (school) jazz ensemble, so I have some (limited) formal musical training. Playing rhythm in Jazz required me to be able to hold tempo/count/etc. do everything in order to not let down the ensemble, the years of berating by the director really beat that into me.

I've since moved to school and have (sadly) been missing ensemble playing for 3 years. However, recently I've been getting together to playing some rock/folk music with some friends, we are semi-serious and have had several gigs at local events. They are all great musicians in their own right - but they do not know how to hold a tempo as an ensemble, and refuse to listen to their bass (since the drummer is also a self-taught rock guy) for rhythm cues. Frankly its the main thing holding back the group from sounding more professional.

I've tried everything I can think of - from turning my levels way up to force them to listen , to acting as a human metronome during rehearsals, with limited success - they listen during practice, but during a performance all hell breaks loose and they decide to suddenly double the tempo after a particularly moving solo. I was whooped every day by a conservatory trained Conductor with a PhD in music and a surprisingly short temper, combined with the fact that our drummer was essentially the best youth drummer on the west coast so I could always rely on him if I screwed up during a performance.

They are willing to learn, but how can I give them a crash course in rhythm and keeping tempo?

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2  
No direct experience myself on this, but I'm told the drummer and bassist can benefit from practicing extra together to become a solid rhythm unit. –  Lennart Regebro May 15 '11 at 18:55
    
You were "whooped"? –  Dan Hulme Mar 17 '13 at 13:11
1  
@DanHulme Possibly "whupped". –  NReilingh Nov 3 at 15:35

5 Answers 5

For gigging live, there is a lot to be said for allowing the tempo to flow, and in general taking your cue from the drummer should be the general rule. Is it really upsetting you that much?

In saying that, if he really can't keep time you have 3 options:

  • give him a click track.
  • teach him to stay in time
  • get another drummer

We use recorded drums as our drummer is also the rhythm guitarist, so I have got used to the luxury of knowing to the second how long a track or solo will be, but there are some things I miss about working the tempo to the audience's mood.

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Its one thing to let the performance breath, its quite another to just blow everything off and double the tempo in a ballad just because the soloist got excited. Also, we don't really gig with our drummer, its pretty much just me up there trying to keep some sense of uniformity between the rhythm guitar, soloist, and singer. –  crasic May 13 '11 at 9:44
    
So I'm guessing they don't feel like you do, that tempo is quite important? It could be that 'musical differences' might just be too much in this case. –  Dr Mayhem May 13 '11 at 9:52
    
I wouldn't say that, they do realize its a problem, but just can't tell during the performance. –  crasic May 13 '11 at 9:55
    
I would say that the 3rd option to get another drummer, would probably send out some negative vibes that are not healthy for the spirit in the band... –  awe May 18 '11 at 9:03
    
It seems to me that the rhythm section need to agree that there's a problem, and consciously work on it. Can the bassist and drummer break out to work on it? Can there be some agreed signal to say "hey, you know that thing you shoudln't do? You're doing it now"? Great musicians would use eye contact. You could use something less subtle. –  slim Sep 19 '11 at 11:05

I think you should concentrate on teaching you drummer first, because the drums is easiest to pick up the rhythm from. The bass is also important, but is sometimes hard to hear the beat precisely enough. The bass drum is the most important for keeping a steady beat. When that is in place, it will also be easier for the others to follow. If the guitar solo is running away speeding up the tempo, it might be that the drummer should keep a steady beat on the high-hat or something to help the guitarist not loose track of the time... Eventually, everyone will develop more rhythm sense, and this will feel more natural.

In the beginning, it might be a good idea to get the drummer just keeping a very simple beat when you are playing, so that everyone gets the feel. When the tempo is in place, the drummer can slowly add more complexity to his beat, but remember to always keep the bass drum at a simple steady.

EDIT:
As blindJesse said in his answer, it is also a good tool to do recordings of your band and listen to it, not only for your band members to hear it, but also for yourself. Rein Henrichs also pointed out this in his comment to my answer. blindJesse said that you should do it without your band members knowing it. This is actually important so that they don't get nervous about performing well for the recording.

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I agree. You need the drums to be in control. –  Matthew Read May 13 '11 at 13:21
    
Absolutely correct. The bass and the drums in coordination are critical. Find some bands who do this amazingly well in your genre (Led Zeppelin, Dream Theater, etc) and listen with your drummer. Work in your own coordination without the rest of the band. Most importantly, record yourself so you can objectively gauge your progress. I bet your drummer will have a eureka moment as soon as he hears this coordination. Listening in the moment is very different because you're playing too. –  Rein Henrichs May 13 '11 at 16:35

The best way I've found to get bandmates to fix things is to record a performance, without their knowledge, and give them a copy at the next rehearsal. They do have to listen to it, of course. It takes a lot of the feeling of being criticized out of the equation.

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Good advice. "Show, don't tell"... something for everyone, not just for writers. –  Jürgen A. Erhard May 15 '11 at 0:29

You say they're willing to learn, but do they understand what that means? Does the band have a director (or other person who is "in charge"), or does everything happen by consensus? Have they agreed that on this subject you are in charge?

How do you spend your rehearsal time? Do you spend any of it on "technique" or "meta" stuff, or do you just rehearse the specific material you're working with? If the latter, I recommend incorporating some of the former. Choirs do sight-singing exercises and winds groups do intonation exercises and so on; your group needs to do timing exercises. Since you have some background (on the receiving end), you're the obvious person to lead those.

I also second blindJesse's recording suggestion. Perception and memory play tricks with you, but recordings don't lie.

If you decide to spend some focused time with the drummer, I'd still spend group time on rhythm/counting exercises too. With luck the drummer can take on more of a leadership role with that over time, which (1) reinforces the drummer and (2) shows the group that this is learnable.

Good luck.

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I've been in a high school/community orchestra for about 10 years (yes, you read that right) and my university's orchestra club for about 4 -- so this problem is really familiar to me.

There are several ways to improve the situation:

  • Have the leader do rubato; stop and try again as soon as people lose track. That forces everyone to be constantly aware of what the leader is doing. This works best with a conductor, but I think it can work with a drummer as long as they're indicating the up beats.
  • Subdivide. Have everyone think in halves or quarters of the beat, rather than just the beat itself. This is especially important if the beat itself is slow.
  • If the music involves a lot of brisk articulation, practice playing everything in full values instead. By forcing everyone to play each note for its full duration, you can make them aware of the tempo itself. People tend to speed up on things like staccato notes.
  • You may have a fundamental problem of balance -- that is, some (usually most) people are playing louder than they should, drowning out the bass and percussion and thus throwing everyone off. Try having each member stand in front and pay attention to the volume level of each other person. This is analogous to the other suggestion of recording the band, minus the potential demoralization.
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Glad you mentioned the point of playing too loudly. Maybe they COULD keep in time with the rhythm section if they could hear (or better still, LISTEN TO ) it. If they won't turn down, put a good strong drum mix into a monitor, in front of them.Every muso ought to be able to keep to one tempo for the whole song, but without a strong rhythm section it's not easy. A rhythm box (drum machine) is not easy to play along with, but in recording studios you often have to play with a click track.Try using one in rehearsals.If you're too busy as a bass player(lots of notes) it won't help. –  Tim Mar 24 '13 at 12:49

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