I have a friend who plays guitar and sings. Sometimes I accompany him on violin and sing harmony. We have an ongoing argument about timing. He kind of leaves longer gaps between phrases than the timing allows. He claims that people like Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, etc. do this and that their timing is off, so why shouldn`t he? I tell him I am not sure their timing is off, but if it is, they have great backup musicians who can deal with it. But he does not get it.

I would not even bother with playing with him, but he has an interesting voice and people seem to like hearing us together.

How can I explain to him how important timing is?

  • The first note that I'd make is: Don't ever let your craft become more important than people. If you can't tell him he's wrong (which I agree he is) without offending him, then don't. Commented Jul 30, 2017 at 4:31
  • Secondly, "rubato" or things like it are totally allowed, but they must be (a) planned and agreed upon and (b) executed in a controlled, musical manner. When Johnny Cash recorded, I'm sure they did multiple takes and got a feel for when he would artistically differ his timing. Commented Jul 30, 2017 at 4:37
  • Without the rehearsal &/or agreement as mentioned above, Rubato quickly becomes a one-player sport. Consider tempting your friend into at least counting it - call it a 5/4 bar or whatever, so more than one player can follow it.
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Jul 30, 2017 at 7:29
  • 3
    I think he's missed the point. Nelson and Cash (and even more so, Sinatra) certainly pulled the timing of the vocals all over the place, but the accompaniment stayed in fairly strict time. If those singers intentionally got out of step with the accompaniment, they intentionally got back in step again! But whether or not his voice is "interesting", I would bet he's not the next Cash or Nelson!
    – user19146
    Commented Jul 30, 2017 at 8:29
  • @GeneralNuisance But if the OP has any self respect at all, "If you can't tell him he's wrong without offending him..." shouldn't mean the same as "Just let him treat you like a doormat."
    – user19146
    Commented Jul 30, 2017 at 8:31

4 Answers 4


There are at least two questions here, a technical question and a human relations question:

  1. "I tell him I am not sure their timing is off"

This one is easy to settle: ask him for some examples of the kind of timing he's talking about, and go listen to them. There are at least 3 ways their timing could be "off":

  • the meter may just be unusual. It's common for song structures in some genres to, for example, be mainly in 2/4 with an occasional bar in 3/4. On a first listen it might sound like a mistake, but you'll hear they do it very precisely, and do it the same way every time. Try counting "Ring of Fire" for a classic example.

  • the melody may temporarily slow down or speed up without any change to the basic tempo. The accompanists' job is to keep a steady tempo and let the singer bring the melody back in time.

  • the underlying tempo may slow down and speed up. You need to agree on what you're doing, and watch and listen to each other carefully.

All three of these are reasonable things to do, and can be pulled off with a little practice. No superhuman skill required.

  1. "How can I explain to him how important timing is?"

On the other hand, if he's just making excuses for sloppy playing that sounds bad.... Now we're not exactly talking about music any more. But, a few ideas from a random stranger on the internet:

  • In future, try to avoid framing things as arguments: once someone has picked sides and their pride is wrapped up in their side "winning", they start to focus on saying whatever's easiest to protect their ego rather than listening, and it's a lot harder to make any progress.
  • Focus on common goals: emphasize "we".
  • Focus on the positive: frame it as making the music sound even better, not fixing a mistake.
  • Record yourselves: it's usually easier for people to hear problems when they're not busy playing at the same time.
  • Find sincere ways to compliment their playing, especially when they make progress on something you care about.
  • If you just can't figure out how to communicate, maybe it's better to give up before any bridges are burned. No need to explain or assign blame, you're just not compatible.
  • That was a very good and analytical breakdown of what the problem exactly could be. Very informative! Commented Jul 30, 2017 at 14:21

It sounds like you agree with him: "I tell him I am not sure their timing is off, but if it is, they have great backup musicians who can deal with it.".

So the problem as you tell it to him is that you aren't great enough to deal with tempo variations of the lead. The classic "it's not you, it's me" tantra that translates into "I don't expect you to change but maybe I'll go elsewhere".

If your imperfection would indeed be the actual problem, practice would be the obvious answer.

So why are you arguing with your own incompetency rather than with any inherent problem of his lack of timekeeping?

Is the result ugly or is it wrong? "Wrong" is not a useful category to judge entertainment with, and ugliness is in the mind of the beholder.

So how about recording your performances and listening to them? Stuff feels different to performers and listeners even when the same person.

The main challenge here is not to take the joy out of what the two of you are doing.

If all of this sounds rather openended, it's because it is. I do a lot of solo play from scores I haven't actually heard performed, and take a whole lot of liberties with the phrasing, execution and tempo depending on the expressiveness of the instrument. When I'm playing Tango Nuevo on an acoustic accordion, it would be quite challenging to transcribe the rhythm from my playing: it's more kind of a general flow. When I am playing on a Midi accordion hooked up to a Grand Organ simulator with a cathedral of reverbation, my timing tends to be much more precisely following the score, probably because the acoustics of simulated instrument and room cannot follow tempo variations as organically as a continuously controlled instrument like voice, a wind or even a string instrument can.

When working expressively with music, its rhythm may be pliable like the meter of poetry: it doesn't gain from mechanical rigidity and yet its presence is what makes a difference.

So the question is how cohesive, organic and deliberate his variations are and whether they, taken alone, improve the performance to the listener or detract from it. If it is indeed the former (and that's where recording and asking opinions of yourself and others without leading questions may help), it makes sense to try how much can actually be accommodated in a duo without things falling apart or becoming inconsistent. That's something you need to work out based on a metric entirely different from a "right/wrong" perspective, and then you need to see how much fun this leaves either of you with ultimately.

  • I like this answer very much, not that my endorsement means much at all... You can't change other people, you don't have any control over them. The only thing you can change is yourself (assuming you have control over that... :-D) Commented Jul 30, 2017 at 14:19
  • @GeneralNuisance - the OP is not after changing the person, rather changing the attitude that bad timing is acceptable. Making music with others involves keeping in time - all of you - and if someone finds this impossible, how can good music be made? The shortcomings do need to be discussed at least. And if that changes someone for the better, no-one's a loser.
    – Tim
    Commented Jul 30, 2017 at 14:48
  • @Tim You seem to have misunderstood what I meant by "change." You can't change people's attitudes, which is in fact what I meant. They have to do that. If you've given them everything they need to understand what you're saying, all you can do is let them think about it, and maybe even get over themselves, depending on the case. Every time I've seen someone try to change someone else's attitude, they've failed. Now, if there's something you can change, it doesn't make any sense to insist that other people change when you know they don't want to any more than you do. Commented Jul 30, 2017 at 19:40

Get him to provide the Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson recording, then listen to it together. He's probably listening just to the vocal line, which almost certainly does drift around the beat. Having established this is what's happening, listen again, but this time focus on the backing. Clap along, and show that the backing is constant tempo. Your friend needs to appreciate that this is what's happening. And when you're accompanying your friend, it's OK for you to stay fixed tempo, letting your friend come in more or less where he likes.

If you try and rhythmically follow his every phrase, it'll make really uncomfortable listening for the audience, because they'll feel that the tempo is fluctuating from bar to bar, or that some bars feel like they've got an extra beat, or there's some weird syncopation going on. We like fixed tempo because we like to be able to anticipate what's going to happen next. We like patterns and predictability.

  • Thank you everyone, for your comments. It is a lot to digest and I will read them all over again when I have a bit more time. I really appreciate all the thoughtful answers. Commented Aug 1, 2017 at 14:17

I'd question his assumptions.

He claims that people like Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, etc. do this and that their timing is off, so why shouldn`t he?

I've listened to a fair amount of those musicians and IMO there's nothing "off" about their timing. In (esp older) country music it's not uncommon to add an extra measure to a phrase, but that's completely deliberate and has nothing to do with timing.

That said, I think we have to be careful when it comes to singing. Singing slightly ahead or behind the beat is common and can sound just fine. But that only works when the other musicians are playing on the beat.

I'd challenge him to show you some songs where great musicians are off with timing on go from there.

  • Thanks so much for your input. I agree totally with you. I may ask him sometime to give me examples. I also may get him a metronome to try and practice with. But I have to go easy with him. He`s a bit sensitive. I really appreciated all the comments put on this site. Commented Aug 23, 2017 at 4:47

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