As a drummer, I'm trying to improve my micro-time to put more feeling in the grooves I play. For certain songs (ballads for example), you usually try to get a "laid-back" feeling by playing slightly behind the beat. Then the question is, if the drummer is behind the beat... who is on the beat?

I'd be happy to get a more general idea how the timing within a band is perceived. Nobody in the audience knows where the real beat is. So whenever a group of instruments is played behind other instruments, it depends on the "perceived beat" whether the one group is behind the beat or the other group is ahead. Especially within the drumset, you sometimes play the snare behind the beat (in ballads) or the hi-hat in front of the beat (for uptempo songs). What defines the difference?

Update: To clarify my question I can give a small example scenario... Assume a typical four-piece (drums, bass, rhythm guitar, lead guitar). They play a ballad and all have the clicktrack on their monitor. They are all very good musicians and bass and guitars play exactly on the click. The drummer wants to add some "feel" to the song and plays a bit behind the beat - all fine so far.

Now assume, to simply their cabling on stage, the band decides that it is enough if the drummer has the clicktrack on his monitor, the other instruments don't need it. The drummer still plays behind the beat, the others don't hear the clicktrack, only the drummer.

The question now is: can the other band members hear from the drummers playing that he is not on the click but behind? I guess so, but what defines the actual beat then? If they couldn't hear it, they'd have to play ahead (relative to the drums) to achive a laid-back feeling, which is somehow weird...

Update 2:

I found two nice references about the displacements within the drumset. A scientific paper from the International Symposium on Performance Science (2011, Kilchenmann and Senn: "Play in time, but don’t play time” - Analyzing timing profiles in drum performances) and an interesting webpage with audio samples.

  • Thought-provoking question! When the drummer pushes or pulls, the rest of the rhythm section tends to 'go with the flow' particularly when only drums have the reference tempo.In similar vein, I find if the drummer speeds or slows, maybe unintentially, then it takes bass AND guitar together to get him/her back into tempo, not possible for one on his own.
    – Tim
    Oct 4, 2012 at 17:48
  • 1
    IMO the bass is ALWAYS the go-to instrument, followed by the drum kit and rhythm instruments such as rhythm guitar, keyboard, or synth. None of the lower talk about 'beat bending' and 'pocket' is remotely possible without musicians who can all hold a steady reference tempo of their own for at LEAST a couple of bars. A lot of times attempting to lay back and play behind the beat will confuse novice rhythm players and cause them to actually slow down the tempo. Dec 31, 2014 at 1:08
  • Charlie Watts used to follow Keith, and they reckon this went a long way to creating the feel of the Stones.
    – PeterJ
    Dec 17, 2019 at 13:25

3 Answers 3


All of the instruments can define the beat, but in order the most important (in a typical 4 piece) are - drums, bass, rhythm guitar, lead guitar.

You can define a laid back beat just with the drums - if everyone else plays as normal, but you swing your beats, you will get a much more fluid feel to a piece. To do this well requires the band to work well together so they don't have to follow the swing.

As you mention, you can play your snare or hi-hat off the beat to clearly define this movement, or you can let it be inferred, by letting another instrument play around your rhythm.


Based on your update, the drummer will not play all his drums behind the beat, but will typically keep one of the drums on time and move the others around that beat.

A very experienced band can take turns leading or lagging the beat, but you really need to know each other well to manage this successfully.


I'm by no means an expert on this, but one of my university lecturers is a drummer with amazing time who loves to talk about 'bending' the beat by playing around with this kind of stuff.

He's pointed out to me that it's not always all four of a drummer's limbs that lay back. Firstly because that's more likely to cause confusion within a band about where the time is and cause people to slow down.

The second reason is a stylistic one. For example, in Stax's soul recordings from the 60's, part of the "Stax sound" created by Booker T and the MG's was defined by the snare drum being played very slightly behind beats 2+4, while the high hats, kicks etc were all played 'on'. This made the back beat sound really "fat".

Don't quote me on this next one (my memory is a bit unclear) but I think the other example he gave was hip hop drummers keeping their kick and snare right 'on', and laying their hats back to make the whole thing feel relaxed.

In the end, the more you play with great musicians the more you realise it isn't really the drummers job to 'keep time' (i.e., carry everyone else) - every musician in every ensemble has a responsibility to have great time, and needs the ability to keep going smoothly at the same tempo whether the rest of the band is playing with them or not.

Once you start playing with people of this calibre, it gets easier and easier to mess around with the pocket of the beat because you can be more confident in your bandmates hearing and understanding what's going on.

Posted the above without properly answering your question! :P Here we go:

As far as who is on the beat if the drummer is behind - well, the answer really depends on the band. Generally you can't have everyone playing behind or ahead, because then the music will just speed up or slow down.

According to Pink's drummer Mark Schulman, the rhythm section for Led Zeppelin worked so well because John Bonham's behind-the-beat drumming was a deliberate counterbalance to Jimmy Page's tendency to rush everything, while John Paul Jones toed the line somewhere in the middle.

In other styles and groups, the whole band might play right 'on' and the drummer just lays his snare back to fatten it up, as I mentioned before. Check out Jeff Porcaro, he was a master of this!


I've spent too much time (especially playing in front of the beat) on this and I think I might have a partial answer.

First of all, it's not really correct to say when you are playing before or after the beat you are not keeping time. Playing at the same point at each beat makes your beat-bending a valid groove. So you are not giving up on the pocket. You are just playing a different groove where your playing is not in time. And you don't have too much space to move as you might imagine. The difference is really, reaaaallly subtle. So summary of the paragraph, playing out of the pocket is not a polyrhythm, you don't loose the groove. It is still a valid groove but only having the emphasis not exactly on the beat. So it's just unconventional accenting. If executed properly, you will still tap your feet to the pocket even the accents are off-the-pocket. Otherwise, the drummer is doing something else (including screwing up).

Next, the drummer is not a click track. It can be but only if the music dictates so, in general, it is an instrument as the highest priority. As Jvin mentions, everybody needs to have a good sense of time. In fact you can think of a company in which everybody does everything, but for some tasks only one person is the responsible. In that analogy, the drummer is the supervisor of time-keeping but that doesn't mean others can be relieved from that duty. The simplest thing, while everybody is on 4/4 drummer plays a 6/8 or triplet based groove for three beats makes a fill and falls on one. If the others loose the point, there is some homework to do about time keeping.

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