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As a drummer, I'm expected to provide a metronome-like precision and a foundation to a band. When playing in a band and having an instrument (i.e. guitar) which doesn't play in time correctly or is having tempo issues (speed-up most of the time), I am unable to keep the steady rhythm along.

I tend to follow the melody of the voice or the solo instrument, and this gets me out of balance. Sometimes I even notice that we are speeding up but am just unable to tame the beast, so to speak. At other times, when the tempo is shaky due to variability in the melodic phrases, I am having troubles playing a steady groove while even looking at the metronome. I literally have a feeling that the metronome is wrong.

While I understand this is due to the influence of the other instruments (and I say this because I've played alone, with the metronome, and other musicians and the results were completely different), my question is how to work with this?

I'm sure many performing musicians have been through some similar experiences and I'm wondering what they do about it and/or what are some common practical recommendations in such cases. Do you simply need to learn to ignore what you hear (the opposite of what the music is for me)?

Edit: In this specific scenario I'm talking about country/rock, where groove is 85% of the song, in my opinion.

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    If all of you are moving, you will not be steady. Simply put, if the type of music that you play is supposed to be steady, they need to listen to you and blend with you. You can obviously match them with energy and nuance and all that, but for tempo and time, they should defer to you. They are not listening. – jjmusicnotes Nov 15 at 18:23
  • If you are having trouble keeping the beat yourself, you could try having a click track play in your headphones/ear monitor to reinforce it on yourself. – dissemin8or Nov 18 at 16:14
  • As a bassist in an orchestra I run into a similar problem during concerts occasionally where the violins do not stay with the conductor. During rehearsal it's best to stay with the conductor but I have found during a performance that usually its best to follow them if one cannot get the rest of the group in tempo. – JIMMYPlay Nov 20 at 17:11
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It's a tough situation. Even if you're able to stubbornly stay right on the beat, it will sound like you're dragging or something is wrong. If you go with the flow, the whole group will speed up or slow down uncontrollably, and it will sound bad. The only real solution is to get everyone in the band to play well in time. This requires lots of individual training and rehearsing together, so it's not something you can do just like that.

First you have to get everyone motivated. They have to understand there's a problem that needs to be solved. Then you have to get people to believe that it can be solved... which might be hard. :) I recommend playing with a metronome, everyone together, but particularly those instruments that contribute to the rhythm significantly: drums, bass, guitar, maybe piano or keys. Put a metronome click to the PA or something that's so loud that nobody can miss it. Focus on getting ONE in time, and agree with each other on what the essential rhythm pattern should be like for the song. Everyone has to contribute to the same idea.

After you can get things somewhat in time with the metronome clicking on every beat, reduce the number of clicks coming from the metronome. Have the metronome play only on the FOUR of each bar, so that the players have to produce the ONE themselves. Get that going so that you hit the ONE together.

Record your playing just the basic backing rhythm pattern. Is it enjoyable to listen to? Every healthy pop/rock band should be able to jam a blues together.

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There is a wise old bass-player who has a theory about what he calls 'the time-pool': a sort of fund into which everyone has to pay. The drummer is a constant donor, and after him the bassist is usually the most generous, but every member of the band needs to contribute something to it every so often.

The guitarist for example can play a few notes or lines or bars for himself but should then donate some to the pool, reinforcing the tempo.

You could practice this, maybe even getting each player to make eye-contact with you when 'paying in', so you can check they're remembering to do it. Then after a while you could all just use your ears.

  • What does it mean to contribute some notes/lines/bars to the time pool? Does this mean to play in tempo once in a while? – LarsH Nov 17 at 1:51
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    @LarsH IMHO It means stop your [potentially syncopated] soloing and just listen for, then play to, the beat from the drummer. Catch up with the band. – Eric O Nov 19 at 18:37
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    @LarsH When soloing it's possible to get totally absorbed in what you're playing: to get so carried away that you forget to listen, forget to check in. As long as everyone else is keeping good time and contributing to the pool, the tempo should survive these excursions, but if not, the band may be pulled towards the possibly wayward tempo of the soloist. – Old Brixtonian Nov 20 at 3:26
  • @Eric O That's right. You don't actually have to stop though: just to listen for a moment. – Old Brixtonian Nov 20 at 3:33
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Drummer's no. 1 job is to keep in time. Everything else apart. It's virtually impossible (in my experience) for just the drummer to bring an errant player back into tempo by himself. By enlisting the help of just one more player, it becomes feasible. The bass or rhythm player are the best candidates, as they're responsible for keeping time too.

So try enlisting the bass player as your co-time-keeper. I used to work in a band which had dep. drummers from time to time, and it became the job of myself (on guitar) and the bassist to re-instate the band's timing when certain drummers strayed out of time. Neither of us could do it alone - it needed two to pull back over several bars, and generally it worked. And I'm sure, some of the time, the drummer wasn't aware of what was happening. Not always!

But by and large, you as drummer have to be certain that your timing is impeccable, and maybe play louder as a warning that things are accelerating, a way to tell the rest that it needs pulling back. If no-one else is aware, you need to record some things, and set the metronome to show them. It goes without saying that some songs will (and have to) vary as they go through - there are many tracks by well-known artists that do this - but basically, if many songs are racing due to one player, he needs to be made aware: not a pleasant thing to do or hear, but necessary.

Looking at the metronome is one way, hearing the click in one ear is far better. When you get desperate, get the at click put through the p.a!

5

Rather than just playing through pieces at your practices, why not spend some time doing some rhythmic exercises as a band?

I don't think any decent player would turn down the opportunity to play better, or to learn new techniques, so if you can't convince your bandmates that this is a good idea this should ring alarm bells. In fact, the decent players will probably be able to reel off a long list of exercises that they already use and would be prepared to coach others in how to use them. The danger sign is complacency—thinking everything is OK when it clearly isn't.

Unless you are the band director and can dictate that this is what you're going to do, you have to get buy-in from the other members.

For instance, in the brass band I play in, the music director will sometimes get us to turn to a particular hymn tune, and then we have to subdivide so for every 4/4 bar in the tune we'll play two eighth notes on the first beat, three triplet eighth notes on the second beat, four 16th notes on the third beat and five quintuplet 16th notes on the fourth beat. The concentration in the room is palpable. But it's fun. And now I can play 5s better than I used to.

4

If the music is heavily groove-based, you (and the bass player) are responsible for the groove. Not all music IS heavily groove-based... And it's not unusual to take a subtly different tempo for verse and chorus, or for a final chorus.

But yes, poor time-keeping rather than deliberate variation IS often a problem. And the player responsible will often protect themself with talk of 'artistic variation' when it's really just playing the easy bits fast, the hard bits slower.

A management problem rather than a musical one really. Sometimes a player can learn. Sometimes they just have to be replaced by a better one.

But make VERY sure you're right and they're wrong :-)

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Time is a funny thing. Metronome time is not always what a musical situation demands, but it's a pretty good start point, and every competent musician should be able to do play reasonably against one.

That said, there are plenty of examples of great records where the end BPM is different (usually a bit faster) than the start. For instance, some of the Isley Brothers stuff (I had a specific track in mind but I forgot which one - will edit if it comes back to me). This is because they started laying tracks in the studio with no click. And the record is not worse because of it - actually the slight speed-up builds the feel really well.

EDIT: the track is "For The Love Of You" by the Isley Brothers. Starts at around 96bpm, ends around 10bpm faster. Sounds great.

So you need to figure out what the problem really is. There is a difference between some natural breathing of the tempo and really bad time.

If the problem is other players in the band, I suggest you bring it up in a polite but firm way. If the others are prepared to try to fix the problem OK. Get the metronome out and do some communal work.

If the others don't want to fix the problem, you have two options really. (1) suck it up (2) leave. I tend to go for the latter. Life is too short to be dealing with that kind of frustration. And I don't like other people making me sound bad (I can do that for myself).

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I tend to follow the melody of the voice or the solo instrument, and this gets me out of balance.

Maybe that you are the root of the problem.

You don’t have to follow the soloists, they have to follow you. When you try to play in time with them everything may fall apart.

If the bass and percussion (or even only a rhytm-keyboard) try to follow the singer (choir or soloists) the song will lose its groove.

While I understand this is due to the influence of the other instruments, my question is how to work with this?

If you think the others are getting faster unexpected, you must tell them, play the part only with the rfythm instruments and you will see it works. When you join then with the singer or soloist let them all freedom of tempo variation - it’s up to them to find back to you.

But don’t make a fight or a demonstration of power because of this. If one of them has really a serious problem you can commit to play an accelerando (all together getting faster) or practice the opposite: training to pla a ritartando.

You can also tell any member of the band to conduct the group like a leader of a chamber orchestra.

If it happens on stage your band isn’t yet mature to give concerts.

Edit

Additional to my last comment, that the lead guitarist should try to practice singing the lyrics and play a) the rhythm guitar b) the guitar riffs c) even the bass riffs (accompaniment) along to his singing I'll poste you this song KEEP ME IN YOUR LOVE by the JOY STRINGS.

I started a pop group in the sixties covering their songs. My 3 friends were 2-5 years younger than I! I was 18 and I had lessons of piano like 2 others of the band. We never had a guitar or a drum (percussion) in our hands before. 6 months later after starting our group we gave concerts in our hall and were asked for concerts by several churches in our city. And you know what we did to listen better to each other? We used to play by "job rotation" - except the drummer. This means each of us was able to play e-bass, rhythm guitar, lead guitar, piano or organ. Of course we kept our roles for the specific songs.

(Btw.: one of us became concert pianist, the other was a big shot in the pharma industry and plays still in a jazz band in different rock bands, the drummer became the percussionist - which we let drop as we was not in time, came to late, forgot his sticks - has been for 20-30 years the drummer in the most famous and successful bands of our country. Only I achieved nothing than becoming a small music teacher and answering questions on SE. So you will have a great career in front of you!)

  • Thanks for the insights. Yes, when we played the same repertoire with just the keyboards, it was fantastic. The keyboard player is absent and the lead guitar is back, it's a total disaster. – Alen Siljak Nov 18 at 8:30
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    it can be that the lead guitarist has no timing problems but technical problems. May be he needs more time to practice his solos and riffs. – Albrecht Hügli Nov 18 at 8:43
  • I tend to go back to what Sonny Rollins said - "You can't think and play at the same time". In addition to what you just said, I believe he thinks too much and does not listen to the rest of the band. – Alen Siljak Nov 18 at 8:52
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    So you think, he lacks of concentration and is with his thoughts elsewhere or he is so much concerned with his playing that he can't listen to the others. In this case you could give him the role of a singer, even singing a tune and playing first just rhythm guitar and later a accompaniment of a bass riff. e.g. a syncopated one. (to practice on his own!) – Albrecht Hügli Nov 18 at 8:57
  • Correct. We're thinking of reversing the roles - he should try doing a rhythm guitar instead of the singer. Hopefully that would help. – Alen Siljak Nov 18 at 14:24
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the answer to your question, I'm a bass player btw, is to absolutely keep time always. Other people, like me, depend on you to do that. Make sure you're in the right, of course. I have a firm on eye on the bass drum. If youre trying to adjust to another person, then everyone else will assume they are wrong and wander too. Record yourself and them playing and see who actually wanders, then do as @brianthomas suggests

If a team of horses are pulling a wagon and three are wandering left towards a cliff edge, the wisest horse is the one trying to pull them back onto the road.

  • I think that's my problem. If I have a click, that's easy to do. But without, I'm no longer sure what the correct tempo is, when somebody is "off" or the phrase "breathes", meaning the two-bar phrase is approx. two bars long but the pulse (quarter notes) are not evenly spaced. Hence the question. – Alen Siljak Nov 18 at 14:28
  • @AlenSiljak just go ahead and use your click. I honestly don't care if a drummer needs a click to keep perfect time. Your drumming decorates the raw click, you are more than the click. I am not perfect at timing, that's why I need a drummer. Why should you do without a reference point? – bigbadmouse Nov 19 at 9:03

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