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I am rhythm guitarist in a 5-piece band. We play mostly rock/folk and are currently writing our own songs. One song is supposed to have a significant tempo change for the last verse where it gets slower and all instruments play more laid back and fade into the background. When we rehearse, it does get sloppy but we kinda struggle through. But for recording that song, we decided to keep the tempo to not throw ourselves off.

We do not want to use a click track, because it does not suit our style. Our cajon player is not a trained percussionist but a guitarist (at least originally). Is it his job to dictate the tempo change? But how does he announce the new tempo? The tempo change is immediate, i.e. no instrument pauses to realign with the new tempo.

So, how are tempo changes in songs usually handled in bands (live and recording)?

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That’s a big question and I’m sure I won’t cover every possibility, but here goes with my thoughts ...

The tempo change is owned equally by everyone, not just the percussionist, and it is everyone’s responsibility to make it work. It’s partly down to our old friend practice, in that if you rehearse it enough and listen to each other it will become more natural and fluid.

Investigate where one instrument (possibly, but not necessarily, the percussionist) can introduce the new tempo in the final moments of the old tempo. Something as simple as two notes or two beats in the new tempo, played behind the final notes of the old, might be enough to give everyone their cue.

For recording, of course, you could just play the song at the standard tempo up to the change, then stop, count in and play the finale at the new tempo, and edit the two together! That would also give you all a recording of the desired effect to take away, listen to and internalise, and then reproduce next time you’re actually playing it together.

And a final thought- if it really doesn’t work for you as the players, are you sure it works as a listening experience for your audience? If it’s not a natural and organic change to the ambience of the song, is it actually adding that much value or is it tricksy? Less is often more ...

  • +1 for the last para., at least. – Tim Jan 7 at 8:34
  • Thanks for the insights. The editing trick is good, maybe we'll try that next time. In our case, the tempo change is certainly not needed (and we didn't record it), but it does complement the message of the song. I guess it comes down to practice, then. – Ian Jan 7 at 12:55
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Do one or more of the following

  • Right before the tempo change, have everyone play a long note on e.g. the first beat of the last bar and let it ring. (perhaps except for the designated tempo announcer player/instrument)
  • Designate one of the players like drummer, percussionist or guitarist, to announce the new tempo as a "... three, four" count-in into the bar that starts with the new tempo.
  • Have the designated tempo announcer do the "... three four" count-in as musical hits or an agreed-on fill/phrase on the instrument, not necessarily verbally yelling the numbers. And play the phrase exactly like you've rehearsed. During the count-in fill/phrase, others only let their instruments ring and don't play a pulse.
  • Particularly if it's music with lyrics, and if there are lyrics to sing on the new tempo part, it makes things easier if the lyrics can lead into the new tempo like a pickup bar. A singer who also plays guitar is the perfect person to do the whole thing, leading everyone into the new tempo.
  • Use visual cues as well, like a conductor does in an orchestra. For example if it's a drummer who announces the new tempo by playing a phrase, the drummer's motions should be clear and dramatic, so everyone can look at her and see how it goes. This is just like how you do a rock&roll ending rumble where everyone does a final hit simultaneously, usually looking at the drummer's cue. A guitarist or other player can also give visual cues in many ways, for example by tapping or stomping a foot during the lead-in bar. (Though I personally prefer audible cues)
  • Do the tempo change as a metric modulation ratio (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metric_modulation), for example so that 3/8 of the old tempo becomes 1/8 in the new tempo, or 2/8 becomes 1/8 which halves the tempo. Everyone can pre-do this "calculation" in their mind during the last bar of the faster tempo, but the audience won't know about it.
  • Rehearse a lot. :)
  • Thank you for the suggestions! Metric modulation is an interesting concept. The tempo change is in the first beat of the new bar where basically everyone plays, but maybe we can add an extra bar that leads into the section. – Ian Jan 7 at 12:58
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To my experience, the drummer/percussionist is responsible for deciding the tempo of a song, and he/she is also responsible for tempo changes. Other band members follow the drummer's/percussionist's tempo and their responsibility is not to differ from the drummer's tempo.

Yes, I think it is his job to dictate the tempo change but it is not a simple task. My advice is to practice just the tempo change part of the song over and over, until your band nails it.

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If you are in one tempo which then changes to another slower tempo, which stays in time, then that's what you rehearse. If it needs doing with a metronome, so be it. Set that metronome to the last verse slower tempo, and start it on beat one of the slower part. Repetition is the only way. Keep doing it until that new tempo is assigned to the last part in everybody's memory. Then lose the metronome (at least temporarily!).

If you all try to 'follow' the drummer, whatever, that's what will happen - you'll be following. That's not going to sound good, as you all pick up the new tempo, one by one. Usually, yes, the drummer, or bandleader if there's one that does the job well, will have the task of laying down any tempo, but here, for one number, it's not needed. All learn how that new tempo fits, in your own ways, and get used to doing it. That might take a few times, or a hundred. Do it till it's right.

For the recording, don't even bother with all that: record the slow part separately, and edit it in. Clever bits like this can sound great, and make the band appear rehearsed. That's because it was!

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