Metronome“How do you know when there is a drummer at your door?”
The knocking speeds up. Ha ha!

The jokes are abundant, we’ve all heard them. It can become a sensitive issue when the drummer is constantly blamed for every slight slip-up in the time-keeping department. Is it not the responsibility of everyone in the band to keep a grip on the sense of time-keeping?

Firstly let’s define a subtle difference between 2 very similar concepts. Time-keeping is the act of being “in time” with the pulse. The pulse is an imaginary click track that is running all the time throughout a piece of music. Of course, if you play with a metronome, the click track is no longer imaginary. The other concept is timing. I would argue that timing is directly related to tightness or togetherness of the music (how “in time” the musicians are with each other). Timing also refers to the precise moment at which something happens.

It is possible to be a terrible time-keeper, yet have an impecable sense of timing. Time-keeping is a technical/mechanical skill whereas timing is more to do with sense/feeling.

If you are learning the drums (or even if you play a different instrument – this still applies to you), it is worth being clear of the difference between time-keeping and timing. You can be absolutely bang-on correct with your time-keeping (i.e. being metronomically precice and solidly locked with the pulse) and yet when playing with other musicians that timing can feel all wrong. This is because playing in time with each other always over-rides playing in time with a strict pulse.

Tips to improve your sense of timing

  • Play music regularly with other musician-friends. A solid sense of timing comes from getting to know the subtle changes in other people’s playing.
  • When rehearsing and performing with other musicians apply the necessary pressure to force yourself to concentrate on the more musical aspects of playing drums, not just technique and mechanical exercises.
  • During rehearsals, focus on one small section of a song at a time, and loop it. Really try to nail the feel of the section. Concentrate on togetherness (all the musicians playing tightly together). it doesn’t matter whether you’re rehearsing your own material or learning covers.
  • In the absense of other musicians to play with, stick on a pair of headphones and your favourite music – and jam along!

A practise method for developing time-keeping skills

  • Set your metronome to a comfortable pulse (100 bpm) and practise a very simple exercise, such as single strokes.
  • After one minute, increase the tempo by 5 bpm, and continue with the same exercise. (the tempo will be 105)
  • After another minute decrease the tempo by 10 bpm. The tempo is now 95.
  • Increase the tempo by 15 bpm (so it’s up to 110).
  • Decrease by 20 bpm (down to 90).
  • Increase by 25 bpm (up to 115).
  • Continue with this pattern of increasing and decreasing the tempo. It is a highly effective way of developing a solid feel for the click. It is far more productive to increase and decrease the tempo than it is to only increase the tempo.

For further information and advice on timing and time-keeping it would be worth contacting a drum teacher. Before choosing a teacher ask them some questions about their professional experience in bands. Any decent drum teacher will be able to give you the honest answer that neither time-keeping nor timing are skills that exist in isolation, but it is the combination of the two skills that lead to the ‘magic formula’ of becoming a great drummer.

Keep practising, and have fun…