DrumHack Article #1 - The Two Top Techniques To Level-Up Your Timekeeping
Timekeeping, it's a big one right? I remember talking to Elvin Jones about his concepts of time when I worked on one of his DrumTech masterclasses and what he explained blew my mind. He said that to him, time was malleable. He could stretch it or compress it at his own whim, even though he had to keep his overall time very consistent. Once I'd heard that I never looked at timekeeping quite the same way again, and the more I listened the more I could hear other great drummers doing the same thing, sometimes just by simply laying back a groove or pushing forwards with it, or at other times, as Elvin demonstrated as a natural part of his playing with the time through entire sections of music, solos or fills, giving the music a life and expression that still inspires many.
As I like to put it now, time is there to be played with, but it takes a certain level of mastery to do it conciously. It's also contrary to the way most of us are taught time. Usually we are taught that we must keep time with a click track or metronome, but that is only half the story. The danger is that the external source becomes the master with us as the slave. Sure, that is probably exactly where most of us need to start when we're working on timekeeping, but how do we transcend that role of follower? What are the best practices we can use to hack our timekeeping and bring a new level of mastery to our playing?
I have two practices that I have found to be the most effective ways of making me think about time from an internal perspective rather than an external one. First, you must have click track because this is necessary for you to check yourself against and see where timekeeping errors might be occurring. Once you are aware of them you can start to iron them out. But the kind of click tracks that I use are different from any standard click track. The aim here is to shift the focus from following the external click to leading from your internal Inner Clock so I use two types of click track called a Silent Click Track and a Masked Click Track.
The Silent Click Track is the much harder style of track to master but leads to ultimately better results so let's discuss this first. The Silent Click track will play for a certain number of bars then remains silent for a certain of bars before coming back in. The tracks are rated from Easy to Extreme, easy being seven bars of click with one bar of silence and extreme being one bar of click with seven bars of silence, with every rating in between. I find that most drummers, once they can generally keep good time with a standard click, start to gain huge benefits from starting to use the easy to moderate rated tracks. The learning curve is rather steep, so while one bar of silence is relatively easy to keep time through, two to three bars or more gets exponentially more difficult. What it does do is highlight exactly whether you are tending to rush or drag your time through grooves or fills, and even how this changes over time as you suffer from fatigue, lack of concentration or lack of stamina. This tends to make you hyper aware of all aspects of time next time you are in a live situation, often literally feeling how other musicians are pushing or pulling the time, or how your own excitement can affect things.
The second style of click track I have found to be super effective at dialing in both timing and timekeeping is the Masked Click. Remember that timing is not the same as timekeeping. Timekeeping is the ability to maintain a steady speed over a long period of time, timing is the ability to time individual notes accurately relative to each other and the beat. Issues within your timing can easily lead to larger errors in your timekeeping so it makes perfect sense that the more you can dial in your timing the more consistency you will be able to bring to your timekeeping. When you play perfectly in time with a click track it sometimes seems to disappear underneath your own playing. Often I have even stopped to check that the click is still working! But when the click disappears this is the sign that you are perfectly locked in, so can we hack this and use this effect to our advantage? I have found that with some clever production and careful programming I can produce a click track that removes pretty much all of the external stimulus that you might get from a regular click track, so that when you play perfectly in time you are able to completely mask the track. The concept depends on two things: 1. That you play the same thing (or more, but not less) than the track, and 2. That you don't run the click track too loudly that it overpowers the sound of your own playing. The track must be allowed to merge underneath the sounds you are creating. The effect can be a little disconcerting at first as it feels unusual to not have the security of hearing the click the whole time, but you soon learn to love that free-floating feeling and you will gain enormous insight into how your timing varies over time. Again, it puts you into the drivers seat in terms of where your timekeeping is really originating from - inside you or from an outside source?