Have you ever transcribed a musician's part in a song, only to find out that it’s very simple and uses many of the same techniques and scales that you already know? It can be frustrating trying to figure out what makes great musicians sound so good.
There are may things that make great musicians great, and many reasons why your playing may not be quite as good as theirs, even though you’re playing the same part. The tone and the backing tracks are huge factors, but above all else, it’s about the feel.
Groove, feel, pocket, time – whatever you want to call it, is far and away the most important thing you can improve. Playing something simple with great feel is what separates the pros from the amateurs. It’s why B.B. King can play three notes and say it all.
On top of that, if you’re working on your feel, it will improve the sound of your whole group. If even one person is pushing or dragging in a group, you’ll feel it.
Working on your timekeeping never ends, but I can tell you where to start! Here are some key exercises for improving your time and feel, and some key concepts to wrap your head around.
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1. Work On Your Time With Every Exercise
The nice thing about working on time is that once you’ve decided to be mindful about your timekeeping and improve it, you can work this into every part of your practice. You can literally practice your timekeeping with every bit of practice you’re doing.
If you’re learning songs, practice them to a metronome, focus on matching the groove and feel of the recorded song.
Simply becoming mindful of timekeeping and feel while your practicing will result in a major shift in your mindset and approach to practicing. Of course, there are plenty of exercises and techniques you can use to specifically practice timekeeping. Read on.
2. Record Yourself
Recording yourself is possibly the single most useful thing you can do for your playing. It’s very hard to know what your playing objectively sounds like without hearing it back. While you’re playing, there are so many other considerations that you may not be listening to yourself.
You can record yourself on anything, even voice notes on your smartphone would do. It’s a little more fun to use some sort of recording software, as you can get more in-depth with your exercise, but here are a few other things you can do either way:
Play Along To Tracks With Your Instrument Removed
Sometimes, you can find versions of famous songs with certain instruments removed. Or better yet, if you’re working in a DAW, you can find the stems of famous songs, remove your instrument and play along. Then you can see how close you can get to matching the feel of your favorite players.
On bass, I often bring a track into my DAW and use an EQ to sweep out the low-end. I then play and record the part to see how close I can get to the feel of the song.
Play Without A Metronome & Observe Your Tendencies
Recording yourself playing without a metronome can be very revealing. You can listen back and tap out the tempo on a metronome. You’ll quickly find out where you fall off the click. You’ll quickly find out where you tend to rush and drag.
Try doing this with various combinations of other factors. For example, try singing and playing with a metronome. Adding singing into the equation and you’ll find that your habits change completely.
Try recording your band playing without a click. You’ll soon find that you fall off the click by rushing into or out of choruses, in a turnaround, or sometimes just right through the entire song!
3. Play To A Metronome
Metronomes. They are not as scary as they seem. Many students hate playing with a metronome because it seems to take the “life” out of the music. And on top of that, most of us aren’t very good at it. We’ll slide off the click, rush, drag, and it’s frustrating.
Generally speaking, popular music feels best when it’s bouncing along with a click. At first, the metronome will feel unnatural and difficult, but after a while you’ll get better at playing with it.
I found it helpful to think of the metronome not as something to fight against, but as something to play along with. Think of the metronome as a snare or a kick drum that is a part of the band.
The click is part of the music. The click is what makes people dance. Learn to love it. Here are a few exercises to practice using a metronome.
Set Your Metronome On Beats 2 & 4
Most popular music is based around a backbeat on beats 2 and 4. Setting your metronome on 2 & 4 will help you tighten up your back beat and increase your awareness of the space between the bets and where beat 1 falls in relation to the rest of the bar.
The only thing to be careful of is where your awareness of beat 1 goes. I found that after practicing with the metronome exclusively on beats 2 & 4, I would arrive at beat 1 late and be rushing to be on time for beat 2.
Set Your Metronome To One Beat Per Bar
You can do all sorts of things to test your sense of time. Once you’re used to having the metronome on beats 2 & 4, try putting it only on beat 4. Then try putting it on the “and” of beat 4. Try putting the metronome on the first beat of every second bar.
The goal of playing to a metronome is not to rely on it, it’s to develop your internal sense of space and time.
4. Play Along To A Drum Machine Or Loop
As much as practicing to a metronome is useful, it doesn’t give you a complete view of what you’ll encounter in the real world. You can find all sorts of virtual drum machines online as well as drum loops on YouTube.
Alternatively, you can use a virtual drummer in nearly every DAW. GarageBand has a very good virtual drummer as well.
Practicing with a fake drummer is great, because you can (again) record yourself and see where your tendencies lie. You may find that you groove better at the beginnings of phrases than the ends, etc. Here are a few different things you can do with drum machines:
Set The Swing To Different Feels
On most drum machines, you can change how the swing feels and where the triplet lies within the beat. Practice setting it to varying degrees of swing and see if you can match the swing with the same feel.
Try Building An Entire Song Or Groove Based Around The Drum Beat
Even if you’re just armed with a guitar, most DAWs will come with an octave pedal or a pitch shifter. Try building an entire song or groove based around the drum beat: Bass, rhythm guitar, hooks, etc.
Each instrument brings something new to the feel of the song and each contributes to the overall feel differently. Learning how to create and record parts for different instruments is very revealing.
5. Practice Scales At Extremely Slow Tempos
Nothing will work your sense of time like practicing at very slow tempos. Scales can be boring, but there is utility in practicing them. You can turn scales into a meditative exercise by setting your metronome at 40 BPM, and playing them up and down.
Once I get into this and accept the challenge, I can practice this exercise for half an hour straight. It’s fun to do it at all sorts of tempos and it’s important to mix up the scale you’re using. Otherwise you’ll fall into muscle memory, which won’t teach you anything.
6. Internalize Subdivisions With The Pentatonic/Blues Scale
Working on subdivisions will significantly impact the way you perceive the space between beats, which will ultimately increase your understanding of time and feel. Plus, if you get your fingers and brain around subdivisions, you can pull out some pretty fancy fills and licks.
The pentatonic scale is a five note scale used everywhere in popular music. The blues scale is a six-note scale – the pentatonic scale with an added flat five. These two scales are great for practicing subdivisions, because they can be divided up nicely.
Here’s how to do this exercise:
- Set your metronome to a very low BPM. 60 is a good place to start.
- Go up and down the scale as you were in the previous exercise.
- Next, switch to eighth notes. Then switch to triplets. Then sixteenth notes. Then try subdividing the beat into 5. Then 6. Then 7, and so on.
This will help your brain wrap itself around all the different ways you can play with the space between beats. And as with nearly any exercise, it helps you tighten up your sense of time in general.
7. Play Along To A Visual Metronome
Most metronome apps and physical metronome have a visual component; a little light or a flashing something or other. It can be fun to challenge your reliance on the metronome by playing to the visual click.
Many drummers keep a little metronome beside the kit and just rely on the flashing light to get tempos.
Record yourself practicing like this and see where your time fluctuates and moves compared to your playing when you’re using an audible click.
8. Be Mindful Of Your Breath
When musicians play complicated or difficult figures, we tend to have a habit of holding our breath through the challenging parts. This gives you the tendency to rush through difficult passages.
Drummers tend to do this through fills and end up arriving at the next measure too quickly. Most people don’t realize they do this at all. Try soloing or playing something you find challenging. Become aware of where you take breaths.
Keeping a consistent breath while your playing can completely change your sense of time, especially in high energy or difficult parts.
As an exercise, try coordinating your breath with the bars. Quick BPMs can handle one breath per bar, slower tempos may have to be a breath every two beats. Try this in your practice, and you’ll notice your breath will become more controlled while performing.
9. Practice With Other People
There’s nothing like getting out and actually playing with other musicians. Now is the time to start applying some of these principles in the “real world”.
It’s especially fun if the other musicians are as excited by this stuff as you are. My band and I used to (and still does occasionally) jam on one chord and one groove for 10 minutes at a time, just trying out different things and eventually settling into a pocket.
There’s no point in practicing all these subdivisions and techniques if you never get to apply them. Here are a few things you can do while playing with other musicians that will help you become more mindful of your time:
- Listen to where the drummer places their subdivisions. Are they in the high hats? In the ghost notes? Try to match the feel that the drums are outlining.
- Subdivide audibly, but not too much. While you’re playing, you can make little clicks or noises in your mouth to help you keep a physical pulse. Obviously you wouldn’t want an audience hearing this, but it’s fine to do it subtly.
- Keep your internal sense of time no matter what. If you sense the drummer dragging or the guitar player rushing, stay the course. You can follow along if that’s where the music is going, but if you keep your groove steady, it will help everyone else get back to the pocket.
Learning about time and groove is a never-ending process. You’ll find yourself making breakthroughs at weird times. Out of nowhere, something will just click, and you’ll find yourself with a new understanding of the space around beats and how everything fits together.
So, the best advice I can give you is to keep at it. You can also spend time practicing things that are fun, but if you make timekeeping a regular part of your routine, you'll see how dramatically this can affect the sound of your music or even your band.