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.
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.
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