Time Keeping Or Time Sharing?

Drummers are expected to be time-keepers, almost as if we have the sole responsibility as guardians of the metronome, and the rest of musicians are exempt. Then there is the idea of time-sharing: all of the musicians are responsible for the tempo and time feel, not just the drummer. I'm here to say that the reality includes a bit of both.

As I was performing with my band the other night, I paid close attention to how I played time. I felt the time "stretch" at certain moments: usually when there was a band stop, leaving the singers with a pick-up. In that one or two bars of relative silence, the time stretched out a bit and my entrance accomodated it. If I had kept metronomic time in that section I would have come in early and the groove would have been ruined. Some singers hang back a bit so the instrumentalists have to be flexible with their time. Also, in ballads you can stretch the ends of phrases for emotional excitement and in general lay back on the time.


How does a drummer lay back? You can move parts of your instrument back and forth in time. Often it's the snare or the bass, but can include the cymbal. If I want to lay back (fatten the time), I pull back the 2 and 4 of the snare, make it slightly late. That takes some practice if you've never tried it. If I want to push the time, create some emotional excitement, I push the 2 and 4 ahead of the beat. It's a millimetre of time I'm talking about. The bass drum can be shoved around but not every note, and it depends on the style, the tempo and the beat you are playing. The "one" and the "an of four" are common areas I like to play around with.

I enjoy practicing with a click or a metronome. I relish the feeling of playing exactly with the pulse and seeing how far away I can get, both hanging back and pushing ahead. Playing in the center of a click is essential training because it gives you a base to work off. As a kid, I was told by at least one drum teacher that playing to a metronome makes you a stiff drummer. I don't agree. Keeping rock solid time is never a bad thing, you will always be praised for your steady tempos. However, learning to stretch and compress a tempo is where the fun and professionalism come in.