Sharp outfits mean nothing if you’re not a sharp, tight band. Good timing is the essence of playing in a band, and if you don’t have it, then you risk sounding like a shambles. So, how do you hone your skills to make sure you’re hitting every beat and that you’re part of a super-tight band? We offer up fifteen exercises and some handy tips to help you get there.
- Timing comes first
- Playing Ear & Listening Ear
- Feeling the Rhythm
- Guitars & Keyboards
- Work on Your Timing
- Reading Music
- Using a Metronome & Recording
- Rhythmic Exercises
- Exercise 1 – Eighths
- Exercise 2 – Eighths with Rest
- Exercise 3 – Basic Shuffle (triplets)
- Exercise 4 – Shuffle
- Exercise 5 – Sixteenths
- Exercise 6 – Sixteenths with Rests
- Exercise 7 – On the One (with Quarters)
- Exercise 8 – On the One (Eighths)
- Exercise 9 – On the One (Shuffle)
- Exercise 10 – On the One (Sixteenths)
- Exercise 11 – Syncopated (Eighths)
- Exercise 12 – Syncopated (Shuffle, Version 1)
- Exercise 13 – Syncopated (Shuffle, Version 2)
- Exercise 14 – Syncopated (Sixteenths, Version 1)
- Exercise 15 – Syncopated (Sixteenths, Version 2)
- Good to Know…
- Write out your rhythms
- ‘Locking’ in the bass & drums
- See also…
Timing comes first
Timing is absolutely essential when it comes to music. As guitarist John Scofield puts it: “Timing comes first, then your tone, and then the notes you choose to play.” What’s annoying about this is that timing is probably the hardest part to nail and requires a lot of focussed practise. To get your band tight, two things need to be taken care of: the first is that every member needs to have good timing, and the second is that the band has to have good timing. In other words, every member needs to be involved in playing as a tight and cohesive whole.
Here, we’ll focus on one band member – that’s you. And to start, we’ll dispel the popular myth that misleads many an amateur musician – namely, that you can just do everything on feeling and hearing alone. Many musicians will also boast about not being able to read a note of music (meaning that they don’t even want to be able to), and that they know nothing about music theory and that everything that they do comes from their (alleged) natural talent. That’s not to say that you can’t get far on hearing and gut alone, but at some point, this attitude will limit your melodic, harmonic, and expressive ability – among other things – and playing music with good timing is another story. It requires focussed study (endless study in fact), and you need to really understand what it is that you’re studying. Never done it before? Well, it’s never too late to start.
So, playing on your gut is fine. But it’s worth knowing that as soon as you broaden your musical knowledge, you’re essentially feeding your subconscious, and therefore that ‘gut feeling’ will have even more to work with. Knowledge about theory is essential when communicating with other musicians as well, and when it comes to timing, then knowing about time signatures and rhythmic symbols certainly doesn’t hurt. Basically, it’s going to be really tough to communicate the placing of a specific note with your fellow musicians if you can’t speak the language. Even when you’re rehearsing alone, this kind of knowledge is useful, since it’ll help you to play more rhythmically and with more precision.
Playing Ear & Listening Ear
If you don’t record yourself playing because it’s never crossed your mind to, or you’d never dared to, or just because you think that recording equipment is too expensive, then this is dumb. For a musician, there is no good reason for not recording yourself. Record your playing. Listen back and scare yourself because the biggest disappointment is likely to lie in that ragged timing. How can that be? You’re a proficient musician, you know your way around your instrument, and everything felt right while you were recording. This is because there’s a difference between your ‘listening ear’ and your ‘playing ear’. When you playback those recordings, you hear them through your listening ear which has a little more distance from your performance and is therefore more objective. While you’re actually playing music, you listen with your playing ear, and by its very nature, this ear is far less objective. While your playing ear might hear perfection, your listening ear might hear an utter mess. How do you solve this? The answer is to kind of synchronise your playing ear with your listening ear by basically teaching your playing ear to be just as objective and critical as your listening ear. How do you do this? By making recordings of your playing and listening back to them. It’s an endless task and will last your entire music career, but the bonus is that this process doesn’t just train your timing but plenty of other aspects of your skills as a musician.
As we’ve already said, playing tight is a question of playing with good timing. Now, we’ll dive a little deeper into what good timing means. Generally speaking, timing is the most strict, almost mathematically precise, rhythmic aspect of music. It has everything to do with the moment that a note begins and when it ends. Timing is also an important factor when it comes to the quality of the music, and counting is a big part of the story. The count indicates the beginning and end, which sounds simple, but it’s a little more difficult than you might think. Learning to count well means learning to feel, while playing, where the following measure starts. It’s all about learning to feel where the ‘one’ falls – the first beat of the bar. In pop music, this is definitely important, especially for the drummer and bassist, since they’re often dealing with the accented parts of a bar. When playing in 4/4 (the most common time signature) the accent falls on counts one and three, while count one is the count that rules them all. Practise with a metronome and try playing a variation every now and then. You’ll immediately notice that during the variation, you can easily speed up and come just too early on that all-important first count.
Feeling the Rhythm
Many musicians spend a lot of time studying fast passages but forget to spare a thought for their timing. Before focussing on playing faster and faster, it’s better to develop your internal feeling for the rhythm and get that up to a good level first. This is something that you’ll always need to keep maintaining and developing. The best tool to help develop your internal feel for rhythm is to use a metronome. Loved and hated by musicians, the relentless tick of a metronome takes some getting used to but it’s worth making friends with, since many skilled and experienced musicians (especially the rhythm section) have spent countless hours sitting with a metronome simply because it helps develop your awareness of tempo, and in turn, helps develop your internal feel for rhythm.
Strangely, while you might think that using some kind of beat-making gear like a drum machine will work just as well, you’d actually be wrong. A metronome works better simply because it is less comfortable – less merciful. A drum machine can give too much away when it comes to the notes played between the counts of a bar, meaning that you’re more likely to hit count one dead on. A metronome doesn’t offer that luxury since it forces you to rely solely on your own sense of rhythm to make sure that you hit the first count, every time.
Guitars & Keyboards
By definition, the drums and bass are rhythmic instruments. But the guitar and keyboard also have an important role to play in the rhythmic whole. Eighty percent of the time, the guitarists will play rhythm parts, meaning that the guitar is actually an integral part of the rhythm section. Being a good rhythm guitarist isn’t easy. Constantly staying in time with the drums is an artful skill, and the same applies for the keyboard player, especially when playing piano-like parts (with dying notes and chords). Playing rhythm guitar is tough if you don’t play on every fourth or eighth count, which makes it easy to fall out of tempo. The trick here is to keep playing. In other words, keep moving your hand, whether you’re hitting the strings or not. By keeping the flow of your playing hand consistent, you can keep tight to the groove. This technique lends itself perfectly to playing chords, but also works with single notes. You could decide to play so-called dead notes in between. Drummers use a technique like this a lot – by making movements that don’t actually make any sound, but that still support the groove. Keyboard players will often ‘drum’ on the keys for the same reason. However, bassists have a harder life in this respect, since you can’t really keep moving in the same way as you can with a guitar. You also need excellent timing when playing solos. If your timing is off when playing a rhythm part then it’s going to be even worse when playing a solo. Many soloists, usually the guitarist or keyboard player, often get blinded by the idea of playing super-fast passages and completely lose sight of the fact that they need to be in time with the rest of the band. Quit trying to play as fast as you can and instead, start by making sure you’re playing in time.
Work on Your Timing
Now we’ll offer you, the musician, a helping hand in honing and tightening up your timing. Beware that, to a small or larger extent, this might involve a bit of a personal culture-shift. So if, like may musicians, you tend to rely on your gut and hearing (which is fine), then you’ll need to make the shift to a more scientific approach, and this approach demands three things: that you learn the basics of reading music (even learning to read rhythmic notation is enough!); that you get yourself a metronome to rehearse with; and that you’re able to record yourself. If you’re all set up and prepared to do these three things, then you can be welcomed into the paradise that is playing tight to the beat.
Many musicians either have a moderate grasp of how to read music or just can’t do it at all. In any case, knowing the basics is always going to be useful, and it’s especially useful if you can actually ‘see’ the rhythm of a piece. When the rhythm of a song is written down in notes (the bass line for example) then it gives you a real insight into that rhythm. While it helps to see how the rhythm is played in the context of the time signature and the number of counts per bar, writing out a rhythm also forces you to think about how everything fits together rhythmically, and will help you to remember how your part is to be played. There is another good argument in favour of being able to read music; you’ll need it to practise your rhythmic exercises – for example, the exercises that will come later in this blog. We’ll get into reading music in more depth later as well.
Using a Metronome & Recording
As we’ve mentioned a couple of times now, the best tool for honing your internal feel for rhythm is the metronome. Our advice is to just get one. They’re not too expensive and some even come with a built-in recording function – as does your phone! And, you can also easily download one of countless metronome apps to your phone, giving you an all-in-one solve. Remember, rehearsing using a drum machine is also helpful, but a metronome is just far better at training your innate feel for the rhythm. We’ve also talked about the difference between your listening ear and your playing ear and how many musicians forget or don’t even notice that they need synching up. By playing with a critical ear and recording yourself and listening back with an equally critical ear, you’ll be able to synchronise your listening and playing ear. And we have another tip: keep moving. If your body is responding to the rhythm, then your hands will follow, so tap your foot, nod your head, or move whatever body part feels most comfortable and harness your personal, internal metronome. Just make sure not to move to the rhythm – but to the count of the measure. Also, be patient with yourself when practising and recording. Don’t get frustrated – it’s just a waste of your precious energy. If you get a taste for the exercises included below, then there are plenty more to try out either online or in books, and you’ll be able to find exercises that have been tailored specifically for your instrument.
For this exercise, we’re going to assume that you know what a time signature is and that you have a basic understanding of how to read music – at least rhythmic notation. If you don’t have this under your belt just yet, then read our blog about Rhythm, Tempo and Measure before going any further. And don’t be daunted, if you’ve already learnt to read letters, words, and sentences, then you can definitely learn to read music, because it’s actually much easier. Especially if you’re only focussing on rhythmic notation.
- Important: for every exercise, make sure to use your metronome, record yourself, and listen back. There’s a big chance that you’ll shock yourself the first time you listen back but don’t let it stop you! Keep going and you will get better. Timing is a question of doing it again, and again, and…
- In the upper stave, you’ll see what you need to play. In the lower stave, the click of the metronome has been notated.
- In this exercise, the note G has been notated, but in reality, you can play or sing any note you want. If you have an instrument that you can play chords with, then you can choose to play each note of a chord, or to change chords.
- With all of the exercises, a tempo in bpm (beats per minute) has been included. Try this tempo out first. Once your timing improves, only then should you start varying the tempo. If the tempo is fast, it might feel harder to play tight, but it’s worth noting that at a lower tempo, playing on the beat is arguably harder, since there’s more time between each beat, giving you more time to fall out of tempo.
Exercise 1 – Eighths
In this exercise, you’re working with eighths, which are counted as follows: one-and, two-and, three-and, four-and for a more rhythmic feel and to reflect the notation. Set your metronome at 72bpm. Sing through the exercise first until it feels tight, then listen to your recordings to check back. Then repeat the exercise with your instrument.
Exercise 2 – Eighths with Rest
In this exercise, you’ll be working with eighths again, but not every eighth is actually played, so the also notation includes eighth rest symbols. These rests fall on the count, and apart from the opening note, all notes are played between the counts (this is called a syncopated rhythm). Set your metronome to 72bpm. Sing through the exercise until it feels tight, then listen to your recordings to check back. Then repeat the exercise with your instrument.
Exercise 3 – Basic Shuffle (triplets)
You’ll hear a shuffle played in plenty of pop and blues music. The shuffle is based on triplets, and simply speaking (although the music theory isn’t strictly correct), a triplet is three notes played on one count. This means that twelve triplets are played in one four-four measure. This can be counted as follows: one-and-a, two-and-a, three-and-a, four-and-a. Note that this is not an ‘official’ shuffle’, but is more intended to give you an understanding of what triplets are. In the following exercise, we’ll tackle a genuine shuffle. Set your metronome to 46bpm. Sing through the exercise until it feels tight, then listen to your recordings to check back. Then repeat the exercise with your instrument.
Exercise 4 – Shuffle
Once you feel like you’ve nailed Exercise 3, then you’re ready for Exercise 4: the real shuffle. As we’ve already said, the shuffle has a triplet-based feel but with rests built in, as you can see in the notated staves above. Keep your metronome at 46bpm for this one. As before, try out the exercise with our voice, and then with your instrument. Then try it without your metronome and see if you still have that shuffle-feel but without the help of a steady beat to keep you tight. Record it and check it! Rinse and repeat.
Exercise 5 – Sixteenths
From eighths (in exercises 1 and 2) and triplets (exercises 3 and 4), we move onto sixteenths. Here, 16 notes are played within a four/four measure, so there are four beats per bar. This can be counted as follows: one-and-one-and, two-and-two-and, three-and-three-and, four-and-four-and. But this is more analytical counting and might lack a rhythmic feel since that’s the way this exercise has been notated. But that doesn’t mean you can’t count with a rhythmic and musical feel. Sixteenths can be troublesome and treacherous, especially when you start throwing rests in, but this won’t happen until the next exercise. First try out your sixteenths without any rests. Set your metronome to 44bpm and sing it through before playing it with your instrument.
Exercise 6 – Sixteenths with Rests
If you’re feeling comfortable playing sixteenths without any rests, then it’s time to try them with some rests added. The noted words or sounds beneath the upper stave will make singing this exercise much easier. Do things a little differently and try this one without your metronome first to get used to following the pattern. Once that’s going well, set your metronome to 44bpm, sing first, then try it with your instrument.
Exercise 7 – On the One (with Quarters)
In pop music, the first count rules over everything. The first count of every measure needs to be as solid as a rock and forms the foundation of any good beat. This is true for the other musicians, as well as the drummer and bassist. It may sound simple and obvious, but it can go wrong. Especially in this exercise. Set your metronome to 40bpm. Note: the tick of your metronome now falls on counts 2 and 4, leavin you responsible for counts 1 and 3 (the most important ones). Here, you’re playing between the beat of the metronome and essentially leading the beat. You can do this in a number of different ways. Stamp your foot, tap your hand on your knee, or clap your hands. Record and listen back to see how you did then practice with your instrument until you can hear that you’re getting good at it. A good tip for knowing when to come in is to see the first tick of your metronome as count 2. This will make it easier to pick up the tempo when you loop back around to count 1 (in this case, the afterbeat).
Exercise 8 – On the One (Eighths)
This is almost exactly the same as exercise 7, but now you need to clap or play two eighths on the one and three.
Exercise 9 – On the One (Shuffle)
Again, this is almost exactly the same as exercise 7, but here, you need to clap out or play a shuffle (see Exercise 4 again).
Exercise 10 – On the One (Sixteenths)
And again, this is almost exactly the same as exercise 7, but here, you need to clap out or play the sixteenths (see Exercise 5 again). This is the hardest of the four ‘On the One’ exercises. Note: the first note is still three sixteenths, and the second note is a sixteenth (together with a quarter-note – or crotchet). You can hear the feel of this beat in a lot of rock, funk, latin, and plenty of other genres. To nail that feel and add it to your growing library of innate, natural rhythms, try counting the beat out using this brilliant nonsense-word: ‘ookachu-bop’. Believe it or not, it helps.
Exercise 11 – Syncopated (Eighths)
Syncopation means to play on the ‘light beats’. Another way of putting it is to say that you’re playing ‘against the beat’ – so, the off-beat (but in terms of music theory, this isn’t entirely correct). Playing a syncopated beat can be tough, but it must (just like playing on the count) be played tight. All of the four exercises that follow focus on syncopated beats. In this exercise, the eighth is syncopated. Here, you can set your metronome in one of two ways: one tick on every beat (at 80 bpm) or a tick on counts 2 and 4 (so, at 40bpm). Count the beat as ‘one-and, two-and’ or ‘da-ba’ to help you keep time. First practise by clapping, then try it with your instrument.
Exercise 12 – Syncopated (Shuffle, Version 1)
This is almost the same as exercise 11, but now we’re dealing with a shuffle. Here, you’re clapping or playing the second note of the triplet. A handy way to count this is: chi-ka-da, where the note is played on the ‘ka’.
Exercise 13 – Syncopated (Shuffle, Version 2)
Again, this is almost the same as exercise 12, but now, the third note of the triplet is clapped or played. A handy way to count this is, again: chi-ka-da, where the played note now falls on the ‘da’.
Exercise 14 – Syncopated (Sixteenths, Version 1)
This is still the same idea as exercise 11, but you’ll be playing sixteenths instead of eighths. A handy way to count this one is: dig-a-chick-a, where the played note falls on the first ‘a’.
Exercise 15 – Syncopated (Sixteenths, Version 2)
As in exercise 14, we’re working with sixteenths but the played sixteenth has moved. Count ‘dig-a-chick-a’ and this time, play on the second ‘a’.
Good to Know…
- Master your instrument. If your technical ability, training and knowledge of your instrument falls short, then your timing will suffer. Especially when it comes to playing more difficult passages.
- If the technical level of a piece of music is too high for you (either as an individual musician or as a band), then half of the rhythmic precision will suffer. Try making things simpler. Take it down to a level where the rhythm sits better and you’ll do a lot better.
- Keep the rhythmic foundation of a song as simple as possible at first. This will enable you to get more rhythmically attuned to one another. It’s important to learn each other’s rhythmic understanding and timing before making things more difficult.
Write out your rhythms
Many musicians either have a moderate grasp of how to read music, or just can’t do it at all. In any case, knowing the basics is always going to be useful, and it’s especially useful if you can actually ‘see’ the rhythm of a piece. When the rhythm of a song is written down in notes (the bass line for example) then it gives you a real insight into that rhythm. While it helps to see how the rhythm is played in the context of the time signature and the number of counts per bar, writing out a rhythm also forces you to think about how everything fits together rhythmically, and will make it easier to remember how your part is played.
‘Locking’ in the bass & drums
Even if you have the tightest guitarist and keyboard player on earth, the overall tightness of your band rests on how the bassist and drummer work together. If they aren’t working in tandem, then the rest of the band just won’t be able to play as tightly as they want to, leaving the whole band sounding off. The rhythmic work of the bass and drums needs to lock together. As long as the drummer and bassist play well together, the snare and kick drum will literally bind with the bass notes, which creates a direct bridge between the rhythmic section and the harmonic section of the band. In this sense, the bass is what knits the drummer into the rest of the band – kind of like musical cement. If you’re working on something and the rhythm just isn’t sitting right, then the first bit that needs looking at is how the bass and drums are working together. If that’s not in order, then the rest won’t be. If the drums and bass are working together, then check each instrument one by one to see where the problem might lie.
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