In my opinion, timing is probably the most critical element in music! What note you play is probably the least important. If you have ever listened to people play jazz, you know you can even play the wrong notes as long as you resolve them at the right "time". Most of us have played in bands where someone is "rushing" or "dragging" (It might even be you). This is usually when someone in the band says, "It just doesn't feel right". On the other hand, there is nothing greater than when everbody is locked in, and the groove just knocks your audience out!
In order to help develop my own sense of time, and also aid my students with theirs, I came up with an exercise I call "Nailing the One" that gives you a clear cut answer to where you stand on the issue of timing. After doing this exercise, you'll be able to see if you have a tendency to rush or drag.
In order to do this exercise you'll need a drum machine. What you need to do is program four bars of a drum groove in 4/4. I suggest at first you keep the groove fairly simple at first. It might even be safe to just program a metronome click. After you have recorded the drum groove you need to program four bars of nothing (complete silence) of 4/4. Set this eight bar pattern to loop so you have four bars of drums (clicks), four bars of silence, four bars of drums (clicks), four bars of silence, etc.
Now that you have the pattern down, here comes the fun part. Pick some sort of rhythmic pattern that you can cycle over and over again for four bars. It could be a chord progression, a scale, some sort of lick, etc. Just be sure you know where beat one is of the rhythmic pattern you choose. Start playing your rhythmic pattern over the drum groove and continue playing it over the silent part. If you have this set up right you should nail beat one when the drums re-enter after the four bars of silence. By continuing to play this pattern over the silent part you have no reference point to hang on to, timing wise. Three possibilities can occur: 1) The drums will re-enter before you reached the beat one of your pattern. This means that you started to slow down while you where playing over the silent part. You got behind the band. 2) The drums re-entered after you reached the beat one of your rhythmic pattern. This means you started to speed up while you playing over the silent part. You got ahead of the band. 3) The third possibility is that you played the beat one of your pattern exactly at the same time the drums re-entered. If you've done option three, give yourself a pat on the back because your timing was perfect. You "Nailed the One"!! If you were dragging or rushing during your pattern, I suggest simplifying your pattern. A basic pattern of quarter notes on the open E string is boring, but it might be a good place to start. This is not an exercise that you can expect to blaze through swept arpeggios or thirty-second notes and expect to "Nail the One" every time.
Also don't get discouraged if you can't do this right away. From a personal standpoint, I get better at this after about five minutes into it. I almost have to warm up my internal sense of time!
There are a million variations to this exercise. You should try this at all different tempos. It's harder to hold the time together at 60 bpm that it is at 120 bpm. Also instead of a 4/4 time signature you could do four bars of drums in 5/4, and then have four bars of silence in 5/4. For you progressive rockers out there, have the drum part in 4/4 and the silent part be in 9/8, or vice versa. I keep mentioning four bars too. That's a good starting point, but who says it has to be four bars! How about five bars of a drum groove, and three bars of silence! Of course you'll have to alter your rhythmic patterns to fit different time signatures, you might even have two different patterns for each time of time signature. For each lick though, you should be able nail the one each time the drums re-enter. With different time signatures and bar lengths, the possibilities are endless!
On a final note, I want to stress this is only an exercise in seeing where a person stands on the issue of time keeping. None of us will really have perfect time (although you can get real close!) For the most part, you don't want perfect time anyway. Music should breathe a little, otherwise we become too machine like. Use this exercise only to gauge timing problems that you might have.
Kevin Slack graduated from the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati with a degree in Jazz/Studio Music in 1994. He has taught lessons at Buddy Roger's Music in Cincinnati for the past twelve years.
After playing in bands for many years, Slack is pursuing a solo career, and has an instrumental guitar CD in the works, due out in late 1999 or early 2000.
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