A few months ago my friend Travis Faust started some great dialogue on Facebook regarding using a click track. He wrote a blog post about it and emailed the link to a bunch of drummers, and we all replied with comments. A really great discussion followed, and I meant to post it here when it happened and I forgot until now. Oh well.
You’ll want to read Travis’ blog post first, then check out the exchange…
Anthony Bloch was first to respond with this:
I think you got the right idea here. A metronome is a really useful tool, but you need to be able to play well without it. I think every drummer has struggled with this issue at one point or another. I still wonder about playing live with a click. I feel like a click can be a baby sitter sometimes in live situations, and takes away from the fun. It’s always more fun to play when the baby sitter is gone, right !? Besides, if your band is really well rehearsed and you have practiced a lot with and without click, you should sound pretty solid live. I’m not saying there aren’t situations where you would want to use a click live – it’s just my general opinion on the matter. I love using a click in the studio. I almost always use a click when I am working on new material. The fact that you are considering your own time issues means that you are well on your way to improving your time. Listen to Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon” and tell me that time needs to stay exactly the same in a song. It’s a groovin’ recording and speeds up like 20 bpm from beginning to end.
Dan Noraker responded next:
I use a metronome as a tool to move toward an ideal of a perfect sense of time, both physically and mentally. We might have a pretty good sense of time internally, but we have to discipline our bodies to respond to that sense of time. I used to struggle a lot with my bass pedal hitting exactly where I wanted it. I would always hit slightly early, causing me to rush. I needed the time reference of a metronome to discipline my body to go through all of the motions involved in a stroke on the bass drum to hit exactly with the metronome. As we get our bodies “calibrated” to respond exactly when we want them to, it also strengthens our internal sense of time. I made up some exercises that help me “calibrate” my body to respond to a tempo that I think of or hear. It’s usually based on two beats of a pattern, then two beats of rest and I repeat it. I try to cover every tempo possible with each pattern so I don’t rush or drag the odd tempos to get to the comfortable tempos. In other words, If someone counts off 97 BPM, I don’t speed up to 100 or slow down to 96. I practice 97 so it feels familiar. The physical motion to produce 97 is different than 96, isn’t it? So I need to practice that. It’s all in muscle memory. Now, my end goal is NOT to play everything perfectly even in time, though I want that ability. I want to CONTROL when I play steady or push or pull back, vs accidentally doing it. I want to know exactly where a beat should lie if it were perfectly in time so that I can decide that I want to make a note lay back a little and place slightly after my time reference, whether that’s a click track or in my head. I’ve also found that the closer I get to the magical “perfect sense of time”, the more I recognize where drummers are messing with time, intentionally or not. Whenever I teach lessons after working on time, my poor students get shredded apart on their timekeeping because I’m hyper-sensitive to it. I’ve also found that the more I improve my time, the more I understand what John Bonham is doing, for instance. I can hear where he intentionally places notes a certain way to create a feel. I once thought that (and was taught by a horn teacher) the metronome didn’t have an important place in making REAL music that lives and breathes, and thus is NOT perfect. But what I’ve learned is that the metronome, used properly, can help us move toward “perfect time” for the means of developing intentional “imperfect time” to the end of making MUSIC.
Kevin Holvig then added this:
Well said Travis! Same to to you guys. This stuff is great to hear. Personally I go back and forth on this. I will play the other side to try to keep this conversation going. I used to play everything without a click growing up and had to make some serious adjustments in my playing when I first got one. It was a rude awakening to some real blind spots in my playing. I had tendencies based on comfort zones in my playing that would cause me to slowly get into comfort tempos. It took a long time to sort through it all. I thought I had it all worked out years ago playing with quarter notes on a click no matter what tempo. I was totally comfortable really slow or fast with quarters. Other bandmates would think I was crazy and would beg for 8th’s at the slower tempos. As I have grown as a musician I have learned that nailing the quarters right on is not the goal. There is so much space in between those notes that are up for interpretation. In recent years I have done a ton of different exercises with clicks at all different tempos and have learned to get much deeper inside of the time. The goal here is not to become a machine but to be freed up by the total understanding of what is “inside the time.” Like Dan was saying, it’s unbelievable how sensitive you become to time if you are knee-deep in perfect time all day. I believe that freedom to breathe comes from being able to be dead on first. Try to play the same exact feel with all different sub-divisions. This a starting point to understanding what your tendencies are. You might seemingly be totally comfortable with quarters on a click and never realize how much you’re playing pinball with the click. As soon as you can make everything sound the same with 8th’s or straight 16th’s then you are honed in that much deeper to understanding your feel. Then turn off the click and let it breathe a bit and start to make it all feel the same. Actually, I just got back from a gig where I was the only one with click because we were all using wedges. I think that’s my favorite set up right now for the exact thing we’re talking about. I can let myself drift along with the musicians a little more when I’m the only one with click. It’s their job to keep good time too, but they’re playing to my groove. We go without the click when it’s just not musical to use one. Example, half the song is just guitar and vocals=no click. It gets ridiculous and that’s where it is nice to not be stubborn about click use. However, if everyone has click, I feel an obligation to keep a consistent reference point for everyone. I don’t want them to have to periodically choose between me and the click. I wanna all be on the same team. For what it’s worth this obligation goes up even more when playing worship stuff with rhythmic loops and guitar delay.
Then I responded with my input:
“Freedom to breathe comes from being able to be dead on first”… well said Kevin. “I want to CONTROL when I play steady or push or pull back, versus accidentally doing it. I want to know so well exactly where a beat should lie if it were perfectly in time so that I can decide that I want to make a note lay back a little and place slightly after my time reference, whether that’s a click track or in my head”…. spot on Dan. In my experience, the click is a guide and a very important one. It exposes hidden flaws, helps with consistent energy, and builds one internal time. What I will add to the discussion is what my buddy Chris Morrissey said once. He was practicing walking bass with a click just on 2 and 4. He said he was trying to make the click “disappear” (we all know what he’s talking about there), but his point was to not freak out when that happened. I know for me, when I feel the click disappear because I’ve totally buried it, I instantly panic and look for it again, instead of trusting my own time. THAT is what it comes down to for me. When I trust myself, whether with a part or with my time feel, I play far superior to when I don’t trust myself. So building that trust… that’s the game. Then I play confidently regardless of the click’s presence. Disclaimer: This ABSOLUTELY hinges on style/genre. Travis is right… you do not use a click in Jazz. The music is such a conversation in that environment, you can’t have someone in the conversation who “isn’t listening” to everyone else. One final point point: Like Kev said, I use clicks live all the time when we aren’t using in-ears, meaning I’m the only one who can hear it. I turn it off and on during the tunes, much like, as I said, a guide. That way we always end up playing the tune at the same tempo as last gig, but the other guys can breathe on my time and lean against it naturally. If things lean too far I just can the click. Cool example… Jeremy Sanoski has a lot of moments in his tunes when he plays by himself – just guitar. At this point, we’ve played the tune so often at the tempo I dial it in at, that when he goes solo at those moments I often don’t even need to turn the click off, and he stays right with it for 8 bars or more, totally blind. But of course it feels normal because he can’t ever hear the click at our gigs, only I do.
Tim Zhorne closed it out with this:
The only thing I might add to all the great comments is this: all the the tools, technique, gear, and knowledge we acquire are a MEANS to an end, NOT the end itself. The end goal, of course, is to make MUSIC. Click tracks we use for practice, studio or live, loops we play to, etc… they all have their purpose and importance, but hopefully with the overall goal in mind that MUSIC and the connection that music makes with our audience and (hopefully) with each band member is our goal, whatever the context, worship or otherwise. We all recognize the fact that great music existed before the click track, loops and protools… as well as after. HOW we make this happen is the part of our journey that makes each style and context we play in a worthy and unique endeavor. It’s also what makes each project were apart of so much FUN! We’re required to intelligently consider what’s BEST for the music at hand.