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Ask The Drummer: How do I fix my tempo issues?

Paige Maitland photography

Our friend Garth writes in:

Dear Ask the Drummer-
I have become a terrible drummer somehow. Maybe “terrible” is a bit harsh but along the way (and I’ve been drumming off-and-on for at least 20 years now) I’ve regressed into some bad habits – mostly that my tempo is unsteady. I’ve been listening to some live recordings and I am speeding up quite a bit on my fills as well as picking up a song’s tempo from the beginning to the end. On some songs I’ve even noticed that on songs that start w/ guitar, I still come in noticeably (to me anyway) faster than the established tempo.

I’ve been able to compensate by playing to a click when recording, but that doesn’t help me live. My bandmate doesn’t seem to notice – and what’s worse is that I don’t notice it…while I’m playing anyway. I’ve had performances that have felt GREAT and then gone back to see video and been really bummed.

Is there any hope for a hack like me?

Hello, Garth-
I may be the worst guy to ask about this, since I tend to speed up when I’m really enjoying a song. I start and finish fills at the same tempo, but generally I have been known to start songs faster than they should be and then finish them even faster. It gets better if I concentrate on keeping tempos sane, but if the audience and the rest of the band are excited, then things can start moving along at a pretty good clip.

In the studio, I often play to a click. Live, I try to avoid espresso an hour before the gig, though that’s not always possible. (shut up, I can quit any time.) I can tell you that the first step to solving this problem is admitting that it’s an issue and deciding how important it is. Playing a little fast live is not the end of the world (ask Hüsker Dü). With my old band Music Hates You speeding up was just part of what made the show more fun and challenging. With Easter Island, the tempo mostly fluctuates in ways that don’t hurt the material. With an Americana gig, though, speeding up could end up sucking all the dynamics and beauty out of a song.

The way out of this trap is, of course, practice. It helps to practice to a click. Also, play with a band a lot more: the more familiar I am with a song, the more adept I generally am at remembering the vibe and feel of the tune so that I can bring it across at the right tempo.

I’ve also considered doing what Alex Westcoat was doing when Easter Island opened for David Bazan: he had a DR-202 hooked to a midi-controlled visual click like this one. That way he could dial up his tempo before a song and keep an eye on the click to get some idea of where he was in relation to the tempo of the recording of the song. The whole band had these boxes at their feet, so if Dave had a guitar intro he’d be sure to nail the tempo down before the drums came in. The great thing about a visual click is that if things start to feel like the NEED to speed up, you just look away from the thing. Brilliant.

Most times, I think that if the song speeds up a little or is a little faster than the recorded version that it’s ok and it’s part of the charm of seeing a band live. The real danger is finishing fills faster than you start them. Drummers that do this too often distract me and piss me off. Fortunately, this might be the easiest fix of all: If you end up getting a Boss DR-202 or another programmable drum machine, I’d suggest making practice sessions on it where you have four measures of click, one measure of silence and see if you come back on the 1 when the beat starts again. Gradually increase the ratio of silence to click until you’re playing one measure of click and four or five measures of silence and still hitting the 1 dead on. I’ve seen guys do this and it’s REALLY COOL. If I had more time, this is what I would spend my time practicing.

I hope this helps!

One Response to Ask The Drummer: How do I fix my tempo issues?

  1. Mike Reply

    October 12, 2015 at 3:02 pm

    Hi,

    thanks for the great tips

    I’m looking for a good visual metronome to use on mu ipad on stage.
    No in ear… just big flashing numbers..

    Do you have some to recommend

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