Musicians tend to think of a metronome as a static time keeper. The enforcer of the law, the man, you know… the rhythm police. The truth is, time doesn’t have to be as rigid as one might believe.
Einstein discovered time is not linear, so why would it be in music?
Ok, I know this all sounds a little trippy. Don’t worry, if you didn’t do well in science class you can still have good time.
The Cosmos Explained
“Good time.” That’s a phrase that gets thrown around a lot. What does it mean? It can have sightly varying definitions depending on the guitarist.
One perspective of good time is playing exactly on the grid. Every note is perfectly lined up with the click.
You’re Traveling Through Another Dimension
Locking to a grid is the simplest interpretation of “good time”.
A lot of advanced players tend to have a much deeper view on time.
For advanced players, a sense of “feel” enters the picture. It’s more about your relationship with time rather then just being on the grid.
But, isn’t playing perfectly on the grid the goal? Not always. Before you start thinking you don’t need to play to a click or be in time, let’s dissect the meaning of “feel”.
Feel is one of the hardest things to explain. It’s not an exact math. Often you gain feel through experience rather then reading. In fact, you can’t read feel. Only broad directions.
How do we go about gaining enough experience to sense the subtle variations in feel?
When I was younger, I always hated hearing things like “you have to do it a 1000 times to perfect it”. That statement is enough to make you want to pick up the remote and binge watch Fringe.
Do it 1,000 times which way? How many of those times will be the wrong way until you figure it out?
I don’t completely disagree with the sentiment that you have to repeat a process a number of times to perfect it. I do believe that in order to progress, you have to have an awareness of the proper process .
Although it’s difficult to teach feel, there are some ways that we can prepare ourselves to adapt the sensibility and sensitivity of “feel”.
I’m going to assume that everyone reading this article is familiar with what a bridge looks like. No, I’m not talking about what the Brits call a “middle eighth”. I’m referring to physical structure that crosses a waterway. You’ve seen one, right? I mean they have been around a while. Just sayin…
Lets think of each 8th note as a bridge pillar. In building a bridge, it makes the most sense to evenly space the pillars apart. *I’m not actually an bridge engineer, I just like to make silly metaphors.
Evenly spaced pillars aren’t always desired in music though. It’s the way you space those pillars apart that gives us feel. In other words, it’s the varying distance to which you space the 8th notes (pillars) that gives music its “feel”.
Of course, this translates to quarter and half notes. Eighth notes are just easiest to understand.
Don’t throw out your metronome yet! The placement of unevenly spaced pillars isn’t random.
A: Is a bridge with evenly spaced pillars.
B: Is a bridge with “adjusted” pillars.
Right now the question of a young Jedi is, “If you don’t play exactly on the grid isn’t it out of time?” The answer is yes and no. It depends how you do it. Meaning, if you do it intentionally versus accidentally.
One of my favorite things to do is take a lesson with other instrumentalists aside from the one you play. If you play guitar you can get a whole new perspective from a bassist as opposed to another guitarist.
A while back, I had a lesson with bassist and friend Catherine Popper (Jack White, Ryan Adams). In the lesson we got on the topic of feel. Cat started talking about her philosophy of playing behind and ahead of the beat.
She was talking about the tension and release it creates. How manipulating time can create a different emotional experience from the music.
Cat shared her thoughts on working out with a metronome which totally blew my mind. I quickly put these exercise to hard work and was astonished with the results.
It makes sense this advice would come from a bassist. They tend to get deeper into feel. They know what to do with fewer notes. Guitarists take note: It’s more about what you do WITH the notes you’ve got… Not just adding more.
You don’t have to buy notes in bulk. I prefer artisanal, small batch, non GMO, gluten-free phrases.
What if instead of playing perfectly with the beat, you play slightly behind the beat? What if you played slightly before the beat?
Are you starting to be open to this concept? Great, now we can get deeper into the many variations. Let’s look at some of Cat’s concepts with varying degrees of pushing and laying back.
Turn of a Click
You may be wondering if warping time is any different from adjusting the metronome ever so slightly. Modern metronomes allow you to make minute adjustments in tempo.
It’s not the same. You have to understand, feel doesn’t always mean the whole band plays on the same exact grid. Poof! Your brain smoking yet?
Take reggae as an example. It’s not uncommon for the bass to sit behind the groove of the drummer. This also goes for reggae guitar riffs. Time to dig out those Wailers records.
On the grid:
On top of the grid:
Behind the grid:
In this case, moving the metronome setting doesn’t really help. Really finessed players may also weave through time. They may choose to play one bar (or beat) ahead or behind as an expression.
Let’s hear how this all works.
Example 1 is the G major Scale played on the grid.
Example 2 is the G major Scale played on top of the grid.
Example 3 is the G major Scale played behind the grid.
Time Jumper Exercises
Set the Metronome to a reasonable setting. Somewhere between 80-100. These exercises are not about speed.
Exercise 1: Let go of keeping time. As soon as you hear the click, play a note (or chord) on the guitar. No counting! Just react.
The point isn’t to eventually lock perfectly to the click. It’s to be able to respond without hesitation to the click.
In this exercise, we’re going to try to play ahead of the beat. Try to predict when the beat is going to happen, but play a note, chord or phrase just before you think it will click.
Again, this is not so much about counting, but feeling the moment when it’s about to happen. Predict!
You’re going to have to spend quite some time with these two examples before you can really manipulate time.
As you progress, you can adjust how far you play before or after the beat. Be brave and go extreme. The goal is to have a broad range of control over time and feel.
Listen to different types of music. What makes the sound/feel of punk music contrast to soul?
For example: If you listen to “It Follows Me” from Minor Threat and then “There’s A Break in the Road” by Betty Harris, you’re going to hear contrasting approaches to the beat.
This variation has nothing to do with musical ability. It has to do with expression. “It Follows Me” is pushing forward adding tension to the song. “There’s a Break in Every Road” is pulling back. Making the groove greasy.
I know it seems odd that to control feel, you have to let go of time as you know it. But trust me, it will open doors to a new dimension… and beyond.