In any piece of music, the importance of rhythm and timing can not be overstated.
Proper timing leads to a steady flow throughout a song, cohesion and synchronicity between bandmates, and if necessary, it can mask small flaws such as a dropped note. The absence of timing is often the first thing listeners will pick up on about a performance, even on a subconscious level.
But while timing is essential to every musician, the fact that it comes more naturally for people than say, scales, intervals, or songwriting, makes it all too easy to overlook during practice sessions.
With that in mind, we asked professional bassist, guitarist, and music educator Yonit Spiegelman to share some advice for players looking to improve their sense of rhythm and timing.
Born in Israel and now based in Brooklyn, New York, Spiegelman is an incredibly versatile musician with a range that spans jazz, rock, R&B, singer-songwriter, and a plethora of international sounds. She currently works as a session musician, composer, and teaches lessons via the online platform Lessonface, when she is not busy creating her own music as leader R&B/jazz/world music ensemble Foreign Hues or with all-woman traditional music collective Banot, among others. In addition, she has launched a solo project and is co-producing a full-length debut with Latin Grammy-nominated producer/engineer Marian Villota that is slated for release in 2017.
Spielgelman shared tips for timing below, and you can check out more advice for musicians her online series of video tutorials.
1. Always work with a metronome. When you work on your music alone, phrases and pieces that are hard may deceive you. You are likely to play in changing speeds due to complexity in certain places of the song. Don’t be lazy and turn on the click. Feel free to check out my tutorial for Time and Feel for Bass to see what else to do with the metronome to make it even more challenging!
2. Make time to practice time! It’s important to embrace this in your day-to-day routine. It might seem less rewarding than other parts of your practice since it’s not about speed, technique, or impressive chops, but your rhythm section will thank you for it.
3. Practice with other people! Practicing alone is awesome, but great time also means knowing how to play with other musicians. Sync yourself in the right place between the drums and the guitar or keys so that you’ll sound as one body. That takes practice, too!
Getting a good groove in a band is up to the entire rhythm section, not just one person. You can still use the metronome here but in a different settings; either have the drummer play with a metronome in their headphones or in-ear monitors to make sure you stay in the right BPM, or count off a song based on a metronome to make sure you start the right speed.
4. Now that you are practicing time, don’t rely on the drummer! The best musicians are those who take responsibility for their own time. You have the power to get a drummer to speed up or slow down, but always make sure you both are communicating; When speeding up or slowing it down, don’t push too hard so it won’t be too obvious, and communicate with the drummer by making eye contact, and if possible a hand gesture implying what you want to do.
5. Always subdivide when counting-in. What do I mean by that? Every song, in 4/4 , 3/4, 6/8 or 6/4 has an internal subdivision. Funk usually is based on sixteenth-notes, rock on eighth-notes, swing on swing-eighths, and so forth. When you count a band in, try to count 2 bars with the appropriate subdivision (for example instead of 1-2-3-4, count 1, and a 2, and a 3, and a 4). That’ll do magic and everyone will kick off the groove way more focused.
6. If you’re playing a song and you’re not sure what’s the appropriate subdivision, groove, or feel, take close notice of the drummer’s hi-hat. That’s going to give it away. Drummers will usually play 16th, 8th, swing 8th, or triplets, and whichever it is, that’s probably the subdivision. If you want to be completely synced with the drums, it’ll also be a great idea to play a line that couples well with the bass drum. If there’s no drums in a piece, the subdivision will appear in the rhythm guitarist’s strumming or… the bass line!