Playing In Time
Playing "in time" is a very crucial part of your education as a musician ... however, it may be a bit of an overwhelming task to try and incorporate into your learning schedule at the very beginning. Dealing with painful fingertips that haven't yet formed the proper callouses ... while trying to successfully direct the traffic-patterns of three or four fingers all trying to get from one chord to the next ... is enough to snap the mind of any earnest beginner! Now, add to that the serious duty of playing in time, with proper accents, arriving at each new chord dead on the count, and you just might be asking for the straw that breaks the camel's back.
If you have mastered the ability to switch from one chord to the next ... comfortably ... while foot-tapping your own meters, then skip what follows, and move on to the next section of this tutorial, by scrolling down the page to "Part Two ... If Bach Had A Drum Machine".
Take the song you've chosen ... and work on learning the chord progression. Tap your foot ... count in your head ... 1, 2, 3, 4 ... 1, 2, 3, 4 ... using a simple downstroke strumming pattern ... as steadily and evenly as you can. If you hesitate between certain beats, like when you are switching from one chord to another, don't worry about it -- it just means you have more practice to attend to. It's no big deal ... everybody goes through this at first. You just need to get use to doing it. Keep at it and don't lose heart ... it won't be long before you're switching from chord to chord in record breaking time!
If you want to see improvements in this area, here's my solution: Include at least one 45-minute session each day, of practicing chord changes. Forget about the song during this session, and simply play through every chord you have ... one measure at a time: Use a simple downstroke strumming pattern - 1, 2, 3, 4 ... change, 2, 3, 4 ... change, 2, 3, 4 ... change, 2, 3, 4 ... etc., etc. If that's too much, then play each chord for two measures - 1, 2, 3, 4 ... 2, 2, 3, 4 ... change, 2, 3, 4 ... 2, 2, 3, 4 ... and so on. Mix up the order of the chords each time and, in effect, develop your "finger-memory." Switch from a G chord to all the others; from a C chord to all the others; from a D chord to all the others; and so on. Mix it up however you like, but focus on chord changing, and nothing else ... for 45 minutes. If you're having a problem switching between two particular chords in the chord progression of your favorite song, than take those two and play the chord change ... over and over ... like a "loop" -- 1, 2, 3, 4 - change, 2, 3, 4 - again, 2, 3, 4 - change, 2, 3, 4 -- until you know you've improved your memory. It's a bit boring, and kind of a mindless task, but it must be done.
It's good to change up your practice sessions, too!: 45 minutes of practicing a song, followed by a 30-minute break ... then, 45 minutes practicing chord changes, followed by a 30-minute break ... then, 45 minutes practicing a finger picking pattern ... or you might practice tuning and developing your "ear" ... keep it interesting and you'll see your growth developing at a faster (and much happier) pace.
When you are capable of playing through a song, from start to finish, without stumbling over any chord changes or "parts" ... when you feel like you've "got it down" ... take one deep breath, exhale, smile!, and move on to Part Two.
Part Two ... If Bach Had A Drum Machine
Okay. So, you've got a song that you're really excited about. Maybe it's an original composition! Maybe it's not, but may as well be, because when you play it, it's expressing something about your life that really hits home. In either case, you know this song. You're totally familiar with every measure's breath. Now comes the part I mentioned in "So ... You Wanna Play Guitar, Huh?" - where I talked about the need to tame the flesh and free the Spirit ...
If you ever want to play with other musicians ... and even more importantly, if you ever want to play with "brilliance" ... you must learn to play "in time." To put it simply, imagine dancing to a piece of music that has no predictable tempo ... suddenly speeding up ... abruptly slowing down -- it can only create an atmosphere of apprehension and distrust. Your heart beats very steadily ... consistently and constantly. If or when it doesn't, it's a very upsetting experience. Similarly, if music is to display any "heart," it must act in the same manner. In fact, a meter that synchronizes to the beat of the human heart is the most uplifting for the human soul to engage in and is commonly found in "hit" songs.
There are a lot of different attitudes about this ... here's mine: Metronomes are too "narrow-minded" for my approval. They tick. That's all they do. They just tick! There's no hint of a "groove" - and without a groove, there's no grace ... no flow of movement ... no magic in the music. A drum machine is the way to go. If Bach had one, he would have thrown his metronome under the first carriage that passed by. You can program simple accents that reflect the natural groove of the song you're working on, and have a whole lot more fun learning to play in time. However, I do not suggest using it beyond need's call, either! My personal process involves me initially learning a song with the machine (first impressions are lasting impressions) and then putting the machine away and letting the tempo "breathe" during my performances.
First impressions really do last. The moment I've chosen a new song to include in my play list, I take it to the drum machine. Once I'm playing every single measure of that song comfortably ... without pushing or pulling the beat ... anywhere ... I place the drum machine aside and never return to it with that song again. I may decide to perform or record a song that I haven't done in some time and I may check it with the drum machine, to test my memory ... but generally, once I learn a song with the drum machine, I'm done with practicing it. That first imprint, like a good friend, sticks like glue and gives you a foundation to stand on ... a solid base that supports you, later on, when you least expect it.
When I'm performing in front of an audience, I throw all "learning" to the wind ... I spread those "wings of freedom" and fly off on clouds of emotional ecstacy ... and never drop a beat or lose a note. Even if I do - sometimes I fly off so far, I wind up completely changing a melody line or a rhythm pattern -- inspirations of the moment! - but all that discipline and structured foundation-building pays off by supporting whatever occurs ... by giving me that "solid foundation" to return to.
That's how it goes with me ... you may be different. I know musicians that need to work with a drum machine and practice daily. Whatever it takes -- it IS important to follow these two guidelines: 1.) Practice = WORK: Excercise great discipline while you're practicing and rehearsing, and 2.) Performance = PLAY: Let go ... forget everything you learned ... and trust all that discipline you've acquired to do it's job while you're performing.
Applying the Drum Machine
First, locate the song's most appealing tempo. The difference in two or three beats per minute can mean alot, and I like the verses to be as happy about the tempo, as the chorus and other parts are. For example, I tend to want one tempo in the chorus, another in the verse, and yet another in a bridge. Consequently, it'll sometimes take a while to find the "happy medium" between the parts. I'll set a tempo and start running through the song -- it may feel great in the verse ... but then, when I come to the chorus, I think the drum machine has suddenly slowed down or something! It didn't, but the chorus, as it swells and builds into it's great announcement, wants a bit more speed to satisfy the excitement. So I up the tempo a couple of bpm's and try it again.
Once I've found the song's truest tempo, I create a simple groove using the kick/bass drum and a couple of congas. Keep it simple! The important thing is if there's an accent on the "4 and" (1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and) when I'm strumming my guitar part, for example, then I'll mirror that accent with a rim shot or a closed high-hat ... and find that I'm suddenly relaxing more and enjoying the whole process on a much deeper level.
Once that's achieved, it's just a matter of working the song out -- moving through each measure and watching the tempo ... taking note of any places where I may be "speeding up" or "slowing down." If I feel the beat "pulling" or "pushing," I'll make a mental mark of that spot, and focus on keeping my tempo steady everytime it comes around.
"If At First You Don't Succeed - Try, Try Again" ... "Practice Makes Perfect" ... "If You Are Going To Do Something, Do It Right - Or, Don't Do It At All" ... old cliches reaffirm their great truth, each time I play the song. Top to bottom ... over and over, and over again ... until I'm sure all the song's parts are happening just as they should. It's amazing how much "work" goes into a song before you can really "play" it. But I love the process, because all the work I put into it, is so completely obvious ... to me, to the band members, and to the audience.
If you don't do the discipline part, you'll blow it big-time when you get on the stage. Do the discipline part, and even if you do mess up on stage, you won't blow it ... somehow all that discipline will hold you up through the "crazies" and carry you safely to the other side of it, with grace and style. Man, I'm tellin' you -- all those grueling hours of practice really pays off when it's showtime!
And, finally, here are a couple of cool books for you to check out:
Roland Drum Machine Rhythm Dictionary by Sandy Feldstein
"Straightforward instructions for writing rhythm patterns for ANY drum machine (not just Roland). Hundreds of easy-to-read pattern charts, with extra charts for adding Latin percussion sounds to the basic patterns."
~A reader from Boca Raton, Florida
The Art of Digital Drumming (Book & Cassette) by Steve Wilkes, Defuria, Joe Scacciaferro
"For the Nintendo mind, this IS the relevant work of Late 20th Century Musico-Political Economics of Scale! Can't play or don't wanna be bothered or just hate the organics of unreliable mammals? Get a drum machine! Then buy a book that gives you all the answers!"
~email@example.com from Seattle, Washington