** As featured in issue 27 **
In the last guitar lesson I outlined the importance of having good time and rhythm within your guitar playing, giving some examples of how you can work on it. In this lesson we are going to look at how you can play around with time to create a different feel and style without changing the set tempo. Try playing a quarter note rhythm (one note per beat) at 200bpm. Most players will find this very easy. Now try playing the same thing at 40bpm. That was much harder, right? The obvious reason being that there is far more space in between the ticks, meaning it takes longer to “feel” the tempo, this is one example where it's actually a lot harder to play slower than faster!
By developing your time, as outlined in the last lesson, 40bpm should become equally as comfortable to feel and play as 200bpm, I know many great drummers that swear by the practice method of just playing quarter notes at 40bpm for 5 minutes. Boring? Maybe, but great for your time and mental strength, and these players are a joy to play with because of this attention to detail. We now see that at 40bpm we have all this free space in between the clicks, this is our area to move around in, but still stay in time. Try to think of a tempo as a block, the set speed is a line down the middle then to the left or right of that line is the space to move around, as the tempo gets quicker the space gets less and vice versa. Depending on the style of music, you can play around with the time to suit that style, by playing bang on the beat - sitting on it. Behind the beat - playing slightly behind the pulse or “laying back”. In front of the beat – playing slightly in front or “leaning forward/pushing”. Each way of approaching the time will give a different feel, here are some blanket examples of styles and where they generally sit;
On the beat – Funk
Behind the beat – Reggae
In front of the beat-Bebop Jazz
Please notice I said blanket, because as we all know each style has many different sub-genres were the given time example will be the opposite, here are some recommended listening examples to outline what I'm saying.
On the Beat: Good Times by Chic, Billie Jean by Michael Jackson - Notice how everyone in the band is really sitting on the beat and in “The Pocket”. These are perfect examples of the nod your head songs! They are also popular songs that are played in covers bands, normally way too fast thinking that will get people dancing. Well the truth is that these were the dance tracks of the day at these tempos, speed has nothing to do with getting people on the dance floor, it's the groove and solid feel that these tracks have that get people moving. Most Pop music tends to come under this category, especially electronic computer based music as it's programmed to the click.
Behind the Beat: With My Own Two Hands - Ben Harper, Nebulous - Meshuggah. Two hugely contrasting styles here, both great examples of laying back. The Ben Harper tune is a classic example of the laid back feel of Reggae. It all sounds chilled, cool and groovy as all the players are sitting way back on the beat, especially the bass player, listen carefully to the intro, the bass player is really playing around with the elasticity of time. As well as giving a chilled feel, laying back can also generate a very heavy, almost lagging sound, perfectly demonstrated by the Meshuggah track. The snare hits are ridiculously late, but still perfectly in time, coupled with the laid back dark riff generate this massively heavy, sinister sound.
In front Of The Beat: Giant Steps - John Coltrane, Everything To Nothing - Lamb Of God. Once again, two completely different styles, but both great examples of leaning forward. The 8th note pushes that Coltrane plays on the melody, enhanced by the driving Swing rhythm outlined on the ride cymbal, contribute to the moving forward feel of this piece. Also worth remembering that back in those days there was no recording to a click track, so a player’s individual time keeping was crucial. If you did put this to a click you would probably find it doesn’t fluctuate much throughout the whole tune. The relentless snare hits on the Lamb of God track and urgent feel of the vocals all help to add to this songs sense of intensity, whilst interestingly still maintaining its heavy feel. This would have been recorded to a click, but it's the players sense of movement and feel that give the track its intended flow.
These are just a few examples for you to consider try to find some of your own. It doesn’t always follow that slower songs are behind the beat and vice versa. It can often be just one player in the band who favours playing in a certain time. John Scofield for example is famous for playing behind the beat in a laid back way, no matter what the tempo may be. As a member of an ensemble the important thing is to know when to play behind, in front or on the beat. There is nothing worse than a band member playing way in front of the beat “rushing” on an emotive Ballad, or someone playing way behind “lagging” on an up-tempo, big band swing tune. It's like any other playing skill you possess, you wouldn’t/shouldn’t bust out your best 8 finger tapping lick on a soul tune, or likewise a two note emotive solo on a Death Metal session. It's all a question of taste and that is ultimately being a great musician.
As I mentioned in the last lesson it’s important to be in total control of your own time and not just rely on the drummer to be your metronome. A prime example of this is Footprints by Miles Davis on his Quintet album. It's the bass player that is laying down the tempo while the drummer plays around with the time and Miles plays in his unique laid back way. No matter what they do individually they are not put off by each other. Regardless of what the drummer implies, the bass player is solid throughout. This gives the possibility and room for players to bounce off one another.
I found it very useful when studying this kind of thing to watch great drum instructional videos by guys like Steve Smith. You can learn so much from fellow musicians that play a different instrument. Once you get into the rhythm and time world you can really immerse yourself in all kinds of interesting things like, poly-rhythms and metric modulation - but that’s for another time!
Certain guitarists like Wayne Krantz base their whole playing and composition on rhythmic ideas.
On the video I explain and demonstrate how you can practice these concepts and apply them to your own playing. Give it a try and listen to where you favourite players sit within the beat, record yourself playing and see where you are too, it’s the only way to tell. Have fun with it and most importantly be musical.