Help me build a rhythm machine!

October 4, 2011 8:45 AM

What are some good exercises to develop better rhythmic cohesion as a band?

The band I'm in seems to have taken a new direction in terms of sound and discipline since we added a new drummer. Our sound used to be very muddy (in my opinion) with each instrument playing a lot of notes all at once - our guitarist would strum most 8th notes in a measure, our bassist would do the same, and the old drummer would basically play amazing fills, but those fills would happen every measure or two. And I, the saxophone, would bleat whenever. The general sound of the band was very busy, and didn't seem to allow for much expressive range, either in dynamics or tone.

Last rehearsal, our guitarist/fearless leader heeded my advice, and decided that dance-ability and singability were the new focus of our songs, so we are rearranging them to have more sparse arrangements. I'm happy about this. But... it turns out that rhythmically, having a very busy sound covers up a lot of mistakes.

What are some exercises that you would recommend to help us play more "in tune" with each other rhythmically?

* We practiced with a metronome, and that was painful, but very helpful.
* The other exercise we did was to start the practice out by playing a 4-measure loop - starting with one instrument improvising a part, and then adding additional instruments every 4 to 8 measures - after they have come up with a complimentary part - then playing that 4 measure loop over and over until we settle into it. That was also very helpful.

Any other suggestions helpful exercises we could incorporate into our practices would be appreciated!
posted by baniak (18 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

Work on a couple cover songs that have a really strong groove, and make keeping that groove steady and solid the focus of that practice. Something like Tumbling Dice by the Stones. That will help you play as a unit instead of a bunch of seperate parts.
posted by InfidelZombie at 10:06 AM on October 4, 2011

But... it turns out that rhythmically, having a very busy sound covers up a lot of mistakes.

Quite so. Very simple piece of advice for all young (and not-so-young) bands: listen. Listen to each other. All the time. Don't get in each other's way and don't disappear up your own musical arses i.e. don't get cute and/or self indulgent. A good band is like a good football team - everyone has a clear role to play and there's no crashing into each other, dropping the ball or own goals.

The only other piece of advice I give is "marry money".
posted by MajorDundee at 1:33 PM on October 4, 2011

I'm totally down with IZ and MD and the football analogy is great because you need to know what to expect from each other and know how to compliment each other. That definitely comes from listening carefully.

One thing I've done to tighten things up is just to drill with song segments. We'd pick the best parts of songs, parts that weren't too difficult but had enough movement to be challenging. (Two or three bars, super short.) Immediately start after a one...two...nail it... and BOOM. Full stop. Instantaneous silence. Rinse and repeat. Drill and kill.

(Can't wait to hear your first post after you guys work it out!)
posted by snsranch at 5:03 PM on October 4, 2011

Rinse and repeat. Drill and kill.
Excellent advice too - good way to build a bit of team confidence. Christ....this is beginning to sound like some godawful management training manual. Next up "How To Write A Hit Song In Three Minutes - No Really" Price only $500 and a bit of stifled laughter
posted by MajorDundee at 3:01 AM on October 5, 2011

I come at this as a (mainly) jazz bass player, here are my tips:

This might sound a bit obvious, but do you all practice with a metronome as individuals? If you can't keep a groove going by yourself, playing with other people isn't going to help.

When you do your loop exercise (which I like) make sure you include slower feels. Speed covers a lot of sins. Also, make sure that different people are starting the groove each time and that you add people in different orders. This gets you building parts round what everyone's doing. Not just one guy.

If you hear something going wrong feel wise, stop and address it.

Above all, let me just repeat this great advice: Listen to each other. All the time.

You have to practice listening just as much as you have to practice anything else.
posted by Gygesringtone at 2:22 PM on October 5, 2011

You will find that you get tighter just by playing more sparsely. The fact that you are hearing the slop means you can start to correct it. It is partly a question of listening but I also think *looking* is quite important -- it's difficult to play out of time with someone when your eyes are locked with theirs.

The good part is that once you hit the pocket you'll know it.

One thing you need to look at is *what* you're playing. The bass and drums need to be hitting exactly the same accented beats, absolutely dead on. If you haven't got that groove going, nothing else matters. They need to be working as one unit. Now the other instruments can start to fill in the spaces, or lay on top of the groove notes. Add them in one by one and try to maintain separation in any way you can -- dynamics, pitch, rhythm and so on.
posted by unSane at 2:58 PM on October 5, 2011

Also, get everyone to play at home with a drum machine INCLUDING THE DRUMMER. Record it and figure out who's got a tendency to push their part (I do, really badly) and who tends to play behind the beat. Pushes and laid back beats are fine but they need to be deliberate and driven by the drummer to be part of the groove, as opposed to slop.
posted by unSane at 3:01 PM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

One last point -- I think it's a really good idea for a band to have one member who functions as arranger. Not that other members don't come up with arrangements or suggestions, just that there's one person who shoulders the responsibility of making the whole thing sound right and will raise the red flag when something doesn't, and try to find ways to fix it. It's a tricky role to fill because you have to be a politician, but it means you're allowed to say things like 'that fill sounds too busy there' or 'can you drop down to quarter notes' or 'you guys are fighting traffic'. Most musicians are rightly concentrating on their own parts but having a big picture guy/gal is incredibly important, ESPECIALLY when it comes to recording. If you've fought those battles in the rehearsal room the studio is a lot more pleasant.
posted by unSane at 4:58 PM on October 5, 2011

This is all good advice. One other thing that struck me reading through the thread was to start with very, very simple material. Don't run before you can walk. Three chords is just fine - very basic riff-driven or 12-bar blues based material. This is not, contrary to what many inexperienced or plain bad musicians think, easy stuff to play well (but it's really easy to play badly). Playing it well means developing excellent feel and timing - simlultaneously relaxed and loose-limbed and hugely powerful (which is not about volume by the way - another common misconception). These are the basic building blocks you need to nail. Once you can get a good simple groove going with every cylinder firing in the right sequence you'll understand what unSane's saying about knowing when you hit the pocket. Once you get used to how good that feels (I guarantee you will all just look at each other and grin stupidly) you can then start looking at more complex material. But you will have established a benchmark from the simple stuff and that will serve you very well.
posted by MajorDundee at 4:08 AM on October 6, 2011

One thing to add to what's been suggested: when you drill your simple two-bar pattern, play it once through and make sure everyone stops tight on the first count. But don't stop counting! Everyone counts the next bar off silently in their heads, and you all come back in on the next downbeat. At first it won't be so bad, then it'll get sloppy, then it'll come back together and you can play it tightly indefinitely.

If you do that for five or ten minutes every time you practice, you'll get a lot of precision. We used to do similar things when I was in drum corps - a whole line of snare drummers playing sixteenths sounds like garbage if the timing isn't absolutely perfect, but when it does come together it'll raise the hair on your neck (and possibly blow it off).
posted by echo target at 11:08 AM on October 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

The bass and drums need to be hitting exactly the same accented beats, absolutely dead on.

i think it's better if they play a little off from each other for a funkier, more syncopated feel - that, and the kick and the bass hitting at exactly the same time is going to make the bottom end of the mix much harder to balance

of course, that's quite a bit harder to pull off well - and it also depends on the song and what it needs
posted by pyramid termite at 6:14 PM on October 8, 2011

If you're going to use a cover to practice getting tight and dancy, may I suggest I Turn My Camera On by Spoon. This song just doesn't work if you're not together. You can keep going round the main chord progression and it feels like you're doing some unfun unmusical drill; but when you all get into the pocket at the same time the song just emerges in a really excellent way.

And yes, if you can't all play to a click on your own, then that needs to be dealt with first.
posted by Cantdosleepy at 3:12 PM on October 9, 2011

Hey Everybody, thanks for your input!

We tried some of the suggestions in our last practice - echo target's suggestion of playing the loop, and then stopping on 1, counting silently

We actually turned this into a "game" of sorts, at each practice, one person gets to be the "DJ" - they specify which order the instruments come in - so that we get different instruments starting per Gygesringtone's suggestion, the loop builds, and then the DJ will call out a number, and starting at the next "1" count, we will go silent for that number of measures, and then pick up where the loop would have been after X number of measures. The DJ also can tell musicians to sit out - so that we can get used to playing without certain members of the band backing us up. It gets really challenging (for me) without drums or bass.

Also, definitely have been improving my listening skills.

Cantdosleepy - I like the idea of that Spoon cover. So far we are doing a disco version of an Arcade Fire song, which works really well... and I think we are going to cover "Sledgehammer" by Peter Gabriel - which also requires a fair amount of rhythmic precision to pull off.

Thanks again for all your input! Your suggestions helped us immensely for our show last Friday. I'll try to get some decent recordings soon!
posted by baniak at 8:35 PM on October 10, 2011

There's nothing like a funk cover to get your timing sorted. For reasons I won't go into, we recently had to cover Crowbar's Oh What a Feeling, and it was an absolute train wreck until we hit the groove and then you could play it all day and still have fun (which is pretty much what Crowbar did for the last 40 years I think).
posted by unSane at 5:06 AM on October 11, 2011

do you all practice with a metronome as individuals? If you can't keep a groove going by yourself, playing with other people isn't going to help.

Really, this.

I have a drummer friend who had to play live with some prerecorded stuff a few years ago (big scary pro gig - not much room for error). After he's nailed it with the metronome, he started making life seriously difficult for himself (sure, you can play in time with a click on each beat - but what about on every second beat, or third? What about only having a click on 2 1/2? What about taking the volume down on the click during verses and bringing it back up for choruses, or vice versa?).

It really has to be the drummer. A really good drummer will keep everyone together. With a bad one, you don't stand a hope in hell.
posted by monkey closet at 7:59 AM on October 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

One trick to playing with a metronome that helped me was to think of it not as a metronome but as another musician you were trying to play in time with. Otherwise you tend to panic when you get off the beat, instead of smoothly locking back in again, which is what you need to do.
posted by unSane at 8:06 AM on October 11, 2011

unSane - while we're practicing with the metronome as a band - we do kind of hit that moment where all 4 of us are off... I'll have to pay attention to how we end up getting back in time... I bet it's a panic moment. :)

monkey closet - I like that kind of masochism that your drummer friend displays. I bet he keeps amazing time.
posted by baniak at 11:04 AM on October 11, 2011

I would suggest that when you are playing to a click with the band, the drummer should follow the click and the rest of you should follow the drummer. Otherwise you may end up with some bad (or at least unhelpful) habits!
posted by unSane at 11:06 AM on October 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

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