Playing Time by Roy Burns

It’s a cliché but it’s also true: Drummers who play good time get the good jobs. Showmanship, good technique, a big drumkit and hard work might be important but playing time is the basis for playing the drumset.

I recently attended a band camp. My job was to coach or offer suggestions to the young drummers attending the camp. This turned out to be much more work than I had anticipated. Only two of twelve drummers could read well enough to follow fairly easy big band charts. Only two could play a reasonably acceptable roll and only three had any idea of what it was to play time.

One young drummer did impress me. He couldn’t read the charts too well but he played good time. If he couldn’t read the figures, he just played through them. Although this young man wasn’t

the best drummer at the camp, he made the third band. He was smart enough to know that even if you couldn’t read every figure, at least the band could play if the time was there.

The other two drummers who impressed me had had good instruction. Reading the charts was easy for them. I asked them about this and they replied, “After what our drum teacher has us read, this stuff is pretty easy.” Both of these young drummers also had good hands and good control over the drumset and could play funk and jazz charts equally well. They both played good, solid time and didn’t overplay. And they played the accents that were needed.

There were several basic grooves required at this camp. There was a funk-oriented big-band arrangement, a jazz samba groove, a straight-ahead Count Basie blues at e medium tempo, a fast jazz chart with a sort of contemporary Woody Herman sound and a ballad. This selection of styles accurately represented some of the basic knowledge a drummer should have.

Whether or not you can read music, playing a samba, a basic rock groove, one or two funk grooves and a passable jazz cymbal groove at medium and fast tempos are all necessary. You should also know a ballad groove, which might involve brushes. Sticks in a light jazz style, or a quasi-Latin or slow samba groove. If you can play these grooves with a good time feel, you can play with a big band. Add to this the ability to read and you become a drummer who can perform well in a number of musical situations including the recording studio.

To improve your time playing, practice all of these grooves with a drum machine. Keep practicing until you can play them easily and naturally. Also, practice with records. Match the sound and feel of the drummer on the record. Make sure to practice with different grooves and styles. I’ve just mentioned some basic ones; practice as many as you can.

Each practice session should have some portion set aside for playing time. Concentrate on the metronomic as well as the feel aspect. A major part of your practice time should employ what are called “outside time sources,” which include records, drum machines and metronomes.

Get together with a bass player and practice paying time. Set up different grooves and tempos. Play each grove long enough that both of you can really feel it. Practicing with the bass player can really help both players; you can hear each other much more clearly this way. Also, if the drummer and bass player can feel the same groove together, the band is going to feel it that much better.

Rhythm section rehearsals can be valuable, too. If the entire rhythm section concentrates on grooving and paying together, it will benefit whatever band or group they play with. After all, everything starts in the rhythm section.

When a band develops confidence in the drummer’s ability to play good time, the entire band plays at a higher level. The reason for this is that the band no longer has to worry about the time. They can just concentrate on the music. When this happens, people say things like, “This group grooves hard,” or “These guys are exciting.”

All this starts with the drummer. You have to know the grooves and you have to play them with authority and a good feeling. That is what “playing time” is all about. It makes everyone feel good!