People often say that music consists of three elements: melody, harmony, and rhythm. To these I’d add a fourth element: timbre. The same melodies, harmonies, and rhythms create very different results when played on log drums, for example, versus a string section. Understanding all of these elements is important for the serious musician, but for me, particularly given that I mostly play dance-related music, concerns about rhythm predominate. Rhythm reaches everybody. The lyrics may be in a foreign language but if the rhythm is strong, the music will move you, and make you move yourself. So it’s critical to master rhythm to become a good musician.
Rhythm consists of the distances in time between one sound and the next. (When you record into a computer, you can actually see and measure these distances on the screen. It’s interesting, and sometimes frustrating.) So playing good rhythm means that you control the distance between each note you play to extremely fine tolerances over the entire duration of a piece of music. This is not easy! We’re all imperfect and even great players occasionally falter or miss slightly, particularly when everyone is improvising.
In order to play groove-oriented music well, it’s important to have a strong internal rhythmic clock, and to be able to play your part in an ensemble over long periods of time without slowing down or speeding up. A groove derives its effectiveness from the hypnotic effect of repetition. And the steadier and more accurate the repetitions, the more hypnotic and powerful the groove. In popular music, both in the recording studio and, increasingly, in live settings, musicians often play to a click track, which is an electronically generated beat that is perfectly steady. The listener doesn’t hear the click, but the musicians do, and align their playing with it. But even if you’re not playing to a click, everyone in the band internalizes the tempo of the song from the initial count off, and tries to hold on to it for the duration of the performance.
It’s also important to have control over where you place your part in relation to the other elements of the ensemble. Not only do you need to tightly control the distances between the notes you play, you also have to align your notes in a pleasing manner with all the other musicians who are also doing the same thing. You also have to place your notes in relation to the beat (either the click or your internal clock) in a way that fits the emotional content of the music and makes your part as effective as possible.
To understand this, imagine each beat as a mark on a ruler. Now imagine that you are drawing marks on a paper at each inch. These marks are the notes you play. You can draw the mark a tiny bit to the left of the inch line, directly on top of the inch line, or slightly to the right of the inch line. In each case, if your mark is close enough to the line on the ruler we can see that you meant each beat to be an inch apart and we accept it as such. But if it’s too far away from the ruler line, it looks wrong. The same thing is true with rhythms.
In the case of music, the relationship of each note (mark) to the click has an emotional component, that good musicians use deliberately. If you place your note a tiny bit ahead of the beat (to the left of the inch line), it creates a sense of urgency, tension, and drive. If you place your note exactly in the center of the beat (right on the inch line), it conveys stability and accuracy. If you place your note a bit late (to the right of the inch line), it conveys a feeling of relaxation. Of course, somebody in the group has to hit the beat dead on occasionally in order for these differences to be apparent. And for the music as a whole to feel good, everybody in the group has to be making decisions about how to approach the beat that sound good together.
Different styles of music have different approaches to the beat. Aggressive rock is often ahead of or “on top of” the beat. A lot of Brazilian music tends to be straight down the middle. Older jazz tends to be on the back side of the beat. The younger jazz players play more on top. Set drummers are playing as many as four rhythms at once; a very common approach that often works well is to play the high hat dead on the beat and have the back beat (2 and 4 on the snare drum) a hair behind. You can also take all three approaches in the same musical phrase! As you can imagine, this creates a universe of possibilities when a number of musicians are involved. Some musicians have instantly compatible approaches. Some musicians don’t, and a lot of times when the music doesn’t feel the way it should the problem can be traced to the differences in the way the musicians are approaching the beat.
Some musicians understand how to use this aspect of music instinctively. Others, like me, had to learn how to do it. I’m still learning! My recent work for David Garfield was a case in point. He sent me a song with a reggae flavor to it, with instructions to play what I thought would fit it. The track was recorded to a click (80 beats per minute, a good reggae tempo), and was played by world class studio musicians, none of whom were reggae players.
Musicians like these are masters of their instruments and they play with click tracks and drum machines all the time. Their playing has a lot of feeling and flavor but it’s also compatible with the demands of commercial recording, where everything is highly scrutinized and lots of money is at stake. So they often play right down the center of the beat, as it’s what producers often want. Their parts are super accurate and their deviations ahead of and back of the beat are usually pretty small.
Roots reggae, on the other hand, has a different lean to it. (Contemporary dance hall, on the other hand, is very much on the beat, as it’s mostly done with machines.) The bass line is often back, as is the 2 and 4 on the drums. Sometimes the ska (the piano and rhythm guitar part) is back too, particularly if the bass is more on the beat. It’s more idiosyncratic than pop playing, so it can be a challenge to make the two worlds meet. I came up playing reggae sessions, so I never really noticed that this could be a problem until the late great producer Denny Cordell played me some tracks where he had combined Brazilian musicians with reggae players. The idea sounded great in theory but the tracks were unsatisfying, despite the high quality of the musicians involved. The Brazilians and the Jamaicans had incompatible approaches to the beat. I was amazed when I heard how clearly it didn’t work. Denny was not a musician; he could hear that there was a problem but he didn’t know what it was. When I explained what was going on and why, he decided to shelve the tracks.
David’s track didn’t have this problem. Everybody on it sounded great together. The track just didn’t have a reggae lean to it. Of all the parts, David’s piano playing was the closest to a reggae feel, so I focused on locking with that. After quite a while, I came up with something that felt pretty good, and I decided to examine it on the computer screen to see where the notes were falling. To my surprise, I was just a hair ahead of the click! I was expecting that I’d be a bit behind. I was in an obsessive frame of mind so I thought the part might sound even better if I quantized it. In non-geek terms, this means using the computer program to line your notes up directly on top of the click. I did so, and checked my work. The notes were lined right up on the click. Then I played it back and it didn’t feel good at all. Making the track perfect had taken all the flavor out of it. I hit “undo” and the notes went back to where they had been.
I went through all the tracks very carefully, fixed a few notes, and listened to them with just the click track, muting the other instruments and vocal. They wobbled a tiny bit in relation to the click at times but they felt good together, and the wobbles added interest. I added the rest of the band back in and realized that I was finished. Playing a hair ahead made the rest of the band sound a bit back and drew emphasis to the reggae element that David wanted. I sent the tracks to him and he liked them. Hopefully they make the final mix and you can hear them for yourself.
On the other end of the placement spectrum, later that week later I played bass with the Cannabis Cup Band, a group that does a Bob Marley tribute every year with strict attention to detail. Normally I play guitar with CCB, and it doesn’t require a lot of thought because I know the music well and where the guitar fits. But bass is a different issue on that gig. Family Man Barrett, the bassist with Bob Marley, plays notoriously behind the beat, and the group’s regular bassist, Blacka, is a master of the style. My tendency is to play on top of the beat or slightly ahead, so I was quite nervous about being able to capture his feel.
To my surprise, after a song or two it was fairly easy to place the bass lines where they were supposed to be, way back on the beat, because the rest of the band was playing and singing the songs as they were played on the records. This was further proof, if I needed any, that it’s really critical to make the right choices in rhythmic placement to fit the context in which you appear.
Once your ear gets attuned to the subtleties of what musicians do with rhythmic placement, it makes your listening as well as your playing much more rewarding. This is true regardless of the idiom. It’s as important in classical music as it is in R&B or salsa.
One of the great joys, and frustrations, of music is the fact that it’s infinite. There is always room for improvement, and always new things to learn, even about things you’ve spent your entire career doing. Rhythm in particular is so important. I make a real point of emphasizing it with my students for this reason. Out of all the things I’ve practiced, I’ve benefitted most professionally from the time and effort I’ve spent studying it. Good time, and good placement, makes everything about the music better.