I’ve Got Rhythm – Keeping Time and the Metronome

written for his Chicago Jazz Magazine column Jazz Voicings
by Bobby Broom

I stopped practicing with a metronome very early on in my study of the guitar. Shortly after I became committed to keeping time for myself, it was simply no longer necessary for me as a time keeping aid. Anyone and everyone can count from one to four while keeping an even space of time between the numbers. When I realized that keeping time is basically as simple as that, I set about developing a comfort level between the dual tasks of playing and counting.

Well, not literally counting out loud, but feeling, tapping and playing along with the even beats. The trick is to be able to feel where beat one is on a consistent basis, similarly to how you can feel the axis point on a swing or pendulum, or the inherent rhythm in your walk or breathing. Keeping this count internally while playing is a skill that needs to be developed, and what needs developing is a specific kind of coordination.

As soon as possible, I would suggest that you wean yourself from the use of the metronome. You can do so gradually. Begin by adjusting the clicks so that they occur on every other quarter note. Two and four is good. There is a certain, special gravity that overcomes the overall feeling of the beat when keeping time using two and four. This loping feel is apparent in all forms of black music through the generations. After you get used to keeping time for yourself using two and four as your anchor, you can space the metronome clicks farther apart (to every fourth beat for example) until, eventually, you can eliminate them entirely, while still comfortably keeping steady time for yourself.

The most common problem that I encounter in people who seemingly have “bad time,” is that they haven’t spent sufficient time practicing with the sole purpose of coordinating their awareness of and ability to keeping time while playing. While one is working with the metronome they should start out with the goal of being able to tap their foot on all four beats (or all three in 3/4 or waltz time) on a consistent basis while playing. This means all the time, not just when it’s easy, comfortable, or when you happen to think about it. Many people have a problem staying focused on keeping time for more than four or eight bars, let alone numerous thirty-two-bar choruses (i.e. playing a song over and over while people solo). They’ll be diligent about keeping time for a few bars and then consistently forget about the responsibility. This is why I suggest foot tapping. It creates a physical, outward manifestation of the task that begins as an internal impulse.

I got a kick out of reading Miles Davis’s autobiography wherein he talks about wondering whether he should “tap his foot inside or outside of his shoe.” This quandary happened well into his career, which lets us know that the skill had already been acquired and was at that point a matter of appearing cool. I’ve heard from students that some educators are against the outward demonstration that tapping produces. Whatever. But nothing irks me more than someone with bad time. Actually, one thing does irk me more: it’s when I ask a student, “How are you keeping time?” and they answer, “In my head.”

Foot tapping allows a musician the opportunity to consciously focus on an external sound and feeling that they learn to produce with consistency, or at least for as long as they can. If a mind wanders from timekeeping, it can always refocus to find it there, where it should be, like the second-hand of a clock. If you check back in after a short mental lapse and the tapping is not there, then you need to concentrate more on maintaining consistency—four, eight, sixteen bars at a time. Only through this kind of diligence can habit begin to form.

After you begin feeling comfortable with consistently tapping quarter notes, vary the tapping as you did the metronome, realizing the creation of as much variety as possible in the note values that you play, and noting where your tapping anchors are falling. Try tapping and playing using subdivisions, in various combinations, of a given time signature: Tap quarter, half or whole notes; play quarter, eighth or sixteenth notes. You should be able to play while tapping half notes on either one and three or two and four and wholes notes on any of the four beats. Also, when tapping on any of the beats, you should be able to begin playing on any upbeat within a subdivision of the time signature. Also, don’t forget to incorporate playing various triplets subdivisions into the exercises.

For the student musician, it’s best that the work on timekeeping and coordinated playing is started early on, so that it becomes an integral part of the routine of the practice regimen of scales and arpeggios. That way, by the time more difficult skills (learning and memorizing songs, improvising, advanced sight-reading practice and transcribing solos) are introduced, good and comfortable timekeeping will have become a habit and will aid the student’s growth in these new areas.

For me, rhythmic freedom is the feeling that a player is no longer strictly tethered to exact subdivisions of the quarter note, but is somehow hovering around the pulse and is able to land accurately in accordance with it at any moment. Watch a jazz master count off a tune. Often, you’ll not only see the tempo, but also a characterization of the energy, feeling and emotion that the leader is requesting from his fellow musicians for the pending tune.

Every professional musician should have a vested interest in time-keeping. For them, it should represent: 1) Time (hours, days, months, years) that they spent to develop the skill necessary to maintain and execute in accordance with it, 2) Trust shared with their colleagues, that everyone has an equal responsibility and interdependence for its maintenance, and 3) The commitment and passion necessary to uphold the responsibility of that maintenance.

All of the great performers in jazz have had great time. It is a prerequisite for musical excellence and as necessary a component to the art form as rhythm is to music.