Playing The First Bar

I remember watching Dave Weckl’s video, Back To Basics (or was it The Next Step?) and he talked about counting in a song: he suggested singing the song in your head to get the tempo, and then play a bar or two by clicking your sticks or whatever. I’m badly paraphrasing here, but this always stuck with me, and is in fact a great way to start a song, though it takes a bit of practice to learn to do it quickly. This is an important skill, so let’s explore it a little further…

My approach to this concept could be stated as: “play the first bar without using your kit.” In this context, the first bar is something you’ve added, a moment or two to get locked in to the correct tempo, so you’re already feeling and playing the right tempo before the sticks touch the kit. To do this, you first need to HEAR the correct tempo, then FEEL it. It’s pretty simple but both steps are crucial. Let’s tackle hearing the correct tempo first. There are some different ways to approach this:

1.) Using a metronome
Pretty obvious, right? Really a great way to eliminate the guesswork. Make a “crib sheet” with tempo markings for the songs in your set. At the beginning of each number, listen to a bar or two of time, and you’re off! The tricky part is making this process happen quickly: it takes a second to read the notes, set the metronome, listen, and count in the band. Apps like Metronome by Frozen Ape allow you to make auto-advance setlists, so you don’t have to stop to set the metronome, or devices with a rotary dial like Tama’s Rhythm Watch make this quicker, but it can really let some of the air out of your band’s set if you have to stop to do this every song. In practice, this process takes a minimum of 5 seconds, but more likely 10-15, which is an eternity of silence in a dance band set (5-7 bars at 120 bpm). Using the aforementioned apps is a good way to cut this down, or have your tech (if you have one!) play “ready golf” and start each new tempo for you, but it still takes some time. What to do?

2.) Use your “ears”
This takes longer to develop, and the above process is a necessary part of that learning. What it amounts to is being able to accurately “hear” a song in your head on demand, and count it in after only listening to two or three beats of tempo. Sometimes the “hearing” part occurs during the fermata of the previous song, while you’re still doing your trash can ending or cymbal roll or whatever. In my experience, I’ll “listen” to the song in my head, usually a chorus, to get the tempo, nod my head or count to myself in time, then count it in to the band. No click to deal with, just human frailty!

Developing your tempo ears (or accurate song recall) is a lot like developing relative pitch; over the years I’ve learned to get pretty close to being able to sing a G or an E or a C (the roots of common open guitar chords) on demand, but it requires a period of calibration before it will work, as I don’t have perfect pitch. This calibration concept works well for tempo also. Spend some time before each show (I do this every day if I can) working with a metronome. Know the tempos you’re working with and try to play them without the ‘nome as well. Obviously, if you have time to play the songs you’ll be playing later, its a big help. I remember hearing a story about Carlos Vega, the great long-time drummer for James Taylor’s live band. He’d work with a pad and click before each show, doing this type of calibration, and after his untimely passing they listened to some of the live recordings from his last tour. The engineers were astonished to find the tempos from night to night were virtually identical.

This brings me to the next part: FEELING the tempo. It’s important to express the tempo physically in some way, even for a fleeting moment, before you begin to count in the band. This could be tapping your heel, lightly clicking the sticks, or counting to yourself, but it is crucial to take a moment to get a couple beats in (sometimes no more than two) before you commit. That way, you’re already locked in before you start.

I could go on, but I’d like to hear your thoughts on this concept. Please feel free to comment and add your two cents below. Let me know if this works for you or if you have a better method. Enjoy!