May 16th, 2009 by BenCirillo

What Does It Take For A Band To Sound Tight?

ben-cirillo-pictureMy Musical Debut

When I was a teenager, I was playing bass with my friend Tony on drums in my basement.  I came up with this little groove off the top of my head and was playing it over and over.    “That’s pretty cool,” he said. “What time is it in?   I honestly had no idea, so I calmly looked at my watch and said, “It’s about 4:30.”   We’re still playing together all these years later, and Tony will still tell that story to anyone who’ll listen. The main point of that story is that I’m a smart ass who is not to be trusted.   But the secondary, more important point – and the reason I bring it up here – is that, unless you play drums, you probably don’t think about your rhythm and timing as much as you should.

empty-barWhy Timing Matters

Why does timing matter?  Good timing is what makes a band sound tight and unless you want the picture to the left to be your fan turn outs at gigs you will read this post very carefully, commit it to memory, and become a timing God.    Now where does timing start?  It’s the drummer’s main job to keep time, and if he wants to keep his job he’d better be pretty good at it. Meanwhile, the rest of us haven’t thought about eighth notes, quarter notes or sixteenths since we were in fifth grade tooting on a recorder.  But timing is a fundamental issue for any musician that can make or break your band. It’s so fundamental, it’s often overlooked, but bad timing can spell disaster for your sound.

Take a band like AC/DC.  Their music is so simple a child could have written it. Yet I’ve seen more than one band fail miserably to cover them. Why?   Timing. Get it right and the song will rock your face off. Get it wrong and you’ll face plant.

drummerTempo: It’s Not Just For Drummers Anymore!

OK, so timing is important, but why not let the drummer handle the timing so the rest of us can work on our harmonic minor scales and our rock faces?   Well, for starters, the band has to stay together as a unit. If the guitarist suddenly takes off like a rocket during a solo, half the band will try to catch up to his tempo and half will try to hold to the original tempo. The whole thing will fall apart.    Also, the drummer is not always there for you.    I found this out the hard way on “Derelict”   (see

I’d gotten pretty comfortable leaning on the drummer to be my metronome. But on this song, I’m by myself for nearly a minute. What’s worse, there’s a lot of empty space, meaning I have to worry about the notes between the notes. The drummer’s actually listening to me to pick up on the tempo, and if I don’t want a stick to the forehead I’d better be consistent.

metronomeMetronomes To The Rescue!

You wouldn’t play your guitar without tuning it, would you? (Maybe you would. I don’t know you. Still, the correct answer is no.) Just like you need a tuner to be in tune, you need a metronome to be in time.

Metronomes can be as simple as a box that clicks or as complicated as you like, with every subdivision and time signature option you could dream of. Personally, I like to use one that plays in measures with a downbeat rather than just straight clicks. It helps point out when you’re getting off the metronome and really helps when you’re working in alternate time signatures.

Another option is a drum machine. These are great for jamming at home because they give you a pattern to play against rather than just boring clicks. If you’re doing drills or trying to solve a timing problem, a straight metronome is better; however, most drum machines will have a metronome pattern built in.

Tap tempo is a handy feature to have if you can get it. This feature allows you to set the tempo by tapping a button in time rather than setting a number. This is very useful when you don’t know the numerical value of the tempo you want. You can buy a decent metronome like the Korg MA30 for not much money ($29.99), or if you’re broke and/or cheap there’s a free one at So there, now you have no excuses for bad timing.

metronome-iiHow To Use (And Not Use) Your Metronome

If you’ve never played with a click, it can take some getting used to at first. Start with some simple drills. Set your metronome to 80 and play straight eighth notes for one minute. Then increase the speed and repeat several times. Do the same thing with sixteenth notes. Now try mixing it up with combos of eighth and sixteenth notes. If you have the option, try to experiment with different time signatures.  These drills aren’t exactly the most fun things you’ll ever play. Don’t give up when you get bored, though. It’s tough now, but it will make your life easier later.

The songs you play should be checked against the metronome as well. I’ve heard plenty of people struggle with X guitar riff because they couldn’t keep up with it – and no wonder, they’re playing the song twice as fast as it was originally written! If they’d used a metronome, they’d know to slow down and then they could hit those notes.   DO NOT, however, use your metronome when first learning or writing a song. There’s a lot going on with a new song – chord changes, fingering, melody – trying to put that all together while also trying to keep it in time will cause you to chuck that metronome right out the window.   Once you’ve got a handle on the basics of the song, however, it’s time to bring out Mr. Clicky to even out the timing. Practice in a range of tempos. If the tempo of the song is 120, start at 100 and work your way up to 140.    If you’re playing cleanly, the song will hold together at any tempo. If you’re slopping through your grooves and solos, the metronome will out you.

band-rehearsingThe Metronome At Rehearsal

Not only should you be working on you’re timing as an individual, but locking it together as a group. After all, what’s the point of great timing if only one band member has it?  When using a metronome in a group setting, you’ll need something with an external output. Route the metronome output through the PA or another amplifier, and set it so everyone can hear it. Finding a way to get the metronome loud enough so the drummer can hear it but not so loud as to cause cerebral hemorrhaging in the rest of the band can be tricky, but well worth the effort.   If the drummer complains about not being able to play to a click, go to and look for a new one.

Again, DO NOT use the metronome while learning or writing a new song. This will likely cause the band to break up. Once everyone has settled into their parts, only then bring out the metronome to lock everyone together.   Pay special attention to the transitions between parts of the songs. Often the jumps from verse to chorus to bridge are where the tempo gets off. This makes the different parts sound incongruent rather than come together as a cohesive song.  Also pay close attention to intros and outros, especially if someone other than the drummer is setting the tempo for the song.   Play the song with the metronome until you are comfortable with it and everyone has the tempo locked inside his or her head. Then, shut the metronome off. After all, you’re not going to take it on stage with you, and you need to make sure you can still play the song in time without it.

carter-beaufordPerfect Timing

So what is perfect Timing?   I will say this when you hear a band that sounds great that is becasue they are tight, have practiced a lot and have perfect timing.   Want an example look at Carter Beauford from The Dave Mathews Band he is a perfect example of a drummer with perfect timing.  Is it necessary to have absolutely perfect timing? There’s been a lot of debate about this over the years, but the short answer is no.  Music is a human endeavor, and as such it is imperfect. It breathes and moves and flows. Just like you won’t always have perfect pitch, you won’t always have perfect timing.   Still, there’s a difference between letting the music breathe and letting it hyperventilate. There’s a difference between “feel” and “no idea where the beat is.” There’s a difference between groove and slop.

The click is a tool, not your lord and master. It brings focus to your music. The point is not to obsess over time – after all, your audience isn’t out there with metronomes checking your accuracy – but to become comfortable enough with tempo and rhythm so you can be free and loose but still hit that pocket every time.

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