Updated: Apr 8, 2020
You know how a beat (or a groove) works in some tempos but not in others. There are rhythms that work in a wide spectrum of tempos and there are rhythms that only work (feel good or ‘groove’) in a rather narrow spectrum of tempos. It’s the same with songs, you can’t play a song way faster or way slower and still expect it to sound good, everybody knows this.
Now, most songs have different parts, different beats, different rhythms and different dynamics e.c.t. The verses might have one feel while the prechorus has another and the chorus is something new again. Who’s to say that all these different parts have to be in the same tempo? Maybe the verse feels great at a certain tempo but the chorus at another and the prechorus is felt like a ramp leading into the chorus. So experienced musicians would naturally align tempos accordingly, without thinking about it, just trusting their intuition. Probably, those musicians wouldn’t even realize that there were tempo fluctuations because playing the track like this just feels good. Does that make any sense?
Individual vs the collective
Recording and performing with a clicktrack comes with problems that are not so obvious. In my case on cruise ships, I was the only band member playing with a clicktrack. The band had to listen to me because I wouldn’t move. I was steady as a metronome. There was no space for me to adjust to the other instruments. The only thing I could do was adjust my subdivisions. I’d play with a quarter note clicktrack that really acts like prison bars. The click eliminates the need for me to really listen to the band. I can play through a song only paying attention to the click and only using the band as a guide on where we are in the song. My phrasing and my time fluctuations, like playing laid back or pushing the tempo, would only make sense in relation to the click but would mean nothing to the band or the audience. Also, the clicktrack doesn’t allow to adjust tempos organically as you go, you play the exact same tempo every night. You might want that and in certain musical styles or scenarios it might even be necessary, but it’s just something to keep in mind.
Nowadays all musicians are being told to have good time and to practice it. I think that’s really great and necessary. But it’s being done also in bands. Each member is being told to keep the tempo. And currently I’m not 100% sure whether that’s such a good thing. If everybody in the band feels like they’re being the one that has to keep the tempo, there will be as many different tempos as there are players. Also, focusing on keeping the tempo can really negatively impact one’s capacity to listen to the other musicians’ phrasing and time feel. At the moment I think that it’s great and necessary for all musicians to practice time keeping to really be in control over their tempos. But when it’s time to perform it might be time to let go and instead listen carefully to the others. After all, you want to lock in with the others and serve the music.
Start & Ending Point
We all know where certain notes on the grid go. Let’s say the backbeat, 2 & 4. We’ve all heard that great drummers push those notes just a bit behind the beat so that it feels laid back. Now you can do this with all notes. For every note on the grid (subdivision grid) there’s a certain tolerance on where the note can be placed (starting point) and still be perceived as that count (beat). How broad the level of tolerance is, depends greatly on the instrument, tempo, dynamics etc. That’s the starting point, and this topic is being talked about a lot and most musicians are aware of it.
Often, we forget the ending point of a note. Especially as drummers since most things we play sound very staccato and we don’t control how long the note’s going to sound. Just think of horn players who have to decide on every note how long it’s going to sound. When writing an arrangement e.g. it’s a big difference between a 16th note on 1 or a quarter note on 1. Playing note lengths consciously is quite challenging because now every note has two reference points instead of just the one starting point. But I think the groove and the overall sound can benefit greatly from such an approach. Also, it pushes you to give each note more importance and play notes more consciously and with a sense of purpose.