The Art of Listening
A rhythm section’s ultimate guide for keeping time
Most members of the rhythm section know to listen in to each other for time. But who’s in charge if tempo begins to drift? If you said “the drummer” you’d only be partially right.
The Open Studio team has created an excellent video discussing how to listen in for time, make adjustments and signal them to other band members. We highly recommend taking the time to watch, but for those in a rush, we've provided a summary with our own take below.
Meeting in the Middle
Each member of the rhythm section is responsible for time, and they need to be willing to meet in the middle to decide where the beat is. At the same time, no one can allow themselves to be so flexible as to to overly adjust; finding this balance is key. There should be a constant ebb and flow as members listen in to each other to agree on the beat; each listener should be making adjustments at such a granular level that changes are virtually unnoticeable to the audience.
There’s still the question of what to do when micro-adjustments aren’t enough though. What should a rhythm section do if its members are unable to agree on where the beat lies? If time is truly the responsibility of every member in the rhythm section, how can band members quickly communicate to get things back on track?
Band members can signal to each other where the tempo needs to be through facial expressions, body movements and adjustments in their playing. For example, if a bassist begins to rush, the drummer could take action by subtly laying back on the beat, making eye contact with the bassist and throwing in a crash at the end of a phrase. The crash creates a brief gap in notes which will allow time for the bassist to pick up on the drummer’s cues and reset.
An excellent real-life example of controlling the tempo through performance style is in the Quincy Jones version of “Killer Joe” with Ray Brown and Grady Tate. Grady chose to play a straight quarter note rhythm throughout the track to lock things down.