Tempo memory can save your ass on the gig, I think.

Posted on July 7, 2011


Hi, dear readers. I’m fresh back from the High Sierra Music Festival where I played no less than five sets with a host of very awesome musicians including ALO, Tim and Nicki Bluhm, Scott Law, Josh Clark, Sean Leahy and a dead-ringer Mick Jagger look-alike.

I had to learn a varied lot of new material for these different gigs, from originals to Merle Haggard ballads to Rolling Stones rockers. One skill that would have helped me immensely that I do not yet possess, is not currently part of my “Master Study” plan nor is it really taught in any drum book I’ve ever seen is tempo memory- the ability to look at a metronome value and know, within a bpm or two, the actual tempo to play.

It’s a skill similar to perfect pitch, and if you’ve got it you become a human drum machine (if you can play with the precision of a machine, that is.) At any rate, there was no way I could have memorized the approximate feel of every song I played over the course of the festival. Some songs I had only run through once before we actually played them, but I did have bpm markings for all of the songs as a reference. Without a well-tuned inner clock, though, those markings were not of much use.

As a drummer, counting off a song in the right tempo is part of the job description. I usually try to sing a little bit of the chorus to myself before counting in the band …if I can remember the chorus. There was so much music to learn in such a short period of time for this festival that an absolute memory of bpm’s (beats per minute, by the way) could have replaced an intimate knowledge of the tunes.

Why not just get the “close enough” instead of splitting chronological hairs, so to speak? Playing a song in the right tempo is crucial for singers. Too fast and they struggle to cram in all of the lyrics. Too slow and they might have to sit too long on notes, breaking the flow and exposing them to more error. I still believe that the most important element of any song is the lyrics. And lyrical delivery is closely related to tempo.

A drummer with a stellar sense of tempo is more badass than the greatest shredder because at the end of the day, it’s the singer that really has their butt on the line and the rest of the band just wants the song to feel good. Like my friend Jerry Hannan once said to me, “just figure out a beat that feels good and then don’t fuck it up.” When I led my own band from the front of stage on guitar and vocals I was amazed how much more I noticed even the tiniest fluctuations in time. If the drummer slowed down for even a couple of beats I was annoyed. I generally wanted things to push ahead a little, not rush, just push. When I’m drumming I generally try to lay back a little because that is what I think great drummers are supposed to do.

Ringo supposedly had a stellar sense of tempo. He always knew exactly the right tempo to play a song in and, now that I think of it, I’ve never heard tempo fluctuation on any Beatles record. My friend Scotty Rager, from the San Francisco band Tea Leaf Green, also has an uncanny knack for time. I’m told that if someone starts a song off in the wrong tempo he’ll come in with the right one, and show you exactly where it should have been.

By the way, my newly designed drum set, hihat directly on top and in front of the snare which I debuted at the fest, worked beautifully. Since returning I’ve been practicing some more with the design, shown in the picture below. Getting ready to take it into the studio next with Huckle, my own drum project and ALO. I’ve found it much easier to adapt to than I first imagined. No more crossing over to play the hihat. Never again!

Until next week, stay funky!