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Dedicated guitarists will stay up working on hip chord voicings and progressions until the birds begin to chirp and hardly notice the hour. Practicing improvisers will happily spend all of a gorgeous summer day indoors shedding licks and scales over changes. Add to that a similar level of enthusiasm for committing to tempo and groove, and you’ve got yourself good time. Playing with good time helps musicians in a band communicate with each other on a high level. Notice in conversation when someone chimes in with all of the right words, but it’s apparent that they are missing some key implied point that the others are in on? That’s a little like rushing a phrase musically, or comping in a way that just doesn’t get what the drummer and bass player are talking about, however cool the melodic idea or harmonic tensions may be. This month’s practice idea will help you to feel time reliably, and get you having more fun with the band.
Get the Machine
Working with a metronome is essential for checking yourself out during individual practice time. It’s like using a tuner to get your guitar in tune as accurately as possible. Even if you could find a human being with freakishly metronomic time, it would be asking a lot of them to click away for you while you practice all afternoon. Make friends with the metronome, and it will be appreciated by all concerned.
Here’s a daily routine that I developed for myself—and my students—after being intrigued and inspired by conversations with Mick Goodrick and Emily Remler about the importance of working with a metronome. Plan on spending about forty-five minutes or so with this.
Pick a Tune of the Day
It can be anything: a standard tune that you feel comfortable with, a tune that is new for you, something you have memorized, something you have to read, a new original piece you’re working on, a blues, something in an odd meter. Just stay with the same tune throughout this exercise and make it your tune of the day.
Choose Four Different Tempos
I like to spread them out. For example, start with 48, 66, 84, 112.
Play two or three choruses in each of the following categories:
1. Melody alone
2. Comping alone
3. Bass line alone
4. Chords and bass together
5. Chords and melody together
6. Improvising: steady eighth notes; steady eighth-note triplets; steady sixteenth notes; anything you want
7. Go back to the tune in some way (melody, comping, bass, etc.)
8. Repeat the process for next tempo
At what tempo do sixteenth notes get difficult? Do you notice any speeding up or slowing down at the point of transitions between, say, playing chords and improvising? What transitions are smooth? When you finally allow yourself to play anything you want in the improvised section, when do you leave space? What rhythms do you favor most? Do you feel as though the metronome is too slow sometimes or too fast sometimes?
Adapt this exercise to fit your needs once you get comfortable practicing regularly with the metronome. Try it twice a day. I spent one summer warming up with the routine in the morning and then going through it all again at night with the Red Sox games on TV. Maybe you need a quiet space. Maybe you need someone else in the room. You might find that it’s great practice for focusing on the time above all else by having some other distraction in the room, like a radio.
Working with a slow tempo, such as 48, you can make each click represent a quarter note, or you can decide that each click represents beats 2 and 4 in 4/4 time. That’s a useful way to practice a swing feel. It takes practice to feel it that way, but it is a very rewarding groove to catch on to. Listen to swing drummers to hear the 2 and 4 emphasis. It will become a natural thing to play against, around and with. On the other hand, if the groove is straight eighth notes, such as Latin or rock grooves, assign the clicks to be on 1 and 3.
For slow tempos in 3/4 time, you could hear each click as a quarter note. But the slower metronome settings also give you the chance to experiment with other time values for each click. Try thinking of each click as a dotted quarter note in 3/4 time, so that you will feel two evenly spaced clicks per measure (a two-against-three feel). Try just one click per measure in 3/4 to feel each click as a dotted half note. The longer the time is between clicks, the more challenging it will be to land on the next one in time.
This sort of rhythmic awareness can bring a deliberate sense of authority to your playing. In soloing, you will find yourself paying more attention to your choice of rhythms and probably will want to mix them up in some interesting ways. If you’ve had “triplet-itis,” you might start intentionally using more eighth notes or sixteenth notes instead. If you’ve loaded up every possible space with sound, you may find yourself now wanting to frame your ideas with a rest on each end to make them stand out. As an accompanist, you will be particularly sensitive to the tempo and groove in a way that best supports the melody player, and you will get those very cool nods from the drummer and bass player.
Jane Miller is a guitarist, composer, and arranger with roots in both jazz and folk. In addition to leading her own jazz instrumental quartet, she is in a working chamber jazz trio with saxophonist Cercie Miller and bassist David Clark. The Jane Miller Group has released three CDs on Jane’s label, Pink Bubble Records. Jane joined the Guitar Department faculty at Berklee College of Music in 1994.