In business and life, it’s almost always better to be early than late. Or, as an old friend of mine used joke whenever people were late, “well… better late than never… better on time than late… better early than on time…”
But when playing music with other people - especially for those of us in the rhythm section like piano, guitar, and harmonica, it’s just the OPPOSITE:
BETTER LATE THAN EARLY
The groove gets created by everyone leaving some space, And nothing ruins the groove like one of the musicians coming in too early. The pauses within the music create the anticipation, and the payoff happens when everybody enters back in at the same time. When a player enters early, the anticipation never gets to fully develop and the payoff is diminished.
Some of my musical mentors called it “premature articulation.”
If you suffer from premature articulation, don’t despair. Their is a cure. I too once suffered from. You can learn how to play with great time and feel (and people will love you for it!) but it takes a real COMMITMENT, and it takes time and humility.
Here are my pro tips:
1.) As much as possible, when you practice, have some kind of rhythmic accountability (i.e., a great song, a metronome, a drum machine, a jam track, or a video, or best of all another musician who has a great sense of time.)
2.) Record yourself. Recordings don’t lie. People lie. And we can even unwittingly lie to ourselves, but…
Recordings. Don’t. Lie.
Recordings tell the truth. And sometimes the truth hurts.
I’ve literally recorded myself on hundreds of performances. And many of them, especially at the beginning, were painful for me to listen back to!
Sometimes I’d leave a gig so happy, and then listen to the gig the next day and be like, “hah? but I felt so good in the moment!” How music feels in a jam session or live performance, and how the music sounds .
Live performances are all about energy. If you listen to the album by B.B. King called Live at the Regal, you can hear the energy that that the crowd is injecting into the atmosphere (of course, in this case, the sound of the music is equally compelling!) The visuals of what musicians and stage look like, and the ambience of the club contribute to the energy as well.
Sometimes I’d listen to one recording 5 or 10 times. I 'd find that it would take me a few listens before the excitement of remembering the performance and emotions would begin to wear off enough that I could really begin hearing things more objectively. And, almost invariably, I’d hear that I was actually rushing to some extent.
So the first step is denial about the rushing. The second step is acceptance about the rushing. The third step is…
3.) Make a quality commitment to NEVER RUSH AGAIN! In a performance setting, rushing most often stems from being nervous. The #1 remedy for nerves is taking nice deep diaphragmatic breaths, and paying attention to keeping the shoulders relaxed.
But on the daily, when you’re alone, you can just will to only come in on time or late, and to make it of primary importance. Whatever you happen to be playing, you’re gonna do it on time or late, but NEVER early. If you’re playing along with a metronome or a jam track, try to see if you can play LATE. Every time the metronome clicks you play just after it, rather than just before it.
Like anything, the more we practice, the better we get. Each click of the metronome has a duration, it might be 300 milliseconds long, I don’t know. But it has a beginning, a middle, and end.
What people call “playing in the pocket” means that when that metronome clicks we are playing between the middle and end of that click, not right at the beginning (or worst of all before it even starts.) The more time and energy we focus on this practice, the more the universe of time opens up to us. And it’s a wonderful, wonderful universe.
When I used to play electric guitar in a funk band, I spent a year trying to play back on the beat. The drummer in that band was my friend and mentor, and I’d ask him after the gig, “was I playing too far back?”
“Nope,” he’d reply, “You’re actually still rushing!”
I’m like, “Aw maaaan!” But finally after a year or so of this, one night, he was like, “all right, you were too far back tonight! That’s good! You’ve proved that you can play late! Now you can find the pocket…”
Also, the final piece that I needed to be able to not rush, was to truly understand intellectually what were the rhythms I was trying to execute. That’s why I break down all of the syncopated rhythms that we play in my Beginner to Boss course. So:
4.) Learn how to count rhythms
- 1/4 notes = 1,2,3,4…
- 1/8 notes = 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and…
- 1/8 note triplets = 1-trip-let 2-trip-let 3-trip-let 4-trip-let
- 1/16 notes = 1 ee and uh 2 ee and uh 3 ee and uh 4 ee and uh
On my journey, in order to get to the point where great professional musicians tell me I have great time, I’ve had to learn to count, clap, and play rhythms really slowly in order to be able to execute them accurately.
The good news is: good rhythm is not some magical invisible stuff that some people have and some don’t. It can be quantified, and learned.
The bad news is: it’s not a short journey to learn to be able to play with great time (unless you were born with the gift.)
The other good news is: the journey is fun!
I encourage you to make a commitment to never rush again! Practice playing late. If your tendency is to rush, and you attempt to play late, then you’ll be playing right on time!
What’s your experience with rhythm and time?