A Fraction of a Second...
Updated: Oct 21, 2019
...makes a huge difference.
I visualize the beat as a circle with a dot in the center. There is a certain latitude concerning where within this circle you can play and still be considered to be "in time."
You can play in the center of the beat - right on the dot. Thus, "on top of the beat."
You can play in front of the dot. Thus, "pushing the beat."
You can play behind the dot. Thus, "behind the beat."
Most players play where they play intuitively; they think of it in terms of "feel."
Whether "pushing" or playing "behind," you're still on the beat, you're just on the frontside or the backside of it. In my opinion, where you play within this circle is mostly the result of what you've listened to during your formative years. If you miss the circle altogether, you're "out of time."
A lot of Blues and Jazz players play more-or-less behind the beat; that's one of the things that gives that music its swing. Of course, Classical musicians are very precise - right on top of the beat. There are many country musicians who play on top of the beat. Country swing feels different than the kind of swing found in Jazz and Blues for this reason (among others).
BTW: playing behind the beat isn't less precise - it's precisely a hair behind the beat!
So...Blues-influenced Rock guys tend to play a little behind; Classically-influenced Rock guys tend to play more on top of the beat. That's the difference, for example, between a band like Aerosmith or Led Zeppelin and more Classical music-influenced Rock music like Yes, Emerson, Lake and Palmer or King Crimson.
I regularly play with a bass player who pushes a little bit.
There are all kinds, and drawing a correspondence between a feel and a genre is a gross oversimplification. For example, Jazz/Blues guitarist Robben Ford plays right on top of the beat; dead center. That's as opposed to, say, John Scofield, who plays waaay behind. Many times, you have both types of players in the same band. The 80's-era King Crimson with Adrian Belew (behind) and Robert Fripp (on top of) for example. I loved that version of King Crimson; the contrast between those two guitar players was one of the things that made it interesting.
Usually, someone in the band plays on top or pushes a little bit and the others fall into their respective positions relative to that.
Good drummers can do both; one or more of their 4 limbs will occupy different points in the circle.
I'm more of a behind-the-beat type player; that's where it feels good to me.
Here are a couple of anecdotes that illustrate how all this can work out on the gig, and also how a conscious awareness of this phenomenon can defuse a band fight.
The incident where, for me, this stuff moved from intuition to a more cognizant apprehension of it was on a variety gig. I can't remember the function; wedding reception? Corporate gig? I don't know, but the point is it required a wide variety of material.
The instrumentation was guitar, bass, drums, saxophone and a lead singer/frontman. No keys. The drummer was a sub that nobody knew and none of us had played with him before.
The first set was pretty painful. Everything kept slowing down. At one point the singer turned around and said, "If that song had lasted a couple of more minutes it would have come to a complete stop!"
I was thinking to myself, "It's gonna be a long night."
It was actually the singer who figured it out. He took me aside on the first break and said,
"Look man, I think this drummer is used to playing in rhythm guitar-driven rock bands. You need to play like Keith Richards. You need to be the one to maintain the tempo."
I got it. I knew that I liked to play behind the beat. If the drummer was getting his cue from me - and apparently he was - he was getting the message that I was telling him to bring it back a hair. He would adjust, and then I would adjust to stay behind, where I was comfortable, he would adjust, I would adjust - and that's why everything kept slowing down.
Imagine what it must have felt like to him! There was no pleasing me! I had no clue; I was just irritated that he kept dragging everything down.
My bad. I'm not used to drummers looking to me to maintain tempo! My perception is I lean on the drummer since I like to hang out on the backside of the beat.
I knew what I had to do. I had to push the front edge of the beat. I wasn't comfortable there, it didn't feel good to me to be pushing like that, but I knew I had to try.
I did what the singer suggested, I pretended I was Keith Richards, took charge, and pushed all night long - even on the Jazz tunes. It wasn't fun for me; it felt like work, but it solved the problem. No more decreasing tempos.
A fraction of a second makes a huge difference.
Sometime later, another gig, different bass player and drummer. I had worked with both the bass player and the drummer in different bands but this was the first time those two had played together in the same group. The bass player also sang lead and he was very good at both.
He was also a very intuitive player and didn't always conceptualize or articulate well when there was a problem.
There was a problem. I could tell he was unhappy and his frustration and anger was escalating. This time I had a good idea of what the problem was.
On the first break, I told the drummer,
"Look man, this guy likes to play behind the beat - that's one of the things I like about his playing; he swings like hell. But his singing is right on top. He plays behind where he sings. So you need to keep the tempo right on top of where he counts it off and don't deviate, no matter where the bass is landing."
The drummer said,
"That actually makes a lot of sense to me because I'm getting conflicting signals. The bass is telling me to pull it back a little but his body language is telling me the opposite."
From then on the night went smoothly; disastrous band fight on stage averted. Whew!
A fraction of a second makes a huge difference.
One more story to illustrate the point. This story actually precedes the two I've already told.
I was solicited to play guitar every Saturday night in the house rhythm section at the after-hours Kansas City jam session - I considered it an honor to be asked. The 1979 documentary film, The Last of the Blue Devils, was shot primarily in the same venue (The Mutual Musicians Foundation).
So every Saturday night, I would get off my gig at midnight or one in the morning and drive over to the Foundation, which opened up at 1:30 or 2:00 in the morning and play in the host rhythm section till 6:00 or 7:00.
The networking opportunities alone made the gig worth doing, but on top of that, as a member of the house rhythm section I was also getting paid! The venue had a special dispensation from the state; they could legally serve alchohol until 6:00am. It was the after-hours place to be for musicians.
The group consisted of myself, a Hammond Organ player and a drummer. Both the other guys were great players...but...the organist's left hand pushed; the bass was on the frontside of the beat. Conversely his right hand hung back a little. The drummer was an older guy whose style was more of a 2-beat feel, almost like pre-1930's jazz before the Kansas City scene institutionalized the swing feel. He played right on top - sometimes pushing; chasing the organist's left hand.
So you can see where this left me; behind...waaay behind, eating dust. Keep in mind this was before I had an explicit conceptualization of these issues; my relating of them now is in hindsight, with concepts and vocabulary I did not have at the time. All I knew at the time was that it wasn't swinging the way I thought it should (like a young white guy knew more about things than the older jazz guys!).
After several weeks of fighting with the tempos, the feel and what I perceived as a lack of swing, I began to think that maybe I was going to have to bow out; I simply wasn't having fun. It was demoralizing - a high-profile jazz gig in a historically significant venue that just wasn't working for me.
I went in one night with a final idea to try; I was going to do my best to just give up my concept, my preconception that is, of what the music was supposed to feel like and just play. It wasn't going to swing, it wasn't ever going to feel like I thought it should feel. It wasn't a good or bad thing, there was no value judgment attached (unlike my previous attitude); it just was. I was going to accept it that way and quit fighting it.
I remember the specific song it happened on - Saint Thomas.
Admittedly not a swing tune, but jazz guys swing on everything. Swing is not just a song-style - it's a feel that can be applied to anything.
The tempo was blistering. Instead of hanging back, trying to play behind the beat in order to make it swing, I locked into the drummer and also the organist's left hand. For me, it was a little uncomfortable; I was consciously playing on top of the beat - which in a weird way was a little behind because everyone else was pushing.
It kicked ass! The revelation was almost jaw-dropping. In that one moment, I settled in. This was the key to playing with these two. To me, it still didn't swing, but it kicked ass nevertheless.
Since then, the drummer is no longer active. I still perform regularly with the organ player.
I've noticed another phenomenon related to this - especially this particular player - that I haven't been able to explain; if anyone has any ideas I'm all ears.
When I'm playing with this guy, it still feels to me like it doesn't swing. But when I listen back to a performance later, if someone has videoed it and posted it on social media for instance, I'm surprised - there's a swing to it. Why do I perceive the swing when I listen to it later but not when I'm playing? I haven't figured that out. All I know is...
...a fraction of a second makes a huge difference!
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