Q: What are some good exercises or practice routines to develop a strong sense of time?
A: When I want to work on time, rhythm or technique, I think “What would a drummer do”?
There are any number of ways to develop that internal clock.
Here are a few ideas for you:
1. Playing Along.
One of the most fun ways to practice playing musically and with good time is simply playing along with albums. I also suggest that you transcribe (by ear) the bass line, note for note, and pay close attention to the feel and tone.
When playing along with a track, I try and keep my bass volume at the appropriate level or maybe just a hair louder – but not too loud – as I’ll try to make sure that I’m really locking in with the music and aligning my part with the bass track.
Even if the track wasn’t recorded to a click and moves around a bit, you’ll still be practicing playing with the band. This is a more realistic version of working on time and feel. Unless your band plays to tracks, the chances are that your band will speed up and slow down a bit here and there (often to better fit the feel of one section over another).
2. Playing with a metronome can be a lot of fun.
While it doesn’t mimic real life (because, in real life, music breathes and isn’t usually completely metronomic) it does highlight any tendencies you may have (speeding up, slowing down, locking into the time until you play a fill, etc.).
Again, think like a drummer would when working with a metronome. Practice playing a variety of subdivisions and rhythms at a variety of tempos. Pay close attention to dynamics and articulation. Try starting off by playing rhythm only and save the notes for later. Start with quarter notes until you feel like you’ve locked with the click, either on one note or one muted note so you’re only thinking rhythm. Then try moving to 8th notes, 8th note triplets, 16th notes, 16th note triplets and then back down.
Once you’re feeling loose and comfortable, start employing some of harmonic exercises (i.e.: playing those rhythms while playing scales around the neck, arpeggios through changes in the Real Book and so on).
If you want a real challenge, combine rhythmic subdivisions with a variety of note repeats. In other words, play a scale using 8th note triplets. This gives you three attacks per beat. If you apply that rhythm but only hit each note of the scale twice, it’ll move the line around in a less familiar way than if you hit each note three times per beat. I tend to get pretty systematic and play each subdivision, applied to a harmonic pattern, and mixing up my number of strikes per note to counter that of the number of subdivisions per beat I’m currently playing. Playing triplets in groupings of five, for example can be a real brain teaser.
3. Work on your internalization of subdivisions.
Devise patterns that employ a rest on the downbeat but has you playing the other subdivisions. Many of my students fall apart once we remove the downbeat from the equation. The key is internalizing each subdivision well enough that you can feel each subdivision as strongly as you can feel the downbeats. Playing only the 2nd 8th note triplet of the grouping is more challenging than many of my students realize! Especially when trying to also think through a harmonic exercise like playing only that second 8th note-triplet subdivision while playing 2nd inversion arpeggios through changes.
The key to this kind of practice is forcing yourself to take it slow enough to make sure that you are note practicing mistakes. Don’t let yourself do anything faster than you can play it cleanly and articulately. Download this page out of one of my books, Right Hand Drive, which employs some of these rhythmic ideas applied to scalar exercises.