Developing Your Microtime


Q: How can you actually develop and train to play in a certain microtime feel regarding playing laid back, on the time, ahead the time and even worse, that cool sluggish neo-soul stumbling kinda feel?

A: I’d say yes, different time-feels can definitely be taught and developed. I’d say that time-feels can be learned more easily than they can be taught, though. That may not seem to make sense but what I mean is this; a teacher may be able to turn you onto some recordings and explain the specifics of what styles are behind, ahead of, or right on the beat (as well as explain what that means) but, in all honesty, the only way to make a certain time feel, feel right is to actually feel it yourself, and that means that you have to have done your homework with regard to listening and internalizing what different styles of music really feel like.

Whether we’re talking Pino, Victor, Aston Barrett, Cliff Burton, Lee Sklar, James Jamerson, Marcus or Sir Paul McCartney, it all comes down to what the proper feel is for the genre of music.

One can never really be taught how to play to a slump beat (what I’ve always called those stumbly kinds of beats that you mentioned) without really listening to the masters do it. You can’t play a legit reggae bass line without having listened to the style. Same goes for Motown, swing, funk, ska, salsa, rock, etc. I’m not talking about buying one “best of” record and giving it a single spin, either. In order to really play a style properly, it has to be a part of your vocabulary. You need to really dig into some tunes, play along with the albums (this is the best way to really find the feel, I think).

It isn’t so important to be able to micro-adjust your beat placement on the spot necessarily, because you’ll only ever need to adjust it if you’re not feeling the current music properly. Once you’ve learned the proper way to feel different types of music, you’ll have more of an inherent sense of where the beat is and an internal reference for what it means to be ahead, behind or in the middle of it.

So, I guess my advice is not to worry about learning how to play ahead or behind but, rather, digging more deeply into the styles of music that you want to play and play along with a ton of albums. Listen with intention, figure out the notes and play along. It’s the best way to play with the greats and hear what it feels like, in a way.
You can also record yourself playing along and evaluate how natural your feel is and what might be lacking.

So much goes into the feel and it would behoove you to prioritize making everything you play feel exactly how the music wants it to feel. It’s more than beat placement and time, too. It’s articulation, dynamics, harmonic choices, etc. And the best way to get into that is to learn a ton of music and play along with the recordings. I’ve had students learn an entire album from front to back before when they want to get into playing a certain style.

It’s also extremely helpful to get into the history of the music. Discover who inspired the player that inspires you and check out their playing as well. If you can trace things back a few generations then you’ll REALLY get a feel for the music. For example, listening to New Orleans style second line and can really impact the way you play funk and blues. Learning blues can really impact the way you play rock or jazz. It’s all connected and the more able you are to hear those connections, the better your music will feel, no matter where that beat wants to be!

I hope that was helpful! Just have fun and listen hard.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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