What is it that makes a “rhythm section” sound tight and groovin’? The first thing that comes to mind is just keeping solid time… Perfect time!… Staying on the click without speeding up or slowing down. Of course, every musician wants that from the drummer, and the whole band really. But it’s really more complicated than just becoming a machine. So let’s talk about the details.
Even though the drummer carries the biggest responsibility for keeping time in a band, all of the players affect how the time “feels.” A great rhythm section sounds amazing because every player is locked into the tempo and the feel of the music. The classic definition of the term “rhythm section” refers to the drummer, bass player, rhythm guitarist, and keyboard player. But nowadays you could add another guitar player or two, a second keyboardist, a percussionist – maybe two drummers (check out Bethel Music videos for references) and then all of the sequenced loops too, which adds to the challenge of tightening up the groove. The bigger the band gets, the more complicated it becomes.
1. THE CLICK.
Yes, keeping solid time is PRIMO! Even though I know it’s the drummer’s biggest responsibility, I look for the other players to “lock in” to the time also. If I’m the bandleader I make sure all the players are working with clicks, loops, and sequenced music to sharpen their “time skills.” The more every player is solid individually, the better the whole band will feel.
As a drummer I’m constantly practicing with a metronome and loops. The key… Stay relaxed and get the click in your head. We call that internalizing the time. Don’t think of the click as just pops or bleeps. Think of the notes as long and legato as if you were singing a melody. Think music at all times. This mental perspective on playing to a click always helps musicians to “flow” with the time. Stay loose! It actually makes you play tighter to the click.
2. THE MIX.
The monitor mix is a HUGE element in getting the band to play together. When working with any group I pay special attention to how well everyone is hearing each other. From the drummer’s perspective, I can always tell when the rest of the players and singers are not hearing my hi-hat, kick, and snare. The groove just doesn’t happen. It feels like it’s “swimming.”
The primary sound for time keeping is the hi-hat. It subdivides the groove and usually sets up the “feel” of the music. Then the kick under that… and then snare. You can add the other pieces as desired. If the whole band is on IEMs (In ear monitors) then everyone should also have the click and guide tracks in their mix as well. For me, these two elements will be on the top of the mix along with my drums. Then I build the rest of the band and vocal mix around that.
It’s also helpful to have a bit of reverb, panning, and EQ options in your mix to create depth to the sound so the music feels more realistic. This musical approach to creating a mix is as important as the actual sound of your instrument.
We often don’t consider this as having much to do with getting a band to sound tight. But it really is a major element. Your drums and cymbals must sound just right for the music you’re playing. Like the other players work on tone, tuning, and texture, we drummers must do the same thing.
Learn how to tune properly. Change heads when needed and learn to muffle each drum according to the sound you want to hear. Don’t expect the engineer to fix it. Listen to a lot of music, in many different styles, and work on copying the sound you hear on those recordings. For most modern worship songs right now the tuning is usually super low and fat. The cymbals are dry and dark sounding. For urban gospel it’s tight and “ring-y.” Listen and copy!!!
Focus on these three areas and see if you don’t notice you and your band playing tighter and playing better overall.