A Drummer Cafe member writes:

Hey Bart, I have a tendency to speed up/slow down a bit sometimes, and am trying to correct it. It is not a major problem in most areas of my playing, but in certain places I definitely speed up or slow down without meaning to. I seem to stray from the original tempo to a "comfort" tempo that my playing wants to do. Is it possible to "learn" perfect (or excellent) time? I mean, not being able to just keep a straight beat together, but being able to play whole songs and play out with fills and different rhythms without speeding up/slowing down? Is it something that comes with practice and playing? Does playing to a metronome really help a person develop a better sense of steady time and prevent changes in tempo?

Rushing or Dragging

There are a lot of great questions posed in the above paragraph. The fact that this individual has already figured out what is going on in their playing — the biggest hurdle in the journey — they are well on their way to improving.

So what causes one to rush and drag? I've noticed that many musicians (not just drummers or percussionists) tend to gravitate towards a particular tempo(s) simply because that's where they feel the most comfortable. They tend to play and practice (on their own) at particular tempos, which has then developed their muscle memory, coordination, etc., to work best at these tempos.

In addition to this muscle memory "rut," many drummers practice everything way too fast and never give enough attention to grooving at slower tempos.

There are other factors that can affect our time-keeping, and while the following suggestions are not necessarily the only approach, they are most certainly a good first step to developing one's skills as a musician.

  • Working with a metronome is just one way to help you maintain good time keeping. Try picking some of your favorite drum grooves ... and play them with the metronome ... set to 40 bpm. Perhaps this seems a bit drastic, but in my opinion, if you can't groove and feel good at slow tempos, it's not going to really groove at faster tempos. Sure, some things may be physically impossible to play at drastically slow tempos, so adjust for that. Once you can play the groove at 40 bpm, speed up the metronome a bit ... increasing by 4 or 6 bpm. As you approach faster tempos, such as 80+ bpm, I would suggest making smaller increment increases, like 2 bpm. It is important to note that just playing with the metronome isn't going to make you play better; you've got to play WITH it — groove with the established pulse and make what you are playing feel (and sound) good.
  • Playing with recorded music is another way to develop your playing. There's a lot of instructional materials that focus on this area of study, so check into to some of that. I have a short list of these materials listed in my article entitled Suggested Drumset Study Materials. You can also play with your favorite CD or radio station. Whatever you use, make sure that the performance on the recording is good. No sense practicing to a recording that has bad tempo problems ... right?
  • Practice your time-keeping and fills separately; then work on connecting the two. Make sure your groove is good; play with the metronome, etc. Now go back and work on just your fills, playing them over and over again, with the metronome. Finally, put the two together; perhaps several measures (bars) of time followed by a fill. Be sure to do this at very slow tempos ... working your way to the faster versions.
  • Record yourself (audio and/or video) as you play and/or practice. Listening back and analyzing when you speed up and slow down is a great way to isolate any problems you may be having. Look (listen) for tendencies, such as rushing fills or speeding up on particular sections of the song (ie. chorus). Many drummers have to work through these types of things ... so be encouraged. Also know that adrenalin plays a big part in all of this. You may be fine in the practice room, but watch what happens when you are playing in front of a crowd of people! Work on ways to control and harness your energy / emotions while you play; you can use it to your advantage.
  • Musical maturity is something that you can't really teach, but comes over a period of time — as you get older. There's only so much that talent, practice and instruction can do for this area of your playing; most of your development will come as you age ... like a fine wine. I don't know how old you are or how long you've been playing music, but developing your musicality really just takes time. I say all of this to encourage you and to know that simply getting older, playing more and more, listening to other great musicians, your playing and time-keeping ARE going to get better.

Look through some of my other articles here at the Drummer Cafe to find additional suggestions to aid you in your art of drumming quest.