I am the Timekeeper. Are you the Keymaster?
It's really the best '80s movie innuendo. Sorry not sorry I bastardized it. Anyway, the meme amongst musicians for as long as I have heard talks on time and musical relationships is that the drummer is the time keeper. Well, I'm here to tell you that's a smoldering heap of crap. Sure, drummers have a unique role with time, relative to the fact that our instrument is about as staccato as it gets, therefore time is most pronounced on percussion. But good timing and feeling in music comes from the band as a total unit. If a band wants to have great feel and time, it's not enough for the drummer to be a great time keeper. EVERYONE must be a great time keeper.
From the drummer's chair, it can be challenging to wrangle together a group of people who don't pay attention well to meter. It is possible to be pulled in more than one direction or have a musician constantly interpreting behind- or ahead of the beat feels as indications to slow or speed up. Mistakes like this often force attentive drummers into awkward places where we are sacrificing feel for a unified band. With behind the beat grooves, the guitarist has to know that they are playing a little ahead of the backbeat. If they pull back, the drums aren't really behind the beat anymore. So the drummer either gives up or the song slows down. Conversely, if the band is playing a tight syncopated groove and someone is asleep at the time wheel, things get flammy and all those super groovy Tower of Power hits and pops you are trying to nail become the sound of a kitchen appliance tumbling down a flight of stairs.
On the other hand, a band that is tight and together on time is like a tactical assault groove team. Everyone watches each others' backs. My favorite bass players that I've worked with over the years have held me accountable when my groove was getting distracted and slipping. Great songwriters that really know the feel of their tunes can dial back the whole band with a nod of their headstock. My favorite live instrument hip-hop groups have instruments in three different time-positions and stay in line through the whole tune, which sounds freaking amazing.
I think it's also important to point out that in this day and age if you're recording in the studio, it's almost guaranteedly going to be multitrack. If you can't play to a metronome and feel good, you're probably going to lay down a sub-par take. Metronomes can be a bore, and they can be intimidating, but if you want to be a pro you've gotta be able to keep time in every scenario. Conversely, you can't be too reliant on digital timekeeping. Many musical groups this day are wired to Ableton or are running tracks and start to use external time as a crutch. It's actually not that different from using the drummer as a crutch, but for the fact that the drummer can also become overly reliant in the same way.
So regardless of what role in a band you are fulfilling, part of your personal practice routine should be the study of time and feel. Play with a metronome. Pay attention to your feel. Turn it off. Does your feel change? It probably does. Try and learn to play with a metronome without changing your feel, and play without a metronome and have steady time. Both are a challenge.
In band rehearsals, you should regularly find yourself aware of how and where your instrument is fitting in time with the other instruments. Are you ahead, right on, or behind the beat? Do you push tempo on choruses or slow down when you go from a complicated pattern to something open and simple? Do you move your body to the beat? How do you breathe? These are all questions that the attentive drummer asks themselves, and hopefully so too does the rest of the band.
I decided to write this after listening for the gazillionth time to D'Angelo's album Brown Sugar. Here's a link to the title track, but I recommend the whole album, and basically everything he's put out.