"The wrong tempo can ruin a great song or make it very difficult for some of the musicians to play. So, how do we get it right every time?."

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A Drummer’s Full-Proof Method for Getting the Correct Tempo Live

As a drummer, more often than not, one of our responsibilities is to count-off the song. In some bands I’ve played in, someone else counts off the tune, but most of the time, it’s me or you (I’m assuming you’re a drummer; that’s generally who reads this blog). Counting off the tune is a significant responsibility. The wrong tempo can ruin a great song or make it very difficult for some of the musicians to play. So, how do we get it right every time?

Well, the obvious answer is to use a metronome, but I’ve heard some debate about the use of a metronome on the gig for this purpose. Some drummers believe as a matter of pride that they should count-off tempos from memory.

Singing the song about to be played in one’s head and taking the tempo from that is probably a good way to try to get your tempo if you wished to forego the metronome.

 I’ve tried that, but when you’re on the stage with the lights on you, what if you can’t pull those first few bars of the song out of the memory banks? With the pressure of the gig upon you, it’s possible you’d blank on that. It’s happened to me. I want a full-proof-even-if-I’m-nervous solution.

When I saw Steve Gadd using a metronome on stage with Paul Simon before counting off a song, I decided that if Steve is OK with it, I should be. It’s just a matter of precision.

OK, so metronome it is. But, it’s more complicated than that. You need to keep the show moving. Too much time between songs will kill the momentum of the show. Picking up your metronome, finding the tempo on the dial and putting it up to your ear is too long of a process. Plus, it looks lame. You want to use a metronome to get your tempos, but you don’t want to broadcast that fact to your band and more importantly, to your audience. It should be seamless.

My fool-proof method is below

It requires the use of 4 items:

1) Set list with the tempos (bpm’s) written next to each song title
2) Tama Rhythm watch
3) One cymbal stand without any cymbal washers, cymbal sleeves, felts, or wing nuts on the top of the stand
4) A black in-ear bud-style set of headphones with one side cut off

The Set List

Your guide. I know, this is obvious, but you need it. Make sure everyone has the same list.

The Tama Rhythm Watch

This is very useful piece of gear. The Rhythm Watch can serve as a stand-alone metronome, but it has key features that make it perfect for a live setting. You can program up to 20 tempos into this box in a specific order. On the gig, you can move to the next tempo by just touching one button. Then, you can hear the tempo by pressing a different button. Quick and easy. No more fumbling around with the dial to find the right tempo. Simply program the Rhythm Watch to match your set list.

The Cymbal Stand

The other cool thing about the Rhythm Watch is that you can screw it onto a cymbal stand. I set mine up to the left of me, within easy reach. Find the best height and positioning for your ease of use. The cymbal stand adjustments allow you to set it up properly for your height. Pretty cool, huh?

The Black Ear Buds

I use a black pair of in-ear buds because when I play, my usual “uniform” is a black t-shirt, and this combination makes it almost impossible to detect that I’m wearing this ear bud (in my left ear–the second ear bud wire has been cut and removed). This head phone and its wire are virtually invisible to the audience. In addition, I don’t want any wires interfering with my playing. With one ear bud in my left ear only, I can perform freely.

The Rhythm Watch is just to my left and I move my left hand over to where an auxiliary snare might be in order to operate it. In between songs, I press one button to move to the next tempo and a second button to hear it. The click sound goes into my left ear and is silent to all others on stage or in the audience. I press the second button again to turn off the click, and I have my next tempo. This method is easy, fast and no one is the wiser. Try it. If you have a different method, please feel free to share.


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