"In a perfect world, the craft of playing in time merges with the art of playing with a good time feel"
Guitar players have a terrible tendency to rush. I would say, as a general rule, it is guitar players that need to work on their time more than any other musician. I think it is easy to forget how important the concept of time is, and moreover, I think so many players aren't willing to face up to the fact that they need to work on it, if they are even aware of the problem at all!
Now, let's get one thing a little clear. I can be quite hard on musicians from an observational standpoint. But that is only because I am EXTREMELY hard on myself. I strive for greatness and I get excited when others do too.
Jazz guitar players are possibly the worst culprits when it comes to the concept of time. And I am not just talking about beginners or intermediates. I could mention right now a number of highly respected players who in my opinion do not have good time. Many think that the idea of bopping in 'double' time is simply a matter of stringing a flurry of notes together as fast as possible, and the idea of a few clams, well, "it's jazz isn't it?". My response to this: NO NO NO!!
In order to explore this facet of music further, we need to break down the concept of 'time' and how musicians define it.
I like to think of 'time' as referring to the following:
1) Time Feel
2) Playing in time
3) Subconsciously knowing where the time is
Let's look at each briefly.
First, playing with a good 'time feel' can be understood as swinging hard in a rhythm section. The musician has good energy and can play well with others, putting a smile on the bass player and drummer's faces because they all understand that indescribable 'thing' that they all have, and relate to. Now, it is also important to know that there are musicians who have good time who do not play well with others. There is none of that 'give and take' flow of energy. They have a concept of time but it is not one that is necessarily shared. This is usually a product of too many hours practicing in the bedroom and not enough listening to others and feeding off them musically.
Having a good time feel can also be interpreted as someone who plays good rhythm. Someone who can support a soloist, make them feel good and provide inspiration for ideas. Usually someone who has a good time feel rhythmically is one who actually enjoys supporting a soloist, making the rhythm section feel good so the soloist can spark off it. This is an art in itself. We all know, when the band feels good, there is nothing quite like it.
Playing in time
Playing in time is something that can be learned, but from a soloist's standpoint, there is much discipline involved. It is here that in a perfect world, the craft of playing in time merges with the art of playing with a good time feel. Let me try to explain further...
I recently bought an album by Joe Pass called "For Django". I can't stop playing this CD. I cannot believe it has taken me all these years to discover this astounding record. Pass recorded this album in 1964 and there is no question that this album must have had a tremendous influence on jazz guitarists since then. It is the most blistering bebop album from any guitarist I have heard since "Consciousness" by Pat Martino. It wouldn't surprise me if Pat Martino was severely influenced by this album. This CD is a great example of amazing time throughout most of the album. I say 'most' because there are one or two moments where it's not as red hot as other moments, but that's OK, it's nice to know we are all human!
Why is this album such a good example of great time? Because Joe Pass' picking technique is just dead on. (strangely enough on his subsequent albums he put the pick down and played mostly with his fingers). He plays perfectly in time, at any tempo. When he doubles the tempo, his precision is flawless. But when he doubles the tempo, it still FEELS staggeringly good. He doesn't rush like so many players do. He is right there on it. This is hard to do, but I can tell Joe spent a great deal of time working on this. Not only is his time just impeccable, but his choice of notes. Another story.
Subconsciously knowing where the time is
This is something that is manifested through experience for the most part. Of course practice always helps but there is nothing like playing with a drummer and trading fours to go "Yikes! where's one??" This will get your subconscious sense of time together, faced with a situation like this enough. And of course the more you throw yourself in the deep end, the quicker you will get it together.
Musicians feel time differently. I can't tell you how many drummers I have played with who all swing differently. They put accents in different places. Some push the tempo, some lay back, some play right on the beat. It's an individual thing, but provided all those drummers 'feel' good when they play, neither is right or wrong.
So how do we approach improving our 'time'? Well first, it is extremely important that we are aware that it is one of the most important aspects of music. At all levels, we need to work on this. Trust me, I am obsessed with this right now, more than I have ever been in my playing career.
Know that when something doesn't feel good, relax a little, the chances are you are rushing. Listen to the rhythm section and play with it. There is always a tendency to get lost in our own playing, so let the band help you. It is there to support you, you shouldn't be fighting with it. I know it's always a challenge to play great notes and make them feel good all at the same time, but you are not alone. We are all working on this!
Oddly, I know great players with good time who never practiced with a metronome. They got it together on the bandstand. Today, we have drum machines, Jamey Abersold records to play along to and computer software to help us. I do think however that playing solo unaccompanied with a metronome can really lock you in. It's a discipline, but a damn good one.
Experience will no doubt be the best teacher, especially if you are willing to recognize when there is a weakness. Sometimes when one is playing live, adrenaline can kick in and there are distractions, and it can seem like everything we have worked on goes out the window! This is where the men are separated from the boys. Be critical of your own playing, without being down on yourself. It is still important to have fun. Just know when things need a little work.
Great examples of guitar players with excellent time are Joe Pass (particularly that album I mentioned!), Pat Martino, John Scofield, Allan Holdsworth (he never ever falls off the line!), Wes Montgomery & George Benson. Listen to these guys for some time mentoring.
But don't forget the fun part!