How to Play Well at Every Tempo

Having a comfort-zone tempo is fine, but not if you are thrown into musical situations where other speeds are required.
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This is a classic GP lesson from Carl Verheyen.

I never want to be one of those players who grooves and feels great at certain tempos, but becomes wimpy at other tempos. I’ve played with some very famous guys who can tear it up soloing at a metronome tempo of MM=270, but sound weak at MM=185. They have their comfort-zone tempo - which is cool to have, but not if you are thrown into musical situations where other speeds are required. The goal: grooving at all tempos.

The way to get around that particular weakness is to practice quarter notes, eighth notes and sixteenth notes at various speeds. Run your lines with a metronome, constantly changing up the tempo. Try to groove with eighth notes at a given tempo and then double-time it, adding rhythmic variation to your bag of tricks. There are so many jazz players out there who don’t quite make the double-time speed. They try, but come up a bit slower than where the time truly is. 

One Los Angeles guy I’ve heard that just nails it is Anthony Wilson. His time is spot on. When he goes into double-time - from eighth notes to sixteenth notes - he is right there, and it sure feels good. Pat Martino has always been the master, and his steady, perfect time is even more insane when you consider that he somehow makes the duration of each note equal. That’s something I’ve been practicing for the last 30 years with scales and lines. Whether you play jazz, rock or country, aiming for this ideal of equal note duration will clean up your chops something fierce.

Taking a cue from Pat, I’ll occasionally record myself to see if I can accurately double-time a tempo at a given speed. Drum machines are especially good for this, as is the Real Book app. But double-timing the lines in my solos is not the only thing I aspire to. More importantly, I want to make every tempo feel locked in and grooving. Listen to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s solo on “Hillbillies from Outer Space” from the Vaughan Brothers FamilyStyle CD. 

It’s a medium-tempo shuffle feel not unlike “Green Onions.” When Stevie comes in to solo, his time is deep in the pocket, and in the second chorus he does a quick double-time lick that feels so good. It sounds like a live take, because, at the end, he goes right back to rhythm, same tone, same feel. This was obviously honed during countless nights on the road and another 10,000 hours playing in bars. When I listen to this track, or watch videos of Jimi Hendrix, I can tell each player’s time is internalized pretty deeply.

That experience in the trenches is hard to come by in these days of DJs and canned dance music in the clubs. But it can be practiced. Be aware of different players’ time and feel when you listen, and aspire to groove at all tempos.