I recently talked with a pal who found a young artist he thought I would flip for and want to produce. My friend is a passionate music fan, attends tons of shows, and his observations are often amazing, because, technically, he knows nothing about music or musicians. In the case of the artist he was describing, he said, “He plays guitar like a drummer!” Instantly, I wanted to hear the kid. Of course, I didn’t take it literally, but that comment was music to my ears.
Musicians come in all stripes, but “feel” is the foundation of greatness in all forms. Nothing trumps it. As a player, chops, tone, technique, harmonic sophistication—nothing can save you if your timing isn’t together. Maybe it’s true that time is an illusion, but keeping time is tangible, and it’s essential to any musician on any instrument (voices included). When one feels great time keeping, they can play around the time and phrase pieces that bring true emotion out in any music. It may start with learning to play perfect time, but it sure doesn’t end there.
No situation illustrates this more clearly than the recording process. The studio is like a giant microscope, and it detects the slightest foulness. Oh yes, I know—digital recording offers wonderful ways to edit our tracks to make us “great,” but there is no machine quite as cool as a musician who plays from the heart and puts down a feel that is real.
I studied by playing to records for years, and when I became a studio musician in my teens, click tracks were introduced. I know a lot of musicians claim that playing to clicks or loops makes their playing stiff or unnatural. Somehow, I automatically locked in and loved them when laying down drum tracks. I knew the time keeping was covered, and all I had to do was groove to it. What’s not to love? Sadly, my love for clicks has likely caused a good 10 percent of my hearing to disappear, because they need to be louder than the drums when recording. But all artists surrender a piece of themselves for their art—look at Van Gogh!
When planning a recording project with a group, I urge you to get all the bpms (beats per minute) down for each song in advance. I usually gauge bpm off the vocal phrasing, so experiment with your singer until the groove is locked in. During your pre-production phase, play the bpm with a loop, or if you have a live drummer, work together as a section. Record rehearsals, fine tune your feel, and establish the groove. If you record alone, go through the same steps without worrying if the drummer will show up.
Oh, and if you ever run into the wild man who formed Cream, ask him why he chose Eric Clapton. Depending on his mood, Mr. Ginger Baker will either break your nose, or answer, “I f**king chose him because he had f**king superb time.”
Scott Mathews is a record producer, composer, vocalist, and multi-instrumentalist whose music has sold in excess of 40 million units, and has generated more than 30 RIAA Gold and Platinum Awards in the pop, alternative rock, R&B, country, blues and dance genres.