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All's Well That Begins Well

Nothing bugs me more than a band with a sloppy intro. Either the song begins at the wrong tempo and the band finally corrects it halfway through the first verse, or the guitar player begins and then the bass player sneaks in, followed by the drummer and keyboards, until everyone is finally playing all together.

Being a drummer, I've always aggressively pursued the position of kicking off the band. Usually, I get the job. But I've run across occasional leaders who want to kickoff things themselves. Whether or not you're in charge of counting-off, I'll give you some ideas on how you can help your band start together - Whether you're working with a steady group or freelancing with many different musicians.

When You Are In Charge
If you're lucky enough to get the job of kicking off the band (and I strongly recommend that you do everything in your power to do so), here are some methods that have proven effective:

  1. Drum Fill count-off: With this one, you must begin the song with a drum fill that is simple enough so that everyone in the band can easily tell where the downbeat is. If you love to play fancy polyrhythmic fills, that's fine. But DON'T PLAY THEM HERE! Unless you're part of a steady band that rehearses together often enough to become comfortable with complicated fills, just keep your fills simple.
  2. Stick clicks or closed hi-hat count-off: This consists of clicking your sticks together, striking the closed hi-hat cymbals, or hitting the hi-hat stand, etc.
  3. Verbal count-off: This is the old standby One, Two, One, Two, Three, Four. Of course, you'd need to modify this if you were playing in a different time signature (and if you don't know what I mean by time signature, check out my Tiger Reading articles in the sidebar).
  4. Combination count-off: This could be verbal counting combined with stick clicking or even verbal counting in combination with a drum fill.

No matter which of the above methods you use to count-off the band, to avoid problems, follow these general rules:

  • Be consistent: It's safer to choose one count-off method and stay with it, especially if you're a freelancer working with different musicians every night. This will greatly decrease your chances of having a bad kickoff. If you're in a steady group, you can afford to vary the intros to tunes and, hopefully, everyone will have rehearsed enough to remember which songs will be counted off and which ones will begin with a drum fill.
  • Before you begin your count-off, make it a habit to glance around at the other band members. Make sure that everyone is paying attention and, for example, the bass player isn't playing with his strings and the guitar player isn't writing down some fan's phone number, etc.
  • Before you begin to count off the tempo for a particular song, get the exact tempo set inside your head. Count off a few bars to yourself to verify it before signaling the rest of the band. I can't tell you how many times I've heard drummers begin a song, only to realize that they started at the wrong tempo. Shifting into the correct tempo on the fly is NOT the mark of a true professional.
  • Whatever method you decide to use for your count-off, make sure everyone in the band understands it and can hear it or see it.

Now that you know what you can do when you are in charge of counting off your band, here are some things you can do to help even when you're not in charge of the count-off.

When You're Not In Charge
On those (hopefully) rare occasions when you're not in control of the count-off, pay strict attention to the tempo being started so you can come in exactly on the first downbeat after the count-off. You can also try this: If the person counting gives you two bars for nothing, get the tempo set in your mind on the first bar and play along softly on the closed hi-hat for the second bar before the rest of the band comes in. If you don't get any dirty looks, then I'd continue to "help" the counter along this way. If you get complaints, then sit back and come in after the two bar intro.

Maybe it's just because I'm a drummer, but a song without a drum intro seems to be missing something - especially when you're playing live and not on Memorex.

Anyway, regardless of who counts off the intro, never underestimate the beginning of a song. If you start with a solid tempo with everyone coming in together, there's a much greater chance that you'll all end up playing the last note together too.

In the recording studio, you'll probably be playing along with a click track and the best way to practice for that is to work with a metronome (See Time In - Time Out in the sidebar). But while some live gigs use click tracks, most do not. At times you'll find yourself working with keyboard players who'll try to rush the tempo, bass players who'll try to drag and others who'll try a combination of both. And regardless of who starts the song, in the end, there can be only one person in charge of "maintaining" the tempo. Only one person that the rest of the band MUST follow. And that person, my friend, is YOU - The Drummer!

Until next time: Stay loose.

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