CLICKITY - CLACK
“Clickity-clack down the railroad track,” as my father used to sing. No, here we’re referring to a method of marking tempo in music commonly referred to as a click track.
This is an important tool that musicians have been embracing or avoiding, praising or damning now for the last few decades. Some purists proclaim, “if you need that to play music, you need to practice more,” as well as the elitist attitude of, “I play by FEEL; I don’t want some sterile device distracting me from my art.”
Ok, both valid points. Unfortunately, many times these attitudes spring from a lack of confidence as a player, or general fear of the unknown. Playing along to a click track is an often misunderstood and disregarded practice that many young musicians choose to skip over, much to their peril. Many players think they have a good enough time feel, or don’t seem to have trouble when they sit down to play with other musicians. Once again, the imaginary “shackles” that metronomic time seems to suggest. “Hey, I don’t want to sound robotic. I like an organic sound.”
That’s great. When we communicate through the amazing beauty of music, what we’re really doing is sharing pieces of ourselves. What drives us, inspires us, angers or enlightens us. Nobody wants to have restraints or restrictions placed around their ideas, dreams and creativity. However, when playing music there must be a modicum of structure; a bottom line that suggests here is where the pulse lies, now everything can be built upon it. An amazing house will crumble without a solid foundation.
In 1909, two brothers named Theobald and William Ludwig invented the first bass drum foot pedal. This was significant for a number of reasons; up until this time, an orchestra needed to hire two drummers at minimum to power their ensembles. One played the bass drum with hand-held mallets, standing up, while the other played the snare drum. The bass drum pedal allowed for just one drummer to sit down and play the bass drum with his foot, while both hands were free to play the snare. This was a critical invention to both the creation of jazz and swing - dance music, as well as to the evolution of the modern “trap set.” (The sound effects and other percussion instruments were often referred to as “traps” in those days.) Traditional orchestras continued on, and certainly do to this day, but this new kind of music, often made up of bands with considerably less personnel than full orchestras, was about to take the world by storm.
The second reason this is so significant is that these smaller bands didn’t rely on a conductor to lead them in the traditional sense. There was no conductor or director standing in front of the ensemble, directing their tempo and encouraging their nuances and bombast. The invention of the bass drum pedal and the modern drum set took the role of the conductor and removed him from being in front of the band and put him right INTO the band, in the back.
Behind a gleaming set of drums.
THE GREAT GIG ON THE RISER
Many of the greatest rock bands that have ever been did or do not play to a click track, at least in their earlier days if they are still making music today. (Ex.The Rolling Stones)
So many of the great ones grew up together, at least musically, and learned how their time feel synced up with one another and how to exploit it; maybe one person lays way back on the beat to provide a heavier, methodical feel while another might play slightly rushed and edgy on top of the beat. This can create either glorious tension and that all-important yet mysterious “magic” or “it factor,” or it can become an unlistenable mess.
Some bands use that constant sense of tension to their advantage for as long as they can before everything implodes. Police drummer Stewart Copeland reportedly had quite a tempo problem with rushing, especially live. This was one of the many reasons that caused Sting to break up the band and go solo in 1984 after the conclusion of the Synchronicity tour.
The bottom line is, tempo and cohesive playing is really everyone’s responsibility in a band. Oftentimes the drummer (our erstwhile conductor) is the pulse and backbone that the rest of the musicians rely on, and rightly so. However, it’s up to the whole team to play in unity together and present the listener with a hopefully enlightened, dynamic and ethereal experience.
Here in Run Like Hell, we all listen to the click through our In Ear Monitors (IEMs) , and our entire show is mapped out tempo-wise. We have been doing this since the first rehearsal I played with the band, nearly eleven months ago. Some days can be tougher than others to be sympathetic to the constant click that demands precision and excellence when we’re feeling less than “top drawer!” But the benefits we all individually feel, and especially as a band makes all the hard work immeasurably beneficial.
On a technical note, using a click track is imperative for our band because the sound effects, light show and films we show on the circle truss screen must sync up together with the music.
The greatest benefit in my mind, however, is using a simple tool that I believe makes me a more precise technician, supportive bandmate and sympathetic musician. This allows me to pay tribute in the most honest way I can to the amazing music and spectacle of Pink Floyd.
See you on the road!