When I was a kid in elementary school, I took piano lessons. I don’t feel like I was born with too much musical talent, and I remember I had a hard time keeping a steady tempo when I practiced. My dad would tell me to count along as I played, but I would just slow down and speed up the counting as I went along.
Soon my piano teacher began to have me use a metronome, and I thought it was a real pain. Fast forward thirty years to today, and the metronome is the most important musical tool I own.
I was a freshman in college when I first realized how important it was to have good timing. I was playing bass in a band, and we decided to repeat one measure over and over until we got it in the groove. After about an hour of rehearsing that one phrase, I realized something that forever changed the way I played music: I finally felt the groove. Once you feel that groove, it becomes the most important thing in music, and it becomes your main focus.
When I moved to New York City, I had a regular duo jam session with vibraphonist Nick Mancini. He always gave me great advice, and one time he told me “Make sure you are not following the metronome. You need to be showing the metronome where the beat is.” That was Phase 2 of my groove epiphany: the metronome is only a machine, and humans are superior to machines.
It’s one thing to follow the timing of a metronome, but as human musicians we have the authority to place the beat wherever we want, as long as it feels great. It’s a subtle mental shift: being a slave to a machine, versus using the machine as a tool and attaining the confidence to place the beat wherever you see fit. Difficult to describe in words, but bass player Ron Carter is a prime example of what I think I’m trying to go after.